Road Cars

Of all the chief executives of large German car companies , Dieter Zetsche is perhaps the most impressive and approachable. The boss of Daimler AG and therefore of Mercedes- Benz, he is the man credited with turning around the three-pointed star’s decade of declining quality, and with fixing what many thought to be irreparable damage to the company’s global image. Its slogan ‘The best, or nothing’ defines exactly the approach Mercedes should take in everything it achieves.

I sat down with him in Beijing and in a wide-ranging discussion he related how the CSC concept car on his stand actually mirrored very closely the CLA production car that will go on sale next year. In essence it’s a car that aims to take the same blend of style and practicality that have made the four-door coupé CLS such a success, and make it available to people with as little as half the £46,000 required for even the most basic CLS. BMW and Audi will need to rush to respond because if Zetsche is right, and he usually is, Mercedes is likely to have a runaway hit on its hands.

What’s more, the CLA will deliver the one type of buyer Mercedes has continued to struggle to attract: young professionals. And if they like the idea of the CLA but can’t quite make it it their lives, count on there being a convertible, a crossover SUV, a genuine coupé and who knows how many other variants springing from its design. These people are crucial to companies like Mercedes: if you sell a CLS to a bloke in his sixties that might be all the business you get from him. But sell a CLA to a young, image-conscious professional who likes to change his car every couple of years, and that CLA might end up actually selling him a dozen or more

Mercedes over his working life. While we’re on the subject of baby Benzes, Mercedes has also confirmed that a junior version of its SLS supercar goes on sale in 2014. Called SLC, it is best seen as Mercedes’ answer to the Porsche 911. This is territory on which Mercedes has historically feared to tread, but the global success of the SLS has convinced Zetsche and his colleagues that ultra-sporting Mercedes are no longer seen as a contradiction in terms by the car-buying public.

Details of the car remain under wraps but you can expect the front-engine, rear-drive configuration of the SLS to be retained and also for those trademark gullwing doors to survive
the transition. Less is known about the power plant, but it’s likely not to be the thirsty and ageing 6.2-litre V8 motor used in the SLS, but a smaller-capacity turbocharged powerplant. A six-cylinder version of AMG’s new modular twin-turbo V8 motor displacing around four litres would appear it for purpose.

Looking further into the future, Zetsche surprised by saying that fuel cells were very much back on the Mercedes agenda. Fuel cells were all the rage about a decade ago because they produced electricity by reacting hydrogen with oxygen, leaving water pure enough to drink as the only emission.

Though a tiny number of fuel cell cars and buses have gone on sale the technology has generally been scuppered, not by any fundamental law in the fuel cell, but by two tediously practical considerations. First was where to find the hydrogen. The simplest system was to install a relatively simple home charging station that would simply steam the hydrogen out of the same gas supply that lit your cooker. Problem was you’d still be burning fossil fuels to get it. A clean way, by using wind, wave or solar power, was and remains hideously expensive. The second consideration was more mundane by far: persuading governments to set up the infrastructure needed to allow people to refuel on the hoof. Remember Arnie’s much-mooted hydrogen highway in California? As I write there are just nine locations where you can ill your fuel-cell car, in a state bigger than Germany.

But, says Zetsche, circumstances are changing, and largely down to the cool reception granted to conventional electrical cars. “It’s no secret that the launch of electric vehicles has been more troublesome than some at irst thought and this is why people are now looking more seriously at fuel-cell cars again.” What fuel cells offer that normal electric cars appear unable even to approach is a range comparable to a petrol-powered car and, if you can ind somewhere to fill its hydrogen tank, the prospect of doing so in a small number of minutes and not the large number of hours needed by electric cars.

Moreover companies such as Mercedes-Benz can’t just ignore electric cars altogether, because of the likelihood that cities around the world will in time demand that cars aiming to travel within their limits must have zero emissions. Which is why governments are now starting to pay more attention to their responsibilities.

“You need government support, you cannot do it on its own,” says Zetsche, “but while it’s true that governments expressed interest and then lost interest, I’d say we were now past the tipping point and their interest is rising again.”

Don’t expect the world to be looded with fuel cell cars any time soon, but if you asked me to bet whether it would be these cars or all electric machines like the Nissan Leaf that will prove the safer long-term bet, my money would now be on the one with the fuel cell.

My final question to Dr Zetsche was the one I’d wanted to ask from the start. Our interview took place the day after the Bahrain Grand Prix and it struck me that, as the head of a vast organisation with a global image to maintain and a desire to present itself as an ethically sound citizen of the world, this race might prove more problematic to Mercedes than perhaps any other team on the grid.

Aware that contractual obligations meant that Mercedes had no option but to race at Bahrain, I still thought it fair to ask whether, given the choice, Zetsche would still have sent the team to the Middle East. “As you rightly say we had no choice in the matter, so I can’t see there’s anything to gain from discussing it further,” he replied somewhat tartly. And the speed at which the PR man on his right asked for the next question said in no uncertain terms this was ground we’d not be revisiting. Which is fair enough. Zetsche’s options were either to say he was happy for Mercedes to race in Bahrain, say he wished Mercedes had not, or dodge the question entirely.

Under the circumstances and given the potential ramifications of either of the first two answers, I’d have answered the same way.

Andrew Frankel