SHANGHAI -- Daimler will begin building Mercedes-AMG cars in China when the A 35 long-wheelbase sedan runs off the assembly line in Beijing toward the end of this year.
Currently Daimler exports the Germany-built Mercedes-AMG A 45, a high-powered version of the A-class compact car, to China. It's the entry level AMG in China and is the performance subbrand's top-selling AMG import.
The A 45's popularity indicates that young Chinese customers in particular are developing a taste for powerful cars even though much of China's infrastructure consists of clogged city roads poorly suited for sports cars and traffic cameras that clamp down on speeding. Typically, even large luxury cars are equipped with underpowered engines, partly for tax reasons but it's difficult to go fast on most Chinese roads so powerful cars are not needed.
Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said he recently had an encouraging conversation with the head of Lei Shing Hong (LSH) Holding, the largest Mercedes dealer in China. "They want to focus more on AMG because they see a huge potential," Zetsche said on the sidelines of the Shanghai auto show. Other dealers also see the potential, Zetsche said.
LSH Holding's dealerships sell about 30 percent of all Mercedes' sales in China. The company has opened a showroom in Beijing selling just AMG models and plans a second AMG showroom in Shanghai.
The A 35 L 4MATIC will be built at Daimler's Chinese joint venture with BAIC. Its wheelbase is stretched by 60mm (2.4 inches). It is powered by a 302-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine sourced from Daimler's plant in Koelleda, Germany, and can accelerate from 0 to 100 kph (62 mph) in 4.9 seconds. The A 45 has 376 hp.
Nicholas Speeks, head of Mercedes-Benz sales for China, said more and more customers were being drawn to AMG cars. While some bought an S 63 sedan or G 63 SUV for the prestige of owning the most powerful version, others bought it for emotional attributes such as sound, he said. Speeks said demand for AMG cars in China was below the penetration rate of other major markets such as Germany and the U.S., but the country is among the top five simply because of the Chinese market's huge size.
To further spur interest, Mercedes will build an AMG brand experience center at the independently-run Zhejiang Circuit in Shaoxing. Here drivers will have the opportunity to try out their own cars in a high-speed environment, while dining at restaurants and overnighting at a hotel near the track. This will enable AMG customers used to heavy traffic in cities such as Beijing to push their vehicles to the limit, or alternatively to improve their skills under supervision from trained instructors.
The move borrows a strategy from Porsche, which opened a similar experience center and race track next to the Shanghai Formula 1 circuit last year.
Speeks said Daimler will not build other long wheelbase AMGs in China. The automaker also has no plans to produce Mercedes Maybach ultraluxury cars in the country even though these are popular with China's super-rich.
"There is a tradition and a history behind AMG -- German engineering out of Afalterbach," he said. The A 35 lwb was an exception because Daimler already builds a long wheelbase A class in China, Speeks said.
"We are well served with everything else including the Maybach, an S-class derivative, being built in Germany," he said.