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Friday, September 16, 2005

Mercedes in Hades

A few days back, I got a brochure from the local Mercedes dealer notifying that the latest iteration of Benz’s flagship model, the S-Class, was to be unveiled soon. Whereas in the past such an announcement would have brought great excitement, I approach the current one with trepidation. Simply put, Mercedes doesn’t make them like they used to. M-B is making some pretty big claims about its new car. However, the recent history of M-B’s products has been troubled, making many loyal customers second guess the make. Basically, Mercedes-Benz is now more marketing-led (in the pejorative sense) than engineering-driven. Back in the day, it was said that M-B’s engineers designed the best car they could, then had the bean counters determine its price afterwards. Nowadays, it can be said that the brand has been diluted by a proliferation of too many models as dictated by marketing-led whims, leading to resources spread too thin to ensure uniformly good products. Keeping these thoughts in mind, here are the resulting gripes, all of which are common and valid in my experience:

(1) Mercedes-Benzes break down all the time – Once upon a time, Mercedes was a paragon of engineering excellence and product reliability. It used to be among those makes that garnered the fewest defects in the JD Power survey. Nowadays, its models are nowhere near that level, and many M-B models are now among the most recalcitrant luxury cars according to Forbes. If you ask me, it’s due to overloading the cars with electronics which are more prone to technical glitches. Mechanical solutions seem to have elegance often absent in electronic ones. Instead of designing cars right that have desirable characteristics—predictable handling, moderate weight, good front-rear weight distribution, etc.—Mercedes now tries to correct fundamental design weaknesses by festooning their cars with an alphabet soup of electronic aids. The end result is that they pile on more electronics that have the unfortunate tendency to initiate electro-Chernobyl.

(2) Mercedes-Benzes look kind of funny – A Mercedes used to look like the business, as in “Don’t bother me, I’m a third-world despot who’ll dispossess your entire family at a whim” or “Out of my way, little man, I need to engineer mega-deals that keep the world running”. Nowadays, the messages it sends are more along the lines of “Hey mister, do you want to play miniature golf?” and “The Liberace was a style pioneer”. Tasteful conservative styling has been thrown out the window in favor of faddish styling that probably won’t age well. The main offender is the CLS, a.k.a. “The Banana Car” and the “Venga-Benz”. Despite its size, this big-ass car has virtually no rear headroom because its back windshield slopes down at an extreme angle in the name of style. Even the aforementioned S-Class looks ugly according to CAR Magazine, with its exaggerated Hummer-inspired fenders and BMW-inspired bubble butt. Such offenses would have been grounds for excommunication in the not-so-distant past.

(3) Mercedes-Benzes have cheap interiors – M-B cars aren’t cheap, but their interiors often are. I swear, the passenger compartment of my previous-generation Volkswagen Passat was noticeably better furnished than that of the last generation S-Class. Hard, shiny plastics, leatherette-like leather, and squeaks and rattles aplenty marred the Benz’s interior. The first iteration of the ML class marked the nadir of M-B interiors. The car magazines I’ve read say that the newer models have nicer interiors, but are by no means on par with those of VW-Audi products. Mercedes has some way to go before it regains more respect in this area.

So, it’s good to know that Mercedes-Benz’ top brass is well aware of this sorry situation by making CEO Dieter Zetsche, formerly the caretaker of better-running Chrysler, the overseer of Mercedes-Benz. Will more buyers still flock to the three-pointed star despite its faded glory? I hope to get a better indication as the newly launched models become available for testing. Until then, it might be advisable to let the German engineers iron out their quality control issues before taking the plunge again.


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1 Comments:

At 7:03 AM, Blogger Barry Ritholtz said...

I wonder why anyone would buy a Mercedes "S" or a BMW 7 series when the base price of the Maserati Quattroporte is $95k -- only marginally more money than the i-Drive infected teutons. . .

See this for more info QP

 

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