+++ Mercedes-AMG is set to expand its small car product offering in line with a new expanded portfolio put forward by the brand over the coming years in line with a couple of new small models from the main brand. At the 2017 Detroit motor show, Mercedes-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche said the company will expand its small car range from 5 models to 8 by 2018. The brand currently sells the A-Class hatch, B-Class MPV, CLA-Class (with two body variants – four-door coupe and wagon) and GLA-Class SUV, but Zetsche said 3 additional models will be added to the ranks. It is understood that a more conventional A-Class sedan will be one of them, and it is due on sale later in 2017. This is going to be based on the new-generation MFA2 platform, unlike the original models which are built on MFA1. The other models likely to be added include a new boxier GLB SUV, which is set to be larger and more practicality-focused than the GLA: read that as you want, but expect this to be Mercedes-Benz’s answer to the BMW X1, but with the option of 7 seats. A boxy SUV? One would hope the production model of that car was presaged by the Ener-G Force concept SUV. It is unclear what the third model will be. It could simply be a slightly smaller version of the GLB with only 5 seats, or something completely different. One thing it won’t be is a three-door coupe or convertible. Mercedes-Benz has crunched the numbers, and there’s little demand for such a car: people want 5 doors for better practicality, and we’ve heard that because so many females buy the smaller Benz models, access to the rear seats is important. To that end, it is expected that the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedan will get a bigger boot than the CLA four-door coupe, not to mention a bigger back seat, both the entry point and the physical space. Zetsche wouldn’t be drawn to comment on the A-Class sedan, but when asked about SUVs as a zone for focus, he said: “It’s part of the growth”. “We’re not at the time to announce our future compact car product portfolio. I have said what I am willing and able to say on that”, Zetsche said. And of course, more models means more Mercedes-AMG variants and versions, according to Tobias Moers, head of that branch of the company. “That’s more work for us”, Moers said. It seems likely that it won’t just be the full-fat AMG 45 models added to the ranks, though: there’s every chance that the brand will offer its AMG Performance variants, à la the C43, GLC43 and E43 (the lesser versions of the AMG 63 models) in the small-car line-up. “As you know, we don’t have the AMG performance models in today’s MFA generation. There are opportunities for us. Expansion of that portfolio gives us other opportunities”, Moers said. “It’s a lot more work”. That will likely mean that the current A 250 Sport, CLA 250 Sport, GLA 250 Sport and, to a lesser extent, the B 250 Sport, will, in their next generation guises, be sold as Mercedes-AMG products. The nomenclature is undefined as yet, but we could see the Mercedes-AMG A 25 instead of the A 250 Sport. That would help Mercedes-AMG further increase its sales share locally and globally, and the local numbers for those Sport models are pretty strong. The most popular 250 Sport currently on sale is the CLA Shooting Brake, with 47 percent of overall sales being that particular variant, while the CLA 250 Sport Coupe has a model split of 31 percent. The A 250 Sport is a bit higher than that (33 percent of overall sales) while the GLA 250 Sport scores 30 percent of sales. The B 250 is aimed at a very different buyer, and with no AMG 45 version to sell up to, it accounts for only 13 percent of sales, overall. Moers said the extra volume means other ways of selling Mercedes-AMG products to potential customers. “With the higher volume we have more dedication at the point of sale”, he said. “I am flying to Japan to open up the very first dedicated Mercedes-AMG dealership. And we are working together with the guys in Australia to do the same thing. “This gives us another opportunity, and to increase volume and get the potential out of the markets. This is part of the strategy”, he said, indicating the AMG brand has no known limit just yet. “Porsche had this discussion years and years and years ago – did they rest the brand? No”. +++

+++ General Motors’ CHEVROLET Bolt (Opel Ampera-e) has been named North America’s Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, beating out 2 luxury sedans (the Genesis G90 and the Volvo S90), the company said. The long-range electric is the first US-made, mass-market and fully-electric car. Not to be confused with the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in car with a backup gas engine, the Bolt is purely electric. “The Bolt EV fulfills Chevrolet’s promise to offer an affordable, long-range electric”, said Mark Reuss, executive vice president of GM’s global product development, in a press release. “It is a game-changer that is not only a great electric vehicle; it’s a great vehicle — period”, he added. The vehicle has a range-per-charge of roughly 383 kilometers on a single charge, roughly double most electric cars on the market today, with the exception of models by luxury EV carmaker Tesla. The Bolt’s single-charge 383 kilometers range is also far superior to its electric rival, the Hyundai Ioniq EV, which runs 191 kilometers on a full charge. +++

