CALISTOGA, CA – Ramping up production of the third new Mercedes cross/utility vehicle in 18 months is proceeding slowly.

"How close we get to capacity will be driven by quality," says William Taylor, CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc.

The nominal annual capacity of the Mercedes plant in Vance, AL, is 160,000 units. Currently, only 30-40 GLs are being built per day, a deliberately slow pace to validate quality.

"When we get feedback from MBUSA, we'll decide on the mix for the M-Class and the new GL,” Taylor says, at a media preview here of the new model.

The Vance facility is actually two factories in one. It has two body shops, and two paint shops. One line assembles the M- and R-Class models. The other builds M and GL models.

Taylor says the plant built a little more than 90,000 units last year. It exports 60% of its production to 135 countries. The major difference between cars produced for the domestic market and those sold in Europe is the high percentage built to customer-specific orders.

Also, 75% of the vehicles shipped to Europe are powered by a 3.2L diesel engine.

"No diesels are sold here yet, but we're certainly entertaining that," Taylor says.

There is a 1-year backlog of orders for the diesel-powered European M-Class models. Nevertheless, he says volume does not warrant building a diesel engine plant for North America.

Export vehicles drive the complexity of production in the Alabama plant. Different wire harnesses and right-hand drive are among the major differences between U.S. and export models.

Taylor says the GL will not add much to that, noting Vance will produce a larger mix of GLs for the U.S. market. Also, Vance does not engage in block building and painting.

"An order comes in and you build it," Taylor says.

It only takes seconds to purge paint sprayers, so there is no need to paint a particular color in a block.

Taylor says the plant uses a 2-shift model that is supplemented with overtime. Some of the approximately 4,000 employees work up to 10-hour shifts when needed. However, workers only take 45-minute lunch breaks.

"We pick up 1-½ hours of production a day because of that," he says.

MBUSI is "neutral" about employees joining the United Auto Workers union, Taylor says. "It's a team member decision."

No vote on joining the UAW is imminent at this time, he says noting the Vance workforce has had only a 1% turnover since its opening.