Sept. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, seeking to become the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S., added a two- door compact C-Class to its lineup to attract younger buyers from Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW.
The C-Class coupe, which arrived at dealerships this month, may boost sales of the nameplate by as much as 20 percent going forward, Ernst Lieb, head of U.S. operations for Mercedes, said last week in an interview at his office in Montvale, New Jersey. Starting now may help win orders before BMW, which sells its 3- Series in the U.S. as a sedan, coupe, convertible and wagon, introduces an all-new compact line to the market in April.
BMW is leading in the U.S. luxury market this year, followed by Mercedes. Both are poised to dethrone Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus, which has been the top luxury brand in the U.S. for 11 years, after the Japanese earthquake in March. At $37,220, the new coupe plugs the biggest hole in Mercedes’s offerings.
“It’s a dogfight,” Bernhard Glaser, general manager of U.S. marketing and product management, said in an interview in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the new C-Class was demonstrated. “Some months we outsell them, some months they outsell us. What we’re lacking is we don’t have a coupe.”
The sporty two-door model with standard race-inspired sport seats and a panoramic sunroof comes as the C-Class sedan gets a refreshed interior before a full redesign in 2014. The 2012 four-door starts at $34,800 excluding destination charges, according to Mercedes, up $800 from the previous model.
The C-Class is “critical for the luxury race because it creates the most amount of volume for Benz,” said Jesse Toprak, an industry analyst with TrueCar.com, a website that tracks automotive sales. “It also opens the Benz brand to potential future buyers by catching them while they’re young with the hopes that they upgrade as they get more affluent and older.”
The median age of BMW’s customers is 53 while Mercedes is at 57, according to J.D. Power & Associates studies.
BMW “certainly has a younger perception as does Audi and those are the two big companies that Mercedes has lost out to in the last decade,” said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive based in Norwalk, Connecticut. “It’s thought of as a more staid, older, established brand. There isn’t anything hip and young about it.”
Audi is the high-volume luxury brand owned by Volkswagen AG, based in Wolfsburg, Germany.
The sporty coupe should appeal to customers in their mid- 30s to early 40s, said Steve Cannon, Mercedes vice president of U.S. marketing.
“Lively entry points to the brand are really important,” he said. “The more people you can bring in at bottom end, the likelihood of keeping them in the family, because of our brand, is great.”
Mercedes will probably overtake BMW in the first part of next year before the new 3-Series reaches full production, Jim O’Donnell, head of BMW’s North America operations, said in an August interview in Monterey, California.
“In the first quarter of next year, I would say Mercedes” will be No. 1, he said. “Mercedes going into 2012 in the first quarter will be in a strong position. Over the course of the year, we still should be ahead of Mercedes.”
O’Donnell is retiring this year and Ludwig Willisch replaces him Oct. 1 as the new head of BMW’s North America operations.
“It will get very competitive,” said Lieb, Mercedes’s U.S. chief. “The competitiveness will be clearly increasing in the fourth quarter.”
While Lexus finished No. 1 last year, its lead narrowed to 9,216 over BMW. Mercedes finished third. Record recalls and an aging product lineup restricted Lexus sales in 2010. This year, it ran short of inventory after the 9-magnitude earthquake in March restricted production. Full output didn’t resume for Toyota City, Japan-based Toyota until this month.
BMW’s U.S. sales, helped by new 5-Series sedan and X3 sport-utility vehicle, rose 12 percent through August to 155,929, giving it the lead for the year. Deliveries of Mercedes vehicles rose 6.1 percent to 148,409 in the U.S. while Lexus’s fell 17 percent to 120,652.
The results exclude Daimler’s Sprinter vans and Smart cars and BMW’s Mini brand, which aren’t luxury vehicles.
Mercedes aims to regain the title of world’s largest luxury automaker from Munich-based BMW by 2020, and the U.S. market is pivotal to that effort, Chief Financial Officer Bodo Uebber told reporters in New York last week. Daimler announced plans in July to invest more than $2 billion in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as it adds capacity to begin building the next generation C-Class starting in 2014.
The updates to the C-Class sedan include 2,000 new parts, Glaser said. For the first time, a four-cylinder engine is available along with a new V6. Changes to the interior include a new dashboard with soft-touch material.
Mercedes listened to criticism of C-Class interiors, Glaser said. “We put a lot of effort in there to upgrade it.”
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