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Back to the future with Mercedes-Benz

Behind the wheels: Wolfgang Huppenbauer, CEO of Daimler South East Asia, and Felix Ang, president of CATS Motors, Inc., celebrate 125 years of Mercedes excellence. Photos by Fernan Nebres

Put Wolfgang Huppen-bauer, CEO of Daimler South East Asia, and CATS Motors, Inc. president Felix Ang in the same room, and you’re bound to hear some interesting stories. The two very public faces of Mercedes-Benz are at the Marriott in Resorts World, preparing for a big celebration: 125 years of Mercedes-Benz, from the first three-wheeled gas-powered vehicle designed by Karl Benz in 1886 to the electric cars of the future. It’s a yearlong celebration that will include driving tests, motorcades and historical exhibits like the one gracing Resorts World. At the same time, CATS is celebrating 60 years of selling Mercedes in the Philippines.

But right now, they’re talking about AK-47s.

Wolfgang is explaining how the two first drew up plans for the CATS Motors showroom. “Felix had this wonderful accessory showroom, where you could buy anything from radios to AK-47s — no, not AK47s, shotguns,” he laughs. “We were sitting in the restaurant and I was drawing on a coaster how I wanted to build the showroom. And the first thing was, we had to get the weapons out! Then we basically drew up the first drawing for the showroom. And the first drawing for CATS was done there.”

From simple drawings, the German company itself has become more than a brand or institution. As Wolfgang and Felix will tell you, Mercedes-Benz is “an experience.”

Ever since Charles Lee ventured to Stuttgart in 1950 to secure a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Manila, the German automaker has been a presence here as well. At first it wasn’t easy, Felix tells us: “The export manager asked him ‘Where the heck is the Philippines?’ Charles had to pull out a map and show them exactly where the Philippines is, below Hong Kong.”

Formula ready: Mercedes-Benz displays a sleek SLS AMG, used as the safety car in the 2010 Formula One season, at Resorts World.

Picture that: only five years after a devastating war, Manila was ready to start importing luxury German cars. Clearly, the Philippines was ready to put itself back on the map. “It does show that the Philippines was the jewel of Asia,” agrees Wolfgang. “Fast growing, lots of money, people investing, and there was a lot of interest in our products.” Some of this history is shown in the car exhibit downstairs at Resorts Worlds. From the salad days, when 2,500 Mercedes units per year were sold here in the ‘70s, the party has since decidedly cooled down; now Mercedes competes with other luxury German brands on the market, namely BMW and Audi. The numbers are much lower now, but they’re rising again, at least by 35 percent in Southeast Asia from ’09 to ‘10, according to Wolfgang.

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And at a time when Al Gore has convinced most of the world that cars must go green or perish, it’s interesting to note that Mercedes is already heading in that direction. In fact, CATS began selling its first Mercedes hybrid — the S400 L Blue — last year. It’s the one Mr. Felix Ang drives. And it’s the same one he lent to Al Gore during his visit to the country last year. After all, you can’t have Mr. Inconvenient Truth driving around in a Hummer. “He has this advocacy on the environment, so he needed a hybrid car. I’m the only one who had a hybrid car, so he borrowed mine,” Felix laughs. “So we have something in common. It’s an honor for me, and Mercedes, for the former vice president to use it.”

But still. How can luxury cars be eco-friendly? All that steel, all that expensive engineering to tote around? Felix confides that his hybrid gets 14 to 15 kms per liter, which is definitely better than my Toyota. And Wolfgang says Mercedes, like most carmakers, now has little choice but to improve performance and lower emissions. “With new technology, it’s very possible to combine luxury with fuel-efficient engines.” The company’s fuel efficiency package, known as BlueEFFICIENCY — covering everything from optimization of weight, aerodynamics, rolling resistance, energy management and powertrain — allows Mercedes-Benz to go even further than hybrid. “We don’t concentrate on just hybrid, we also do electric,” notes Wolfgang. “Hybrid, for me, or for most of us, is a purchasing strategy. It will become either fully electric or it will become something else. But it is part of the way of reducing our carbon footprint. So we will have, in every series, a vehicle that is environmentally friendly.”

