2016 was an outstanding year for Mercedes-Benz. Sales reached 2.08 million vehicles globally for the first time in the automaker’s 130-year-plus history. That success helped Benz mark a sixth consecutive year of record sales. And the three-pointed-star brand catapulted past BMW for top spot in premium brand sales, which BMW’s held since 2005.

That rise from third, in 2011, to first has been championed mainly through product and new vehicle technologies; giving its cars a more sophisticated, sporty feel spurred growth in key markets like China and Europe.

But Dieter Zetsche, chair of the board of management at Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars Division, can only celebrate a short time—more challenges lay ahead. “Our new target now,” said Zetsche. “Is staying on top.”

Zetsche was open and tackled many subjects during a roundtable discussion at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit last week.

But the main two – besides Donald Trump – were electrification and autonomous vehicles. They seem to be all almost every automaker talks about these days, but this discussion took a turn towards high-performance vehicles, too.

Take a closer look at what Mercedes-Benz showed off at NAIAS. It was the 50th anniversary of AMG, its high-performance division, and it was clear they came to Detroit for a party. The limited edition AMG GT C Edition 50 Coupe graced the stage alongside its sister car, the AMG GT C Roadster.

But the German brand also brought an AMG GT S and AMG GLA 45 to stand beside its mainstream feature, the E-Class Coupe.

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“We are very happy with the development of AMG and with its 40 percent growth between year 49 and 50,” Zetsche said with a smile. Mercedes-Benz and AMG are both at their pinnacle, but can AMG carry that success over into electric and autonomous car circles?

When asked, Zetsche pointed to the 750-horsepower SLS AMG Electric Drive coupe with four electric motors, and an upcoming vehicle called ‘Project One.’

“We have had the SLS electric since 2013, and, no, it was not the main reason we passed two million sales this year,” Zetsche joked. “On the other hand, we have a future hypercar to be announced that will be built around a slightly modified Formula One hybrid engine.”

The four-wheel-drive ‘Project One,’ to be shown at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show, will breathe 1,000 horsepower through that hybrid-electric powertrain, and will be capable of running 24 kilometres on pure battery power.

The growing number of luxury EV automakers like Faraday Future – which showed off its FF 91 at the Consumer Electronics Show early January, a 1,000-horsepower all-electric vehicle capable of close to 600 kms of range on a single charge – is why Mercedes-Benz likely sees the necessity in going down the AMG- or Maybach-electrification route.

“Those 50 years of AMG went fast. Fifty years from now it will be hard to see the same 12-cylinder combustion engine or other kinds of propulsion we’re used to,” explained Zetsche.

“The only thing for certain is tremendous uncertainty going forward. That’s why at Mercedes-Benz, we need to be flexible and versatile in order to be able to adjust to various frameworks that come about.”

Zetsche kept specific plans close to the vest, and didn’t fully endorse the concept of a fully electric future Mercedes-Benz product line, but Jens Thiemer, Mercedes-Benz vice-president of marketing, did. “There will come a point in time where the complete portfolio will become electrified, whether it’s plug-in hybrid or pure electric engines,” he said.

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Teaser image of the ‘Project One’ hypercar

Autonomous cars are the other trendy subject that won’t go away. It’s not that anyone is actually asking for them; for some, it’s a glimpse of what the future might bring, or a great way for automakers to show off cutting-edge technology with some ‘wow’ factor.

According to Zetsche, autonomous vehicles are most exciting when battery-powered and used in ride-sharing fleets. “Car sharing and electric cars go together very well, and these trends and technologies that surround autonomous driving enable new attractive surfaces and technologies to customers—and I’m all for that.”

In the end, Zetsche is all about the customer. The semi-autonomous technologies in the new E-Class are a step above any automaker, but he doesn’t know yet how fully autonomous vehicles or ride-sharing programs will ultimately integrate, considering they can only currently operate in metropolitan areas due to scale and density.

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Daimler AG chair Dieter Zetsche at a roundtable discussion at the 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS)

Even though the constraints on autonomous ride-sharing may lead to its demise, Zetsche concedes car-sharing in general lets more people enjoy the comforts of premium vehicles. It also drives the number of premium vehicles in those metropolitan areas up, and opens up potential pay-per-minute sharing models.

For now, Zetsche and Mercedes-Benz will start to do more than dabble in the electrified and autonomous space. Mercedes-Benz has been calculating and careful in its rise to the top of the luxury market, and you can bet it’ll be on top of the latest trends and technologies when they hit the ground running.

(cover photo by Nick Busato)