In the new SL roadster from Daimler AG (DAI)’s Mercedes-Benz, even the windshield wipers are high tech.
The world’s oldest carmaker is packing the sixth generation of the open-top two-seater with gadgetry including a retractable roof that becomes transparent at the push of a button and a trunk lid that opens and closes with the wave of a foot. The windshield wipers spray cleaning fluid directly from the blade, preventing splash from dousing passengers when the top’s down.
The SL, which will start at 93,500 euros ($123,400) when it hits European showrooms March 31, is an attempt by Mercedes to underscore its reputation for opulence at the same time it expands downmarket to boost volume with more modest models, such as the recently unveiled A-Class hatchback, after being overtaken in sales by Volkswagen AG (VOW3)’s Audi last year.
“The SL is a showcase of everything that Mercedes can do,” said Jonathon Poskitt, an analyst with LMC Automotive in Oxford, England. “It’s underlining the brand’s high-end position and provides that halo effect” for the new compacts.
Daimler Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche aims to reclaim the top spot in the luxury-car segment from Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) after slipping to third last year in sales and profit. The strategy to fight back is two tiered.
At the low end, Mercedes is rolling out a slate of small cars, including the A-Class, the van-like B-Class, a compact sport-utility vehicle and a four-door coupe, to spur sales. At the higher end, cars like the SL and three new variants of the S-Class flagship, which will be overhauled next year, are aimed at boosting profit and protecting the brand’s luxury image.
Mercedes intends to lift its operating profit margin to at least 10 percent of sales in 2013 from 9 percent last year.
Over the past 12 months, Daimler’s shares have declined 3.6 percent, compared with VW’s 19 percent advance and BMW’s 24 percent gain.
“The challenge for Mercedes is to keep the exclusiveness that they need to justify their price premium” while expanding in utilitarian segments, said Garel Rhys, director of Cardiff University’s automotive industry research center. “It’s trying to keep a degree of distance from the mainstream competition in each and every segment.”
Still, a refreshed look and new technology may not be enough to help Mercedes gain ground. Sales of the SL are projected to peak at about 24,100 vehicles next year, down from the 31,700 sold in 2002, the first full year of the previous generation, according to forecaster IHS Automotive. Daimler doesn’t provide annual sales figures for the model.
The muted expectations are reflected in the plans of Autohaus Rosier. The Mercedes dealer in Menden, Germany, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southeast of Dortmund, will keep festivities surrounding the SL’s introduction small and exclusive, according to sales chief Reinhard Weber.
The select group of customers will be served champagne and offered cigars at a reception accompanied by a piano player, marking a sharp contrast to the thousands drummed together for a bratwurst bash to show off the B-Class in November, said Weber.
“The chances of winning over new customers are low, because the concept isn’t revolutionary enough,” said Weber. “It’s an established segment. The goal will be to keep the existing customers.
The SL, which reaches U.S. dealers April 28, is Mercedes mid-range roadster, priced between the 38,700-euro SLK and the 195,200-euro SLS convertible. The new SL comes in two variants the 306-horsepower SL 350 and the 435-horsepower SL 500, which starts at 117,100 euros. It will compete with vehicles like the 99,400-euro Jaguar (TTMT) XK convertible, the 123,200-euro Audi R8 Spyder and the 100,500-euro Porsche 911 convertible.
Mercedes, which first launched the luxury roadster line in 1952, is using the new SL to display its latest technology. The all-aluminum body shell, the first in a series production vehicle for Mercedes, reduces the SL’s weight by as much as 140 kilograms (309 pounds).
The lighter frame, combined with more powerful engines, propels the car to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour in as little as 4.6 seconds, eight tenths of a second faster than the previous generation and competitive with the Porsche 911.
The exterior styling is highlighted by a more aggressive front end, while the chrome accents along the side vents are drawn from predecessors like the 50s era 300 SL roadster to blend modern innovation with the heritage of 126 years of carmaking.
‘‘The athletic, sports star’s physique with its masculine, muscular character says a great deal about the new SL,” said Gorden Wagener, Mercedes’s design boss. The interior and exterior styling reflects the SL’s status as “the high- performance heart” of the Mercedes brand.
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