Arizona Route 89A is not for the faint of heart. One blind curve flows into another, the hilltops linked by short straights of well-worn asphalt with sheer cliffs menacing on either side. It’s the sort of road that locals avoid and tourists dread, a narrow ribbon tracing the mountain spine linking Old West Prescott and New Age Sedona.
Yet another breed is entirely drawn to roads like this. We’ve spent the last two hours working our way north from Phoenix, skipping the interstate in favor of the more entertaining back roads. Of course, we’re not driving a Winnebago or an old pickup. Our car of choice is the new Mercedes-AMG GT C Roadster.
Only the second model ever designed specifically for the Mercedes performance brand-within-a-brand, the GT C puts 550-horsepower at the command of one’s right foot, enough to tear from 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds. But this is no classic muscle car. It delivers the sort of precise steering and handling expected from a racecar. As you carve the curves you’re encouraged to pick up your pace, with only the occasional encounter with a nervous traveler holding you back.
“It’s the sort of car that will change your perception of Mercedes-Benz,” says Larry Printz, a judge at numerous classic car shows, who is along for the ride in the convertible. For a long time, Mercedes was the ‘old man’s German car,’ ” he says, better known for a plush, if uninspiring, ride than for its performance and handling. These days, contends Printz, products like the GT C are helping redefine the brand, delivering “some of the best-handling cars in the world.”
Don’t worry, if a high-performance two-seater isn’t quite your style, the German maker still offers plenty of other options, from the surprisingly affordable little GLA crossover-utility vehicle to the big Mercedes-Maybach S600 sedan, about as close as you can come to a business jet on wheels. There are sedans and coupes, as well as coupe-like sedans and a growing list of classic SUVs and car-based CUVs that balance on- and off-road manners.
And for those who might disdain the big, gas-guzzling V-8s and V-12s that have long powered products with the tri-star on their grilles, Mercedes is rolling out an array of new high-tech, higher-mileage alternatives. By the end of this year, it plans to offer 10 plug-in hybrids in its global fleet, as well as an assortment of more conventional hybrids. At last year’s Paris Motor Show, Dieter Zetsche, the head of the Mercedes brand and CEO of parent Daimler AG, pulled the covers off the Mercedes Generaton EQ Concept. Mercedes-EQ is going to be the name of another new sub-brand focused on the pure battery-electric and other plug-based models that many experts believe could dominate the global luxury car market in the decades to come.
If that isn’t a broad enough assortment, the Teutonic team has been hinting at more to come with concept vehicles like the Mercedes F 015, essentially a living room on wheels. What just a decade ago might have seemed a fantasy in chrome is now meant to be seen as “the forerunner of a mobility revolution,” according to Zetsche, and likely to influence the first fully driverless vehicle Daimler plans to bring to market by 2021.
How far the company has come since 1885 when Karl Benz rolled out his Patent-Motorwagen, considered the world’s first true automobile. Many now credit Karl’s wife Bertha with turning the Motorwagen into the foundation of a successful enterprise. Without advising her husband, she made a perilous, 121-mile trip to visit her family, proving the one-cylinder, two-horsepower buggy’s viability. Upon her return, she offered engineering advice—and also lent her husband money from her family fortune to put the Motorwagen into production. Last year, Bertha Benz was inaugurated into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan.
Just 60 miles away, Gottlieb Daimler was perfecting something dubbed the “Grandfather Clock.” He used the gasoline engine to power the Petroleum Reitwagen he built in 1885. The two men quickly became bitter competitors, battling over patent rights. It was only in 1926, a quarter-century after Daimler’s death and a few years before Benz’s, that the companies merged. First called Daimler-Benz, it soon adopted the name Mercedes-Benz, incorporating the title of an early Daimler model that the Austrian automotive pioneer Emil Jellinek had developed and named for his daughter.
The corporate name would change once again with the 1998 “merger of equals” that became DaimlerChrysler AG. It was anything but equal, however, and certainly not a success. Daimler dumped the old Chrysler Corp. in 2007, just as the U.S. economy started to collapse. It was a painful and financially damaging divorce, but it marked a major turning point for what emerged as Daimler AG.
More than 130 years after Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler rolled out their first, primitive cars, the automaker remains based in Stuttgart. The quaint, southern German city has grown rich off the hometown manufacturer, which employs a sizable share of the local workforce through Daimler’s corporate offices, design and engineering center and local assembly operations. But the carmaker also operates product development and manufacturing operations in the U.S., China, South Africa and a variety of other locales. It’s the sort of empire needed by a company that last year sold 2.2 million vehicles, a 10 percent year-over-year increase, making Mercedes the largest luxury car brand in the world.
The Daimler empire covers a lot of territory—and a lot of brands. There’s Smart, producer of urban microcars like the Smart Fortwo, plus an array of military vehicle, bus and truck marques, including the U.S.-based Freightliner. And there’s that growing list of Mercedes sub-brands.
For years, Mercedes was content to maintain a modest automotive product portfolio, with only a handful of models like those now known as the E- and S-Class. There was a near revolt within its supervisory board when the idea of a compact luxury car was first introduced. The proponents won and the 1993 Baby Benz—the grandfather of today’s C-Class—proved an immediate hit.
How times have changed. These days, Mercedes is intent on filling seemingly every possible “white space,” as product planners like to call it. Along with the classic C-, E- and S-Class sedans, coupes, wagons and convertibles, Mercedes showrooms are now filled with the likes of the coupe-like CLA and CLS sedans, the G, GLC and GLE utility vehicles, the SL and SLC roadsters, among others. It’s a veritable war as parent Daimler rushes to counter the moves made by key competitors BMW and Audi, both of which have announced plans to bring dozens of their own new models to market before the end of the decade.
