Big plans for small(ish) cars
After more than a decade on the market, the Mercedes-Benz A-class is finally getting the full Mercedes treatment. The next-generation model, due to start production in 2013, will be more luxurious and stylish, will spawn seven body styles, and will, for the first time, come to the United States.
In addition to a two-door A-class hatchback along the lines of what debuted at the New York auto show last April, Mercedes is planning a four-door hatchback and convertible. It will again serve as the basis for the B-class, which also starts production in 2013 and will, in turn, spawn a BLK crossover similar to the BMW X1. In addition to all that are the CLC-class four-door coupe and CLC hatchback, which promise CLS style in a Toyota Corolla-sized package. The new baby Benzes will be built in Germany and Hungary. Should sales exceed the capacity of those European plants, production in China for certain models is also under consideration.
If small Benzes seem contrary to the premium, exclusive image that the brand has carefully nurtured in the United States, know that these vehicles will be different -- and larger -- than the rather homely A- and B-class that have been on sale abroad since 1998 and 2005, respectively. The next A-class will measure nearly two feet longer than a Mini Cooper (the current regular-wheelbase A-class is slightly shorter than a Mini), the BLK crossover will exceed the Mini Countryman's length by a foot, and the four-door CLC coupe will be only two inches shorter than the C-class sedan. As far as styling goes, the over-the-top New York A-class concept indicates an aggressive departure from the previous two generations' Dustbuster shape.
Hybrid to AMG
In keeping with the proliferation of body styles, Mercedes is putting the finishing touches on no less than four different advanced propulsion systems. The most affordable option will be a gas/electric hybrid that features a 25-hp electric motor for brief zero-emission stints. One step up, we find a plug-in hybrid that mates a frugal three-cylinder Renault engine with an electric propulsion source rated at 55 or 110 hp. Mercedes expects this model to achieve a smog-free driving range of up to 60 miles. In 2013, the B-class goes electric, but production of this earth-saver is set to be limited (at least initially) to 1000 units.
The fuel-cell edition, which musters a combined power output of 175 hp, is geared for a total production volume of 10,000 units, again all B-classes. Mercedes had shown electric and hydrogen concepts that packaged batteries between the floorboards, but this relied on the outgoing A- and B-classes' innovative (and expensive) sandwich floor design. The new, more conventional platform won't have this capability, so the only variant capable of packaging the battery pack, the hydrogen tanks, and the fuel cell is the high-roof B-class.
If fuel economy isn't your primary interest, you might consider one of the planned AMG models, which will sit atop both the A- and CLC-class lineups. Originally, the A/CLC25 AMG was supposed to boast a supercharged four-cylinder good for 270 hp, but since the innovative pulse-wave supercharger application turned out to be more complicated than expected, the team from Affalterbach reverted to a twin-turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder. This engine may be a bit thirstier, but with 340 hp, it also is a lot more potent. It requires the assistance of a permanent all-wheel-drive system. In charge of slicing the torque loaf is either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
On the more utilitarian side, the small cars will leverage Mercedes-Benz's partnership with Renault for entry-level gasoline engines, which range from a 110-hp, 1.2-liter gas engine to a 120-hp, 1.6-liter turbo-diesel. Optional powerplants (the ones we're most likely to see in the United States) will be Mercedes-sourced: three 1.8-liter gas engines rated at 155, 185, and 205 hp together with three 2.1-liter diesel engines ranging from 135 to 205 hp.
Ready for the Infiniti version?
As noted, Mercedes will source some of its engines from Renault. The small cars were too far along in their development for more meaningful technology sharing, but down the road, expect more cooperation. One interesting offshoot would be to offer a variant to Infiniti, which belongs, of course, to the Renault-Nissan empire and is debuting its own small car at the next Tokyo auto show. If the Mercedes and Renault companies can effectively pool future efforts (keeping in mind that Mercedes has been down this road before with Mitsubishi and Chrysler), their small-car sales could total more than 3.5 million units per year.