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Mercedes design boss Wagener on how the brand is winning younger buyers

Gorden Wagener: "We really accomplished our mission to redefine the brand."
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Mercedes-Benz is attracting a huge number of new customers from other brands with cars such as the coupe-styled CLA compact. More than half of the CLA's European sales have been conquests. In the United States, 80 percent of CLA customers are from rival automakers. Not only are the customers new to the brand, but the average age of a CLA buyer is 43, compared with 50 or older for the rest of the automaker's lineup.

Mercedes design boss Gorden Wagener deserves a lot of the credit for this change. Since succeeding Peter Pfeiffer in 2008, the 45-year-old German has redefined Mercedes' design language with products such as the CLA, GLA, C class, S class and S-class coupe. He spoke about the transformation with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Eric Gallina.

Where does the Mercedes' Sensual Purity design ethos come from and where is it going?

For every new car, you see another piece of the puzzle coming together. These are the fruits from what we established after I took over. I created a whole new design philosophy, which affects the entire brand. It’s not only about design; it also defines what the brand should stand for in the future. We set some guidelines that define our philosophy, Sensual Purity, which is equivalent to modern luxury.

Which car best showcases the company’s new design language?

The new C class really embodies that at its best. There’s only a single line on that car. Other than that it’s pure, clean, sheer surfacing. We have our signature line, the dropping line in the side, which comes out of the headlight, over the fender and goes toward the rear wheel. We’re not doing wedge-shaped cars anymore. Wedge-shape for me is kind of late ’90s, a bit dated. We’ve actually been inspired more by 1930s-era streamline design.

Do cars such as the CLA also reflect this design ethos?

This philosophy of Sensual Purity has different executions. You see a wilder execution on smaller cars such as the CLA. We want it to be a really progressive, radical young car. We’re seeing new customers in dealerships. We really accomplished our mission to redefine the brand, especially in that segment. When you look at the C class, you see a more calm and pure approach – a bit more on the pure side of Sensual Purity. It’s just a slightly different execution. We tried to vary our approach but we don’t change the language.

The C class looks like a smaller version of the S class. What does that mean for the next E class?

The new E class will follow our design rules and will embody Sensual Purity. It will fit within the lineup of Mercedes three-box limousines, which is our core business. The current model was a fairly stiff looking car and we managed to change it. I think this car really embodies most the change we are going through. It was an existing car, which we changed with some efforts, but it’s not an all-new car. It really shows the change from the old mindset to a new philosophy.

What does the future hold for Mercedes-Benz interiors?

What’s most important for a luxury brand is being authentic. You have to be authentic in materials and Mercedes always has been. There’s no fake wood and, of course, there’s real leather. These are all aspects of traditional luxury. In the C class, there’s also the variety of wood: the invention of open-pore wood and black open-pore wood. Of course, leather will always be leather. Look inside the home; you don’t sit on vinyl, right? Some things are simply good. It’s just a matter of getting the quality of the craftsmanship right. Another thing is definitely high-tech and craftsmanship. We try to combine these two worlds, these two opposites. You see that contrast in the S class.

Meet the design boss
NAME: Gorden Wagener
TITLE: Mercedes-Benz VP of Design
AGE: 45
MAIN CHALLENGE: Designing attractive cars while integrating fast-developing new technologies.

How does Mercedes design respond to the demands of a digital world?

We live in a modern, future digital world but on the other hand we believe we will see growing demand for analog developments like Chrono watches. I’m a true believer that digital technology will change the car more in the next 15 years than we’ve seen in the last 50 years. It’s a great opportunity for us as designers because a good design is one thing but good design always goes hand in hand with good technology. Look at Apple. At the moment we design everything that is on our [in-car] screens, which is a lot. Our latest generation of HMI [human-machine interface] for the S class took three years of development with very close collaboration with the board. Sensual Purity also applies to software design. We try to bring only what is really necessary. You must not forget you’re driving.

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