• One of Prigl’s major projects, the forthcoming new-generation A-Class, available locally in April. Picture: MOTOR NEWS

  • Interior of the new A-Class is beautifully crafted and elegant. Picture: MOTOR NEWS

  • The A45 AMG version will be available later this year. Picture: MOTOR NEWS

THE closely-fought battle for supremacy in the global luxury car market between the German protagonists Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi has made the soon-to-be-launched-in-SA Mercedes-Benz A-Class a critical component in Daimler’s bid to increase its sales volume significantly.

At the end of last year BMW ruled the world luxury car market with 1,540,085 sales, with Audi close behind on 1,455,100 units sold. Mercedes-Benz was in third place with sales of 1,320,097 units. These totals were records for all three companies, but whereas BMW and Audi both increased sales from 2011 by about 11.6%, the gain by Mercedes-Benz from the previous year was only 4.7%.

Now the company that built the world’s first car in 1886 has set its sights firmly on boosting its sales significantly, with targets of selling 1.6-million cars in 2015 and more than 2-million in 2020.

This is where the handsome new A-Class will have a key role to play. Judging by first impressions at a sneak preview in East London last week this imposing newcomer promises to be a major contender in a market which is at present the preserve of the BMW 1-Series and Audi A1 models.

It arrives here in April with a starting price of R275,000 for the A 180 Blue Efficiency, rising to R395,000 for the A 250 Sport, with AMG models in the pipeline for introduction later.

Mercedes-Benz has been a player in the premium compact or C-segment since 1997 with its original entry level A-Class, which has sold 25,000 units in SA since it was introduced here in 2005. However, this car was seen more as a mom’s taxi and second family car, and was certainly not viewed by the younger set as an alternative to cars like the Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Conquest and Opel Kadett.

It seems that some of the grey heads at Daimler were not prepared to ditch this model with its upright styling and unique sandwich construction when time came for a full model change, particularly as this model had sold more than 2.1-million units, said Jörg Prigl, the vice-president of the compact cars product group at Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart.

In an exclusive interview with Motor News the genial executive, who is in charge of the A-and B-class Mercedes-Benz ranges, as well as the Smart brand, said that there were long discussions about whether or not the new A-Class should continue as a development of the original design or go into the scrum with the many competitors in the C-Segment for hatchbacks and derivatives.

In the end the decision was in favour of the latter course as it would make the new range a global car by opening up new markets such as the US and China, where the previous A-Class had not met the requirements and expectations of potential customers.

Prigl, who joined Mercedes-Benz in 1981, said their engineers were wide-ranging in selecting compacts from other manufacturers for evaluation. "We do not close our eyes to the competition, and gave them a very detailed going over," he said. "If we see something of which we approve then we see no reason why we should not do something similar."

When questioned on whether there were discussions about the A-Class being rear-wheel drive, like the BMW 1-Series, or front-wheel drive like the original A-Class and the Audi A1, Prigl said the decision had already been made previously that any models below the C-Class would be front-wheel drive.

Research clinics to assess acceptance by potential buyers of prototypes of the new model were held four years ago in the US, Europe, and China. The findings were very positive.

"Now we not only have a car that has been very well accepted in markets where it has been launched — orders are already approaching 100,000 units — but it is also a model with potential to grow to a family," says Prigl. "Already we have shown the CLA four-door coupe — a baby CLS — and the GLA, a compact crossover." Prigl also alluded to a fourth variant that will arrive in 2014 and it seems this will be a shooting brake version.

So within a comparatively short time span Mercedes-Benz will be able to go head-to head with its rivals in four sub-categories of the premium C-Segment. Importantly, these are comparatively large volume sub-categories, which will help the company to swell its overall car sales figures.

Prigl said that it is forecast that the number of premium compact cars sold globally will rise to over four-million units within the next three years. "It is a model range that will attract new customers into the premium brands."

In fact, the current demand and future forecast have resulted in the A-Class being manufactured at three plants, in Germany, Hungary and via a contractor, Valmet Automotive, in Finland.

The latter company, which was originally established as a joint venture with Saab in 1968, built Porsche Boxsters and Caymans until 2011.