The popularity of crossover SUVs is chiefly an American phenomenon, but German luxury makes have been quick to capitalize on the trend and export this enthusiasm to emerging markets like China, as well as back home in Europe. Wolf-Dieter Kurz, who heads up the Mercedes-Benz unit responsible for making SUVs and sports cars, believes that the SUV market is not only growing, but also fragmenting into subsets that have specific needs and tastes.

As a result, the SUV side of the Mercedes-Benz product portfolio has proliferated with new models and now a new nomenclature in an effort to allow customers to better understand the lineup and find the product tailored to meet their desires.

An American trend

"The SUV trend is a U.S.-based trend," Kurz observed, adding that Mercedes-Benz was one of the first with the M Class, which was also the first vehicle to come out of its Alabama assembly plant. He attributes the popularity of SUVs to "the high seating position, the ease of access, the cargo space and that they can go anywhere."

As the popularity of these vehicles grew, expectations for what people want from this class of vehicles changed. "The impression 'I can go everywhere with my vehicle and I'm feeling safe' is an important factor, along with functionality," Kurz said. Now, "the SUV segment has the potential [to offer] something more. This is all individuals deciding on their vehicles, their tastes represent subsets, sporty driving, styling is definitely an important factor, no one will buy an ugly SUV. They also care about the look, feel and smell of the interior."

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New naming scheme

This has led to more luxurious and sporty crossover SUVs that range from more traditional examples, like the flagship G, to the new GLE Coupe, which has sleek 4-door coupe styling on the mid-size SUV platform.  The addition of the GLE and GLE Coupe, which replaces the traditional ML in the lineup, is part of a wider effort to rationalize the naming convention of its SUV products and align them with offerings on the car side of the ledger.

"It starts with the G, which is the grandfather of our SUVs," Kurz explained, adding that the GL is the next model and equates to the S-Class. It's followed by the GLE, the mid-size counterpart to the E-Class, the compact GLC and then the subcompact GLA.

While many of these new crossover SUVs employ modern unit-body construction with basic architecture shared with the car side, the G remains a traditional body-on-frame design that has changed little over 35 years. It is such an iconic vehicle that Kurz said Mercedes plans on sticking to that formula.

"First, the M-Class was intended to replace the G, but now we are in the third generation of the M and we are still building the same G," Kurz said. While a major change is coming to this flagship, it will be remain true to the original image. "It has to have a presence, masculinity, otherwise it is not an SUV," Kurz said. "The ruggedness of that vehicle's character should be part of its design."

The Mercedes of SUVs

The popularity of crossovers and Mercedes success in that segment lies in the ability for the German automaker's image to be successfully incorporated into the product. "The brand itself plays a major role," Kurz explained. "That is part of the character itself.  The genes of Mercedes, like comfort and safety play a major role. The brand itself creates an image in people's minds. This [promise] definitely has to be fulfilled by all the products, no matter where you go in the line."

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