Analysis: Three Shifts, Four Models A Profitable Formula For Daimler's Front Drivers

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
analysis three shifts four models a profitable formula for daimler s front drivers

Strong sales of the Mercedes-Benz CLA have led Daimler to add a third shift at the Hungarian factory that produces the compact front-drive sedan, as well as the B-Class hatchback.

According to Bloomberg, Mercedes can’t get enough capacity for the new small cars based on their front-drive architecture. Even though parent company Daimler also builds the smaller A-Class, the B-Class and GLA compact crossover at a factory in Germany, they also had to contract out production of 100,000 units of the A-Class hatchback to Finland’s Valmet Automotive. In the United States, sales of the CLA have been strong, with over 14,000 units sold in 2013, despite being on sale for a mere four months. Although sales were weaker at the start of 2014, sources report that inventories are tight in many key markets, with most cars being pre-sold.

In our market, the CLA is a strong proposition for many buyers, offering an entry point into the Mercedes brand below the larger, rear-drive C-Class, at prices more in line with a well-equipped Honda Accord (the CLA starts at just under $30,000). But in world markets, specifically Europe, the CLA is crucial for Mercedes-Benz. A weak economy has hit young Europeans the hardest, leaving older buyers best positioned to buy new cars. Despite their affluence, they are, literally, a dying demographic.

On the other hand if there is indeed a “lost generation” of consumers, continuing to sell expensive vehicles on a volume basis is not necessarily sustainable over the long run. The CLA allows Mercedes to capture both older buyers looking to downsize, and appeal to younger buyers with less money, but premium aspirations, both in Europe and other markets worldwide. The latter demographic may not be conventionally wealthy, but they are used to brands and products that are considered to be luxury products, even if they don’t necessarily have the exorbitant price-tag of exclusive brands – think Starbucks, J.Crew and Apple.

This is the kind of car buyer that will gravitate to the CLA, and you can bet that the GLA will be also a smash hit in the nascent small-crossover segment. Like the CLA, it has the right badge and the right price tag, but with the added bonus of having the right form factor to sell not just in Europe and North America, but emerging markets with a whole new class of affluent customers, willing to pay a significant premium for a slightly higher ride, a two-box body and perhaps some faux-rugged cladding.

The target buyer for the CLA and GLA often comes up for criticism on TTAC, as well as the vehicles themselves: a small Mercedes with a transverse engine layout and a four-cylinder engine is anathema to most car enthusiasts, and a crossover doubly so. But in this kind of analysis, it’s important to suspend value judgements and look at it from a business perspective.

The business case for the cars is stellar. Four models spawned from one architecture, with the CLA and GLA able to serve as the high-margin variants. Combine that with the low assembly costs presented by building the cars in Eastern Europe, and you have a textbook example of how a car company can leverage economies of scale while also bringing to market a series of enticing products that are able to penetrate emerging markets and untapped demographics. Even BMW is looking to get in on the action, with their new front-drive 2-Series Active Tourer minivan.

The idea may not be terribly enticing to some – as an enthusiast, I’m certainly not thrilled about this direction – but this is where the market is going.

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3 of 63 comments
  • Hogie roll Hogie roll on Mar 21, 2014

    The fact that this exists make me want a 560SEC a little bit less.

    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Mar 21, 2014

      Why exactly, that's still a real Mercedes? Remember the [somewhat] good times.

  • DrGastro997 DrGastro997 on Mar 25, 2014

    It's not hard to believe the CLA is selling. All the wannabes will buy it with hopes you'll just see the MB emblem and ignore the rest. Test driving was a great disappointment. Nothing about this model suggested premium, superior, engineered, craftsmanship, etc. In fact the lower model class budget minded Mazda 3, just for example, far exceeds the CLA in quality and engineering. It's disappointing to see MB introduce a product that's this bad.

  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉
  • Kcflyer What Toyota needs is a true full size body on frame suv to compete with the Expedition and Suburban and their badge engineered brethren. The new sequoia and LX are too compromised in capacity by their off road capabilities that most buyers will never use.