Do you have a million bucks to drop on an automobile? No one here at MSN Autos does, either. But there are those who do. Hate them or love them, the filthy rich drive some of the most enviable rides on the road today. You might be surprised to hear, however, that they aren't necessarily the sexiest. According to a recent survey by the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research and consulting firm, the wealthy elite are drawn more to conservative offerings from Bentley, Maybach and Rolls-Royce than flashy models from Ferrari and Lamborghini. As an exercise in masochism for those of us without the wherewithal to purchase an ultraextravagant machine, we researched the brands that are most respected by the rich and shameless. Here's what we found. Rolls-Royce
If you're filthy rich and want the respect of your peers, drive a Rolls-Royce. The classic British blue-blood brand, now owned by German automaker BMW, was rated highest in brand clout among respondents to the Luxury Institute survey, based on quality, exclusivity, social status and "self-enhancement," which means how special it made the respondent feel. The model that many are clamoring for is the Ghost. This stunning sedan is large by normal standards but looks rather moderate in size when seen next to the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the land barge preferred by music moguls and oil tycoons who wish to lord their wealth over passers-by.
Bentley is the second-best brand as ranked by the people with enough money to buy a car of its caliber. The company says owners of its Continental line, which starts at $185,395, typically have between $5 million and $15 million in net worth. Real high-rollers — those worth between $15 million and $20 million — go for the Mulsanne. This replacement to the long-running Arnage sedan is the ultimate modern Bentley, re-engineered from the ground up. Its interior is covered in 17 cowhides and ringed in wood that takes up to two weeks to veneer.
Mercedes-Benz's ultraluxury brand ties Bentley for second-best in the hearts and minds of the wealthy. On style alone, the Maybach wouldn't get very far compared with its rivals. But the automaker conceived of every extravagance imaginable to appeal to the well-heeled. Take, for instance, the electro-transparent panoramic roof. It changes from clear to frosted to opaque at the touch of a button. But why not forgo that $15,300 option available on the $368,750 Maybach 57 or the $459,250 Maybach 62 S, and spring for the $1.38 million Laundaulet, which has a retractable top over the rear cabin.
To enthusiasts with posters of sports cars hanging on their walls, it doesn't get much better than a Bugatti Veyron, with its 16-cylinder 1,001-horsepower engine. But to those who can actually afford this $1.3 million beast, the Bugatti brand takes a back seat to Rolls, Bentley and Maybach for status. Maybe that's what compelled the company to develop the Super Sport model, which recently set a Guinness World Record for top speed in a production car, with an average speed of 267.8 mph. Only 300 Veyron coupes will be built, 30 of which will be Super Sports.
Like Bugatti, Aston Martin builds sexy cars that possess a certain understated class not always evident in models from its Italian competitors. The automaker's One-77, which was unveiled back in 2008 and will be shipped this year, has a carbon-fiber chassis and an aluminum body — both of which illustrate that no expense was spared in creating this $1.5 million car. Virtually every aspect of this machine can be customized for the buyer, down to the feel of the paddle shifters that control the 6-speed transmission. Its beauty is more than skin deep, too; every part on the car was designed for optimal performance.
Ferrari is one of three companies that wealthy consumers rate about average in overall brand status, but above average in uniqueness and exclusivity, according to the Luxury Institute survey. The other two are Aston Martin and Lamborghini. The model that has been stealing the spotlight lately is the 458 Italia. It reinvigorates the brand with that hot-blooded Italian X-factor that seemed to have dried up a bit in recent years. Just look at it — the car is pure sex on wheels.
There are no tame, meek or mild Lamborghinis. People who seek this brand do so to stand out — pure and simple. And there's one Lamborghini at the moment that stands out above all the rest: the $455,400 Murcielago LP 670-4 SuperVeloce. Arguably, it even outdoes the company's $1.25 million super-rare Reventon. The SuperVeloce — "superfast" in Italian — puts out 10 horsepower more than the Reventon, for a total of 670 horses, yet it's 220 pounds lighter than a run-of-the-mill $360,400 Murcielago LP 640 Coupe. That translates into a zero-to-60 mph time of 3.2 seconds and a top speed of 212.5 mph.
The Luxury Institute survey affirms a longstanding informal hierarchy that places Maserati in third billing against fellow Italian sports car companies Ferrari and Lamborghini. What seems to make Maseratis less desirable among the boy-racer crowd is that they're more civilized — softened a bit, rather than being engineered for all-out performance. It's those traits that make a Maserati more appealing to wealthy buyers who might otherwise consider a Mercedes SL or Jaguar XK. Heck, the Maserati GranCabrio convertible even competes against the pricier Bentley Continental GTC, offering a bit more sex appeal and a sportier demeanor for about $50,000 less.
Nothing affirms the value of strong brand heritage like the status of Lotus among the rich. The small British company builds cars that cost far less than its competitors — the Elise starts at $47,250 — and doesn't compromise on performance in order to do so. Its philosophy is simple: Build uncomplicated cars that are exceedingly light and fast. After nearly a decade of building the 2-seat Elise and Exige and nothing else, Lotus has finally created a new model, the Evora. It takes the brand a bit further upmarket, yet still shames the competition by offering stellar performance.
Where status is concerned, Porsche has long been stuck in no-man's land. While its cars are considered more exclusive than other German luxury brands, they are a bit commonplace when compared with more exotic British and Italian offerings. For filthy rich folks looking to make a statement, that sort of middle ground is frowned upon. Yet if those who disregard a $48,550 Porsche Boxster or $78,750 911 as being "too common" would actually drive one, they'd understand why the company continues to inspire such loyalty among driving enthusiasts. One of the latest models to uphold that tradition is the Porsche Panamera, Porsche's first 4-door, 4-seat car, which promises to inspire envy among BMW and Mercedes drivers.