The 10 Most Important Luxury Cars of the Last 40 Years

Plenty of iconic luxury cars have endured the years and stand as a celebrated success for their manufacturers. Other luxury cars had a big impact—whether good or bad—on both their brand and the luxury segment as a whole. Some cars may have had a limited run but still influenced future models or pulled struggling automakers back from the brink. And yet other cars were major missteps or missed opportunities for luxury brands and continue to serve as important cautionary tales. Whether they’re categorized as the good, the bad, or the ugly, the cars here were important as pioneers and game-changers in the luxury segment.

1974–1990 Aston Martin Lagonda (Series I through IV)

The Aston Martin Lagonda was cutting edge during its time, both in terms of its sharp “folded paper” design and its futuristic digital dashboard. Created by British car designer William Towns, the four-door Lagonda was a saving grace for Aston Martin during an economic downturn. Despite its controversial looks—which Bloomberg Businessweek included on its list of 50 ugliest cars of the last 50 years—there was immediate demand for the innovative car thanks to its powerful V-8 engine, digital instrumentation, and exclusivity (only 645 units were ever created). However, the Lagonda’s Achilles’ heel was that the digital dashboard was prone to failure, which is whyTime magazine classified it as a “mechanical catastrophe” on its list of the “50 Worst Cars of All Time.” In spite of the polarizing reception, the Lagonda is still a collector’s item to this day. (astonmartin.com)

1979–1990 Maserati Quattroporte III

The Maserati Quattroporte III was the poster child for Italian luxury brands during its time, with everyone from Sandro Pertini (the Italian prime minister) to Rocky Balboa driving one during its run from 1979 to 1990. Considering that its predecessor—the Quattroporte II—was unsuccessful due to a number of factors, including its Citroën components, front-wheel drive, and an ongoing international economic crisis, the Quattroporte III was a game changer for Maserati, helping to pull the automaker out of debt. The Quattroporte III had a lavish interior, a V-8 engine, and a sportier rear-wheel drive, which was a winning combination for Maserati. The Quattroporte III quickly became the automaker’s best-selling model and 2,155 units were built—a far cry from the 13 total units of the Quattroporte II. (maserati.com)

1977 Lincoln Continental Mark V

The Lincoln Continental Mark V is a coveted collector’s item in part because it was a hallmark standard of the ’70s and ’80s trend of automakers collaborating with fashion designers to release special-edition luxury cars. With kitschy Designer Editions from Cartier, Givenchy, Pucci, and Bill Blass (who notoriously created dummy tanks to fool the German army during WWII), the Continental Mark V had unique paint colors, vinyl roofs, trim, and interiors—with a designer stamp as the cherry on top. Despite being a land yacht, the Continental Mark V was also notable because it took steps toward improving fuel economy in luxury cars because of the fuel crisis. The car was 400 pounds lighter than its Mark IV predecessor and switched from the previous 460 V-8 engine to a 400 Cleveland engine that was shared with other Ford and Mercury models. (lincoln.com)

1990–1994 Mercedes-Benz 500E

The Mercedes-Benz 500E was considered a wolf in sheep’s clothing during its run from 1990 to 1994, thanks to the high-performance V-8 engine hidden underneath a relatively unassuming exterior. As Mercedes-Benz stated in the 500E’s press release, there were no wings, paint stripes, or spoilers to identify the car as a sports performer. The 500E was outwardly identifiable by muscular front-wheel arches, wider tires, and flared fenders, but otherwise looked like a normal sedan from the automaker at that time. The 322 hp 500E was ping-ponged between two Mercedes-Benz and Porsche plants during its hand-built assembly and produced in limited numbers: Just 1,528 units were imported to the United States between 1991 and 1994. In 1995 Mercedes-Benz reduced the horsepower to improve fuel consumption and emissions, and also renamed the car the E500 to match the rest of the lineup’s naming scheme, so the uniquely crafted 500E is a classic collector’s item today. (mbusa.com)