+++ The auto show in DETROIT this week is stuffed with cars. Not 6,000-pound SUVs or spacecraft-hauling pickup trucks, but regular old sedans and coupes; spinning on the industry’s greatest stage like so many boring vanilla cakes. Of the 20 or so new models unveiled at the North American International Auto Show, about half were low to the ground. Granted, these pedestrian cruisers are laced with carbon fiber and the stirrings of self-driving technology, but in form and function, this is innovation circa 1980. There’s even a Swedish station wagon in the mix. Kia rolled out a four-door grand-touring sedan called the Stinger; Mercedes showed a coupe version of its E-Class; and Toyota pulled the cover off a thoroughly updated Camry. Porsche, ever speedy, beat everyone: in October, it shipped over its overhauled Panamera, a four-door sedan, to show off to journalists in New York. Given recent sales trends, this crush of short cars seems like a strategic disaster. After all, cheap gas has fueled the SUV fever running rampant across America and now even spreading around the world. Utilities, trucks, and so-called crossovers made up two-thirds of all vehicles bought in the U.S. last year. “There is a clear trend and we don’t see any reason why it should stop”, said Ludwig Willisch, chief executive of BMW North America. The momentum for SUV mania is built on strong engineering. SUVs used to be a trade-off: In exchange for a higher riding position and a bit more safety, consumers sacrificed driving dynamics and mileage. But SUVs today are built largely like cars, with lightweight metals and efficient engines allowing them to perform almost as well as lower-slung siblings, both on the road and at the fuel pump. Last year, in the U.S. luxury market alone, car sales skidded by 172,000 vehicles, while consumers bought 99,000 more swanky SUVs. “The reality is we have a lineup of 4 very fine automobiles, but in a market that almost seems to be in a state of free fall”, Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen said. So what futuristic machine did Cadillac bring to lure the masses to its stand? Not an SUV, but a relatively big, swanky sedan. BMW did the same. Car executives aren’t dense, despite what Dieselgate and the Pontiac Aztek may suggest. But when it comes to SUVs, they know something most people in a dealership don’t: Drivers in large part buy the machines that car companies want them to buy. Lately, most of the newest models have been SUVs. New models make the most money, eat up advertising budgets, and get prime position on showroom floors. In short, the SUV boom is to some extent self-propagating. “There’s definitely a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing there”, said Drew Slaven, vice president of marketing at Mercedes-Benz USA. But down in the trenches, things are beginning to change. Mercedes dealers have recently asked the company to “take the foot off the pedal” with SUV marketing, Slaven said. At the Mercedes stand in Detroit this week, less than one-third of the vehicles were crossovers or SUVs. Most executives don’t expect the traditional car to make a roaring comeback, at least not right away. Cadillac is rushing to build a small SUV, for example, while BMW designers are crunching on a massive one. What they do expect is for the decline in sedan and coupe sales to slow, largely because any spike in gas prices, for one, may give them a jolt just as it did in the mid-2000s. More broadly (and regardless of geopolitics), drivers who want to stand out will eventually drift from the SUV lane. Just like those who bought Jeeps in the 1980s and Ford Explorers in the 1990s, tastes sometimes just change. “There is always a counter-swing”, said Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, whose marketing muscle last year helped make its new, midsize A4 an exception to the SUV rule with a 15.3 percent sales bump. “There will be a generation that comes that says, ‘The SUV was my dad’s car and the SUV was that snooty banker’s car’ ”. Volvo, for example, rolled out an opulent sedan last year. And while no stranger to the SUV market, the automaker’s Detroit offering this year is a station wagon, the V90. “I’ve been stating for 10 years now that sport wagons will come back in the U.S.”, said Volvo’s North America CEO Lex Kerssemakers. “If you’ve been raised in SUVs, by definition you’ll want to do something different from your parents”. There’s also a bit of game theory involved. Car companies committed to sedans and coupes are expecting the field to thin, making room for some new blood. In Detroit alone, executives recently announced plans to idle the Chevrolet SS, the Chrysler 200, and the Dodge Dart. Sure, the auto business will eventually cede to Uber-driving robots and ride-sharing Google pods, but there’s a lot of money to be made in the meantime. De Nysschen, at Cadillac, said consumer tastes will always ebb and flow. “It was sedans and then it was wagons and then it became vans and then crossovers”, he explained. “Now you’re getting crossovers that are getting lower”. He added: “If we carry on long enough, we’re back to hatchbacks”. +++

+++ KIA has a younger and more flexible brand image than Hyundai and therefore doesn’t need a separate performance division, according to the chief vehicle tester and high-performance head of both companies, Albert Biermann. Ruling out a Hyundai N-style sub-brand for Kia, 30-year BMW veteran Biermann said the ambitious Korean marque “can stretch much more than the Hyundai brand”, seemingly differentiating the latter as a more conservative unit. “I think Kia is more young and if you look at the slogan, ‘the power to surprise’, why making some sub-label? Kia is good for everything. We don’t need a sub label for Kia”, he said. Talk of a dedicated Kia performance brand such as the BMW M Division (in which Biermann was an executive) was prompted by the rollout of Hyundai N, which has a large test centre based at Germany’s iconic Nurburgring. The reveal of the 270kW/510Nm Stinger GT this week also prompted talk of a range of even hotter Kia-badged cars. The answer is the establishment of the Kia GT moniker, such as the Pro_Cee’d GT, and potential future cars such as the Soul GT or even Rio GT. “Kia has GT and I think that works nicely… GT-line for the trim and GT for the more substantial character driving”, Biermann said. Biermann was also asked if the Stinger had good foundations early in development prior to his appointment to run Kia and Hyundai N’s testing at the end of 2014. “The platform, the substance, was very good already”, he answered. “We did changes to elastokinematics, steering, stuff like this, but in general not a major change was necessary”, he claimed. +++

