Thursday, 9 April 2015

When is a Merc not a Merc?

So, when is a Mercedes-Benz pick-up not a Mercedes pick-up? The answer, it would seem, is a when it is a Nissan pick-up, or a Renault pick-up.

Just when observers, transfixed by the German automaker’s initial statement of a few weeks back, thought Daimler AG genuinely intended to design and build a brand new pick-up from scratch, the truth is – they were wrong.

For Renault-Nissan Alliance and Daimler are jointly expanding their five-year strategic cooperation into the segment with a three-way-stretch pick-up!

Together, Nissan and Daimler will develop a 1-ton pickup truck for Mercedes-Benz which will share some of its architecture with the all-new Nissan NP300.

The companies claim the new pick-up “will be engineered and designed by Daimler to meet the specific needs of its customers. The vehicle will have all of Mercedes- Benz’s distinctive characteristics and features.”

The pick-up will feature a double cab and be targeted at personal-use and commercial customers alike. The primary target markets for the truck are Europe, Australia, South Africa and Latin America. Not North America.

“Mercedes-Benz is the fastest growing premium brand in the world,” claims Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. “Entering the rapidly growing segment of mid-size pick-ups is an important step in continuing our global growth path. Thanks to our well-established partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, we are able to drastically reduce the time and cost to enter this key segment.”

Nissan claims to be the world’s second-biggest 1-ton pick-up truck maker and has been building and selling 1-ton pickups for more than 80 years. Since 1933, more than 14 million Nissan 1-ton pickup trucks have been used to transport people and cargo, sometimes in the toughest circumstances.

The NP300, sold under the brands of Navara and Frontier (depending on the market), was launched in June 2014 and is currently produced in Thailand and Mexico.

Nissan and Renault are already developing a 1-ton pickup truck for Renault which will also share some common architecture with the Nissan NP300.

This truck, which will have “a distinctive Renault design”, is Renault’s first 1-ton pickup truck also.

Production of Renault’s 1-ton truck begins in 2016 at Nissan’s plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The 1-ton pick-up will mark Renault’s second entry into the pick-up segment after the launch of a half-ton pick-up later this year.

The Mercedes-Benz 1-ton pick-up truck will be built by Nissan in the Renault plant in Cordoba, Argentina, along with the Nissan NP300 and the Renault 1-ton truck, for Latin America.

The three trucks will also be built in the Nissan plant in Barcelona, Spain, for other markets, excluding North America. Production of the trucks at the two plants will start by the end of the decade.

The conclusion might be drawn from this, certainly in terms of powertrain, that all three trucks will share the same 2.5-litre engine of the next-generation Navara which gives 161bhp and 187bhp.

However, if Daimler conducts its own engineering might it also specify Mercedes gasoline and diesel engines? The new and expanded pick-up truck range certainly offers a significant and lucrative powertrain carrot, not to mention a healthy transmission carrot too.

But with cost, plant optimisation and timing hailed as important drivers of the new three-way pick-up, these could rule out engines and gearboxes from Mercedes.

The Barcelona plant will produce about 120,000 vehicles annually for the three partners, while the Cordoba plant will produce nearly 70,000 vehicles a year. A high parts localization rate is expected to expand the supply bases in Spain and Argentina significantly.

“Thanks to our cooperation with Daimler on this project, we will be able to share the cost of investment at the Cordoba plant, while at the same time open up new markets in the Latin American region for the Renault-Nissan Alliance,” observed Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan chairman and chief executive officer. “This project will also allow us to optimize production capacity at the Barcelona plant and enhance our competitiveness in an important segment.”

The joint pickup project is the latest milestone in the strategic partnership between Daimler and the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month.

The strategic cooperation among the three companies began on April 10, 2010. At the time, the scope of the collaboration was limited to three projects primarily focused on Europe. Since then, the combined portfolio shared between Renault-Nissan and Daimler has more than quadrupled to 13 projects in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

“After five years of cooperation between Daimler and Renault-Nissan, my conclusion is by all means positive,” Zetsche said. “We have identified and launched many joint projects that create benefits for all partners involved.”

“This cooperation is one of the most productive in the auto industry, enabling all partners to increase economies of scale while keeping our brands and products distinct,” concurred Ghosn.

All of which still leaves open the question: How will Daimler tackle the US market? It is a market too tempting to ignore. But is a market with some powerful players with market track record.

Even so, aficionados of the Mercedes-Benz brand and the tree-pointed star might be coming round to believing the brand has been tainted, diminished even, by the deeper integration with the Nissan-Renault Alliance.

Nissan and Renault have much to gain through an association with a ‘class’ brand; Mercedes-Benz’s gain is one of cost-benefit, but is the brand being ‘rubbished’ in a process where Dr. Dieter Zetsche is the front-man?

Daimler’s acquisition of Chrysler did not work. Daimler’s links with the Nissan-Renault Alliance seemingly are, but it may take some years before the results of greater partnership are felt. 

Certainly, in the meantime, Daimler’s engineering teams will need not to lose sight of the ever-present requirement for ‘excellence’ if they are to avoid accusations of 'badge engineers'.

Future buyers of Mercedes-Benz pick-ups will be left thinking still: Is this really a Merc?

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