NEW YORK – Ernst Lieb, president and CEO Mercedes Benz USA, says the ML 450 hybrid cross/utility vehicle unveiled at the auto show here goes on sale later this year exclusively in the U.S. and Canada.

The new hybrid-drive system, which employs two electric motors integrated into the transmission, is a product of a joint venture between Daimler AG, BMW AG and General Motors Corp.

Capable of operating purely on electricity or its V-6 combustion engine the ML 450 also can use both systems simultaneously to produce up to 335 hp and 381 lb.-ft. (517 Nm) of torque.

That's 88% of the power output and 94% of maximum torque produced by Mercedes' V-8 gasoline engine. Yet the hybrid CUV consumes 50% less fuel than a V-8 and 30% less than comparable V-6s.

The vehicle optimizes fuel efficiency in both highway and city driving. Its Environmental Protection Agency rating is 24/21 mpg highway/city (9.8-11.2 L/100 km).

Lieb claims the new hybrid offers V-8 torque with 4-cyl. fuel economy, but says Mercedes doesn't expect the hybrid's sales to reach as high a penetration as the diesel model.

The Mercedes chief is bullish on diesel penetration. “We'll see an increase in diesel sales,” he predicts. “But it depends on fuel prices.” Sales of the Bluetec E-Class 50-state diesel account for 8%-13% of that entry's overall sales, depending on the month. “The sales are pretty much where we targeted them now.”

Lieb says the overall luxury segment fell 18% last year and predicts sales will slide further this year. “The (poor) housing market is the main contributor to this.”

Total sales in the luxury segment were down 35% after the first quarter, while Mercedes sales slid 30%. “We're up 16% in market share in March,” he adds.

The three main players in the segment were bunched tighter in March than ever before, with BMW ahead with a 17% market share, followed by Mercedes with 15% and Lexus with 14%.

“I may be alone, but I think sales are going to get better in three or four months,” Lieb says. “Buyers are holding off right now, but there has been a huge increase in used-car sales.”

Mercedes’ used-car sales rose 29% in March, 57% in February and some 60% range in January, compared with year-ago, he says. “Our dealers are probably only down 15% because of used-car sales.”

Lieb attributes the sales jump to buyers looking for better deals than the best new-car-purchase opportunities.

One bright spot for Mercedes is the sale of the new GLK compact cross/utility vehicle that accounts for 50% of the volume in the segment. “I never thought it was going to that high,” he says.