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Mercedes plans 'tailor-made' C class

The C class accounts for about 25% of Mercedes sales, making it crucial to the automaker's plans to pass BMW and Audi for the global premium sales lead.

FRANKFURT (Bloomberg) -- Mercedes-Benz plans to better meet the needs of C-class customers by building the new generation of its top-selling model on four continents. It's part of the automaker's bid to win more customers around the world.

With C-class production sites in Germany, the United States, South Africa and China, "we can offer tailor-made models for the different markets," Ola Kaellenius, Mercedes's sales chief, said in an interview during a test drive event near Marseille, France. "The trend for further variety continues."

The C class goes on sale in Europe this month and the United States in September.

The broader production network will help Mercedes be more flexible to consumer demand as it seeks to gain ground on premium rivals BMW and Audi.

Mercedes, which lost the top spot in global premium-car sales to BMW in 2005 and fell to third behind Audi in 2011, intends to retake the crown by the end of the decade. The 35,560 euro C class, which accounts for about 25 percent of Mercedes sales, is key to that effort.

Mercedes has upgraded the vehicle with touchpad technology and an iPad-like display to lure younger customers. The C class also is equipped with technology from the flagship S class, including six radar sensors, to enhance safety features.

'Food for thought' for rivals

New features on the C class will also include two front-end designs, a partially automated driving system and an optional surround-sound system.

"The new C class is more individual and versatile than ever before," Kaellenius said. The car "gives our competition some food for thought."

Production of the C class began in Bremen, Germany, in February. Assembly in East London, South Africa, starts in May, followed by Vance, Ala., in June and Beijing this summer.

The addition of production at Mercedes's factory in Alabama will cut waiting times for the model in the United States by four weeks, giving the brand an edge in its biggest market compared with the predecessor, Kaellenius said. Rival models such as the BMW 3 series and Audi A4 aren't produced in the United States.

After rolling out the sedan and wagon this year, other variants, which may include a convertible, will follow starting in 2015, the executive said.

Mercedes, which targets operating profit margins of at least 10 percent compared with 6 percent last year, is also introducing the GLA compact SUV and S-class coupe this year.

"We see a lot of momentum in the brand," Kaellenius said. The revamped small sedan is "important for us, volume-wise and also for our profitability."

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