PALM SPRINGS, CA – To bring some added swagger to the AMG brand in its largest market, Mercedes-Benz’s captive performance division is taking steps to bring to the U.S. many of the customization efforts traditionally offered only on its cars in Europe.

Highlighted by the new limited-edition ’09 SL63 AMG Performance Studio roadster unveiled here, the move encompasses unique styling and performance options designed to further differentiate AMG’s high-end models from standard Mercedes cars.

“AMG is not just an engine or a suspension, but a whole system,” says Volker Mornhinweg, chairman of the management board-Mercedes-AMG GmbH. “When ahead (in the market of performance brands), we must work even harder to stay ahead.”

To accommodate U.S buyers with better access to unique builds and options, the auto maker plans to establish AMG Performance Centers at a number of Mercedes dealerships throughout the U.S.

The centers will be separated from the main showrooms with high-end displays and staffed by dedicated personnel trained in the intricacies of AMG’s lineup and technology.

Seven pilot centers initially are expected this year in the U.S., bringing the total number of Performance Centers to approximately 100 worldwide, Mornhinweg says, noting it is important to offer more individuality to buyers in the U.S., as the market accounts for about half of all AMG sales.

A target of 70 showrooms are expected in the U.S. by 2010, adds Tobias Moers, director-AMG vehicle development. “But it will not be ‘Pimp My Ride,’” he says, referring to MTV’s cult television program showcasing over-the-top – and sometimes tacky – customizations of normal vehicles.

The auto maker is analyzing dealer-installed efforts, as well as body-in-white production in Germany, for the custom builds, with the likely outcome a mix of both.

“AMG is becoming its own brand,” Moers says, noting the elevation of the marque eventually could lead to AMG models with additional non-performance features not offered on more pedestrian variants.

Accompanying the AMG push will be a performance-experience tour, which will begin next month traveling to the Performance Centers to stage special events and consumer test drives of certain low-volume models.

The special SL63 PS will be built alongside other AMG models in Affalterbach, Germany, and features a matte AMG Yosemite Grey exterior finish, with a 2-tone nappa-leather interior that mixes the exterior hue with “pastel pebble beige” accents.

The 2-tone treatment carries over to the smaller-than-usual AMG steering wheel, while matte-finished carbon-fiber trim replaces standard gloss-finished details inside and out.

Dynamic improvements come from the standard fitment of the SL63’s AMG performance package, which includes composite front disc brakes, a limited-slip differential, 19-in. twin-spoke alloy wheels and the AMG performance chassis with Active Body Control suspension.

Only a small number will be produced, the auto maker says, with a similarly exclusive price tag that has yet to be determined.

Although the SL63 PS showcases what alterations are possible, AMG offers myriad other engineering, multimedia and interior design modifications, as well as unique, made-to-order vehicles.

Two of the most recent efforts are the creation of a new Mercedes safety car and medical car for the 2008 Formula 1 racing season, both of which were developed and built with the assistance of AMG’s primary Performance Studio in Germany.

The F1 Medical Car is based on the C63 AMG Estate (wagon) sold in Europe and is used to quickly shuttle doctors and emergency personnel around race tracks.

The more demanding task of pacing a herd of 800-hp F1 racecars falls to the F1 Safety Car, which is based on the new ’09 SL63 AMG roadster and replaces last year’s custom CLK AMG safety car the auto maker recently made available to the public as the track-ready ’08 CLK AMG Black Series.

Numerous modifications designed to reduce weight and improve performance are featured on the new SL63 Safety Car, most notably a fixed carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) roof in place of the standard SL63’s folding hardtop.

Combined with additional CFRP bodywork with improved aerodynamics, the 2008 F1 Safety Car is some 485 lbs. (220 kg) lighter than the street car and hints at what can be expected from the SL Black Series the auto maker plans to unveil later this year.

Additional modifications for the F1 Safety Car include 4-wheel composite disc brakes, an improved cooling system and a minimalist interior complete with roll cage and racing harnesses.

As AMG has declared the end of its long-standing participation in the industry’s horsepower war in favor of reducing weight and focusing on vehicle control and efficiency, the development of vehicles such as the F1 Safety Car have a direct bearing on future AMG street vehicles.

“We have to take care of our customers (in terms of environmental responsibility),” Mornhinweg says, noting a 20% reduction in emissions and fuel consumption is being targeted for the “very near future.”

Reducing weight offers an immediate and significant improvement in vehicle efficiency and emissions, with new powertrain technologies offering additional gains.

Among the strategies being considered at AMG is the introduction of direct-gasoline injection and turbocharging, as well as engine downsizing, Moers says, noting to watch for the first improvements in the 2010 timeframe.

Also being studied is the potential for a diesel-powered AMG model, as well as a possible hybrid-electric variant of an existing vehicle.

“AMG stands for technology, and we are the performance brand of Mercedes-Benz,” Mornhinweg says, “but there will be a slight change in the future (to go beyond outright performance).”

msutton@wardsauto.com