Mercedes-Benz has never been afraid to think outside the box when it comes to producing small cars, but neither has it met with great success. The rear-engine Smart is struggling. Ties with Chrysler and Mitsubishi unraveled. And then there are the A-class and the B-class, which, despite an innovative sandwich-floor platform, haven't matched the impact of BMW's Mini brand, let alone Volkswagen's Golf.
Due to begin hitting dealerships in Europe late this year, the new posse of Mercedes compacts will follow the brand's strategy in other segments: lots of models, lots of options, lots of style. And some of them are coming to the United States.
The basis for the revised approach is a new, cheaper-to-build, front-wheel-drive small-car platform. It will spawn seven models: two- and four-door A-class hatchbacks; an A-class convertible; a B-class wagon; a BLK crossover similar in size to the BMW X1; and the CLC-class four-door coupe and wagon, which promise CLS style in a package smaller than the C-class. If the A-class concept shown at the New York show and our spy illustrations of the CLC and the BLK are any indication, styling will depart dramatically from the current stodgy A- and B-class cars.
In addition to a range of gasoline and diesel engines, some sourced from new partner Renault, Mercedes is putting the finishing touches on four advanced-propulsion systems: a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, an EV, and a fuel cell. The last two powertrains likely will be offered only in the high-roof B-class -- one of the advantages of the old sandwich platform was convenient underfloor space for batteries and hydrogen tanks.
At the other end of the spectrum there's AMG, which is readying a line-topper for both the A- and CLC-class. The A/CLC25 AMG will boast a twin-turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired with either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. All-wheel drive will be part of the package, which is a good thing since output is expected to reach about 340 hp, with torque aplenty.
As mentioned, Mercedes will source some engines from Renault. Down the road, expect more cooperation. One of the most intriguing partnerships would be with Infiniti, which is, of course, part of the Renault/Nissan empire and has plans to introduce its own small car at the Tokyo auto show. If the companies can effectively pool their efforts (keeping in mind that Daimler has been down this road before), the Mercedes platform is versatile enough that it could underpin an Infiniti compact by 2013.