STUTTGART, Germany - In the wake of evidence that its much-ballyhooed A class is prone to rollovers under acute conditions, Daimler-Benz AG has launched a sweeping re-examination of the way it develops and builds cars.
'We will have a look at our current processes, and we will optimize them in areas that are required,' said Chairman Juergen Schrempp.
The company has formed a crisis-management task force of eight specialists from different fields. The group is headed by Volker Stauch, director of worldwide service. Members were picked for their ability to keep their nerve.
Daimler's board members and many leading automotive journalists were in Tokyo for the auto show when news arrived that a Swedish car magazine, Teknikens Varld, had rolled an A class during tests on Oct. 21.
The car rolled at about 37 mph during a radical lane-change maneuver dubbed the 'moose test,' designed to simulate a motorist's attempt to avoid a large animal running onto the roadway.
MEETING IN STUTTGART
'The news was a little garbled,' said Wolfgang Inhester, Daimler's chief spokesman. 'There was no chance to react properly at first.'
An emergency board meeting was held the next day in Tokyo. It included Schrempp, passenger-car chief Juergen Hubbert and Dieter Zetsche, head of sales and marketing. In the weeks that followed, board meetings were held daily in Stuttgart.
Daimler's reaction quickly progressed through three stages:
1. Denial of any basic flaw
2. A recall of all cars then in customers' hands and an approximately $60 million program to refit all A classes with an electronic stability package and new tires
3. A decision to halt shipments for 12 weeks while the cars are re-engineered with a lowered body, redesigned suspension and a wider track, at a cost of an estimated $125 million.
As car magazines across Europe ran their own rollover tests and publicized the results, order cancellations began to pour in. But since the Nov. 11 announcement halting shipments, support has been swinging over to the company.
ENTERING NEW TERRITORY
'Already a change is seen regarding the looks given the car,' said Alexander Martinovsky, a Mercedes dealer in Vienna, Austria, and Slovakia. 'Quite a lot of people don't greet us with A-class jokes, but with a tap on the shoulder, to carry on.'
The response of Daimler executives to the Swedish magazine's disclosure ranged from shock and speechlessness to anger, said Inhester. Meanwhile, other publications were testing the car and finding it unstable. On Nov. 4, at the Mercedes-Benz test track at Malmsheim, an A class rolled over while board member Helmut Petri, head of vehicle development, watched. Also present was a spy photographer.
The A class is a new kind of Mercedes, outside Daimler's traditional luxury sedan domain. Like the M-class sport-utility and Micro Compact Car's Smart, it was developed within five years.
The new models have thrust Daimler into unfamiliar marketing, retailing and engineering territory.
PASSING MOOSE TEST
Hubbert said last week that Daimler tested the M class on the moose test, and it passed.
He said the Smart car has been tested, and will be again. He said Schrempp will test the Smart - but perhaps not in the moose test. 'This is not his job,' he said.
Daimler says about 2,000 customers have canceled their A-class orders, and about that many new ones have come in.
In Norway, according to the company, no one canceled.
In Italy, about 450 of 5,700 were canceled. In France, efforts to sell cars have stopped, pending the relaunch. Orders are slow, especially from the nontraditional customers Daimler was trying to attract.
'The new orders coming in do in no way bear out our expectations for the coming year,' said Bernhard Denk, director of marketing of distributor Mercedes-Benz Austria.
The press will likely have as important a role in the relaunch as they had in forcing the crisis onto Daimler in the first place. Said Denk: 'Much will depend on the judgment given by the journalists that will accompany this relaunch.'
Automotive News Europe Correspondents Greg Kable, Georg Auer, Knut Moberg, Stephane Farhi, Wim Oude Weernink and Luca Ciferri contributed to this report