Forget that fancy limousine, today's luxury cars are vans

SHANGHAI/TOKYO: On a typical Friday evening in Shanghai, Seoul or Tokyo dark vans buzz through the city, ferrying their night owl customers to restaurants, clubs, concert halls or cinemas. While the elite in these places still travel in big limousines, Asian dwellers have long favoured lavishly-equipped MPVs.

After all, in the near permanent traffic jams of mega metropolises, performance is secondary. Instead, it's all about having room and privacy and using the time lost in traffic profitably or at least in an entertaining way. This is where Asian luxury vans are superior to conventional luxury saloons, says automotive expert Ferdinand Dudenhöffer.

These vehicles come with "armchairs like in the business class of long-haul aircraft and screens larger than in many seen a living room - neither Mercedes and BMW nor Rolls-Royce or Bentley can keep up with that," said Dudenhöffer: "Not to mention the legroom and the comfortable, upright access." And there is no shortage of prestige either, provided the vans stand out from ordinary commercial vehicle with enough glamour and chrome".

What used to be only an Asian phenomenon is now slowly spilling over into Europe and other areas.

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Chinese manufacturer BYD, for example, brought the Denza D9 van with its monstrous front grille to the IAA in Munich a few months ago, and not without good reason.

Trade fair guests were invited to try out the two "captain's chairs", which take up almost the entire rear of the 5.25 metre long MPV.

The D9 on display had a six-seat, three-row layout and a cabin laden with tech, including seven screens – three in the front cabin and a pair each for the middle-row passengers, with individual infotainment displays and small smartphone-sized controllers for the business class-style seats. Those seats also have 10-way adjustment and a 10-point massage function.

Volvo has now jumped on the bandwagon with the EM90 - initially only in China, according to the firm.

The first van in the company's history stands at more than five metres and, according to Volvo, has been developed from the ground up with particular attention paid to the creature comforts of rear passengers. While the Denza D9 is also available as a plug-in hybrid, the Volvo is purely electric.

Both manufacturers say they are looking hard at importing models to Europe. So while these models are still at the planning stage, Lexus has already put its money where its mouth is: "We are bringing first class from the aeroplane to the European road," says Lexus spokesperson Etienne Plas, directing attention to the new LM.

denza d9

Even as a six-seater, the Lexus LM costs at least €122,700 (RM630,000)to buy and as a four-seater with just two seats in the rear, it is the most expensive model in the Japanese manufacturer's programme at €147,100 (RM755,000).

In return, the space cruiser, powered by a 250-hp hybrid engine, offers a mass of space and, among other things, a 48-inch diagonal screen, a cooled bar compartment, massage function and individual electronic climate controls for personal settings.

The Lexus representative is keen not to deride the firm's own limousines but said: "We are offering business travellers in particular more options than ever before."

In addition to corporate customers, he also sees chauffeur and shuttle services as the main target group. Dudenhöffer echoes the opinion. "The van, which has always been regarded as a family car in our country and has long since been replaced in this role by SUVs, could perhaps make a comeback after all."

So far, the German manufacturers have nothing to counter this offensive. Audi and BMW don't even have a van in their ranges. The Mercedes V-Class is basically a refined commercial vehicle that cannot hide its origins as a small truck despite lot of chrome on the outside and leather, trim and upmarket equipment in the cockpit.

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Meanwhile, the Volkswagen duo of the T7 van and the ID.Buzz electric bus have so far failed to offer Asian levels of luxury.

However, it seems German manufacturers are waking up to the idea that a modern MPVs cannot be luxurious enough these days.

Mercedes has just given its V-Class and its electric cousin, the EQV, a thorough facelift. They are also preparing the successor based on a new electric architecture, which according to information from company circles will be even more sophisticated.

For many professional shuttle service driving services, this is apparently not enough. For that reason upmarket V-Class vans can already be seen everywhere in Asia, pimped with a pinstripe grille and Pullmann interior.

They are even badged as Maybachs - although Mercedes says it has nothing to do with it.

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