Cover Story: Driving Innovation

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 15, 2017 - May 21, 2017.

Despite an economic climate that can best be described as worrying or lacklustre, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia has enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years. But none of it has come by accident. Last year alone saw a whopping 17 new product launches, keeping the team most busy indeed, while the company stays true to its raison d’être of producing ‘the best or nothing’. President and CEO Dr Claus Weidner (right) and vice-president of sales and marketing for passenger cars Mark Raine speak to Anandhi Gopinath, outlining the luxury carmaker’s map for success and the year’s most anticipated launch of six new cars as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the AMG.

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IT is apt that the company credited with inventing the automobile, Mercedes-Benz, is the same one that is making great strides in electric driving. Additionally, in celebration of its 130th anniversary last year, the luxury German carmaker unveiled a techno­logically advanced version of its flagship E-Class that brought us closer than ever to the future of automation while also unveiling a number of advanced plug-in hybrid vehicles across most of its classes.

Conventional petrol-powered cars are unlikely to go out of style anytime soon and will continue to sell, but no carmaker can afford to withstand the onslaught of new technologies related to electric mobility. No carmaker should want to either, as hybrid cars — when made well — provide an incredible driving experience with its clean acceleration and increased fuel efficiency. Even the most hardened petrol purists must admit that there is something quite extraordinary about the way an electri­cally-powered car eats up the miles quite so seamlessly.

“We are in a transformation period at the moment and it’s a very interesting time for the industry,” says Mercedes-Benz Malaysia president and CEO Dr Claus Weidner. “We cannot stand still, but we cannot go back either — although we all love internal combustion engines, there is a limit to what they can do. Electric cars bring a new dynamic to driving and it’s a different way of doing things that is also quite exciting. But I do believe the fun of driving will always be there, especially when you drive any car from Mercedes-Benz.”

Mark Raine, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia’s famously outspoken and gregarious vice-president of sales and marketing for passenger cars, agrees. “I love the combustion engine too, but I also love the plug-in hybrid models because these cars represent the best of both worlds — you’ve got the gritty sounds and the benefits of a plug-in hybrid. With our hybrids, you have enormous torque and top speeds that actually match performance cars.”

This fact we know to be true based on personal experience — recently, Options attended a media drive in Budapest, where writer Shalini Yeap was pleasantly surprised by the light-footed agility, grace and power of the fully electric B250e. The plug-in hybrid C350e looks gorgeous and drives brilliantly while positive feedback has already begun to pour in for the locally-assembled E350e.

I meet Weidner and Raine at Mercedes-Benz Malaysia’s gorgeous new office in Puchong, Selangor — a sun-drenched and cheery space that is a huge improvement from the two floors they used to occupy in Menara TM. “We used to think Puchong was just too far away, compounded by the fact that Menara TM is so centrally located; but we have discovered so many nice things about this area. There are some really good restaurants out here, for example,” says Raine. Priorities, priorities — no Malaysian will disagree on this interest in food, for sure.

The new building is part of a long-term plan to combine the company’s major business units in one facility — the financing division, which has been growing by leaps and bounds, as well as the company’s training division, which had outgrown its previous home in Glenmarie, Shah Alam. “We were in the old building for 10 years now, and as the company has grown so much, we were really running out of space. It’s great to have the whole company in one building — the vibe and the energy now that everyone is in the same location are unmistakable,” Weidner says. “You can really feel the positive impact, and I think it has made a huge difference to everyone.”

The move to Puchong has been in the works for a number of years, and comes at the end of a good run for Mercedes-Benz Malaysia. Much to the pride of Weidner and the rest of the management team, the company has done exceptionally well in recent years, its sales numbers reaching unprecedented levels even amid talk of an unfavourable economic climate. There was a total of 17 product launches in 2016 alone, and last year also saw the opening of the first Mercedes-Benz City Store in TREC KL, an entirely new concept for the local automotive scene.

