New A-class critical to Mercedes’ bid for world domination

Published: 20 January 2012

Mercedes will unveil the 2012 A-class at March’s Geneva motor show, although last year’s Concept A-class has already telegraphed its look. It’s a big deal, this new baby Benz. Out go two generations of MPV-after-a-boilwash, in comes an aggressive, wedgy hatchback that will scare cars like the Alfa Giulietta and Audi A3.

So what's new on the 2012 Merc A-class?

Out goes the complex sandwich platform, designed to swallow the drivetrain in a crash, or stomach batteries or fuel cells if the electrification craze had kicked off 10 years earlier. In comes a sportier car with a lower centre of gravity and sleeker looks, thanks to its conventional transverse engine/front-drive architecture.

When I suggested this was a technological retreat to Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, he firmly disagreed. ‘It’s not a step back. We have still preserved the energy space but in a rear sandwich. It was an innovation to have a crash concept where the engine slipped underneath; the new car, without too much additional length, has superior passive crash capability.’

It’s no surprise Zetsche is protective of the original A-class: he was chief engineer when the car was conceived. The first-generation model sold 1.1 million units, but I’d wager it would have been closer to 2 million if it hadn’t toppled over during that fateful elk test – and if the A-class had been as desirable as this car promises to be.

Why is Mercedes changing the A-class plan?

Mercedes-Benz is eager to shake off its traditional, respectable image, to lure younger, cooler customers who acknowledge the three-pointed star as a mark of quality but not desirability. The A-class, and the new models its more flexible architecture spawns – BLK off-roader, CLC four-door coupe, CLC sleek estate, plus the B-class MPV – are critical elements of Zetsche’s plan to overtake Audi and BMW, and make Mercedes-Benz the world’s biggest premium brand by 2020.

‘The second-generation A-class was successful – within the potential of the concept,’ Zetsche said, while driving me in the new B-class, on UK sale in March 2012. ‘But I wanted more: to expand our offer to more customers within the compact car segment. And that’s what we’ll do with five very different vehicles.’  

There’ll be eco versions too: an electric B-class, range-extender hybrid charged by a three-cylinder petrol engine, and a fuel cell B-class will arrive by 2014, using that rear sandwich space to stow batteries.

What’s Mercedes' strategy to be world number one?

New cars with superior styling, quality and innovative technology, says Zetsche, backed up by a strong brand, and a slick sales network that keeps customers happy. ‘During our first product offensive in the mid-90s we had good product and we beat the competition [in these areas]; in the second product offensive, the cars we added were not as successful and all these aspects of the business went in the wrong direction, compared with our competitors.

‘But in the last five years we’ve turned that around. We’ve gone from nowhere to number one [according to internal benchmarks] with a significant three-digit-million euro investment. Our main indicators show more progress for us than the competition and if we keep that up, we will automatically sell more cars than our competitors.’

That’s the theory. The new A-class – and its siblings – will soon reveal whether Mercedes-Benz is ready for take off.

>> Is the new 2012 Mercedes A-class enough to send Daimler to no.1? Click 'Add your comment' and let us know

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine