A COUPLE of hours before the first part of the Budget last week, Mercedes-Benz was in very buoyant form. At a meeting at its HQ on Dublin's Naas Road, sales manager Ciaran Allen said the company's worldwide sales in 2011 were at an all-time record. The company was predicting the global car market to increase by 5 per cent each year until 2020.
Furthermore, the luxury brands would have even higher growth and over the next eight years Mercedes-Benz would double its sales to nearly three million vehicles, to lead the premium sector.
There would also be 10 completely new cars in the next four years in areas where there aren't already Mercs.
Much of this emphasis would be to attract a new cohort by "taking the stiffeners out of (Mercedes) collars" and designing cars for a more youthful clientele.
Of course, established competitors like Audi, BMW, Lexus and Jaguar will have something to say about this, as will marques such as Hyundai, which have premium ambitions at more affordable levels.
Mercedes' fellow German rivals have been particularly busy recently, with Audi's Q3 gaining a lot of attention and BMW building on the massive success of the 5-Series by extending much of the same design language to the all-new 3-Series, which I drove during my holidays.
On the lovely roads around Barcelona and on the city's Formula One circuit, the car behaved beautifully, with such a positive feel and response, especially through the eight-speed automatic box.
The car is much bigger and is the now the size of the last but one 5-Series. It truly can be called a family car and bequeaths its cramped interior to the rather noisy, but again precise-driving, 1-Series that suffers by staying loyal to the rear-wheel-drive purists.
While the new 3-Series, which will launch here and in 132 countries simultaneously in February, does reflect the stance of both the 7 and 5 series, it has lost some of its soul in the process.
It looks really athletic and sharp from the front, but side on and from the rear it begins to look a tad ordinary.
No wonder that in the film at the press conference nearly all the shots were of the car coming to the camera.
The 3-Series has been the most successful car in its segment since it was launched in 1975. Since then, some 12.5 million units have been sold. The US is its biggest market, followed by China, Germany, the UK, Japan and Italy.
The most interesting car is likely to be the 320d, which does 0-100kmh in 7.5 seconds, can deliver more than 60mpg and comes in the lowest motor tax band that has now been increased to €160 a year.
These outstanding figures reflect that the new model is not only larger than the one it replaces but about 50kg lighter, and the car uses the latest BMW Efficient Dynamic technologies -- like engine stop-start.
The dash is very classy and the heads-up display is clear, except in the brightest sunshine. Although the car is longer and with considerably more room for rear passengers, it has been narrowed slightly, which gave me a rather crowded feeling, both as passenger and driver up front. Yet that still couldn't take from the very real joy of driving the car and the strong confidence it gave on the mountain roads.
Prices start at €34,180 for the big-volume-selling 316d, while the 320d, with all the fuel-saving devices, comes in at €38,710. There will be three versions of each model -- Sport, Modern or Luxury.
All cars will allow you to choose from four different driving modes. It's a pretty tasty package.