Cars built by Germany's Mercedes-Benz (DCX) evoke prestige and power as almost no other brand. Peter Pfeiffer, head of design at Mercedes, has the job of making sure each new model remains the ultimate status symbol, even as design trends change and styling evolves in new directions. Pfeiffer, who joined Mercedes' design team in 1963 and has been head of the design department for 15 years, spoke with Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson at the Frankfurt Auto Show (see "Hot Wheels from Frankfurt") about the design of the new S-Class sedan, Mercedes' most important image-maker.
How do you go about designing a new model for Mercedes?
With each new model you have to take a big step into the future without burning the bridges to the past. You have to innovate on the design side with 97% to 98% of the car while retaining a vital 2% to 3% of the model's design heritage. But you have to be careful. From a designer's perspective, you have to think about the next two or three generations of cars. If you don't think far enough ahead in the future, you might design elements that become a deadend.
A sharp shift in design is a big risk because it can put off traditional customers. You have to take your existing loyal customers into the future and find new ones at the same time. If there is a big break in design, you risk losing your base of existing customers.
What did you change on the new S-Class?
The exterior is completely new. The only small links to the past are the star and the radiator. But even the radiator has been made more sloping and three-dimensional in the new S-Class to give the car more presence. In the last model, the radiator was more flush and one-dimensional.
The fenders are more marked, and the rear sits a little higher to give the car more self-confidence. Also the crease on the hood is more elevated, and the surfaces are more sculpted.
It looks like you've given a more coupe-like silhouette to this huge limousine?
Yes, that's true. It makes the silhouette of the new model more dynamic.
What was your assignment five years ago from top management in designing the new S-Class? What did they want?
The new car had to make a bigger statement. We wanted to give it even more presence and self-confidence than its predecessor. It had to look more dynamic and more powerful. And it had to be a typical Mercedes.
You didn't use the word "aggressive."
No, Mercedes is aggressive in its styling. It stands well on the road.
How would you describe the difference in styling between the S-Class and your closest rivals in large luxury sedans -- the Audi A8, and the BMW 7 Series?
All three cars speak a different design language. An auto must explain itself to a customer. It must say whether it is for you or not.
What is the quintessential design language of Mercedes?
Elegance and sportiness.
What about status?
Earlier, Mercedes was very associated with status. Driving a Mercedes meant someone had "arrived" or achieved success. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, people bought a Mercedes with their head -- for safety, value retention, and other rational qualities. Now there is a big change from the past. Design has become a very important element in selecting a car. I want you to stand in front of a Mercedes and say, "I have to buy it. It's a beautiful car." The other qualities are taken for granted.
Could you talk about the interior design?
The interior must fit to the exterior. It must hang together and speak the same design language. In the end, it's the interior design that determines whether people want to live with a car or sell it after a few months.
What did you change in the new S-Class interior?
Two things were important. From the ergonomic side, we moved the multimedia screen and control button. The screen is now at the same level as the instrument panel, and a leather handrest comfortably orients the hand to the button that controls the screen. We added an analog clock -- intentionally not digital -- as a sign of the car's history.
Which Mercedes model is your favorite?
That's a little like asking a mother which child she likes best. But I can say I am most excited about the generation of cars coming out in 2008.