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Mercedes bends with the times

Sleeker: The new C-class sedan is the first of a family of fresh cars aimed at younger, sportier buyers.

Mercedes-Benz is moving with the times, adding more high-performance models and the option of all-wheel drive across all sedan ranges.

19 Sep 2001


MERCEDES-Benz aims to launch a slew of new models in the next five years, entering previously uncharted territory.

Many of these new models will be based around the new C-class, the sedan version of which has just gone on sale in Europe.

They include a station wagon, new sportscar, new coupe and an all new concept based on the C-class, a four-wheel drive crossover.

The product manager for the C-class program, Bernd Stegmann, said there was definitely a potential market for a baby M-class and such a vehicle could be introduced within the life of the new generation C-class just introduced. He said Benz was carefully studying new trends and niches.

Mercedes-Benz is crowing that it holds orders for 40,000 new C-class sedans, despite only revealing the finished article in late March this year.

The company wants to grab a much bigger slice of the European sub-DM40,000 prestige sedan market than ever, lifting the C-class sedan's share from 16 per cent to 25-30 per cent. This is in spite of the arrival of a new player in the segment next year in the shape of Jaguar's X400.

Mr Stegmann said that despite the Jaguar's arrival, Benz would still aim to sell about 250,000 C-class cars next year.

Initially, Jaguar is expected to sell only about 40,000 X400s, most of them in the United States.

The X400 will be sold predominantly as an all-wheel drive vehicle, hence Mercedes' urgency to try a 4-matic C-class.

The new C-class sedan, with a choice of three trim levels and four engine Options, goes on sale in Australia in November, and is expected to be priced from the same $56,000 as the current C180. Mercedes-Benz expects to receive supplies of between 700-900 C-class sedans late this year (equivalent to a day's production at the Bremen plant) and as many as 3500 next year.

In the interim, the company has about 1000 previous generation C-class sedans to sell. A runout model with alloy wheels, anti-skid ESP traction control and -Tip-shift - automatic transmission has been introduced to help the old model out of the showroom.

The new entry level C-class sedan comes with a 2.0-litre, 100kW engine rather than the 1.8-litre now offered.

There will also be a C200K complete with supercharged 2.0-litre engine and six-speed manual gearbox, a 2.6-litre entry-level V6 confusingly dubbed C240 and the range-topping C320 with the three-valves per cylinder V6 3.2-litre engine.

This is expected to cost just under $100,000. Benz will not reveal exact pricing until closer to the launch date but in Europe the cars are about three per cent more expensive than the out-going models and have five per cent more value in terms of standard equipment (according to a Benz spokesman).

All C-class sedans sold in Australia will come from a newly refurbished factory in the South African coastal town of East London.

At first the factory will simply assemble cars from complete component kits imported from Germany but later on it will add some local South African content.

The plant has a capacity for 40,000 vehicles a year and will build UK-spec cars as well as Australian, Japanese and other right-hand drive market sedans.

Wagons and sportscars based on the C-class will continue to come from German factories such as Bremen and Stuttgart.

AMG hopes to reveal its version of the C320 in time for the Paris motor show in September, complete with supercharger and called C32. It is expected to cost about $130,000 and produce about 200kW.

Following the C-class sedan into the market will be a three door hatch, based on the sedan, called Sportscoupe, which will do battle with the BMW Compact and Audi A3 (though this is now a predominantly five-door model).

The Sportscoupe is expected to come with a full complement of engine and trim choices and will cost about $50,000. It is aimed at the 30-35 age group, about five years older than typical A-class buyers and five years younger than typical C-class sedan buyers.

Mercedes-Benz is aiming to lower the average C-class owner age from 52 to 48 years with the new generation sedan, while also appealing more to women. A broader range of bolder, more fashionable paint schemes and interior trim choices is expected to help this move.

Late next year Mercedes will add a C-class wagon to the range, while a high-performance SLK is also expected. Later still, about 2004, an all new SLK roadster is expected.

Meanwhile, in July this year Mercedes-Benz will add a V6 3.2-litre engine to the SLK range and drop the entry level SLK 200. The V6 is expected to cost about $120,000.

Coming next year is an even hotter version, which will use the C32 AMG, tuned supercharged engine, which will also be fitted to the C-class sedan. Expect about 200kW and a $150,000 price tag.

The C32 Kompressor will be Mercedes-Benz's first-ever super-charged V6 engine.

The C36 and C43 and C55 high-performance C-class sedans are to be replaced by just the C32 Kompressor, since AMG has shifted its focus from larger capacity V6 and V8 engine configurations for the C-class.

In addition to the increased power of high-performance models, Mercedes-Benz plans to extend the 4-matic all-wheel-drive technology developed for the M-class off-roader and already used in American market E-class versions.

It is envisaged that C-class and S-class models and a wider spread of E-class models will be offered with all-wheel drive, especially now that BMW has an all-wheel drive 3 Series.

Apparently there is a huge demand for an all-wheel drive C-class from the United States market. In Europe the E-class 4-matic system is available on wagons as well as the hugely powerful AMG-converted E55.

Adding all-wheel drive technology costs about $6000 per vehicle so it is expected to be available in up-spec cars only for the Australian market should Benz decide there is enough volume to make it worthwhile. Mercedes-Benz is at present conducting worldwide research to determine if it should proceed with widespread all-wheel drive sedan and wagon programs.

Only the A-class among mainstream passenger vehicles will go without all-wheel drive.

Benz executives also say that rear-wheel drive for the next C-class due in 2007 is all but set in stone, partly driven by moves by Japanese prestige car-makers to switch from front to rear-wheel drive for their next generation cars.

Mercedes will also introduce an A-class in 2004 powered by a fuel cell.

The car is expected on sale in the United States once an infrastructure to service the cars is established. The fuel cell technology fits within the sandwich floor of the radical baby car.

But one Benz advanced technology feature that has drawn much interest is now less likely to appear in the medium term: steering by joystick.

Executives say that even steer by wire using a conventional steering wheel, but connected to the steering rack by wire rather than mechanical connections, is still to be debugged sufficiently to allow a car to be driven in total safety.

Mercedes-Benz future models plans 2000 Australian launches
July: SLK 320 V6 November: C-class sedan, C180, C200K, C240, C320 2001 European launches
C-class wagon C-class Sportscoupe C32 high-performance sedan C32 SLK C220 CDI (diesel engine for Australia) 2002
4-matic versions of C-class 2003
New SLK New CLK 2004
Fuel cell-powered A-class 2005
New crossover 4WD based on C-class New generation A-class * Based on the latest unofficial estimates

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