This year Mercedes-Benz has launched the all-new medium-segment GLC and facelifted GLE (formerly ML-class), with a new GLS (you might currently know it as the GL-class) on the way.
Add that to the pint-sized GLA and it’s no wonder that Professor Dr Thomas Weber, member of the company’s board of management and head of group research and development, calls this the “year of the SUV” for the German marque.
Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe
Weber spent an hour with a small group of Australasian media, including Driven, during the launch programme for the GLC in France last month. He offered a number of insights into the future of the Mercedes-Benz product portfolio — including the surprising assertion that it isn’t yet finished with new SUV models.
Weber argues that Mercedes-Benz has gone from playing catch-up in the world of SUVs to leading the field. He admits that producing the GLK (predecessor to the new GLC, made from 2008-15) in left-hand drive only was an error.
Professor Dr Thomas Weber
“Ten years ago, we didn’t expect SUVs to be so successful. So we focused on the core left-hand drive markets and that was a mistake.
“But unless you realise such a mistake very early, it’s not possible to introduce another version later on.
“But we are now far ahead of our competitors. Across all model lines we are there, while others are now missing opportunities. Our mistake 10 years ago was that we didn’t believe there could be such huge demand for SUVs. Since then we have decided to go for a full SUV lineup and that gives us great opportunity.”
There’s already a coupe version of the GLE and it’s well known that Mercedes is working on a similar body configuration for the smaller GLC. But there are still more Mercedes SUVs to come, says Weber: “We have 80 per cent conquest rate with the A-class and we have renewed our traditional lineup of S-class, C-class and next year E-class. So now we can build on these base vehicles with different variants.”
This is the philosophy behind the renaming of the marque’s SUVs, aligning them with their hatchback or sedan equivalents.
Thus, the GLA is an A-class SUV, the GLC a cousin to the C-class and the GLE an off-road version of the E-class.
“We are not at the end of SUV body styles,” says Weber. “With the ability to be faster and more flexible, with more computer power and less hardware, we are able to create more variants for less money and still have good profitability.”
Future models could include a high-riding version of the C-class estate or even a super-luxurious Mercedes-Maybach SUV aimed at markets such as China and the United States.
A very different type of Mercedes SUV has already been confirmed — the company plans to build a pick-up truck based on the underpinnings of the Nissan Navara. In markets such as Australia and New Zealand, such vehicles have transcended the light commercial class to be lifestyle vehicles in their own right.
“We will do a real Mercedes, starting with the design. It will have Mercedes engines. True, to maintain an attractive price we are using a common platform, but all the rest will fulfil Mercedes criteria.”
Surely the SUV boom must end at some point? “No,” says Weber. “Why should it? Fuel efficiency was always the major issue, but technology has overcome that problem. There is a huge trend towards SUVs around the globe because people like the higher seating position, the increased freedom and the independence from road conditions.”
It’s generally accepted that most SUVs don’t go off-road, yet Mercedes has spent millions making its new GLC supremely capable in the rough. It’s still money well spent, says Weber.
“The GLC can do a lot, especially with the off-road option package. We know many people will never use it, but they like it and perhaps there is a specific situation — the last mile of a holiday drive, for example — where they need it. If we can demonstrate what the car is capable of, that’s important for its image.”
Amid this talk of new-generation SUVs, you cannot forget the iconic G-Wagen: the boxy, body-on-frame hard-core off-roader that has outwardly changed very little since its launch in 1979. Originally designed for military use, it’s the longest-running passenger vehicle in the company’s history. The G-wagen is not going anywhere on Weber’s watch.
“It’s the famous grandfather! It will live forever,” said Weber.
“ G-Wagen is still successful because we have changed everything that’s necessary to meet new regulations. We will have to do that again for emissions and safety requirements. But there will always be a G-Wagen.”