“It’s a combination of hard work, good strategy and good implementation — product variety and the extent of our portfolio, our pricing as well as additional services like financial services and, of course, after-sales support. These three pillars

basically support the customer from A to Z,” Weidner points out. “Our growth over the past few years has not been by accident,” adds Raine. “It was, to a certain degree, expected, as we had a long-term strategy that involved heavy investments in training people and in local production. When I came in, I did a thorough analysis of our product portfolio — and we realised there were additional products that we could bring in that would give our customers a wider choice, so they can choose the car that would suit them best. But in order to do that, we needed to invest in our local production plants, so the increased output can support the demand.”

A growth in the Mercedes-Benz Malaysia portfolio of products has been a major sales push — just about anyone who walks into a dealership will be able to find something to their liking, which is exactly what Weidner wants. In addition, highly skilled and trained product specialists ensure that customers walk away with the correct car for their needs and remain satisfied well after they leave the dealership — the relationship with the customers, after all, does not end with their signature on a dotted line.

“For us, driving innovation does not just apply to our products but our services as well, and the way our financing division has developed is an excellent example,” says Weidner. “Agility financing is a very interesting and very versatile financial product that works really well for many of our customers. We are a one-stop shop, almost — we provide you with everything you need, from the perfect product and the most flexible financing to the best possible service. Customers are taken care of, end to end.”

At present, the C-Class is Mercedes-Benz Malaysia’s most popular range and sells the highest number of cars. “For me, it’s not only the best-selling ranges that’s important, because we also have key strategic products,” Raine explains. “The compact cars have been a growth engine for us over the last few years as they have captured a totally different market for us — younger drivers, and more women. The premium SUV range has also been a fantastic success story, especially the GLC. And then you’ve got the pinnacle of automotive excellence, the S-Class — the S400 hybrid has been a success story since 2014. And of course, the masterpiece of intelligence that is the E-Class and the technological leadership in that car — it is our brand shaper.”

Raine says other brand shapers include Mercedes-Benz Dream Cars, which do not rack up a lot in terms of sales volume but play an important role in the company’s portfolio — they make the brand exciting and desirable. Again, something we can attest to, based on personal experience — I cannot think of the sensuous curves and handsome looks of an AMG GT and not get goosebumps.

“It is not that we invented the motor car and stopped — we have been putting in continuous effort to stay at the forefront of technology,” Weidner comments. “We have many R&D staff around the world to cater for the overall demand of a customer base that is more international than before, and much more informed and demanding too. If you could see our model range 20 years ago, it was smaller and now we are at about 40. SUV is a new segment that is emerging, and while 10 years ago the models were not very nice, they now offer something totally different — they are safe, comfortable and very stylish.”

Weidner arrived in Malaysia from Indonesia just over a year ago to take the helm of one of the most active and well-performing markets in the region. In Indonesia, he had maintained the brand’s market leader position with sustained positive sales volume while increasing the breadth of the network and after-sales business. Although assimilating into the local culture has not been difficult due to the commonalities shared with the archipelago, Jakarta is very different from KL — and it is notably less prepared for hybrid cars as Malaysia is.

“They are getting there, that’s for sure, but Malaysia is way ahead,” says Weidner. “Coming to Malaysia was a wonderful step and I love it here. It’s an interesting market and a very interesting time to be here. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like living here. It’s great to do road trips because the highways are incredible, which is one thing Indonesia doesn’t quite have.”

Raine, whose accent hints at his mixed German and British heritage, has been in Malaysia a little longer, clocking in two years at the Stuttgart marque’s Malaysian outpost. Upon arriving, he has worked hard to identify this market’s core strengths and opportunities, which has led to a larger portfolio of cars for potential customers to choose from.

The contrasts between Weidner and Raine are striking, and resemble that of a serious older brother and his energetic and talkative younger sibling. “We argue all the time,” Raine says with a laugh. “We work best when we argue.”

We get to talking about our favourite cars, and with that, our driving styles slowly emerge — Weidner likes the GLE, Raine has a preference for the S-Class limousines while I admit a love for the sporty CLS AMG. “We have an internal ambassador for our SUVs — it’s actually Claus, who drives a GLE Coupé and actually chooses to do so,” Raine laughs. “Personally, I prefer the limousines, or the CLS. I like the height of the SUVs, but the luxurious experience you get in our limousines is one of a kind.”

