Retail Front

Mercedes GLE Is Nice, But About That Pickup…

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The head of Mercedes-Benz USA talks about the prospect of the luxury automaker joining America’s pickup party.

NEW YORK – Will Mercedes-Benz join America’s pickup party?

“We’re analyzing it,” Steve Cannon, head of Mercedes-Benz USA, says of the prospects of the German luxury automaker selling pickup trucks in the U.S.

A few auto journalists press him on that at the debut of the ’16 Mercedes GLE midsize SUV on the eve of the New York International Auto Show.

Parent company Daimler back in Stuttgart has announced plans for a Mercedes midsize pickup truck by 2020. It looks utilitarian. It's destined for European, Latin American, Australian and South African markets.

The U.S. isn’t in that group. But it’s a reflection of American pickup popularity that journalists quiz Cannon on whether Mercedes might introduce one here. Moreover, it says something that he appears fully prepared to answer all those questions.

“I saw the concept in Stuttgart,” he says. “If we can get the right configurations...” Those undoubtedly would include dressing it up for luxury-segment buyers.

The upside of bringing such a Mercedes to the U.S. is that it's the largest pickup market in the world. “There’s a natural market for pickups here,” Cannon says.

The downside for potential new entrants: “It’s dominated by the domestics,” he says.

He’s referring to the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and Chrysler’s Ram. Japanese automakers Toyota and Nissan also are in the hot but highly competitive segment.

Domestic automakers act like protective mama bears when it comes to their pickups. Or, as Fred Diaz, a vice president at Nissan’s U.S. unit, puts it here earlier in the day: “You better have your big-boy pants on if you want to play in the U.S. pickup market.”

Automakers sold 2.25 million pickups in the U.S. last year, according to WardsAuto data.

The segment hit a wall in the recession year of 2009 when sales fell to 1.38 million after a previous streak of 3-million years. When sales turned ugly, some people predicted the segment would never be the same because only people who truly really needed pickups would buy them.

But since 2009, annual sales have gone up. The demographic mix of buyers includes plenty of people who just want a pickup because they think they’re cool.   

A may-be Mercedes pickup in America would play on the brand’s luxury status. “It would be more of a lifestyle vehicle for people who have second homes, second cars, go to the beach,” Cannon says.

It might also appeal to urban cowboys and others with a hankering for well-appointed trucks, such as the F-150’s decked-out King Ranch edition priced north of $60,000.

If pickups sporting the Mercedes tri-star logo do make the American scene, don’t expect to see guys in hard hats and work overalls driving them.

“You wouldn’t see folks living in Greenwich driving a pickup truck to a work site,” Cannon says, referring to an affluent Connecticut city.

If Mercedes sells a pickup here, it would build it here. That's because of a 25% import tax on trucks. “That’s why we have stayed out of the pickup market,” Cannon says of the heavy levy.

After answering so many pickup questions, he steers the conversation back to the new Mercedes SUV. “You want to talk about the GLE?” he asks.   

Sure, why not? After all, he’s standing in front of one on a staging area in an industrial-motif building with exposed concrete ceiling beams in New York’s Meatpacking District.

Cannon praises the newly named ’16 GLE (it’s currently sold as the ML), citing its new look and advanced technology among other attributes. For the first time, Mercedes will offer a hybrid version.

SUVs are popular in the U.S, Cannon notes. “It’s such a strong segment that has stayed steady. SUVs fit the American persona.”

He could say the same of pickups.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com

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Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for WardsAuto.com. His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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