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The New Face of Luxury

High-end auto makers are reaching beyond rich leather and burlwood interiors to distinguish themselves. As posh down-market competitors press from below, choices like green engines, smaller vehicles and wifi are driving the luxury category
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010

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Patience is a virtue, it's long been said. But don't tell that to the typical car buyer. Whether you're buying a Mini or a Rolls-Royce, odds are, when you're ready to buy, you'll walk into the showroom and buy something straight off the lot, as long as it's reasonably close to what you have in mind. Industry studies show that but a small minority of motorists are willing to place an order and wait until it arrives. 

But that's a mindset the folks in Munich are hoping to change. Hidden in the back corner of a faceless Bavarian industrial complex are the offices of BMW Individual. Where an assembly line once ran you'll now find a collection of sedans, coupes and crossovers, along with displays showing the many ways they can be customized to reflect a buyer's most heart-felt desires. 

"Individual is one of the pillars of our business," says Christine Fleischer, BMW's lead marketing consultant. Perhaps, but it's been something the automaker hasn't talked about much until now. 

As far back as 1992, BMW started to do custom work for its most demanding buyers-like the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who integrated some unusual fabrics, as well as a fax machine and a small refrigerator, in his 7-Series. That last feature is now on the standard option list on some models, but BMW will transform one of its mass market models into a personal statement in plenty of other ways. 

There are several levels of customization, starting with what BMW calls Individual Composition. Think of them as an expanded palette of options, such as uniquely stitched leathers and special wheels, to which affluent buyers can upgrade. On the 7-Series, that adds another $7,700 to the sedan's basic price tag.

Then there are the one-offs, like what Fleischer calls "the Kona car." One customer, who traded in exotic Hawaiian woods, provided the automaker with his own lush veneers, matching them with tropic pastel leathers. That 7-Series went for $130,000, the custom work accounting for about $30,000 of that.

If you have enough money, BMW will modify just about anything you can imagine, but be forewarned the price gets pretty steep when you start talking about something seemingly simple like seats or bodywork. That would be because the automaker has to comply with regulations whenever a customized vehicle is delivered. Even something as mundane as a new seat might require the company to conduct a crash test. And, for some work, that might require the use of an aftermarket tuner or customization.

But there are advantages to working with the factory, where possible. Among other things, you'll have the comfort of knowing the work carries a warrantee.

BMW is not the only automaker entering the custom space, of course. Mercedes-Benz has been gaining ground with its Designo division. And then there are the ultra-luxury brands, like Rolls-Royce and Bentley, where they'll even whip up a custom paint or leather shade to match your favorite tie or lipstick. Just be ready to sign the check.


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