VANCE, Alabama -- The Mercedes-Benz plant on Wednesday officially kicked off production of a new coupe-style SUV that marks the fifth model running on the German automaker's Tuscaloosa County assembly lines.
The GLE Coupe is a sporty, high-performance vehicle that is set to compete against the BMW X6. It is expected to go on sale this summer.
Workers at the Alabama plant began building customer-ready versions of the GLE Coupe about a week ago. But they celebrated the launch Wednesday in a Job 1 ceremony that culminated with the rollout of the first one built.
Gov. Robert Bentley, local government officials and Mercedes executives from Germany, including former Alabama plant chief Markus Schaefer, also were on hand.
The GLE Coupe combines the sportiness of a coupe with the strength of an SUV, said Schaefer, who is now a member of the Divisional Board for Mercedes-Benz Cars, overseeing the company's manufacturing and supply chain operations.
"It can climb hills...but you can also take it to a black tie event in the evening," he said.
The milestone vehicle, destined for a customer in the Czech Republic, is a Hyacinth Red Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S 4MATIC Coupe.
It features an AMG 5.5-liter V8 biturbo engine that delivers 577 horsepower and 561 pound-feet of torque. Another variant, the GLE 450 AMG 4MATIC Coupe, has a biturbo V6 engine with 362 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque.
Pricing and fuel economy data will be announced closer to the sales launch.
Mercedes showed off the GLE Coupe in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where it was a star of the show, said Jason Hoff, current head of Mercedes' Alabama operations.
He credited the plant's employees for the successful launch of the GLE Coupe, which is part of one of the most aggressive periods in the automaker's history in Alabama.
Over the past few years, the company has invested $2.4 billion and added 1,400 new jobs at the plant, as it took on new models, updated others and increased capacity. Currently, workers build the M-Class SUV (which will be known as the GLE-Class when it is updated later this year), the C-Class sedan and the GL-Class full-sized SUV.
The R-Class crossover also is produced in Tuscaloosa County, but that will be moved to a contract manufacturer in Indiana this summer to make room for more SUVs.
This year, the plant is expected to produce more than 300,000 vehicles, up from 232,662 last year, and Schaefer hinted that there may be more to come.
"I think we'll have more news in the future," he said, adding that the Tuscaloosa County factory is a key part of Mercedes' global manufacturing network. "This is the lead plant for SUVs worldwide."
Mercedes has dubbed 2015 as the year of the SUV, since the majority of its SUVs will be updated. So far this year, the automaker's global SUV sales total more than 107,000, up 32 percent over last year.
Bentley also praised Mercedes workers.
"Without Mercedes, we would not have been able to produce nearly 1 million vehicles in the state of Alabama last year, when 20 years ago, we produced zero," he said.
Mercedes selected Tuscaloosa County as the site of its first U.S. manufacturing plant in 1993 and started producing luxury SUVs there in 1997. Since then, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota have built their own vehicle and engine assembly factories in the state, along with hundreds of suppliers.
Schaefer, who was head of Mercedes' Alabama operations from 2010 to 2013, recalled arriving back in the state Tuesday night. When he passed the Mercedes Drive exit on Interstate 20/59, he "felt home again."
His current role in the company takes him to Mercedes factories around the world.
"This plant is the heart and soul of Mercedes, and it's going to stay that way," he said.
Written By Dawn Kent Azok