BRUSSELS - Blame it on the Mercedes-Benz A-class failing the moose test: An electronic stability program is fast becoming a standard feature in Europe.
'The truth is, passing the moose test or whatever it becomes is now something that not only every manufacturer needs to aspire to, but is a must for the industry,' said John Lawson, an analyst at Salomon Smith Barney in London.
To convince buyers that smaller cars are stable, manufacturers must add ESP whether the vehicle needs it or not, say marketing experts.
Daimler-Benz added ESP to the A-class in a crisis. It put it on the Micro Compact Car Smart to quell concern about its stability, well before the car reached the market.
Consumer reaction was so strong that other carmakers felt the need to respond. Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech contracted for 1 million units of ESP for the Golf and other models. GM will put it on the Opel/Vauxhall Astra, Ford will put it on the Focus.
Robert Bosch GmbH introduced ESP in 1995 and is the only supplier of the system to date. The company said that before Daimler-Benz made the A-class and Smart decisions, ESP was fitted only on 50,000 new cars worldwide.
ESP is a further development of the anti-lock braking system and traction control. It improves handling on curves and wet or slippery surfaces. Until the A-class, it was used mainly for rear-drive Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW luxury cars.
The new demand forced Bosch to add 200 engineers to the development staff, said company Chairman Hermann Scholl. He predicted that ESP sales would leap to 250,000 units this year and more than 1 million units in 2000.
Volume car makers rushed to offer ESP. Piech offered ESP as a retrofit to Golf owners. He did so even before hearing that a Golf had been flipped over during a General Motors presentation of its Astra to dealers. Piech didn't wait for engineers to study the data. It was a marketing, not an engineering decision.
In unveiling its Focus at Geneva six months before sales begin, Ford of Europe offered few specifics on powertrain or technical features. It did though loudly announce that ESP would be offered. Later it came out that ESP won't be standard on Focus or offered on all models until spring 1999.
'We had planned for a very long time to introduce it. This is part of the good dynamics we wanted on our vehicle,' said Ulrich Eichhorn, manager of vehicle dynamics for Ford of Europe. 'If you put ESP on as an afterthought due to time pressure, it will not work as well.'
But Eichhorn admits that consumer attention to car dynamics has intensified because of interest in the A-class.
'It plays a bit into our hands and adds a feature that customers will want and that customers in certain situations may very much appreciate,' he said.
GM similarly announced that its replacement Astra going on sale this month will offer ESP - in 1999. Again it is not an engineering decision. 'From the chassis side,' said Andrea Wieyersberge-Gauger, brand cross-vehicle line manager for GM Europe, 'we normally wouldn't have needed it.'
Before the A-class failed the Scandinavian lane-changing moose test, 'No one would have predicted that it is an important feature,' said Wieyersberge-Gauger. Now, 'There is perceived need for ESP on the market.'
Daimler-Benz doesn't want to focus only on ESP, insists Natanael Sijanata, a Daimler safety marketing expert, but the company has decided to offer it on every car by 2000.
ESP may add little to a larger car. Safety-conscious makers like Volvo and Saab don't have ESP and are only now considering whether they should. Why?
'Safety today is generally led by legislation but the different makes are trying to optimize their safety in different areas,' said Henrik Irasmussen, Volvo brand manager for Europe. 'From a feature point of view, we strive to keep the lead.'
At Saab, marketing manager Hans Karlander says, 'It is not just features you need, but the holistic perspective.'