The six new cars launched as part of the AMG’s 50th anniversary is exciting news indeed, as the high number of passionate petrolheads in Malaysia make the AMG cars quite popular. “AMG started out as a small tuning company, and is now the performance brand of Mercedes-Benz,” Weidner reveals. “Last year, we sold about 100,000 AMG cars worldwide. This year, in celebrating 50 years of the AMG, we took the occasion to say, ‘Okay, we’ve come a long way with our performance cars, but let’s make 2017 a special year for AMG’. So, the team decided to unveil a firework of products — we are launching six AMG cars at the same time, which will be the biggest launch of performance cars in Malaysia.”

The six cars that were launched on May 11 — in the presence of retired Formula One legend David Coulthard, no less — were the C 43 4MATIC Coupé, C 43 4MATIC, E 43 4MATIC, GLC 43 4MATIC Coupé, GLC 43 4MATIC and SLC 43. While it has been a brilliant few years for Mercedes-Benz Malaysia, the team is clearly setting up the stage for successful times ahead too as the company drives innovation at every turn, with one important thing in mind — satisfied customers behind the wheel of cars that, above all, provide the best possible driving experience.

 

50 years of the AMG

AMG was founded as a racing engine forge in 1967 under the name AMG Motorenbau und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH (AMG Engine Production and Development Ltd) by former Mercedes engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher in Burgstall an der Murr, near Stuttgart. The letters “AMG” stand for Aufrecht, Melcher and Großaspach (Aufrecht’s birth town).

The first milestone in terms of racing was in 1971 during the 24 Hours of Spa — the AMG Mercedes 300 SEL 6.8 was the champion in its class and won second place overall. A heavy luxury sedan pulling a fast one on the competing lighter race cars, its win caused a sensation and the name AMG spread throughout the world.

AMG became an engine manufacturer in 1984 when Melcher developed a completely independent cylinder head with four valves per cylinder. In 1986, the company placed the 5.0-litre V8 in an E-Class coupé, which received worldwide fame under the nickname “The Hammer”. To this day, it is the primary icon of the AMG in the US.

In the late 1980s, Daimler-Benz and AMG started to work together, first as official racing partners. The highlight of this period was the success story of the 190 — the race car, which was put into the race by AMG with the support of the manufacturer, won a total of 50 DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) victories between 1988 and 1993.

In 1990, AMG signed a cooperation agreement with Daimler-Benz, and AMG options and cars were then offered in Mercedes-Benz showrooms. In 1999, Daimler AG (then known as DaimlerChrysler AG) bought the controlling share of AMG and made it a part of the official Mercedes-Benz line-up. In 1993, the company unveiled the Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG, the first jointly developed vehicle to result from the cooperation agreement — the same year that the AMG brand name was trademarked. In January 2005, Aufrecht sold his remaining shares to DaimlerChrysler and since then, Mercedes-AMG GmbH has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler AG.

Mercedes-AMG GmbH currently employs a workforce of more than 1,100 at its plant in Affalterbach. Many Mercedes-AMG vehicles enjoy “best in class” status when it comes to consumption, emissions, maximum performance and torque. The full range of over 40 cars — with power outputs from 270kW to 463kW — comprises saloons, coupés, SUVs, roadsters and the Mercedes-AMG GT, the first vehicle developed independently by Mercedes-AMG.

As part of the “AMG Performance 50” strategy, every new AMG model strives to be the market leader in terms of fuel consumption and emissions. Each AMG model is an all-round performance vehicle, which excites with unique power delivery, tantalising engine sound, excellent handling and a direct driving sensation.

With its roots firmly in motorsport, the Mercedes-AMG performance brand has been at home on the racetrack for decades — from its position as the most successful brand in the history of the DTM, to its global commitment to customer motorsport at the highest level with the SLS AMG GT3. Having secured 26 victories and the FIA GT3 European Championship, the SLS AMG GT3 was the most successful newcomer in the 2011 motorsport season.

The Mercedes-AMG brand was also represented in Formula One in the 2012 season by the Mercedes AMG Petronas team and the engine manufacturer Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains. In addition, AMG has been providing both the Formula One safety car and medical car since 1996.