NEW YORK - DaimlerChrysler and BMW AG are getting into the tiny but growing market for armored luxury cars in the USA.
'The perception of random violence is increasing,' said Robert Allan, manager of special vehicles for Mercedes-Benz USA Inc.
While overall US crime statistics are down, Allan said, the fear of crime is rising. Surveys show half of all Americans have a greater fear of violence than five years ago, he said.
The perception has created a quiet increase in demand for armored cars among corporations, celebrities and people who simply carry a lot of cash or other valuables. According to O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, an aftermarket armorer in Fairfield, Ohio, sales of armored passenger cars and light trucks in the USA have grown in the past few years from a few dozen a year to several hundred, and are on track to surpass 1,000 a year.
Mercedes and BMW have built armored cars for other markets for years, but neither company exported them to the USA because of cost and emissions considerations. That has changed.
Mercedes-Benz will add a factory-built, armored S500 to its 2001 lineup in December. The car, the Guard, can be ordered from any US Mercedes dealer. The new S-class was designed from the beginning to accommodate armor.
Allan said 18 Guard units have been pre-sold at a suggested retail price of $154,595 (E170,990) including $645 destination, almost double the US price of a standard S500. If demand warrants it, he said, Mercedes could produce about 10 per month for the US market.
BMW, meanwhile, beat Mercedes to the US market with a factory-armored vehicle by introducing the Protection versions of the 740iL and 750iL sedans in 1999. BMW says it has sold 'fewer than 100' Protection models since they became available more than a year ago.
Suggested retail for the 2000 750iL Protection is $124,970, including $570 destination.
BMW also offers 'smash-proof' glass as a standalone option on the 7 series. It is designed to stop a 'smash-and-grab' thief, but not a bullet.
Both the Mercedes and BMW models are defined as 'lightly' armored cars, capable of stopping bullets up to and including a .44-caliber Magnum. That is the maximum standard stopping power for 'light' armor.
The cars have body panels reinforced with either steel or Kevlar, the same material as bulletproof vests, bullet-resistant glass and run-flat tires.
'Fully armored' cars, whose sale to individuals is strictly regulated by US law, have armored bottoms and provide protection against military assault rifles and explosives.
BMW, Mercedes and aftermarket armorers argue over whose hardware is best. BMW uses mostly Kevlar armor, which is lighter than steel. Mercedes uses mostly steel, which is heavier, but Mercedes says it provides better protection than Kevlar.
Mercedes and BMW both claim their factory-equipped armored cars are naturally superior to aftermarket ones since the original-equipment cars are modified as they are built, instead of being taken apart and put back together by an aftermarket armorer.
'The best armoring has to be planned from the beginning. You can't plan it in, after the car is built,' said Michael Barthmus, vice president of international sales and marketing for Mercedes armored cars.
O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, the dominant American aftermarket armorer, counters that its conversion products are just as good - and a lot cheaper. Marketing Director Dan Heimbrock says O'Gara-Hess can armor a Volvo S80 for $25,000 to $30,000.
O'Gara-Hess sold 2,720 armored cars and light trucks worldwide in 1999, including both light and full armor. That includes sales to police departments, but does not include military sales or sales to national governments. O'Gara-Hess armors Humvees for the US military.
Heimbrock estimated the company's private sales of light-armor vehicles in North America to corporations or individuals accounted for fewer than 10 percent of those 2,720 units.
Still, sales of armored vehicles in the US market have nowhere to go but up, he said.
'The market is growing,' Heimbrock said. 'The market could even be characterized as booming.'