Daimler hunts lead in luxury sales with station wagon heritage
FRANKFURT (Bloomberg) -- Mercedes-Benz has dug deep into automotive history for inspiration as it seeks to recapture the lead in luxury car sales.
The result: The CLS Shooting Brake, a stretched, wagon-like version of its CLS sedan with a cherrywood-floored trunk that's intended to evoke vehicles favored by Britain's gentleman hunters in the 1930s.
The European vehicle description "shooting brake" typically is translated to "station wagon" in North America.
"The old Rolls-Royce shooting brake had gun racks and cocktail cabinets," said Colin Peck, head of a British club of owners of the classic models. "You could sit in the back as you drove around the country estate with your gin and tonic, shotgun out the window, and shoot at anything that moved."
The CLS is among the latest experiments by luxury-auto makers seeking new niches as growth slows in sedans, wagons and sportsters.
Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Mercedes parent Daimler AG, has vowed to bring the brand back to the global luxury lead after it gave up the top spot to BMW in 2005 and fell to third place behind Audi last year. The new model could face off against a similar concept from Porsche, a pre-production variant of the Panamera four-door sedan called the SportTurismo. Both were unveiled at the Paris auto Show today.
BMW is also pushing into uncharted territory at the Paris show, which opens to the public on Sept. 29 after two days of press and supplier events. The Active Tourer, a van-like prototype with elevated seats and a large luggage compartment, would compete with the Mercedes B class if BMW decides to produce the concept it's introducing in Paris.
"There is such competitive intensity in the premium segment that it doesn't really suffice for luxury carmakers simply to offer high-quality vehicles," said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. "They also have to try to make their products appeal on an emotional level."
Mercedes long had a reputation for evoking passion with cars such as the 300SL -- a 1955 model of that gull-wing sportster is expected to fetch 3.2 million pounds ($5.2 million) when auctioned in London on Oct. 31. Lately though, the brand has lagged behind BMW and Audi on the excitement front. Bratzel says vehicles like the CLS Shooting Brake mark an effort to bridge the gap.
The Shooting Brake has "a high potential to attract new customers," Andreas Kleinkauf, product manager for the CLS line, said in a telephone interview. "We are looking for people who are not loyal to a brand but pay more attention to design -- architects or academics, those who travel with refinement." The shooting brake is largely targeted at the European market, he said.
Daimler cut its automotive profit forecast for 2012 on Sept. 20 as Zetsche said autos sales in Europe are deteriorating faster than expected. With the region's car market overall off by 6.6 percent this year, Porsche has scaled back growth targets for 2013.
For the past 15 years, luxury carmakers have increasingly tried to bust through the boundaries of defined segments to find new niches. The original CLS, introduced in 2004, was the first four-door coupe. In 2010, Audi opened up the subcompact segment with the A1. Since BMW started selling the X5 SUV in 1999 it has introduced three more SUVs, and today its traditional 3-, 5- and 7-series sedans account for less than 60 percent of the brand's deliveries.
Until 2002, Porsche manufactured only sports cars. Today, the 81-year-old German carmaker's lineup includes the Cayenne SUV and the Panamera -- and soon a compact SUV called the Macan -- models intended to hedge against the capriciousness of the sports-car market, according to former engineering head Rolf Frech. The SportTurismo, the Panamera derivative being introduced in Paris, is "similar to a shooting brake, but we didn't want to call it that because this is a more modern interpretation," said Hans-Gerd Bode, a spokesman at Porsche. "It's somewhere in between, for people who need more luggage space than in a classic Porsche but don't want a proper station wagon."
The shooting brakes of the 1920s and 1930s were sold at a time when few automobiles had built-in trunks. The segment name was resurrected after World War II for single editions of Aston Martin, Lotus and Reliant sports cars, before drifting out of use in the 1970s.
The Mercedes Shooting Brake is "a coupe with a big trunk," said spokesman Steffen Schierholz. The car's 590-liter (21-cubic-foot) trunk compares with 520 liters in the standard CLS and the 565 liters in Audi's A6 Avant wagon.
Alterations to the back end of a car are "about the smallest incremental development you can do," said Christoph Stuermer, a Frankfurt-based analyst at IHS Automotive. "If you can expect to ask a higher price than the base car itself, and address people that tend to be a little bit on the ostentatious side, that will buy big wheels, engines and add-ons, you can have a nice business."
The CLS Shooting Brake starts at 61,800 euros ($79,800) in Germany, while the standard model starts at 59,857 euros. Stuermer expects Mercedes to sell 16,000 of the Shooting Brake in 2013, while the carmaker will sell 32,000 E-class wagons.
For UK auto enthusiast Peck, the CLS has little in common with his 1936 Ford V8 "woodie," as some traditional shooting brakes are affectionately called because of their wooden bodies. The CLS, he said from his home near Slough, England, is little more than a fancy station wagon. "It's not something you can go out hunting with," Peck said. "It's just a marketing term."Contact Automotive News