+++ MERCEDEShas committed to offering its F-Cell range of fuel-cell models in the short term, but the longer-term future of the technology appears to be bleak, based on comments made by the company’s chief at the 2017 Detroit motor show. Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, indicated the German maker is still going to pursue a limited presence in the hydrogen-powered automotive world in the near term, but further down the track the technology may not offer the benefits that had been hoped for in the earlier phases of its development in automotive. “We are convinced, we think that’s important”, he said of the technology that sees hydrogen stored in a fuel cell on-board the car, which then is turned into electricity to propel the vehicle. “Next year we will launch a four-digit number of fuel-cell vehicles”, he said of the new-generation GLC F-Cell hydrogen model, which has plug-in technology as well as fuel-cell power. “Obviously at that point of time they cannot be bought by any customers, because they would just go from the plant to their garage and that would be it, because of the lack of infrastructure”, Zetsche said. “We are at the leading edge in this technology, but at the same time, in the last five, six, seven years, battery electric vehicles have developed much faster and further than we expected, and the advantages of fuel-cell vehicles as far as range is concerned, as far as filling time is concerned, has become much smaller”, Zetsche said. “For that reason, at this point in time I think it’s smart to focus on battery-electric vehicles”, he said – and the company is doing exactly that, claiming it will offer 10 models under its EQ sub-brand by 2025. The first EQ model is due to roll down the Bremen production line in 2020. “We will keep our technological strength on the fuel-cell side, and in case, for instance, the overall energy politics would lead to production of hydrogen being a storage solution for generated power, obviously the complementary element vehicle would be fuel-cell vehicles”, he said. “How likely is that to happen? I don’t know. But if that’s not happening, I’m not very optimistic about it … [or] on the development of future vehicles”. Mercedes-Benz has been quite active in the area of fuel-cell motoring for a while now, having completed a world tour in a B-Class F-Cell model way back in 2011. +++

+++ OPEL is making sure that those interested in a midsize family car with all-wheel drive will see the latest Insignia Grand Sport as an alternative to the Volkswagen Passat or Ford Mondeo. Unveiled last month, the Insignia can be equipped with a torque vectoring all-wheel drive system, which is said to help the car cope with slippery surfaces much easier. “The new generation Insignia sets new benchmarks for midsize automobiles. Torque vectoring represents the state-of-the-art in transmitting power to the road. The new Insignia with torque vectoring all-wheel drive matches the best in the industry when it comes to ‘fun-to-drive'”, said Opel’s Vehicle Engineering Europe Vice President, William F. Bertagni. The Insignia’s AWD system uses a rear-drive module, with a twin-clutch system that lacks a differential. In this form, the torque can be applied to either one or both of the rear wheels independently, improving its cornering abilities by sending higher torque levels to the outside rear wheel, inducing rotation around the vertical axis. Torque vectoring works by controlling the distribution of torque depending on changes of the road surface, steering angle and throttle position, and its usage is known as ‘yaw damping’. For now, the brand is keeping powertrain details for the AWD Insignia Grand Sport a secret, but we should find out more about it when it hits the market latter this year. +++

+++ PORSCHE is celebrating yet another record year of sales on the back of high demand in Europe, the United States and China. In 2015, the German brand sold 225,121 vehicles which was a record at the time. In 2016 however, that figure jumped by 6 percent to 237,778 vehicles. Additionally, every individual sales region saw improved sales over 2015. Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East remains the largest collective area for Porsche, accounting for 93,212 sales, 6 percent greater than the previous year. European sales jumped by 5 percent to 78,975 while those in the U.S. rose by 5 percent to 54,280. Of all regions, China saw the largest improvement with sales rising from 58,009 in 2015 to 65,246 in 2016, a 12 percent gain. Among the brand’s models, the Macan remains its most popular vehicle with 95,642 being delivered worldwide, 19 percent higher than in 2015. Elsewhere across Porsche’s range, sales of the 911 rose by 2 percent to 32,409 models and 12,848 718 Boxsters found new homes. Buoyed by these figures, it seems probable that 2017 sales could be even higher, especially after the second-generation Panamera launches in the U.S. and China in the coming weeks. +++

+++ TESLA announced the hiring of Chris Lattner who will be the company’s new Vice President of Autopilot software. Lattner comes after an 11-year-long stint in Apple, where he was responsible for the creation of Swift, the programming language used in building apps on Apple platforms. He will replace Jinnah Hosein who served a dual role as he is also SpaceX’s Vice President of Software and now can focus on the aerospace company full-time. Tesla didn’t specify when Lattner is going to start working with them. Tesla’s move to hire such a high-profile software developer for its Autopilot system reveals the company’s intentions of staying ahead of the growing competition in the self-driving field. The company has recently started testing the latest version of its autonomous system in the first 1,000 cars that were fitted with the new hardware. This Autopilot 2.0 version will be initially limited for usage at low speeds, as the company wants to gather more data before the system becomes fully available to owners of its newer models. +++

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