NEW YORK -- An 18-month Internet campaign has given Mercedes-Benz a list of 98,000 people interested in its new R-class sport wagon five months before the vehicle's debut.
The R-class site is Mercedes-Benz USA LLC's biggest foray into Internet promotion.
The Internet campaign is part of a larger worldwide DaimlerChrysler effort to lure potential buyers into a segment that is new and crucial for the German luxury brand.
U.S. sales of Mercedes' traditional cars - the C, E and S classes - have been waning. The only growth in U.S. sales during the past five months was in niche vehicles such as the CLS four-door coupe, SLK roadster and the replacement M-class sport wagon (see chart).
Mercedes-Benz USA expects nearly 75 percent of R-class buyers to be conquests, says Carol Goll, general manager of brand experience marketing. The R-class site is accessible at www.mbusa.com.
The sport wagon goes on sale in October. Prices will start below $50,000.
25,000 to 30,000 units
Mercedes-Benz wouldn't give exact targets but says annual sales won't exceed 25,000 to 30,000 units.
|Mercedes' changing mix|
|U.S. sales of traditional Mercedes-Benz car classes are slumping|
|5 mos. 05||5 mos. 04||% change|
|while niche vehicles and the M-class sport wagon grow.|
|Source: Automotive News Data Center|
Production started this month at the Vance, Ala., factory, where volume can be shifted between the M- and R-class vehicles.
The R class will be one of the few luxury sport wagons on the market with a traditional wagon-like profile - Mercedes calls it a "sport tourer" - as opposed to a trucklike SUV look, says Steve Saxty, a partner in New York consulting firm PowerBrand Associates.
That means Mercedes is selling a new concept as well as a new vehicle.
"The world doesn't need the R class, so Mercedes must show the perceptual benefit over the S class," Saxty says.
Making luxury sport wagons more carlike eventually may cause buyers to shift from large sedans such as the Mercedes-Benz S class and BMW 7 series, Saxty says. Mercedes must lure buyers out of those vehicle ranges, he says.
Not like a minivan
The R-class exterior steers away from an SUV or minivan look. The front end has cues from the CLS four-door coupe. It features a two-part glass sunroof that runs nearly the full length of the roof.
The vehicle seats six and has three rows of separate seats - captain's seats in the second row with a walk through to the third row.
It has a seven-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and either a V-6 or V-8 engine. It uses the unibody platform developed for the second-generation M class.
Mercedes has been communicating with online prospects since Jan. 1, 2004. The site has had nearly 2.1 million visitors. Of those, 98,000 signed up for more information and provided an e-mail address, Goll says.
The R-class site takes potential buyers through the development of the sport wagon with pictures and short films.
The R class will be pitched to so-called "late-forming families" of parents who had children late in life and are in their late 30s and early 40s, Goll says. Buyers also are likely to include "affluent social adults" and "innovators and adopters - those people who want something that is new and different and unusual."
You may e-mail Diana T. Kurylko at [email protected]