Mercedes is planning four new models to replace the current A- and B-Class, is open to the idea of letting an outside company build its mega-luxury Maybach limos and believes that humans, rather than computer systems, should always be in control of cars.
These were among the revelations by Dr Dieter Zetsche, the head of Mercedes' parent company Daimler, in a candid interview at the Detroit motor show. He also believes that the car industry is now over the worst of the recession, helped by emerging markets such as China.
One car will replace both the A- and B-Class, he said, leaving scope for three more 'very different' models. 'This a large segment and it is growing,' he added. 'There is also a premium sub-segment and all of this is attracting different customer groups. We will expand our reach in this segment and that might mean opening another factory.
Maybach and Aston Martin link-up?
Zetsche admitted that Maybach has 'not been our number-one priority' in the past, but said that it was now time for Daimler 'to have a definition of the future' of the brand. 'We are now dealing with that question and evaluating different options and will come to a conclusion this year.'
He refused to be drawn on rumours that Daimler is talking to Aston Martin about handing Maybach production over to the British sportscar company, but admitted that outside co-operation is under consideration. 'Whoever we deal with, it would have to be someone used to working with small volumes,' he said.
Mercedes continues to pursue the goal of the accident-free car and believes it is achievable, but it will not do so with computerised systems that keep cars apart, even though the company already has features that intervene on behalf of the driver if an accident seems imminent.
'We do not have a vision of a driverless car. Technically, it is no problem to have an autonomous car the challenge is more a legal one, but we want to keep the driver in control,' he said.
Financial crisis is over
Mercedes posted a 15% global sales increase in 2010 compared with the deflated market in 2009 and China grew to become the company's second-largest market after Germany.
'I believe the financial crisis is over, but I can't commit to that,' he said. 'You are always well advised to plan scenarios. The big game-changer is that emerging markets are more and more becoming developed markets, and a growing part of their populations are becoming middle-class whose desire for mobility is the same as that in the US and Europe after World War 2. This has made the car industry a strong growth industry again.'
Zetsche believes that people's buying patterns have not changed much, even with the recession. 'I don't think the behavior of customers changes much. If gasoline went to $5 a gallon there would be some change, but then customers would return to their former buying patterns.
'You can take out the question of four-cylinder [engines] versus six-cylinder and look at bodystyles instead. There is also a stronger focus on quality and substance. It means you have to earn your reputation over and over again.'