Daimler aims for luxury crown by 2020

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Daimler is on track to retake the global luxury crown before the decade's end, chief Dieter Zetsche said Sunday, hoping to lead the German auto giant for at least the next five years.

"We are moving in the right direction and have lots of great products coming," Zetsche said at a press event on the eve of the Detroit auto show.

Zetsche, whose five-year contract ends in December, said he is "having fun" on the job and expects to be asked to remain, adding that the decision is "obviously" up to Daimler's board.

Daimler expects global auto sales to grow by between three and four percent this year and thinks 2014 "will be better than that," he added.

Trouble remains, however, in its home market of Europe.

"The best we could hope for in Europe would be a sideward development, a flat development," Zetsche told reporters after unveiling the new Mercedes CLA.

"Probably it's more likely we'll see a slight decline at least in the first half of the year. The second half of the year might start get better."

Getting Europe back on track won't be easy.

"It's clear that we have to have the confidence in the euro come back, that we have to see the continuation of austerity politics and at the same time the start of growth initiatives which help the consolidation of the public deficit to bring growth back to Europe," Zetsche said.

That's one reason why the booming US market is so key to the company.

"America is our single most important market now," Zetsche said, noting that sales in the United States surpassed Germany for the first time last year after rising 15.4 percent to over 305,000 vehicles.

"We think that is sustainable."

China is also a major focus for Mercedes because it is the only market in the world with more total sales than the United States.

"We think that the general economy, GDP, should probably grow something between seven and eight percent," Zetsche said of China.

"This certainly will fuel another good growth year in the automotive market with the top end premium segment being rather above this growth."

A recent shakeup of the Daimler operations in China has helped the German automaker "set the foundation for a new phase of grow," he said, dismissing rumors that it is looking for a new partner there.

Daimler is also considering China as the next location for manufacturing compact cars like the new CLA, though nothing has yet been decided.

North America is another possible location for a new compact car factory, Zetsche said, explaining that the partnership with Renault-Nissan has lowered the sales volume threshold at which it becomes financially feasible to launch local production.

Asked if Daimler would consider returning production to South America, Zetsche said that while the market is growing, volume in the premium segment remains insufficient to sustain a factory.

"The market is growing. There are more affluent people to buy more expensive cars, so we might come to the point to revisit that decision but there's no decision made by now," he told reporters.

© 2013 AFP

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