Is it a difficult balance, combining fuel efficiency with real power under the hood? “I don’t think so,” he adds. “For example we are launching in Geneva next week the first S-Class four-cylinder engine, 2.5 liter diesel, it basically has the same torque efficiency as a 500, and has a fuel consumption of 5.7 liters, which is the lowest below-150 mark on your CO2 emissions.”

Horseless buggy: A replica of the first three-wheeled, gas-fueled vehicle designed by Karl Benz in 1886 was on display at Resorts World.

So Mercedes is getting there?

“You have to, because eventually we’ll end up with a CO2 fleet consumption tax, as they already have in California. And if you don’t have the mix, you’re dead, you cannot sell.”

One thing Mercedes has to fight is a perception among some that it’s “your dad’s car” or “lolo’s car.” While this does lead to repeat customers among family members who swear by the brand, it can also make Mercedes seem a bit, well, traditional. Not so, says Wolfgang. “I would not agree our brand is for the older set only. Our brand has changed dramatically in appearance over the past years. Look at the designs and features we are offering. There is an inspiring group of younger people coming in to the brand, you can see it in the C Class, the coupes, the Cabriolet, up to the E Class which is traditionally an executive vehicle. It’s a new crowd emerging.”

Felix Ang agrees. “You have to take history into consideration. A lot of these older guys have loyalty for Mercedes. You know, ‘It’s my dad’s car.’ But since the introduction of the C Class, and the roadster SLK, it’s shifted to the younger generation. Today our C Class is the best-selling segment, and especially with the AMG engines, it has very good reviews, and performance is amazing. So young guys start to go out with the C-Classes. The trend is now changing to the youthfulness of the car.”

Not just customers, but Mercedes designers too, such as Wini Camacho, a Filipino UST graduate and former toy designer who, a decade or so ago, submitted his drawings to Daimler and was called over to Frankfurt for an interview. He got the job and stayed. “Wini is actually one of the chief designers of W212 E-Class and part of the W204 C-Class team,” notes Robert Shaw, VP of Sales and Planning at CATS Motors. “We are really very proud of what he’s accomplished. It’s really fascinating to have a Filipino on that team, which is something I think no other brand has.”

Toys for big boys: UST graduate Wini Camacho at the Advanced Design Center of Mercedes-Benz in Frankfurt, Germany.

Women, too, may not be the traditional Mercedes market, but the company is not blind to feminine needs. According to its research, while men look first at “horsepower rating, torque, sporty looks” and techie options, women tend to look at “ease of parking, fuel consumption and value for money.” But Wolfgang, who notes there are quite a number of women on the design team, says he gets this question a lot: “Can you design a car for driving in high heels?” “I think that’s where design and desire find their limits,” he jokes.

Yes, the market is changing. There’s more parity of high-tech features among more brands. Consumers have greater awareness of what they’re buying. “Today, they go on the Internet and compare features, there is more awareness of the total environment of the vehicle.” The Mercedes answer to this is: test drives. “We actually enforce all our sales personnel to do test drives, because driving is the key issue,” says Felix.

“How many customers are taken on test drive and, especially in markets like Asia, we get the person who says ‘I’ve had one like that, I know how it drives,’” adds Wolfgang. “But when you get a person in the car and they actually drive it they say, ‘Oh, sh*t, this is totally different.’ Because you get the experience.”

Another thing has changed about the Mercedes market. It used to be the car you were driven around in. Now, it’s the car more and more customers want to take out for a spin. Says Wolfgang, “I think 20 years ago, customers would say ‘No, no, no, we don’t go anywhere with this car, we drive from point A to point B,’ because it’s their prestige car.”

Not today. Now, young Mercedes customers are more apt to push the limits of their S-Class roadsters. “Today, they say, ‘Hey, we burn rubber.’ I think that shows people are more interested in their products today. Twenty years ago, the S-Class customer was in the backseat, the driver was in the front. Now, not so much. I think it shows how things are changing.”

And hey, Manila may not have an autobahn, but there’s always the Skyway at 3 a.m., right?

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