VANCE, Ala. - Its new U.S. auto plant is barely running, but Daimler-Benz AG is already considering additional plans for its North America beachhead.
As German officials opened the $300 million Vance, Ala., factory last week under an exploding sky of fireworks, they revealed that they - like the expansive Japanese carmakers who came here a decade earlier - are not likely to keep things small.
Company officials said they are already being pressed to increase the small plant's capacity of 65,000 Mercedes M-class sport-utilities a year. Dieter Zetsche, head of worldwide Mercedes-Benz sales, said the company's sales channels are requesting more M-class volume than originally planned.
The company will allot 35,000 units a year to North America, fewer than 10,000 to Germany, about 10,000 for the rest of Europe, and the remaining 10,000 to be distributed among more than 150 other markets around the world, including Japan. 'We see already that 35,000 for North America will be pretty short,' Zetsche says. 'We're working to get more.'
At the same time, Zetsche revealed that Daimler - the recently adopted corporate name for Mercedes-Benz AG - is also considering an entry into the high-end minivan market. He said the idea is only a consideration at this point. But should the company press ahead into minivans, the new Alabama factory would be the 'logical place' to produce them.
Mike Jackson, president of Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc., said his company is following that study.
When asked what sort of minivan Mercedes-Benz could successfully market in the United States, Jackson replied, 'It would have to have the same emotional impact on customers as other Mercedes cars.'
Meanwhile, Zetsche also noted that the German company recently studied - and then rejected - the idea of moving its C-class sedan into production in Alabama. Zetsche said the company considered splitting C class production between Germany and the United States, but resolved to keep production intact at one location.
Mercedes is now selling more than 2,400 C-class vehicles a month in the United States.
BACK TO EARTH FOR NOW
Daimler and U.S. Mercedes officials made it clear at last week's plant opening that successfully launching the new sport-utility is their first hurdle. The Alabama plant puts the car company into the entirely unfamiliar sport-utility market, pitting Mercedes head-to-head against Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. The new M class will be priced at about $35,000 - approximately the level of a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited and an Eddie Bauer version of the Ford Explorer. Explorers and Grand Cherokees combined sell about 50,000 units a month.
Michael Bassermann, chairman of Mercedes-Benz of North America, said the potential for M-class sales goes far beyond Mercedes' current customer base.
But asked how many additional units he would like, beyond the planned 35,000 a year, he demurred. 'Let us first sell what we have.'