ATLANTA — For Mercedes-Benz, 2018 is going to be a busy year of product launches. This year, the automaker will launch a redesigned G-Wagen and CLS Coupe, a new AMG GT four-door coupe and the new-to-North America A class.
"In eight months, Mercedes will introduce four new vehicles, and that pace will continue as we get substantially more cars down the road," Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dietmar Exler said.
The North American chief is especially excited about the A-class sedan. The new entry-level model is said to bristle with technology, including a new multimedia system, and is targeted at millennial buyers.
The A class "will do really, really well — probably at least as good, if not better, than the CLA did for us," Exler said.
Exler, 50, spoke with Automotive News at Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters last month.
Q: Sales are down a smidgen year to date. Do you think you'll see an increase for full-year 2018?
A: It all depends how the industry develops. Right now, this is pretty volatile. March was a very strong month. April, for the industry, was … surprisingly weak. It's even more difficult to estimate the overall industry, with GM going to quarterly reporting. We've had segments where we did extremely, we've had segments that have been volatile. We have to see how the overall economy goes. I am cautiously optimistic that we will do well.
GLC is doing spectacularly well. We sold 10,000 more than last year. We got a lot more supply thanks to Germany, and we've always asked for that. It was pretty bold to kind of ask for 10,000 more … but we planned for it, and they are all gone. Overall, we did pretty well last year. Our quality is in high demand.
What impact did supplier Meridian's Michigan plant fire have on production at Mercedes' Tuscaloosa, Ala., plant?
I'm not responsible for [Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc.]. So, I don't really know what happens on the [factory] floor there. I know they are working day and night to make sure … we crank the vehicles out. Because the vehicles are doing extremely well, and they are in high demand.
Some have described 2019 as the year of the SUV for Mercedes. By 2020, the goal is to have a split of 60 to 40. What do you read into that?
The percentage of SUVs is going up. We've seen C-class sales coming down, GLC going up. We are really strong with our SUV fleet. We're still always working to optimize our product portfolio. We're always taking a look at "is there an opportunity ... in the market to bring a new vehicle?" We always try to adjust and align production to what is in the market that is actually in demand.
But, I just wouldn't go so far as saying  is the year of the SUV for Mercedes. It doesn't do justice to the strengths of our cars. We are doing extremely well with the S class. We had a record on AMGs. The E63 is doing fantastic. We have a pretty balanced portfolio. We probably sell more SUVs than passenger cars, but I think we need to be careful. We've learned from overreactions to the one side or the other in the past. So we are prepared to have more SUVs; we're bringing more SUVs.
What was your message to President Donald Trump in the recent meeting you and other auto industry executives had regarding emissions standards?
[The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers] ... does support taking a look at the [corporate average fuel economy] standards. We do support coming to a joint result with California. We would all prefer to ... have one standard for the United States. I don't think the consumer, or the industry, or the regulators ... is helped if you have multiple standards. Long legal fights one way or the other, independent of who is right, don't help.
Why is the hatchback version of the A class not coming to the United States?
The current model hits the consumer taste in the United States much more than the previous [hatchback version] A class. There are still some body styles, for whatever reason, in some markets that are not as well accepted as in other markets. The old station wagon concept is not very popular in the U.S. You have to cater, to some extent, to the different customer styles in a market.
Will the A class be priced below $30,000, before destination charges?
We will not announce pricing until closer to launch. We make more equipment standard in our cars, so that can result ... in a price implication. There are certain safety features in my mind that every Mercedes just should have. We want it competitively spec'd. I don't think we do the consumer an advantage if we have one car and then everybody buys it with typical equipment and there's a huge difference [in price.]
What are the expansion plans for the pop-up store concept that debuted in Atlanta?
We're still in a learning process, but we're extremely happy with the way Atlanta went down. We have the next one already determined ... Miami. Then, we'll do a couple more this year in different cities of the U.S. In each of them, we have two or three contenders right now. We want to be careful in getting in the right locations. It's more important to pick the right location. We wouldn't want to go into a mall that's 30 miles out of a city center.
Next year, we'll intensify substantially the [pop-up] concept ... doing way more of them, probably focused on new product launches. A class would be a prime candidate, specifically MBUX ,to explain that concept and to show that to customers.
Will the electric version of the Sprinter van come to the U.S.?
We have to see. On the electric vehicles, we have very specific product plans but it can still change. It's too early to talk about it.
When it comes to EV charging infrastructure, will Mercedes follow the capital intensive build-out strategy of some other automakers such as Tesla?
I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense if we as Mercedes now try to build a network of thousands of charging stations. I'm not sure that we are going to go down that route.
If consumers buy electric vehicles and the volume goes up … the charging infrastructure will happen very, very quickly. The typical American family ... [has] more than one vehicle. I do not see a whole lot of [households] switching to two electric vehicles in the first wave.
What are you doing about training dealerships — sales and service — for the upcoming wave of electric vehicles?
There'll be some infrastructure requirements, obviously, when it comes to electric vehicles. It will all roll out in due time before the vehicles hit the market. We have to do new training for an MBUX. We have to do new training all the time. I don't view [electric vehicles] as being something extraordinarily complicated or difficult. We will, in many instances, treat electric vehicles like we treat other models with a different powertrain and adapt to that a little bit. But, it's not necessarily that you need to invent, or readjust all the processes across all the company for everything.
The subscription pilot is launching next month. Will the dealer network be the interface?
We always work with our dealers. We will not go into a situation where we build an alternative channel parallel to our dealers. This is not going to be some hidden sales channel.