Americans' growing appetite for luxury with a high-performance twist has made the United States the top market for Mercedes-AMG GmbH, the tuner unit of Mercedes-Benz.
With almost no advertising, the United States last year accounted for slightly more than one-third of Mercedes-AMG's worldwide sales. It is a trend that management at Mercedes-Benz USA LLC expects will continue with the introduction of the redesigned E55 AMG, powered by a 469-hp, turbo V-8.
Mercedes-AMG says the reason for its U.S. success is relatively simple - it provides the kind of performance normally generated by aftermarket tuners, but with a factory warranty.
"When you spend upwards of $100,000 on a vehicle, you don't want to go into the tuner business," says Ulrich Brunke, chairman of Mercedes-AMG GmbH.
"You want warranty coverage. That gives us credibility with the product. And we don't do crazy things. We don't put wings on the roof or square wheels. Whatever we put on has a reason to be there."
The growing success of AMG reflects the changes made at the company four years ago, when Mercedes-Benz parent DaimlerChrysler AG bought a 51 percent controlling interest in it.
Mercedes-Benz had been distributing AMG vehicles through its dealership network since 1990 but had no development role, says Rob Allen, AMG brand manager for Mercedes-Benz USA.
With the change of ownership, Mercedes is involved in product planning from the start.
Brunke says, "In the past, we got the car after it was developed, and we tried to do packaging and to install our engine.
"Now we do it from the first steps of development. If necessary, we make changes to the car body to make it possible to install an AMG engine."
With the change of ownership, Mercedes also began producing AMG vehicles in its factories. The 2001 CLK55 was the first AMG model produced alongside its less powerful siblings at the Mercedes plant in Bremen, Germany.
The AMG lineup has grown to 12 vehicles, nine of which are sold in the United States.
The AMG cars typically are priced $20,000 more than a standard Mercedes model. For instance, the new E55 AMG that went on sale this month has a sticker price of $76,720 compared with $55,570 for the E500.
At $115,320, the CL55 is the priciest car in AMG's U.S. lineup. The standard coupe version, the CL500, is priced at $92,370.
AMG's U.S. success has come without advertising in print, radio or TV. After doing some print ads two years ago, Allen says, Mercedes-AMG chose to focus on the Internet and event marketing.
The company has an AMG link on the mbusa.com Web site.
"AMG buyers are totally familiar with Mercedes-Benz and cars - they don't want ads from us," Allen says. "They want to know why the supercharged AMG has better acceleration than a biturbo or V-12 car and why we limit their speed to 155 mph."
For a second year, the company also is running the AMG Challenge at key racetracks across the country. Last year, about 400 participants paid $850 each to drive the AMG range - with lessons from driving pros - on a track.
Allen says the events all sold out within a week. "We didn't need to send out more than a single wave of invitations," he says.
AMG also doesn't do much branding. It has signed marketing deals with upscale lines like Mont Blanc pens, but AMG products aren't sold in dealership boutiques or promoted heavily.