NEW YORK -- At Mercedes-Benz's stand at the New York auto show, there were murmurs: Ola Kaellenius, the poised, youthful-looking Swede who runs Mercedes' global sales, has the inside track to succeed Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche.
Similarly, the German business newspaper Handelsblatt said the 46-year-old Kaellenius is "likely to figure prominently" in Daimler's future leadership, especially after strong sales in 2015.
In February, Daimler extended Zetsche's contract until Dec. 31, 2019. So Kaellenius has more seasoning ahead of him. On Jan. 1, 2017, he will become the board member responsible for group research and Mercedes-Benz Cars development.
But in a pair of interviews here, Kaellenius laid out a clear set of strategies for Mercedes to thrive in a changing automotive environment.
- A strong push for high-performance vehicles.
- An embrace of electrified- and autonomous-drive car.
- Doubling down to expand Mercedes' already sprawling lineup with more variants -- like the CLS Coupe shown here.
- And, especially, a confidence that sets Mercedes apart as, in Kaellenius' words, "the luxury brand."
"We don't focus too much on competitors," he said in a press roundtable. "You have to know what your own DNA is; you have to plan for your brand, know who you are, make a plan for where you're going and stick to that plan.
"You look left and right to make sure you don't miss any major trends. But that's how we do it."
Kaellenius' formula for Mercedes strongly reflects where he's been. The former head of Mercedes' AMG performance and High Performance Engines units sees track-capable models and innovative technology as the brand's competitive edge.
Mercedes has only begun to tap AMG's potential, in Kaellenius' view.
"If we look back four or five years ago, AMG was 15,000 cars worldwide a year," he said. "Last year, we were just shy of 70,000. We have had an unbelievable growth of the AMG brand.
"So that family member has really grown up. It's playing an important role in the Mercedes-Benz family."
Mercedes is introducing its "sport" series performance vehicles, with "43" naming, as a half step between its regular series vehicles and the all-out performance AMG vehicles, which bear a "63" in their names. It is both a business opportunity and a chance to attract more buyers with more emotional vehicles, Kaellenius says.
"We then saw that between the series car and the out-and-out performance car, there was a segment in between, kind of a wide spot that was missing. That's where the sports models with the 43 come in the picture."
He says the AMG 63s are the choice "if you're a full-blown track person. ... If you're the Nordschliefe, the north loop, type of person," referring to the legendary Nurburgring racetrack in Germany's Eifel Mountains.
Kaellenius staunchly says a regular Mercedes could handle the track, but, he adds, with a streak of car guy showing through, "Depending on what lap time you're looking for, if you're looking for a sub-8-minute Nordschliefe, you'd go with a 63."
He also asserts that Mercedes' product lineup -- which includes such variations as an AMG C63, an AMG C63 S and a C450 AMG 4MATIC -- needs to grow further. The variants give buyers a more individualized vehicle, again building an emotional connection to the brand.
Mercedes' 30 individual body styles will grow to 40 by 2020, Kaellenius says. Because of platform and component sharing, relatively small-volume models can make money.
"We wouldn't do a niche unless we believed that the incremental volume that we could reach with that niche is profitable," he said. "Because we're working very hard to have an intelligent modular platform strategy, we're able to do more variants off of the same platform in an economical way.
"We don't believe we have reached the end of the road on that yet. The road for us from 30 to 40 is pretty clear. Will it then go from 40 to 50? I don't know."
Electrified drive increasingly will be part of Mercedes' offerings, he says, driven by fuel economy and emissions regulations. And Mercedes wants to continue the autonomous-drive leadership role that it took with the S class, which features traffic-jam assist as part of its Intelligent Drive package.
Kaellenius says the redesigned E class that arrives in U.S. showrooms this summer will be "the production car that you can actually buy with the most situations, driving situations where the car takes over and can drive autonomously."
But, he says, autonomous drive will not mean an end to performance driving, which is intertwined with Mercedes history.
"So is it the end of an era? I don't think so," Kaellenius says. "The car was invented in 1886 by the forefathers of our company. It took less than eight years to have the first race, which was, by the way, won by a chassis that carried a Daimler engine.
"So you could say we won the first quasi-grand prix. That performance element of individual mobility I don't think will ever really go away."