1997–2013 Maybach

Maybach seems to be doomed as an underappreciated virtuoso in the ultra-luxury automotive class. In between a history of manufacturing engines for tanks, aircraft, and more, Maybach experimented with making lavish vehicles before being purchased by Daimler-Benz in 1960. For decades, Maybach took a backseat to Mercedes-Benz, mostly creating special editions of the automaker’s cars. In 1997 Maybach finally got the opportunity to step into the spotlight with the 57 and 62 ultra-luxury sedans, meant to compete with cars like the Rolls-Royce Phantom. The cars were meticulously assembled for nearly four months with a heavy focus on handcrafting and customization, and the automaker described the 57 and 62 as being designed like a “private luxury jet for the road.” Sadly, sales did not meet expectations. Despite creating what were arguably some of the finest luxury sedans of their time, Maybach was quietly shuttered in 2013 only to take a backseat to Mercedes-Benz once again in the 2016 Mercedes-Maybach S600. (mbusa.com)

2002–2006 Volkswagen Phaeton W12
01-vw-phaeton

With its Greek mythology–inspired name, the Volkswagen Phaeton would have been more appropriately dubbed the Icarus due to its overzealous conception. Former Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piëch definitely flew too close to the sun in creating the Phaeton, which was an attempt to make the automaker competitive with luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz and Audi in an era when other Volkswagen vehicles didn’t even come close to the Phaeton’s six-figure price tag. Although the Phaeton shared platforms and systems with upscale cars like the Bentley Continental GT and Audi A8, its performance was lacking. Sales were so bad in the United States that Volkswagen pulled the Phaeton’s plug in North America just a couple years after its debut in 2002. While the Phaeton continued production for 15 years on other continents, it still underperformed in sales. We hope that Volkswagen learned from its mistakes and can make the next-generation Phaeton—which is expected to debut in 2019—more of a success. (vw.com)

2003 Cadillac Sixteen Concept Car

Many automotive aficionados still mourn what could have been with the Cadillac Sixteen concept from the 2003 North American International Auto Show. The ultra-luxury concept was the brainchild of Bob Lutz, who wanted to create a limited-edition halo model for the brand. With a sharp design that was a major crowd-pleaser, a powerful V-16 engine, and a high price tag, it could have been just that—if Cadillac had ever actually turned it into a production model. Sadly, the Sixteen remained a concept only, even though Cadillac incorporated many of its design cues into its lineup. We think that if Cadillac had moved forward with the Sixteen, the automaker would be ahead of the curve instead of playing catch-up to its luxury competitors. (cadillac.com)

2003–Present Rolls-Royce Phantom VII

Rolls-Royce describes the Phantom as “The Best Car in the World,” and considering its popularity with affluent buyers, it’s hard to disagree. The seventh-generation Phantom, which was launched in 2003, helped the struggling automaker reinvent itself and soon became the anchor model of the brand. With unique features like a retractable hood ornament, suicide doors, and hidden umbrella compartments—as well as seemingly endless customization options—the Phantom VII is the ultimate in bespoke automotive luxury. While the seventh generation is coming to an end this year, demand is still high, with consumers snapping up the remaining models. We can only imagine that the eighth-generation Phantom—due in 2018—will only build on the car’s grand reputation. (rolls-roycemotorcars.com)

2003–Present Bentley Continental GT

Unlike the Volkswagen Phaeton—with which it shares a platform—the Bentley Continental GT has been a massive success story for the Bentley. The Continental GT was the first version of Bentley’s signature grand tourer to be mass produced, making it less expensive and more attainable than its predecessor, the Continental R. The result was an expanded customer base and a bevy of accolades, like being named the most significant production car design at the North American International Auto Show EyesOn Design Awards after the car’s debut in 2003. The Continental GT’s popularity is unsurprising, considering its impressive combination of daily-driving comfort, luxury, and performance—particularly in top-tier editions like the GT W12, which packs more than 580 hp. (bentleymotors.com)

2009–Present Porsche Panamera

For many Porsche purists, deviating from the automaker’s best-selling two-door sports cars with the debut of the Panamera in 2009 was blasphemous. And, as Robb Report Editorial Consultant Robert Ross says, “The fact that Porsche beat the Panamera with an ugly stick didn’t help sell the concept.” However, the Panamera grew in popularity as the public came to appreciate the way the full-size sedan combined high-performance chops with a roomy, luxurious interior that caters to both drivers and passengers. The Panamera helped pave the way for other four-door Porsche models like the Cayenne and Macan to become big sellers for the automaker, and the most recent version for the 2017 model year was given an attractive facelift and can come in 13 different variants, including E-Hybrid, Turbo, and Executive models. (porsche.com)

Robb Report | Sept 2016
Lindsay Bjerregaard

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