Mercedes-Benz "CLC" Coming to New York Auto Show

March 6, 2012

Mercedes-Benz will show the first U.S.-bound model from the front-wheel-drive family of small cars it's developing, as a concept at next month's 2012 New York Auto Show.

With one of its new front-drive models--its B-Class MPV--already in production, Mercedes today took the covers off the sleek A-Class five-door hatchback, the second from the new range of compact cars. The A-Class emerged at this week's 2012 Geneva Motor Show almost unchanged from its concept form, which was unveiled just last fall.

But while it goes on sale this year in Europe, the A Class hatchback won't arrive in U.S. showrooms until 2013 at the earliest, after another compact car--a coupe-like sedan unofficially dubbed the CLC--makes the rounds on the auto-show circuit and goes into production.

American tastes are dictating the launch of the sedan before two other members of the small-car lineup, which will eventually include the sedan; a crossover vehicle; the A Class; the B Class MPV; and a final model that may be shown at April's Shanghai auto show.

It's a rapid, almost dizzying launch pace, with distinctive vehicles aimed at distinct markets--all by design, says Daimler AG chairman Dieter Zetsche.

On hand for the Geneva show and the A Class launch, Zetsche reaffirmed that three of Mercedes' new compact family will eventually be sold in the U.S.

The new small cars will help Mercedes' overall fuel economy figures for its lineup in the U.S. Even so, with turbocharged four-cylinders and hints of AMG versions in the pipeline, the new small cars likely won't be small in terms of performance.

They'll have a large impact on Mercedes' footprint in the U.S. as well. Zetsche thinks the lineup could eventually take 30 percent of Mercedes' U.S. sales, which would put it alongside the E Class and C Class as the brand's top sellers.

Too, the new compact family is a way to recast the more traditional Mercedes reputation with vehicles that put connectivity on par with performance. The A Class and CLC and their kin will have standard features like USB ports and Bluetooth, even the ability to access the Internet, tap Google Maps for directions, or update Facebook status while on the go.

Can small cars work?

Daimler's previous efforts at lower-priced vehicles in North America haven't met with great success. In 1998, Daimler bought Chrysler Corporation for $36 billion to strengthen its global portfolio and fill the middle ground between Mercedes-Benz and Smart; in 2007, it sold Chrysler to Cerberus at a huge loss after struggling with its purchase for almost a decade.

In the 1990s, it also launched its city car, the Smart fortwo. After more than a decade, Smart has yet to turn a profit, but Zetsche sees it as an early effort in a market segment just now getting traction. Smart gives Daimler the means to explore mobility and electrification in a way Mercedes-branded vehicles cannot, he suggests.

"If we wouldn't have invented it ten years ago," he says, "we would have had to today."

Mercedes also sold a hatchback C Class in the U.S. beginning in 2002, but discontinued it after the 2004 model year due to slow sales.

This time, Zetsche insists Mercedes has the right products for America--not station wagons, and not MPVs, perhaps, but the sedans, coupes, and crossovers American buyers strongly prefer.

Germany gets notice

Though the new Mercedes small-car family is now being shown to the public, it will not go on sale in the U.S. until late 2013. As of yet, it's not certain which Daimler plants will assemble U.S.-market cars, either.

Daimler's new agreement to build an assembly plant in Mexico, near that of its new alliance partner Nissan-Renault, would allow it to build the small-car family there. A Daimler spokesman says, while it's an option, no North American small-car production has been confirmed.

The Renault-Nissan deal will also bring Infiniti a version of the new small-car family: a long-rumored hatchback spun off from the A Class family for Nissan's luxury brand "most likely will go ahead," Zetsche says.

What will not go ahead, Zetsche says, is additional capacity in Daimler's home market. "Further capacity [addition] will not be in Germany," he says firmly. Instead, his company will expand where it sees the potential for new customers.

(c) 2012, High Gear Media.

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