For decades, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have made rear-wheel drive central to their definitions of performance and luxury, even as the rest of the industry embraced front-wheel drive long ago.
But both German marques, among the last holdouts, are about to cave.
Just before the Detroit auto show this week, Mercedes-Benz showed off the CLA 250, a compact, four-door coupe, the first front-wheel-drive car bearing the brand’s three-pointed star logo. BMW also said at the show that it plans to offer front-wheel-drive cars. The reasons are the same as for every other automaker: cutting costs and increasing fuel efficiency, along with the advance of front-wheel-drive technologies that have improved handling and driver feel.
Expect to see these new German cars priced near the bottom of the luxury market and appearing in showrooms this year and next. It’s a big shift. Combined, the Mercedes-Benz and BMW luxury brands accounted for more than 550,000 of the 14.5 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year – and not one of their cars was front-wheel drive.
“They are purists who like rear-wheel drive. It handles better, the weight is distributed better, the acceleration is usually better,” said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for research firm AutoPacific Inc.
But that doesn’t mean front-wheel-drive products from these companies are doomed to fail. Audi, the third German luxury brand, has become one of the fastest-growing premium nameplates while selling front- and all-wheel-drive vehicles exclusively.
“That has gotten the attention of BMW and Mercedes-Benz,” Sullivan said. “You can sell a lot of cars around the world with a really good front-wheel-drive car.”
That’s exactly what Mercedes plans. The CLA 250 platform, used on existing models sold in other markets, will go on four models Mercedes plans to sell in the U.S. in the next several years, said Steve Cannon, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA. A small crossover, or SUV-style vehicle, is due out next year.
“We never brought those platforms to the U.S. because they did not meet the brand image here,” Cannon said. “They were small vehicles, very utilitarian, that did not deliver on the style and attributes of the brand.”
The sleek CLA 250 will be different, Cannon said.
The CLA 250 goes on sale this fall. It will be powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder engine making 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It will feature a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission with wheel-mounted shift paddles. Next year, Mercedes will add an all-wheel-drive option to the car.
Mercedes hasn’t released the price yet but has mentioned that a base CLA 250 would start around $30,000, about 15 percent less than the $35,350 sticker of the larger C-Class sedan.
“We want to get it as far away from the C-Class as possible to reach a new target group of people who have not purchased Mercedes before,” said Heiko Schmidt, product manager for the CLA in the U.S.
The American version will come standard with the sportiest suspension available in Europe as well as features such as a forward collision avoidance alert.
Mercedes isn’t launching into this strategy without considerable soul-searching, Schmidt said. It conducted several rounds of focus groups with American buyers, attempting to discern whether rear-wheel-drive vehicles were unalterably tied to the Mercedes brand here.
In the end, he said, most buyers couldn’t correctly identify which cars in the market were front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. They did a better job describing the driving dynamics and other attributes of the brands.
“What that showed us was that we have to make sure this car is an authentic Mercedes in how it drives and is put together,” Schmidt said.
BMW, meanwhile, is developing the Active Tourer – a five-seat people mover that Herbert Diess, a member of BMW’s management board, said “still delivers on all the brand criteria, including sporty design of BMW.”
BMW probably will bring the car to the U.S., but not before 2014.
“There are some segments where front-wheel drive makes a lot of sense,” Diess said. “You can use the space a little better because you don’t have the drive shaft.”
The architecture enables car designers to make the passenger cabin bigger, especially in smaller cars. They weigh less, and that’s good for fuel economy.
“Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, it can make a more functional concept,” Diess said.
But there also can be disadvantages, he said.
Cars with powerful engines won’t launch or handle as well and can produce what’s known as torque steer, which pulls the front of the car to one side. “It is difficult to get all that power to the front wheels when accelerating,” Diess said.
That’s why the traditional BMW sports sedans will remain rear-wheel drive, he said.