Interview with Steve Mattin, Senior Designer, Mercedes-Benz

Stephen Mattin is a senior designer changing the face of Mercedes-Benz. The 36-year-old British born designer is responsible for the look of no fewer than four of the company’s current models – the A-class, the S-class, the C-class sports coupe, and the new SL roadster. And he’s been working on his current assignment – the next generation ML-class off-roader – for the past two years. Angus MacKenzie reports.

Fascinated by cars and buildings as a child, Mattin took up automotive design after learning an architecture degree took seven years to acquire. He joined Mercedes straight from college in 1987, working under the company’s veteran design chief, Bruno Sacco.

Mattin’s SL, revealed in July at a glitzy, showbiz launch that featured singer Lionel Ritchie, is typical of the new Mercedes house style, with tautly sculpted surfaces and a quad-headlight front end graphic. “The previous SL had been around for 13 years and was the last of the old-style Benzes,” he says. “The new one was bound to fit in with the family more.”

Yet Mattin rejects any suggestion Mercedes is simply replacing one design formula with another: “The saloon cars are getting a lot more sporty and the grille size is being reduced,” he concedes, when reminded that it’s getting more difficult to tell an S-class from a CL coupe or the new SL from some angles. “But it’s not the intention to bring them together.”

Figure 1: The new C-Coupe

Figure 2: The Mecedes G-class

Redesigning an icon product like the SL is a challenge designers at once relish and fear. “You have this legend to look up to,” says Mattin, “and the expectations that come with that make the process harder.” At the same time, however, he acknowledges that designing a good looking sports car can be a lot easier than shaping a smart saloon. “You have fewer package constraints with a sports car,” he says. “You can get away with a much cleaner roofline, and you don’t have the same length restrictions.

Designing the next generation ML-class, code-named W164 and scheduled to enter production in 2004, is an abrupt step-change for Mattin. It’s also a critically important product for the Mercedes-Benz brand. But having jumped from A-class to S-class to C-class to SL, Mattin is no stranger to paradigm shifts in design thinking, or to redefining consumer expectations of a well-known nameplate.

By any measure, the current Mercedes-Benz ML-class has been an outstanding success. Back in 1994, when Mercedes planners starting thinking about producing the company’s first “lifestyle” SUV, they figured on selling 35,000 a year. But more than 178,000 ML-class have been sold in the US – every fifth Benz now sold in the US is an ML-class – since it went on sale in May, 1997. More than 106,000 were sold worldwide last year, and DaimlerChrysler expects to shift a further 100,000 units this year, despite the disruption of a mid-cycle facelift.

The ML-class plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, built at a cost of US$300 million, has already been given a US$80 million overhaul to boost throughput from 65,000 units per annum to 107,000, and a new line has been added to the DaimlerChrysler plant in Graz, Austria, to enable production of a further 50,000 ML-class – including the European market 2.7litre five cylinder and 4.0 litre V8 common rail diesel models.

Despite the sales success, the ML-class has been one of the more controversial Mercedes-Benz models. Early cars were criticised for poor quality, particularly in terms of the downmarket interior, and sparked rumours of a blowout in Mercedes’ warranty costs – said to have trebled since the company switched from its traditional engineering-led product development approach to one that is clearly market-driven. The mildly facelifted ML unveiled last month features a richer interior package as the most visible sign of 1100 new or changed components, but DaimlerChrysler officials refuse to disclose whether they expect it to have significantly lower warranty costs.

Figure 3: The new M-Class

The next generation ML-class will be much more a Mercedes-Benz, says Mattin. The original was designed well before Daimler Benz CEO Jurgen Schrempp’s audacious takeover of Chrysler in 1998, and was intended to compete with the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. With Jeep now in the overall DaimlerChrysler model mix, the ML-class will be allowed to drift back upmarket. One small, but important, indicator of this: the next generation ML will have proper Mercedes-Benz switchgear.

“The original ML was developed by a stand alone engineering team, and the switchgear (roundly criticised by the automotive media for its design, quality and layout) was defined partly by the suppliers in the US,” says Mattin. “But Mercedes-Benz now has a department which ensures all switchgear is consistent across all models. It’s now recognised as part of our brand values.”

The new ML will be unit body construction, and will be a family of vehicles, rather than a stand-alone model. There will be a long wheelbase model, to be called the MLV, while the regular wheelbase version will grow slightly in size, and will be given more substantial looking sheet metal. “The present car’s probably a bit soft looking,” says Mattin. “The new one will have much more on-road presence.” The only mechanical change known is that the 3.2 litre V6 will be replaced by a 3.6 litre version with three valves per cylinder and 258bhp.

Mattin also hints that the ML concept will be shrunk down to combat BMW‘s forthcoming X3. “The ML-class will become a family of vehicles,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz’s forgotten 4WD, the G-class, which dates back to the 1970s, will stay in production with only detail changes and positioned as an authentic off-roader with true go-anywhere ability. As much of the tooling for the G-class, originally known as the Gelandewagen or G-wagen, has been long amortised, it’s quite profitable even at modest volumes. “We’d need to look at the numbers a lot differently to make a major change,” says Mattin.

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