SUV game hots up: Mercedes shifts to higher gear in race with Audi

Martin Schwenk (right), MD and CEO, Mercedes-Benz India, at the launch of its SUV GLS
Mercedes-Benz has overtaken its peers in the sport utility vehicle (SUV) battle, with the launch of the GLS — its “S-Class of SUVs”— giving it a stronghold in the segment. The luxury carmaker now has the largest SUV portfolio.

The GLS was the company’s third SUV launch this year, following the GLE and GLC Coupe, according to Mercedes-Benz executives. Historically, Mercedes-Benz has been known as an S-Class company, BMW as the 3-series company, and Audi as the Q company — in a contextual reference to their most popular models and what they are best reputed for.

But with the launch of the locally assembled GLS, which has been priced at Rs 99.9 lakh (ex-showroom) and comes in two variants (400D and 450 Petrol), Mercedes is upping the ante for SUVs. 

It is challenging Audi’s stronghold in the luxury game — large high-tech SUVs that can be driven by both chauffeur and owner, unlike large luxury sedans that mostly have owners in the backseat. Mercedes-Benz now offers seven models of SUVs in India, compared to two a decade ago — which now contribute 40 per cent to sales, up from 30 per cent a couple of years ago.

Martin Schwenk, MD and CEO of Mercedes-Benz India, says that in the Western markets, owners mostly drive their own vehicle. “In India, mostly SUVs are the ones driven by owners, and we see the trend growing in southern cities like Bengaluru, both by volume and type of Mercedes bought.” 

Schwenk added that the new SUV will have all the luxe trappings expected from an S-Class, and a dynamic new feature that is in step with the new environment the world is grappling with. “The GLS will feature a navigation system that tells passengers where the closest Covid testing spot is, in addition to 11 USB ports and a track pad at the rear of the car that allows inhabitants to control seating, temperature, entertainment and lighting functions.” 

How has the company seen the lockdown influence sales? 

Schwenk says that in the last couple of months, they have had 100 bookings, along with a few cars that have even been delivered. “A 100 per cent of our showrooms are open and operational in accordance with local laws and state-led regulations,” he said. 

The firm’s SUV portfolio includes the GLA, GLC, GLC Coupe, GLE, GLE Coupe, GLS and the G Wagon. At the same time, BMW India produces five vehicles — X1, X3, X4, X5,  X7 — and sells X6 as a CBU, while Audi India retails four SUVs that include the Q3, Q5, Q7, and Q8.

Balbir Singh Dhillon, head of Audi India, said: “SUVs have been an integral part of Audi India’s line up since 2006. Our first ever SUV, the Audi Q7, was a success and established the identity of the Q-family, which expanded to include the rest. 

In India, there is an affinity towards the SUV body style, which our Q family has catered to.” Audi is set to take the fight to Mercedes. “As for the future, all we’ll say is there’s more to come very soon,” Dhillon said.

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