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German car maker looks to plug gap below SLK with a new affordable front-drive sports car based on the next-generation A-Class.

Mercedes-Benz showed a compact roadster concept back in 2000 called the SLA Vision. The car is set to become production reality in 2012, based on the platform of the next-generation A-Class.

The affordable compact two-seater is being considered for a 2012 debut as the German car maker expands its range of small cars to attract younger buyers and meet ever-stricter fuel-efficiency mandates.

Nine years after the company debuted the SLA Vision roadster concept at the Detroit motors how, a Mercedes insider told Drive at the 2009 show that a baby roadster was in the pipeline to sit below the SLK.

The roadster would form part of an expanded model range based on the new A- and B-Class models expected in 2011. A baby off-roader could also be part of the mix.

Drive has been told that Mercedes’ Concept BlueZero Detroit show car is “a strong pointer to the look of the next-generation A- and B-Class.

The new A-Class will abandon the complex sandwich-construction platform first introduced on the baby Benz in 1997 for more conventional underpinnings that offer more flexibility.

“The next-generation A- and B-Class will use a new front-drive platform that will lend itself to many new bodystyle options,” says the source.

“The sandwich floor is not suitable for a roadster design because it is too heavy and the roof would be too high.”

The source said the platform could be converted to all-wheel-drive or rear-wheel drive, but said front-drive allowed for better packaging flexibility.

“BMW’s 1-Series is a rear-wheel-drive small car, but the space limitations of this style of drivetrain mean there’s no [practical] rear seat,” says the Mercedes insider. (BMW is rumoured to be building its own compact, 1-Series-based roadster to be called the Z2.)

An AMG version of the Mercedes roadster, and even the A-Class, is also likely. A ‘twin-charged’ four-cylinder petrol engine – that’s both supercharged and turbocharged – is rumoured for the entry-level Mercs.

The models would respond to customer research that revealed customers wanted greener, more economical AMGs but without the loss of performance.

The regular versions of the 2011 A- and B-Class will continue to be powered by developed versions of the sub-2.0-litre engines used in the current models, and the source suggested these engines have the potential to be shared with arch-rival BMW.

Industry speculation continues that the German rivals will share some future technologies to help reduce costs as the car industry faces an unprecedented crisis, and the A-Class engines can be converted from front-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive.

Mercedes’ sandwich platform, however, will be retained for future, alternative-fuel vehicles.

The company insider says the sandwich floor is suitable for alternative-fuel drivetrains such as electric and hybrid, as well as safety and packaging.

An all-electric version of the current B-Class is set to go on sale in 2011, while the BlueZero concept car’s technology previews a fuel-cell hydrogen car that will go into production in 2010.

The new A-Class hatch is expected to retain its high-roofed ‘monobox’ styling, while the Mercedes source says the company is not planning to follow Alfa Romeo (Mito) or Audi (A1) and build a direct rival to the Mini.

“The market for that kind of [premium hatch] car is limited,” says the insider. “The Mini has a lot of heritage, even if the new Mini is very different to the original Mini. The Mini brand is one that fits well with its parent company [BMW]. And we have our own young and funky brand in Smart. But Smart will remain a two-seater car.”

Mercedes is investing significantly in production facilities for the A-Class. There’s a 600m Euro ($1.2b) revamp of the existing Rastatt plant in Germany, and the three-pointed star is also spending 1b Euros ($2b) on a new plant in Kecskemet in Hungary. The two plants are believed to be capable of building 500,000 cars annually.

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