YOUNTVILLE, CA – Mercedes-Benz has set the stage for an exciting clash in the U.S. luxury market sales battle.
To date, Mercedes has the upper hand on arch-rival, or the two are in a standoff, depending on how 2011 sales are counted.
But American consumers have yet to see key ’12 products such as the revamped C-Class sedan, next-generation CLS550 and CLS63 4-door coupes and the SLK coupe and roadster.
“We’ve got a lot of powder that’s still dry,” says Stephen Cannon, vice president-marketing Mercedes-Benz U.S.A.
Not counting Smart sales, the tri-star brand chalked up 75,152 deliveries through April for a 9.2% gain over like-2010, according to Ward’s data. That’s 3,735 more than, minus Mini-brand results.
Subtract Sprinter fullsize van sales from Mercedes and BMW is ahead, but by a mere 29 units.
Reigning luxury-segment champ Lexus, beset by supply-chain woes stemming from the earthquake and tsunami that stunned Japan in March, is a distant third with a sales tally of 64,932.
While Cannon continues to see “softness” in Arizona, Florida and Southern California – historically solid Mercedes markets hard-hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis – the brand’s other stronghold is showing renewed vigor.
“The Northeast has been buffered by a resurgent Wall Street,” Cannon says, noting the addition of Mercedes’ trademark 4Matic all-wheel-drive system to the CLS lineup will further bolster the brand’s position.
“The northeast has really been carrying the ball for us and they demand (all-wheel drive),” Cannon tells Ward’s here during a CLS media preview.
The total take-rate for 4Matic is about 35%, says Bernie Glaser, MBUSA general manager-product management. But the feature is more popular in U.S. markets, such as the Northeast, where winters can be harsh.
Says Cannon: “It’s getting to the point in our snow markets that it’s really hard to sell products without 4Matic. Period.”
The U.S. CLS launch, which begins in earnest next month, also marks a pair of “firsts,” one for Mercedes and one for the industry.
Brand executives say the coupe is the first production car ever to feature dynamic-movement light-emitting-diode headlamps that track the vehicle’s path. It also is the first Mercedes to boast electro-mechanical steering, which is 90% more energy-efficient than electro-hydraulic systems.
While the CLS sells in “niche” volumes – 2010 deliveries totaled 2,135, according to Ward’s data – it makes an important statement about the tri-star brand’s styling prowess, Cannon says.
Mercedes is credited with establishing the 4-door coupe trend. Since its debut some five years ago, the auto maker has sold 170,000 CLS units worldwide, including 44,500 in the U.S., the car’s largest market, Glaser says.
The CLS is produced at Mercedes’ assembly plant in Sindelfingen, Germany.
Through April, Mercedes U.S. car sales were tracking 8.7% ahead of like-2010, according to Ward’s data. The C-Class is the brand’s best seller with 20,425 deliveries, followed by the E-Class just 13 units behind.
Mercedes’ light-truck sales were tracking 10.1% ahead of year-ago. The M-Class leads the pack with 9,190 deliveries, followed by the GLK some 1,800 units behind.
Despite the downsizing trend sparked by volatile fuel prices, Cannon says Mercedes has observed no M-Class cannibalization by the GLK.
“It’s mostly incremental,” he says of GLK volume. “It’s the highest conquest model in all of our range.”
Some 65% of GLK buyers come from other brands, Cannon adds.
Despite Lexus’ 11-year domination of the U.S. luxury market, Mercedes has no plans to exploit the Japanese brand’s current hardship.
But “if they can’t provide (cars to) new customers, these are high-end customers who are going to look at any one of the franchises – BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz,” Cannon says. “We think our brand lines up. We have quality, craftsmanship, reputation.”
And while Mercedes has new product ready for launch later this year, so does BMW. The 1-Series M coupe and 650i convertible go on sale this month, followed in the fall by the 650i coupe.
Like Mercedes, BMW also is expanding AWD availability. The 6-Series and 528i will benefit from the brand’s xDrive system.
“We’ll be watching our cross-town rivals, as they’re watching us,” spokesman Dave Buchko tells Ward’s. “It should be fun.”