When Jason Hoff became president and CEO of the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. plant in Vance in July 2013, the nation’s auto industry already was in full recovery mode.
Following the 2008 downturn, many Americans were reluctant to buy new vehicles. But by 2013, the economy had improved. More consumers were in a buying mood, and officials at the Vance assembly plant were making plans to launch production of the new 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan.
The preparations included the August opening of a brand new, 30, 000-square-foot training center in Tuscaloosa County where 1, 000 new workers would come to learn how to build the new C-Class the Mercedes way. Then, several months later in December, Mercedes opened its own $70 million logistics center to house parts needed to assemble vehicles at the plant.
“We’re in the middle of a big growth period for us, ” says Hoff, “not only from a volume standpoint, but also in terms of employment and in terms of the size of our plant. So we’re in the midst of growing to levels that we didn’t think we would ever achieve when we started this plant 20 years ago. So all of Mercedes is in a big growth, expansion period at the moment, and most of that is driven by positive trends in the marketplace.”
The C-Class made its official debut in January at the 2014 North American Auto Show in Detroit, and the company is betting that the new sedan will be a hit with consumers when it goes on sale this fall.
Mercedes is in tight competition with other luxury brands, like Audi and BMW, just as luxury cars are gaining popularity. In fact, the three automakers have battled over the years for the top spot in terms of volume sales. But according to a report on new vehicle sales by Motorintelligence.com, Mercedes-Benz is now slightly ahead of BMW, with year-to-date sales figures in November 2013 showing Mercedes-Benz at 298, 509 and BMW of North America Inc. at 271, 891.
“There aren’t as many [luxury market] players as there are of the higher volume manufacturers, ” Hoff says, “but the competition is extremely fierce among the three — Mercedes, Audi and BMW — when looking at the NAFTA U.S. region. All of the companies are striving to bring out the latest and greatest in products. I would say the competition amongst the luxury producers is as strong and as fierce as it’s ever been.”
Production of the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class is starting more than two decades after the company’s 1993 announcement that it planned to open a North American plant in Vance to build the M-Class sport utility vehicle. The production lineup later expanded to include the R-Class crossover vehicle in 2005 and the GL-Class SUV in 2006.
Besides the addition of the C-Class, a fifth model, a new SUV, will be added to the lineup later in 2015. MBUSI reports that it exports some 60 percent of all its vehicles, accounting for more than $1 billion annually in worldwide exports.
The C-Class will be the first sedan produced at the Vance plant, according to a company press release. And of the C-Class model, it says, “Overall, its innovations and refined equipment and appointments feel like an upgrade to a higher class.”
Among its standout features is the lightweight construction due to a combined usage of aluminum and steel parts and “ultra-high-strength steels.” As a result, the car is about 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor, according to company press materials.
The car has a newly designed 4-link front axle, and drivers can opt for a steel suspension or an air suspension on the front and rear axles. Its safety features include a sensor for the front passenger airbag that can detect a child seat and automatically deactivate the airbag to prevent injuries to children. The C-Class’ center console has a free-standing central display and a heads up display that can project information such as speed, speed limits and navigation instructions as a virtual image in the driver’s range of vision.
“It’s [C-Class] one in a series of many different products that the company is releasing, ” says Hoff, “starting back in the last couple of years with our compact cars that we released that you don’t really see in the United States but are a key part of the overall Mercedes-Benz strategy. We just launched our new S-Class and facelifted the E-Class [sedans] and the C-Class will come out  in the United States. After that, there will be other products and new models coming out.”
In December, engineering trials for the C-Class were under way to validate all of the equipment that will be used to make the sedan, says Shedrick Kynard, senior manager for Mercedes-Benz’s Assembly One plant and a 17-year veteran of the company. Production trials, he says, would begin soon to ensure that the car is assembled to specifications.
“You want to validate the process capability itself and that process includes your people, your methods, your documentation and your standards to be able to build a vehicle every time, ” Kynard says, “the exact same way.”
To learn the precise way to build the C-Class, some team members have traveled overseas for training at Mercedes-Benz’s assembly plant in Bremen, Germany, he says.
“We’ve had team members on this project anywhere from two to three years, ” Kynard says, “and we’ve had team members who have been traveling back and forth to Germany. These team members will be multipliers to help train the new team members that we’ll be receiving into the facility.”
Tanya Cabiness, the assembly shop manager who has worked for Mercedes 16 years, says the new hires coming to build the C-Class will spend a full week at the training center getting familiar with the assembly line, learning everything from how to change out bits and sockets to assembly plant standards and procedures.
“They will go through a lot of intensive training prior to them even setting foot onto the shop floor, ” Cabiness says.
To get qualified recruits with the technical skills needed to build Mercedes products, Mercedes has developed partnerships with Shelton State Community College and the University of Alabama to offer a Mechatronics training program and with AIDT, which also offers automotive instruction.
“We’ve always been very fortunate, and it’s a credit to the state of Alabama that they continue to develop their workforce to the point where they can give us the right people and not only the right people, ” says Hoff, “but also the right suppliers. It was one of the main reasons why we came here back in the early 1990s. Twenty years later, we’re still very happy with our ability to find the right qualified workers for the work that we have to do here.”
Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by Gail Allyn Short • photos by Cary Norton