Mercedes now has organized its model range into three sub-brands, with a fourth coming. That starts with the familiar Mercedes-Benz marque which will cover the company’s mainstream models, like the recently updated 2017 E-Class and the 2018 S450 sedan set to reach showrooms this autumn.
As lavish as the S-Class might seem, Mercedes has long aimed to connect with the luxury market’s most elite buyers. In 1997, it introduced Maybach as a standalone marque that it hoped would compete with the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce. But the brand fell far short of expectations and, in 2011, CEO Zetsche announced plans to kill off Maybach. Three years later, it was given a reprieve, although its rebirth was less audacious. The Mercedes-Maybach badge adorns the most exclusive versions of the S-Class, and the G-Class SUV, vehicles that push well north of $250,000 on the price sticker.
Where might Mercedes take Maybach next? At a full 18.7 feet, and painted in a vibrant, eye-catching red, the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 made its debut at the 2016 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. While the maker bridles at the term, “retro,” there is no question the striking show car delves into the brand’s past for inspiration, says Davis Lee, the senior designer who gets credit for the concept. “Fundamental beauty never changes,” he explains, adding that, “This is very true” to Mercedes’ history, and just might hint at something in the works.
As for the highest performers within the family, they now wear the Mercedes-AMG badge. AMG was founded in 1967 by former Mercedes engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher—the “G” in the company’s name standing for Grossaspach, where Aufrecht was born. They originally set out to build a faster Mercedes racecar but quickly started producing limited-edition versions of the German automaker’s street vehicles.
The top of the S-Class family is the S65 sedan, with its massive 621-hp V-12 engine. It may be plush but it’ll also make your neck snap when you slam the pedal to the floor. And to help deliver all their power to the pavement, most AMG models will come with standard all-wheel-drive going forward.
The proliferation of new AMG models might come as a surprise to those who remember an earlier era, when Mercedes would offer only one of the performance models at a time, and usually for just a limited run. It wasn’t uncommon, back in the 1990s, for the likes of an AMG-tuned E-Class to command a higher price on the used car market than it did when it originally rolled out of the showroom.
While most AMG offerings are retuned versions of stock Mercedes-Benz models, the GT recently became the second model specifically designed only to carry the AMG badge, following up on the earlier AMG SLS supercar. “It can be kind of a beast—like Beauty and the Beast,” laughed GT program director Jörg Letzel, as we dutifully returned from our drive up to Sedona a few months back. Offered in both coupe and roadster form, Mercedes recently revealed that still more variants are in the works when it unveiled the AMG GT Concept at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show. Expect to see “a four-door variant,” announced the sub-brand’s Chairman Tobias Moers.
Some things will never change, Moers stressed. The engine in each AMG vehicle is produced by a single technician whose name is stamped onto the block. But the GT Concept suggests that the type of engines AMG uses could soon go through some dramatic changes. The Geneva show car not only added another pair of doors but what AMG officials described as a “performance hybrid powertrain” capable of thrusting out 805 horsepower—enough to launch the show car from 0 to 60 in less than three seconds. The system, officials have privately confirmed, is based on the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, or KERS, technology developed by Mercedes for its winning Formula One team.
Don’t be surprised to see KERS technology show up in a production model in the near future. Indeed, Mercedes is spending billions of dollars to develop a range of alternative propulsion technologies that will meet the strict new emissions and mileage standards going into effect around the world. Those include hybrids, plug-ins, battery-electric vehicles, advanced diesels and even hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The good news is that many of these new powertrains will deliver enhanced performance, as well as lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency.
Expect to see some of the more advanced of these powertrains land in the new Mercedes-EQ brand. “The emission-free automobile is the future,” said Daimler CEO Zetsche during the Generation EQ’s Paris preview.
But that show car didn’t stop with a battery drivetrain, stressed Zetsche, pointing out that “our new EQ brand (will go) far beyond electric vehicles. EQ stands for a comprehensive ecosystem of services, technologies and innovations.” Going forward, Mercedes will focus on four pillars, according to the CEO, “connected, autonomous, shared and electric.” Their initials make a “CASE” for a number of trends reshaping the global industry, all captured within the Generation EQ concept—and other recent prototypes like the F 015.
You don’t have to wait to get an idea of what’s coming. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is arguably the most technologically sophisticated vehicle ever to go into mass production. The outgoing model already features infrared night vision capable of spotting animals, pedestrians and other obstacles beyond the range of normal headlights—and an automatic braking system that can bring the car to a stop if the driver fails to respond. The 2018 update adds features like Active Steering Assist; tap the turn signal and it will pass slower vehicles without you needing to touch the steering wheel.
According to a new study by Navigant Research, Mercedes is running one of the industry’s most advanced autonomous vehicle programs. Not content to stop with vehicles that must have a backup “operator” behind the wheel, it plans to have a completely driverless vehicle in production by 2021. Like the F 015 concept, it’s likely to feature seats that can swivel 180 degrees, so riders can face one another as if in a mobile living room. It remains to be seen if such vehicles will be sold directly to the public.
Significantly, parent Daimler recently announced a partnership with ride-sharing giant Uber, which has an aggressive self-driving vehicle program of its own in the works. Many experts—including Zetsche—are betting that, by 2030, millions of motorists will opt to use services like Uber, rather than owning and operating vehicles of their own, especially in dense urban areas. Daimler wants to make sure that if you’re calling for a ride and can afford the up-charge, you’ll opt for a Mercedes.
That said, there are likely to always be those who will want to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. And for them, Daimler wants to make sure a Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-Maybach or Mercedes-AMG will remain the car of choice. The German maker, which lays claim to having invented the automobile in the first place, is intent on leading, rather than following in an era of dramatic change that could yet reshape the industry in ways unseen.