Quality Uber Alles
In their pursuit of world domination, The Artist Formerly Known as Mercedes Benz has lost its ability to make chronically over-engineered automobiles. In fact, Mercedes' build quality has sunk almost as fast their model range—and corporate portfolio— has risen. Where once owners delighted in a glove box lid's well-oiled precision, they're now happy when the damn thing stays closed, and doesn't fall off. Even the new SL betrays the rot; the sun visors adjusts with violent imprecision, threatening to remove owners' perfectly groomed nails. To a greater or lesser extent, every car rolling off current Mercedes assembly lines is a betrayal of their corporate heritage.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that Mercedes' standards are low, exactly. It's just that their cars aren't built nearly as well as they once were, both in absolute and relative terms. In other words, there isn't a single Mercedes that can lay a claim to their old motto "The best engineered car in the world". Taken as a whole, Mercedes models are often as good as, but never unassailably better than, the competition. Truth be told, if you want to buy a car with robust engineering that delights in both conception and operation, you're just as likely to find it in a Lexus or Audi showroom.
Mercedes didn't get to be the world largest automobile manufacturer by being stupid. (Greedy yes, stupid no.) The Sultans of Stuttgart know full well that the company's profitability depends on maintaining the three-pointed star's reputation for representing the "best" of the premium brands. And they don't need me to tell them that their rep is slipping. Resurgent low volume carmakers like Rolls Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin prove that Mercedes' death-grip on the premium market is now no more than a limp-wristed handshake. Meanwhile, mainstreamers are nipping at Merc's heels like a tireless pack of jackals, matching Mercedes car for car, X5 for ML, RS6 for CL, Zafira for A-Class.
Mercedes' response to the "quality gap" has been to build entirely new models. The strategy is the exact reverse of the one that made them a success in the mass market. The idea then: build cheaper clones that bask in the reflected glory of the well-made expensive models. The idea now: build well-made, visually distinctive and expensive models that distance themselves from the existing, cheaper range.
Hence the SLR. While I have no doubt the SLR will restore Mercedes' reputation for comprehensive engineering excellence, it's a car too far. By raising the quality bar well above the heads of the SL Club, Mercedes ignores the psychological need of its core clientele for automotive superiority. If the SL isn't the ultimate Mercedes roadster, it can't be the "best roadster in the world". And who wants second best? In that case, why not plump for something cheaper with the same (or better) quality, like an SC430? Or something slightly more expensive with a bit more exclusivity and style, like a top down Aston Martin?
Mercedes is asking for the same sort of trouble with the Maybach. While the monster limo lives in a different price universe than Mercedes' S Class sedans, the Maybach transforms S Class potentates into second class citizens. Where's MY fully reclining leather seat, big screen TV and Internet connection? If Mercedes had hived off the Maybach brand with real conviction, they might have limited the damage. But they hedged their bets, keeping the Maybach in the Mercedes family, hoping for a little "halo effect". Not so SMART, Mr. Daimler.
Meanwhile, Mercedes is making some truly risible downmarket tat. The A-Class does nothing particularly well, and a lot of things quite badly. The less said about the V-Class, the better. And what could be less Mercedes-like than a Chrysler, any Chrysler? If one bad apple spoils the whole barrel, Mercedes has more trouble than a barrel of monkeys.
Of course, what Mercedes should be doing is knuckling down to business: focusing on core brand values. They should understand what makes (made?) a Mercedes a Mercedes: fanatical attention to detail combined with engineering innovation and bulletproof build quality. It must be quality you can see, feel and hear, whether you're a driver, passenger or mechanic. Mercedes should invest in this extra quality knowing it will cost the consumer a bit more, but not mortgage money more, than the competition's product. They should advertise their achievements, and have faith that the punters will reward their corporate investment with long-term loyalty.
Mercedes should attack the quality issue on all existing fronts, rather than opening up new ones. The SLR and Maybach should be cut loose from their corporate parent, to live or die on their own merits, in their own retail space. In short, if Mercedes can't make the best car in the niches that really matter, they shouldn't bother.
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