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BACK-SEAT DRIVERS

It stands to reason that the kind of successful entrepreneur who understands the benefits of high-end air transport would also appreciate skillful design and fine craftsmanship for travel by road. To that end we include in Business Jet Advisor some engineering marvels that may be of interest to our discerning readers.

AvBuyer   |   1st January 2011
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How the world’s leading luxury automakers are catering for China’s wealthy car buyers

It stands to reason that the kind of successful entrepreneur who understands the benefits of high-end air transport would also appreciate skillful design and fine craftsmanship for travel by road. To that end we include in Business Jet Advisor some engineering marvels that may be of interest to our discerning readers.

There’s no more obvious status symbol than a luxury car – and that’s especially true in China, where a booming economy has created vast numbers of successful entrepreneurs, all keen to show off their wealth and social standing.

The world’s leading luxury car makers are all trying to grab a slice of the cake – indeed, China, now the world’s biggest car market, is driving luxury car demand too, making up for lost sales in the recession-blighted West.

But it’s not just a case of selling the same cars in Shanghai and Beijing as you’d offer in Stuttgart or London. For a start, there’s no point in offering a test drive. Unlike European luxury car buyers, rich Chinese consumers don’t expect to drive themselves. If you want people to know you’ve arrived, you’d better arrive in the back seat, with your chauffeur at the wheel.

As a result, most European luxury saloons come with special long-wheelbase versions, developed specially for the Chinese market and assembled locally. Everything from a Volkswagen Passat to an Audi A6 or a Mercedes-Benz E-Class comes with extra rear legroom.

And now, the high-end luxury and sports car makers have started to offer amazing four-door supercars, combining low-slung coupe looks and startling performance with rear-seat luxury.

Porsche’s Panamera is unmistakably a Porsche – but on a grand scale. It’s a big, imposing car, but with typical Porsche headlamps, and low-mounted air intakes rather than a radiator grille. But unlike traditional Porsches, the Panamera’s engine is in the front, not at the rear. A discretely bulged bonnet line conceals a mighty 4.8-litre, 400bhp V8 petrol engine on the standard model.

Options include a 500bhp turbocharged version for even greater performance, and four-wheel drive for precise and sure-footed roadholding. And Porsche has recently announced a petrol-electric hybrid version that adds clean and green credentials without compromising performance.

Panamera is a superb driver’s car, but it’s also very comfortable for the rear-seat passenger – and in China, that’s the person paying the bills. Two sculpted individual sports seats are separated by a large, central console. The seats are electrically adjustable, and there is individual ventilaton for the two rear passengers.

The rear seats are mounted quite low in the car, which helps maximise headroom – the roof line is still quite high above the rear passengers’ heads. And the rear legroom is excellent – you realise what a big car this is, and how much of the overall length is taken up by the cabin. Scalloped front seat backs give some extra knee clearance for the rear passengers too.

The luggage area is deep but quite narrow – suitcases might need to be loaded standing, which is likely to reduce the already limited rear view. But there’s enough rear space for the typical luggage of two passengers.

Porsche isn’t the only sports car specialist to go down the four-door road. Aston Martin’s new Rapide is similar to the Panamera, but even more opulent, and even more expensive. Essentially, it’s a four-door version of Aston Martin’s DB9 coupe, and from some angles, you could be convinced that it is a DB9.

Under the bonnet is the same 6.0-litre V12 engine as the DB9, with a whopping 470bhp of power. On the road it’s tuned for comfort rather than out-and-out performance, and it’s a shade slower from 0-100kmh than a Panamera Turbo. But both cars can achieve this in just over 5 seconds. No slouches, either of them.

Like the Panamera, the Rapide has a conventional front engine, rear-drive layout, which means it’s a strict four-seater. It’s not quite as roomy in the back as the Panamera, and the luggage space is smaller too, accessible via a hatchback boot. It’s a little restricted – though Aston offers a range of designer luggage that’s been specially tailored to fit the space.

Aston-Martin is a fine British brand, but if you really want to show you’ve arrived, you need to aspire to one of the twin peaks of luxury car manufacturing – Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Until the end of the 1990s, these two brands were built side-by-side, but a complicated takeover battle resulted in Rolls-Royce becoming part of the BMW empire, while Bentley ended up in Volkswagen Group ownership.

Last year the two ex-bedfellows went head-to-head with new models – Bentley’s new Mulsanne and Rolls-Royce’s Ghost – a smaller but no less classy model than its Phantom flagship. The Ghost is being pitched at China, with special China-market editions and, of course, a long-wheelbase version.

The new Ghost Extended Wheelbase model has an additional 170mm wheelbase. Legroom is significantly enhanced with knee-room more than doubled compared to the standard Ghost. As well as increased cabin space in the rear passenger compartment, the car has a panoramic sunroof. Effortless entry and exit for passengers is helped by rear-hinged rear doors.

It’s powered by a 6.6-litre twin-turbocharged V12 engine which produces an effortless 563bhp allowing it to accelerate from 0-100kmh in just 5sec. Intelligent, four corner air suspension maintains a perfect balance between ride and handling.

The Bentley Mulsanne only comes in one wheelbase – but there’s so much room in the back that an extended wheelbase version would be unnecessary. Its interior is one of the most sumptuous you’ll ever experience. It’s hand-built, taking 170 hours to construct the cabin of each car using the finest hides and woods.

The seats are some of the most comfortable we’ve ever experienced and the spacious cabin offers plenty of room for five adult occupants. There’s also loads of legroom at the back, plus options such as veneered fold-down picnic tables and an entertainment package that adds twin 8in screens to the headrests for passengers to watch TV or DVDs. There’s also a capacious boot of 443 litres that will swallow up a couple of passengers’ luggage sets with ease.

Power comes from a 505bhp, 6.75-litre V8 petrol engine, driving the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Performance for a car weighing 2.5 tonnes is astonishing; it will hit 60mph in 5.1 seconds. Though it’s unlikely the chauffeur will be driving in quite such a lively way.

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