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Q&A: Mercedes-Benz US CEO Ernst Lieb

“Wonder Diesels,” used cars and staving off new competitors.

by on Apr.24, 2009

While Mercedes-Benz is just ready to launch its first hybrid, the ML450, it remains committed to diesels, says U.S. CEO Ernst Lieb.

While Mercedes-Benz is just ready to launch its first hybrid, the ML450, it remains committed to diesels, says U.S. CEO Ernst Lieb.

If he didn’t hand you his business card, you might not guess where Ernst Lieb hails from.  He’s got an easy-going manner and quick laugh, not the stiff formality Americans typically associate with German executives.  His accent is slight and his knowledge of the North American market – and its culture – runs deep.  It helps, of course, that he’s spent plenty of time here, running first the Canadian, and now the U.S., subsidiaries of luxury powerhouse Mercedes-Benz.

The automaker once assumed an almost god-given right to dominate the luxury market, both in the U.S. and globally, but it’s had a tougher battle in recent times.  The American debut of Japanese marque Lexus was one body blow, and German marques BMW and Audi haven’t made things easy, either, lately.  To top that off, the current recession has been unexpectedly hard on the entire luxury market, with Mercedes sales, some months falling nearly as fast as troubled General Motors.

Even so, the German maker continues to roll out a procession of new products, such as the E-Class remake due to showrooms in the coming months.  TheDetroitBureau.com’s Paul A. Eisenstein spoke with Lieb about Wonder Diesels, certified used cars, new competitors and more.

Subscribe to TheDetroitBureau.comTheDetroitBureau: Mercedes is about to introduce its first hybrid vehicle, in the U.S., a version of the M-Class sport-ute dubbed the ML450.  How important will hybrids be for you?

Lieb: When you look at last, with record fuel prices, there was a lot of talk about hybrids.  That’s changed since fuel prices came back down.  I expect fuel prices will go back up again, not stay at $50 a barrel, so this is still the right thing to do.  I don’t think sales will be huge.  It’s for customers who want hybrid technology.  Of course, there obviously will be a price difference you have to pay for the technology.

TDB: You also remain committed to diesels, and at the recent New York Auto Show, you provided a look at a version of the new E-Class sedan, the E250, that could be outfitted with what the European press have dubbed the “Wonder Diesel,” a 2.5-liter engine that you said could go over 40 mpg, even in that big car.  When do we get it here?

Lieb: We’d love to see that engine here.  To get over 40 mpg is huge, but we’d love to see it, at least first, in the C-Class or maybe the new GLK, not the E-Class.  We’re just not sure customers would accept it there. (more…)