BRUSSELS - Mercedes-Benz may extend its new A class lineup by adding a four-wheel drive version that would compete against small sport-utility vehicles.
The derivative of Mercedes' new small car is described by insiders as a lifestyle vehicle using design elements from such popular compact sport-utilities as the Toyota RAV-4 and Honda CR-V. It has been under development for at least six months, but is not approved for production.
The 4x4 would have a completely different bodyshell from the existing A class and could even be sold under a different name if the project gets backing from the Daimler-Benz board.
Engineering prototypes have been seen testing around Stuttgart in recent months in modified Suzuki Vitara body shells.
'It is true, we are looking at four-wheel drive for the A class,' said Thomas Merker, A class project leader. But he added 'it is still early days and no firm decision has been made on whether we will bring it to market.'
Sources say the 4x4 could be powered by a 125ps, 1.9-liter version of Mercedes' new M166 four-cylinder gasoline engine. The engine will debut in the sporty AMG version of the A class due in late 1998.
The A class will be in dealer showrooms late this autumn, but orders have been accepted in Europe since May.
Juergen Hubbert, head of Daimler's passenger car division, would not confirm the sport-utility version at the A class launch here last week. Hubbert did hint that prospects for US sales of the car are improving after a favorable reception to the car.
'We displayed the A class at the opening of our new plant in Tuscaloosa and received a very positive response,' he said. 'But there has been no final decision.'