NEW YORK -- After years of touting its pending arrival, Mercedes-Benz executives said last week the ungainly-looking A class isn't coming to America after all.
The reason: too uncool for this side of the ocean.
In its place: a new small car spawned by the styling and content changes that Mercedes-Benz USA LLC and its dealers demanded for the A class, which was scheduled to arrive in 2005. The car, code-named CST, will arrive here in 2005 and will be sold worldwide as a standalone class.
The changes demanded by North America make the CST so different from the A class that product planners felt it needed to be its own model range, executives say.
"The A class is too conservative looking. We wanted an exterior that is more lively," says Peter Patrone, general manager and product manager for SUVs and touring cars at Mercedes-Benz USA in Montvale, N.J.
Although the CST will be built off the redesigned A-class platform and use many A-class components, it "will look more like a small sports tourer" - a smaller sister of the GST sport wagon that goes on sale here in 2005, Patrone says.
The redesigned A class goes on sale in Europe and other markets in August 2004 as a four-door hatchback.
The CST will use the A-class sandwich floor design, which puts the fuel tank, running gear and spare tire under the floor. But Patrone says the car will have more powerful engines than the A class.
The top engine on the current A class is a 1.9-liter four-cylinder rated at 125 hp. An AMG-styled A210 Evolution version has a 2.1-liter, 140 hp engine.
Patrone says Mercedes will try to price the car between $20,000 and $30,000. It will be aimed at premium small cars such as the Mini, Toyota Matrix and BMW 1 series.
Volume will be lower than 50,000 units annually.
"It won't be a niche car, but we don't expect it to be a volume vehicle either," Patrone says. "We aren't going to shift the volume of the brand downwards."
Rick Bastin, president of Mercedes- Benz of Palm Beach (Fla.), says dealers are happy with the change but aren't certain how the CST will sell.
"We don't know how the market will accept it in relation to higher priced Mercedes-Benz models," Bastin says.
Mercedes-Benz executives have talked about bringing the A class to the United States since the day it was unveiled to the press in Brussels, Belgium, in 1997.
Juergen Hubbert, board member in charge of Mercedes-Benz operations worldwide, said at the Brussels debut that the car was being considered for the U.S. market. "We're looking at it month by month," he said.
In January 1999, Hubbert said the U.S. "definitely" would get the next-generation A class. The car would be bigger, "but there will be no change in the general concept," he said.
Last October, a Mercedes executive again said the A class would come to America, but that only the four-door model would be sold.
But at the Automotive News Europe Congress in June, Hans-Joachim Schoepf, Mercedes' head of product development, said in answering a question that the A class would not come to the United States.
Mercedes PR people moved quickly to smother the remark under a blizzard of denials.
The next day, Hubbert attributed Schoepf's comment to a misunderstanding, saying: "The A class definitely will come to the U.S."