Mercedes-Benz plans to begin an overhaul of its lineup starting with a revamp of its A-class compact car, which will feature a distinctive "predator faced" grille, and rounder contours than the current model, the automaker's chief designer says.
After once being derided for its old-man image, Mercedes' planned revamp comes as the automaker overtook BMW in global luxury-car sales, and aims to avoid the complacency that has tripped up rivals.
"It's our job to reinvent ourselves," Gorden Wagener said this week in Sindelfingen, Germany, where he presented a mock-up of the new A class in a blacked-out room. Wagener didn't reveal details about the new look, leaving it unclear just how different this version will be. But he provided teasers, saying: "It'll be a very sporty, aggressive car, even as it's pared back and pure."
Wagener's radical design five years ago, which introduced jutting grilles and broader haunches over the rear wheels, transformed Mercedes's image from stodgy to sporty and gave the carmaker the edge it needed to surpass BMW and Audi to become the world's biggest luxury-car brand. That cycle concluded with the overhaul of the E-class sedan last year, and Wagener's challenge is to avoid the repetitiveness that once weighed on the brand and is now holding back BMW and Audi.
The new A class will achieve a contoured look with light bouncing off curves, creating sporty proportions through shadows rather than metal edges that direct the eye, Wagener said. The typical Mercedes trapezoidal grille shape will change to a more aggressive, evenly elongated form with teeth-like grates.
"There will be a predator face at the front," he said, adding that the new look will reduce some of the traits that he had introduced, such as creases in the car's side, which will drop to one from three. "Creases have had their day."
The new A class will appear in showrooms next year.
The first A class, introduced 20 years ago as an entry-level hatchback for young buyers, fell flat with a boxy design that seemed a better fit for pensioners. Wagener's redesign in 2012, a low-slung version closer in style to the Volkswagen Golf, has helped win back a new generation.
The current A class starts at about 25,000 euros ($27,000) and comes with Apple CarPlay infotainment and autonomous features. It competes with BMW's 1 series and Audi's A3.
The decision to visibly mix up the A-class's look after a complete reinvention only one generation ago contrasts with other luxury carmakers. BMW, once known for agenda-setting sporty and avant-garde styling, has chosen recently to only tweak the design of its flagship models, arguing that there is no need to change a winning formula.
Sales of the latest 7 series have been underwhelming while the 5 series, available to customers next month, has also failed to rouse enthusiasm. Audi has similarly battled tepid responses to timid revamps like the A4 sedan.
Meanwhile, Mercedes reclaimed its position as luxury sales leader from BMW four years ahead of target, with its 2016 deliveries growing more than twice as fast as its rival.
Going for a daring new look is risky. Chris Bangle, BMW's former design chief introduced the 7 series at the Frankfurt auto show in 2001 to protests over its high, squared-off trunk lid that came to be known as the "Bangle butt." Chrysler's retro styling with the now-discontinued PT Cruiser polarized critics, as did Nissan Motor Co.'s toy-like Cube.
But there's the promise of scoring a hit: exterior and interior styling remain the top two reasons why consumers choose one car over another, according to a study by J.D. Power.
Wagener is aware of the risks, but also knows that Mercedes can't afford to let its look grow stale. Taking reporters on a tour of the Mercedes Design Center in Sindelfingen, Wagener showed off a light, airy space where hundreds of employees work to develop cars. Pictures of submarines, whale fins and Star Wars figures pinned to the walls hint at how much thought they are putting into new shapes.
"The more successful you are in what you're doing, the harder it is" to stay fresh, he said.