Mercedes targets younger buyers, German rivals with revamped A class
Hatchback will be Benz's first compact sold in U.S.
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GENEVA -- Mercedes-Benz -- striving to reach younger buyers, fend off rivals BMW and Audi, and adapt to stiffer fuel-economy rules -- introduced an all-new A class hatchback today that will become the brand's first compact model sold in the United States.
The third-generation A class is longer and wider and ditches the current-generation car's boxy, minivan-like styling for a fresh, sporty look.
The A class will arrive in European showrooms in September and is scheduled to go on sale in the United States in 2014. A 3-door version will not be sold in the U.S. market.
"The A class is the right product at the right time and has tremendous potential to tap into new target groups and markets," Joachim Schmidt, head of sales and marketing at Mercedes, said in a statement.
Mercedes has developed three optional styling packages for the new A class: urban, style and AMG sport. Among the key priorities cited by Mercedes-Benz design chief Gorden Wagener was an appearance that would appeal to younger customers.
"No other car in this segment is as progressive," Wagener said.
Mercedes did not market the first and second generation A class in the United States in large part because American consumers were still enamored with larger cars and SUVs.
But higher gasoline prices, government fuel-economy rules, market shifts and changing customer preferences for smaller, well-equipped vehicles have persuaded Mercedes officials to offer the new car in the United States.
Mercedes' U.S. dealers were also initially reluctant to sell the new A class. But after a visit to Germany a year ago to see the car, they became convinced the new model was appropriate for U.S. showrooms, Mercedes officials have said.
"We're very comfortable that the market is ready," Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Steve Cannon told Advertising Age, a sister publication of Automotive News. "We wouldn't have said that three years ago."
Mercedes expects more than half of A class customers will be new to the brand, which has traditionally drawn older, wealthier customers.
"We are targeting buyers aged from the late 30s to the mid-40s," Schmidt told Automobilwoche, a sister publication of Automotive News Europe, in an interview.
"The United States is ready for a chic, compact car from Mercedes," Schmidt said. "It will be offered with all the important features, including safety technology. I am convinced that it will be a success there."
The A class will be built in Germany, Hungary and China, where it will go on sale in 2013.
The car will be a key model for Mercedes in its bid to retake the global luxury-car lead from BMW, as well as fight off tougher competition from Audi.
Mercedes hopes the car's sporty styling will make it a strong competitor to the BMW 1 series and Audi A3.
The A class is based on the new Mercedes Frontwheel Architecture that also underpins the new B class, which was unveiled at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show and retains its boxy, minivan-like design.
A GLC crossover and CLC coupe-like sedan and wagon based off the new platform will also be sold in the United States. The CLC is expected to be introduced at the New York auto show next month.
Mercedes officials have maintained it only made sense to import the new models if combined annual U.S. sales volumes exceeded 15,000 to 20,000 units.
The A class represents another major shift for the brand's U.S. product lineup, once dominated by large sedans powered by V-6 and V-8 engines.
For 2012, Mercedes is offering a four-cylinder engine on the C250 sedan and coupe and the SLK250 roadster -- the first four-cylinder engine in the United States since 2004.
Diana Kurylko, Greg Kable and Matthias Krust contributed to this report
You can reach Paul McVeigh at email@example.com.