There was a collective whistle four years ago, when Mercedes-Benz introduced the Maybach brand to the U.S. market with sticker prices approaching a staggering $300,000.
Call it collective sticker shock.
Today, the Maybach 62S commands more than $400,000 and has plenty of challengers, including revivals under new management at Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini, all bought by Volkswagen AG in the last decade; plus Rolls-Royce, which parent company BMW AG relaunched in 2003.
"Competition is getting tougher," says Stuart McCullough, Bentley's sales and marketing director. "If you look at the kind of wealth these people have, the car is not that big a deal. It's not that big a dent on their net worth."
McCullough recalls one customer who contacted a dealer to see if it was too late to change the color of the Bentley he had ordered, because he had seen another color he liked better.
"He was told rather sternly, 'Yes, it was too late, it was already in the pipeline, there were deposits put down,' " says McCullough. "And he said, 'Can you order me one in that [other] color as well?' It was just that fast, and apparently easy, for this customer to make up his mind that was what he wanted."
On top of sky-high sticker prices and the last word in exclusivity, most of these cars offer extensive opportunities for customization.
Buy a Rolls-Royce Phantom (if you're lucky, that is; there's a waiting list) and you can choose from items like a removable, cigar carrier that the "bespoke" division of Rolls-Royce made for an owner to fit in one of its Phantom sedans.
If you're a good enough customer, the factory will gladly do even complex modifications. Rolls-Royce relocated the two batteries underneath the trunk floor of its Phantom Drophead Coupe model, to make room for more luggage, at the request of Sir Michael Kadoorie, the chairman of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels.
You see, he bought 14 extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantoms in December, to chauffeur customers around. In addition, Rolls-Royce CEO Ian Robertson personally delivered the keys.
It's a sign of the times that the options alone on the Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe, like a teakwood deck to cover the fabric top when it's down, plus a stainless steel hood, cost as much as some new cars ($17,000 for the package).
At Ferrari, the typical customer orders $20,000 to $50,000 worth of personalization options, according to spokesman Toscan Bennett.
However, even more than gadgets and gimmicks, so-called "Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals" value fairly simple fundamentals of a great customer experience, said Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a research firm focusing on the nation's wealthiest 10 percent.
He cited examples like, "problem resolution policies that favor the customer; allowing calling customers to speak to a person; and empowering front-line employees to make decisions that help serve their customers."
The New York-based firm defines "ultra-high net worth" as a minimum gross annual household income of $200,000 and net worth (including home equity) of at least $5 million. Rolls-Royce was the top ultra-luxury car brand overall, in a 2006 Luxury Institute survey of those wealthy consumers, the most recent such survey.
We limited our list to the single most expensive model per brand, available at U.S. dealerships, or else available so soon that the manufacturer has already disclosed the sticker price. That's typically the last step before a new model goes on sale. Bentley alone has four models over $200,000, counting three variations of the Arnage, plus another three models that top $170,000. But you’ll find only the $337,085 Azure.