x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The future is electric for Mercedes in China

Mercedes-Benz is set to build the GLK in China, and the new A-Class variants could follow. Michael Taylor reports on the German marque's plans for the future.

Mercedes-Benz will probably move production of the GLK soft-roader to China as part of a €3 billion (Dh16.3bn) push in the next three years to make the Asian powerhouse its biggest market in the world.

The company will invest in dealerships, production plants and even electric car and infrastructure technology in an effort to boost its Chinese sales beyond 350,000, said Deiter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler.

"The GLK, most likely, will be the next one to be built here and the A-Class variants could be next," he admitted. "There will also be an engine plant and new models exclusive to here, plus company expansions and there are very special plans to top up the electric infrastructure."

While Benz has its own electric car programmes in Germany and has just signed a deal with Bosch to build electric drive systems, that technology will not be used by Daimler's Chinese joint-venture electric car company, BYD.

"Bosch engines will not be used in the BYD programme," Zetsche insisted. "We are not allowed to import electric drive into China. It will be a long transition from combustion engines to electric but we think it's smart to be proactive here, with a young market in China, to make it a more EV market right from the start."

As for the upcoming A-Class, Mercedes-Benz is so determined to wipe out its boring small-car image that it's about to launch a shotgun blast of three different models to replace its current five-door A-Class hatch.

With the Shanghai and New York motor show's Concept A hatchback confirmed as one of the three, Benz has gone for a swoopier style and tauter handling in an effort to attract younger buyers out of Audi's A1 and A3 and BMW's 1 Series and Mini.

"As successful as the A and B class were, they were only attracting a part of the Concept A's segment," Dr Zetsche admitted. "That's why we did this one (the Concept A) and two more A-Class based versions."

"We will have three different bodies for the A-Class, but there will also be the traditional B-Class to cover the people who like the existing A- and B-Class. They will all have a lot of shared parts, but different body structures."

Four years in the concept and design stage already, the three-pronged approach has taken lessons from Benz's successful E-Class-to-CLS body change on the same chassis.

"There is this one [the Concept A], which will only be a five-door, and there is speculation out there about a sedan, and not all of it is wrong."

The new strategy also gives the A- and B-Class models access to the rest of the Benz engine range for the first time, because none of the C-Class's engines fitted into their front-drive engine bays.

Zetsche confirmed that next generation A- and B-Class models would wipe out the expensive "sandwich" floor that gave the cars their signature flat floors and high driving positions.

Ironically, that would mean Benz has eradicated it just as the original rationale for the expensive sandwich floor (to house alternative powerplants and batteries for fuel cells, range-extender hybrids and full electric systems) looks more likely to make production than ever before.

"It sounds like a contradiction to do away with the sandwich floor, because this is the time for alternative powertrains," Zetsche admitted. "With the B-Class, there is still a "semi-sandwich" in the rear, so we can still house the battery or gas or hydrogen tanks in the floor or the wheel well and have either the engine or electronic components in that structure.

"But it will be a long transition from combustion engines to electric, so if we are not on top of the absolute latest combustion technology we are lost. That much is clear."