'The G is a G and it needs to stay a G' | Interview with Mercedes R&D chief Ola Kaellenius

Talking 2019 Mercedes G-Class, new AMG 53s, inline-sixes, 48V tech and the EQ electrics

  • Image Credit: Mercedes-Benz

At the Detroit Auto Show, we got a chance to sit down with Ola Källenius, the head of Mercedes research and development. The 48-year-old Swede, who was previously head of AMG and Mercedes' Alabama manufacturing facility, discussed a wide range of Benz-related topics.

On the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class introduced in Detroit, and how you make it better on-road without sacrificing its off-road capability ...

"This was the task to the engineering team: Why is the G legendary? Because the G is the go-everywhere car. So we must make sure that in terms of off-road performance it ireally is the pinnacle of SUVs. ... And when we do the Schöckl run (the Austrian off-road answer to the Nürburgring), the new car is better up the Schöckl run than the old one.

"At the same time, needless to say, for the on-road performance, an independent front suspension is preferable. So they were given that Gordian knot, and I think that sword, and cut through that knot ... Once you get to drive the new car on the road, you'll see you have a hugely improved drive on the road combined with the new steering, as well, that makes a world of difference.

"So I think we have done both. Taken an off-road icon to the next level and have a car that's on-road performance is also very capable."

On the G-Class styling and packaging ...

"Another crucial point with the G is 'don't mess with the styling.' The G is a G and it needs to stay a G.

"But if you put the two cars next to each other, you'll see the new car is 100 mm wider and also longer. When I now step into the car, and I'm 6-foot-4 and a half, I now have a very comfortable seating position and at the same time, someone can sit behind me. That was another one of those areas where we felt that, while we're at it, let's make sure the interior packaging is also taken to the next level. You also have a dedicated G-only interior, so everything was developed in one go."

On the Mercedes-AMG 53 models also introduced in Detroit and the reaction of existing AMG customers to new, entry-level models ...

"The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I can remember myself, when I was at AMG, and we launched the A45. It was a bit of a revolution. I received similar questions from journalists about 'what is the S63 or E63 customer going to say about the A45' and of course we spoke to numerous customers and showed them the concept before we went to market and without exception, the reaction was 'cool.'

"You have to be authentic in every segment. If you're an E63 customer, maybe an A45 is something you buy for your son or for your daughter, or maybe you just buy it for yourself as a fun car. It needs to be authentic. Every segment where we have broadened the portfolio of AMG, we have made sure it is 100 percent AMG.

"(The same can be said) for the introduction of the entry-level production models, so the 43's and now the 53's ... The (customers) that go for the 63, the very top range performance car, they have the best that you can get. But they don't mind that there's a segment between the regular series car and the Full Monty, if you will, that offers an entry point into the AMG family.

"It's almost as if 63 is a brand within a brand."

  • Image Credit: Drew Phillips

On the success of the increase in AMG models ...

"Sales have gone through the roof ... Back in 2010, we did 15,000 units for AMG. We're now up 46 percent year over year, and well above 100,000."

On the new inline-six Mercedes engine ...

"The new-generation four-cylinder and six-cylinder will be branches from the same tree. So the combustion chamber of those are essentially the same. The cylinder distance of 90 mm is the same and the factories where we build these engines, you can run them over the same production line. So that's our strategy, because four-cylinder is now the dominant engine for the entire world. It now makes more sense to tack the six onto that as opposed to the previous strategy where you had the V8 and the V6 on the same tree.

And what that means for the V8 ...

"The V8 is its own, but (it has) the same 90 mm cylinder distance and in essence the same combustion chamber (as the new inline-four and -six) so there's a modular strategy there as well. But the new generation of the V8s, which was ushered in with the AMG GT, is in essence an AMG engine, and the Mercedes series engine is then derived from the AMG engine."

On why Mercedes makes such a crazy variety of cars these days, and can we expect more ...

"What we're seeing for many years now is that customer wishes are more individual. Customers are also more interested in moving between completely different concepts. You could be driving an SUV and your next car is an E-Class coupe, so within your price segment, you get the car you like the most and that fits the best to your current life situation. So variety is the name of the game. But even though we have a very comprehensive SUV portfolio, we have ideas there, and on the sedan side, especially in conjunction with the EQ family roll out, let's see what happens there."

  • Image Credit: Glenn Paulina

On when we'll see the new all-electric Mercedes-Benz EQ Series and what that means for the Mercedes Alabama factory ...

"The first EQ production car will be shown this fall (at the Paris auto show), production will start next year. The rollout will be in all markets.

"The first EQ, the EQ-C, will be built in Bremen (Germany) and China ... There will be a whole family of EQ vehicles, but we haven't revealed which one will be built where and so on. All we have said that Alabama will have a couple of them."

On the new 48-volt technology already in place in the 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class ...

"You will see a proliferation of 48-volt technology across the board over the next few years. In the future, the base scenario will be a combustion engine plus a 48-volt system. Between now and 2025, we're talking about an across-the-board application."

And finally, on him attending the national college football championship game where his adopted home state triumphed in the stadium carrying his company's name ...

"It was one of the most incredible sporting experiences I've been to."

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