Mercedes-Benz is adding touchpad technology pioneered by the iPhone and an iPad-like display to the C-Class sedan in a bid to surpass Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) in sales.
Mercedes is offering its best-seller with trendy smartphone-like features and technology from the flagship S-Class sedan, including a 360-degree camera and six radar sensors to enhance safety systems. The German carmaker unveiled the model’s first overhaul in seven years at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
By bolstering the 33,560-euro ($45,690) C-Class with top-of-the-line gadgetry, Mercedes is looking to trump rival models from BMW and Audi AG furthering its effort of leaping to No. 1 from third in global luxury-car deliveries by the end of the decade. The new C-Class, which goes on sale in Europe in March and the U.S. and China in September, will help the Daimler AG (DAI) unit overtake Audi for second place next year, according to forecasts from IHS Automotive.
“Luxury customers are becoming much younger, especially in Asian markets,” said Sarwant Singh, an automotive partner with consultancy Frost & Sullivan in London. “They are looking for more gimmicks. The new C-Class is much more exciting.”
Daimler Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche introduced the new C-Class, Mercedes’ top-selling vehicle, at a hotel ballroom up the street from the auto show’s Cobo Hall venue the night before the official start of the Detroit event. Kelly Rowland, a former member of Destiny’s Child, sang “Work” as the cars were driven on stage.
Mercedes has been fighting back after losing its ranking as the world’s top-selling luxury brand to BMW in 2005 and dropping to No. 3 in 2011. Last year, the manufacturer narrowed the gap to Audi and BMW as the upgraded S-Class and new compacts fueled its biggest sales gain in three years.
The 28,980-euro CLA small sedan, which was introduced last year, replaced the C-Class as the main entry-level Mercedes by focusing on aggressive styling to lure buyers from other brands. To set the C-Class apart from its cheaper stable mate, Mercedes made the car essentially a downsized version of the S-Class.
“The C-Class is and will continue to be the brand’s mainstream offering, appealing to the widest possible potential buyer base -- from junior execs to retirees,” said Tim Urquhart, an analyst with IHS Automotive in London. “The CLA is positioned more for a younger, image-conscious buyer” and won’t likely steal many customers from the C-Class.
Including a wagon, coupe and an extended-wheelbase version for China, the line’s sales are forecast to surge 30 percent in 2015 from last year, IHS estimates. That would help lift Mercedes deliveries 17 percent to more than 1.7 million vehicles next year, nipping ahead of Audi as the C-Class outsells the Volkswagen AG unit’s A4. Mercedes trailed Audi last year by 113,800 cars and BMW by 193,500.
Still, the C-Class is expected to continue trailing BMW’s 3-Series, the world’s top-selling luxury car, after the Munich-based carmaker expanded the range with a GT version and added Sport, Modern and Luxury packages to increase customization when it overhauled the model in 2012. That means Zetsche probably won’t achieve his target of toppling BMW by 2020, according to IHS forecasts.
While the exterior remains sedate, Mercedes added more contemporary flair to the interior, including options for open-pore wood trim for a more textured surface, a larger 8.4-inch display and a Burmester surround-sound system.
“I could live in the car,” Ola Kaellenius, Mercedes sales chief, said in an interview in Stuttgart. “The new C-Class is better in every respect. There’s still a lot of room for us to grow” in the entry-level luxury segment.
The small sedan, which accounts for about 25 percent of Mercedes sales, is the cheapest model available that has the right to place the trademark three-pointed star in its traditional position upright on the hood rather than embedded in the grille like on the CLA and other compacts.
A chrome grille with the star on the hood is available on the C-Class as part of 1,250-euro Exclusive package, while the embedded logo is standard.
High-tech options include a head-up display, which projects speed and navigation instructions on the windscreen to avoid distraction, and an air suspension that lets the driver switch between four settings from sporty to comfort.
The touchpad allows the customer to flip through functions or zoom in and out of maps or other images on the central display, which juts out of the dashboard and resembles a small tablet computer. The touchpad, which can also be used to enter letters or numbers, vibrates to give the driver feedback that the command was received to help keep focus on the road.
“It’s great that the whole range of S-Class technology is available for the C-Class,” said Stefan Pusch, a salesman at Georg Pappas Automobil, a Mercedes and Jeep dealership in Salzburg, Austria. “The C-Class is up-to-date now.”
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