DETROIT – Expect Daimler to achieve greater cost-management flexibility when Mercedes-Benz engine production begins in the U.S., says Daimler management board member Thomas Weber.

Accordingly, the auto maker is pondering engine-export projects to benefit overseas vehicle-assembly plants, Weber tells WardsAuto.

“In the future, we will have more competition between plants,” he says, noting the auto maker will have, by 2014, three 4-cyl. engine-production sites sourcing the Mercedes C-Class car line: Germany, China and a Nissan plant in Decherd, TN.

The plants in China and the U.S. will be, respectively, just the second and third Mercedes engine-production sites outside Germany.

By the time they launch, Mercedes also will have two additional C-Class plants, one in China and one in Tuscaloosa, AL. Currently, the C-Class is produced only in South Africa and at two plants in Germany – Sindelfingen and Bremen.
While Mercedes will be able to adjust engine production between Germany, the U.S. and China according to demand and vagaries of currency exchange, the commitment to do so is “not finally decided,” Weber says.

Daimler’s U.S. engine program is made possible by its groundbreaking technology-sharing agreement with the Renault-Nissan alliance. In return, the Mercedes engines also will find their way into Infiniti-brand vehicles, though Nissan does not disclose which models.

The deal between the two auto makers was struck in 2010 and gives each a 3.1% ownership stake in the other. Initial terms called for sharing of minicar platforms, small vans and diesel engines.

In addition to the 4-cyl. engine program, the partnership now promises 2014 production of an  Infiniti-brand compact vehicle on a Mercedes platform and co-operation on electrification.

Against this backdrop, Mercedes-Benz USA President Steve Cannon welcomes the coming engine-downsizing trend, even though it may seem counter-intuitive to some American luxury-vehicle buyers.

Four-cylinder engines will not be “a hard-sell,” he tells WardsAuto. “As long as they deliver a Mercedes-Benz experience, then we’re going to be fine.

“If we put a 4-cyl. out there that doesn’t deliver on what our consumers expect, then we’ve got a problem. So we were very careful when we picked which engine will come to the United States.”

This year marks the first time since 2005 that Mercedes has offered a 4-cyl. engine in the U.S. The auto maker’s 1.8L M271 turbocharged direct-injection I-4 can be had in the ’12 C-Class.

The engine makes 201 hp and peak torque of 229 lb.-ft. (310 Nm). It also has a highway-cycle fuel-economy rating of 31 mpg (7.6 L /100 km).

To date, half of the C-Class orders taken by U.S. Mercedes dealers call for 4-cyl. engines, Mercedes says.

emayne@wardsauto.com