Both the Smart ForTwo and Mercedes-Benz A-Class are small cars, but according to Mercedes-Benz executives, the gap between them is rather sizable. If Mercedes-Benz management has its way, a new X-Class model derived from mechanicals shared with Renault-Nissan ñ may fill that gap by 2018.
Although demand for cars in the Audi A4/ BMW 3 Series/ Mercedes C-Class segment is shrinking in Europe, demand for affordable, premium compact models is on the rise. Mercedes-Benz presently has nothing that truly slots between the 10,000 euro Smart and the 24,000 euro A-Class. Daimler's management is worriedly watching its rivals cater to this popular category with the Audi A1, the Mini, and the forthcoming front-wheel-drive BMW 1 Series.
Mercedes knows it needs to take action, but finding the right solution is apparently easier said than done. For instance, the rear-engine, next-generation Smart platform is allegedly not scalable, and cost and complexity complications prevent Daimler from downsizing and decontenting the A-Class's MFA platform.
One solution could be to leverage Daimler's partnership with Renault and Nissan. Those two companies could assist Mercedes in developing what's known internally as the X-Class by allowing the mini-Merc to use a modular architecture proposed for the next-generation Nissan Micra and Renault Clio.
Those models aren't expected to launch until 2018, but that relaxed time frame could allow Mercedes to have more say in the platform's development, and inject a little more brand character into its variant. Mercedes' product team is determined to give the X-Class its own sheetmetal, interior, and content. A proposed independent rear suspension has allegedly been nixed due to cost reasons, but leather seats, Comand infotainment systems, and LED headlamps, are allegedly part of the package.
At this stage, Mercedes envisions only two body styles for the X-Class ñ a crossover and a so-called "space concept." While the crossover will resemble a downsized GLA, the "space concept" idea remains up in the air: Daimler has yet to determine if it will simply be a sedan, or if something akin to a baby B-Class, which could easily be twinned with a next-generation Nissan Note, is more appropriate. Regardless, both models should be no more than four meters in length, making the X-Class roughly the size of a Volkswagen Polo. Mercedes hopes to go a step above its partners in reinforcing the X-Class' structure to improve rigidity, safety, and refinement.
Although Renault-Nissan may provide access to affordable driveline options ñ including hybrid/electric variants, the X-Class will utilize a new range of Mercedes-Benz engines. This new family of direct-injection turbocharged gas and diesel engines will be offered in both 1.0-liter, three-cylinder and 1.5-liter, four-cylinder forms. Daimler may share the engine blocks with its corporate partners, but cylinder heads and intake/ exhaust manifolds will be designed in-house. Rumor has it these gasoline engines will also utilize a lower-cost evolution of the Diesotto compression-ignition cycle Mercedes-Benz first showcased in the 2007 F700 concept car.
Mercedes-Benz hopes to keep the X-Class' base price around the 20,000 euro mark, and believes each body style can account for 100,000-150,000 global sales annually. That's a considerable number, but a drop in the macroscopic bucket. Between Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Renault, this platform should underpin 1.5 million new vehicles each year.
American Perspective – X-class for U.S.?
Mercedes-Benz plans to sell the X-class in North America and China, our European correspondent, Georg Kacher tells us. But will it come to the U.S.? Unless our market changes drastically in the next five years, we doubt it.
That doesn’t mean Georg is being overly optimistic. North America includes Canada, of course, where Mercedes has sold the B-class for a few years, even after on-again, off-again considerations about marketing it in the States.
Those plans finally went on again, but only with high-tech, high-priced versions that sell or lease in low-volumes. Mercedes leased 49 B-class hydrogen fuel cell models in California last year and plans to market the B-class Electric Drive here, too. The electric B-Class will no doubt sticker for substantially more money than the fancier-looking “baby CLS” CLA250, which will have a base price of $30,825 with destination when it hits U.S. showrooms this fall.
That $30,000 price is crucial to Mercedes’ plans for less-expensive models. Cars and trucks generally sell for less money here than they do in Western Europe, and for the last decade, $30k has been considered the step into the premium/entry-luxury price point, even as commodity car prices have risen well into the $20s. Georg points out that the A-class starts at 24,000 euros in Western Europe, which at today’s exchange rate is within dollars of the base price of the CLA250 here, though with a smaller, less powerful engine, less standard equipment and a far less glamorous hatchback body. Mercedes would have to price an X-class “space concept” car well below the CLA250’s base, and probably at a loss.
The X-class crossover is another story. In the U.S., crossovers command a premium over sedans and hatchbacks, so potentially this body variant could be priced on par with the CLA. The prospects for importing this model to the U.S. rely on whether or not the BMW X1 and Buick Encore gain any traction in our market. The smaller of the two, the Buick, is much closer to the size of what an X-class crossover would be, and if this unlikely model sells consistently beyond its introductory year to the pre-family youth market that GM seeks, Mercedes could consider selling its entry here.
That’s a big “if,” however, and it would mark that big change in our market mindset mentioned in the opening paragraph. While it’s almost certain that Mercedes will “protect” the X-class for the U.S. market, meaning that it could adapt federal crash and safety standards with no substantial change to its structure, the chance we’ll see any X-class models in U.S. Mercedes showrooms looks very slim.
-- Todd Lassa