Mercedes-Benz found its way into the hearts of younger buyers via sporty numbers

CAR-MAKERS with bulging purses looking to add sex appeal to their brand names have long found Formula One an irresistible platform.

Mercedes-Benz is no different. It has been involved in motor racing since the early 1900s, but left the circuit in 1955 for more than three decades, after a tragic accident claimed the lives of several spectators.

It was not until 1993 that Mercedes-Benz decided to emerge from self-exile and re-entered the glamorous world of F-1. While it has not been communicated officially, it's clear that customer appeal was the primary motive.

After establishing itself as the indisputable premium brand in the luxury segment for years on end, Mercedes-Benz found rivals - notably BMW - had gained ground because they appealed to a growing younger group of buyers.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that these buyers did not want to be seen driving cars their fathers drove. And brands like BMW, Audi and Volvo proved to be viable alternatives. Faced with an ageing clientele and an exodus of younger customers, Mercedes-Benz had to come up with a plan.

Formula One is part of the plan, which spearheads the introduction of several sporty, "non- traditional" products. Of course, the marque had several sporty numbers in the early years, but recent history points to a more sedate line-up characterised by such cars as the E-class and S-class.

That has changed, of course - and in remarkable time, too. Almost as soon as it re-entered F-1, Mercedes-Benz launched a slew of product offensives. A startling one has been the re-introduction of supercharging. Supercharging involves mechanically forcing more air into the combustion chambers to increase power. It is cost-effective, and Mercedes-Benz has used it to some success.

 Although somewhat surprising, its decision to supercharge a comfortable but laid-back lineup such as the E-class shows its eagerness to inject some excitement back into the brand.

But supercharging is not enough to reel in buyers. Hence the company introduced sexy, sporty numbers such as the SLK (the world's first hard-top convertible), CLK coupe, CLK cabriolet, and most recently, the Sports Coupe lift-back.

Elsewhere, Mercedes-Benz acquired in 1999 a controlling stake in AMG - the tuning company it has been closely associated with since the 1980s. With that, we see formally endorsed monster racers sporting the AMG emblem. They're the equivalent of BMW's M-line-up.

That same year, Mercedes-Benz entered an option to acquire 40 per cent of racing company McLaren, a move followed swiftly by the unveiling of ultra-sports cars like the SLR concept. The car, which could cost up to S$5 million, is expected to be market-ready by 2003.

On the sidelines, we see cars like the Smart Roadster and the Mercedes-Benz M-class. Although strictly not a sports car, the latter qualifies as one of the tools the manufacturer is using to re-invent itself.

But well before all these launches, readers will recall Mercedes' first re-acquaintance with its racing past in the form of the 190 series. Introduced nearly 20 years ago, the predecessor of the C-class quickly earned itself a reputation on and off the track as being quite un-Merc-like.

The late Ayrton Senna gave the car its baptism of fire by beating a host of more established racers in it at the Nurburgring circuit back in 1984.

With sales breaching the million-mark last year (from 600,000 as recently as 1996), it is clear Mercedes-Benz has struck a winning formula. Of course, besides F-1 and sportier products, the numbers were boosted by the mass-selling A-class small car too.

Catch the Silverstone F1 race on CityTV this Sunday at 8pm

Winning formula : to appeal to younger customers, Mercedes-Benz introduced non-traditional cars including (clockwise from top left) the SLK, Sports Coupe, CLK and SLR