Mercedes Benz: A Consumer Reports
Mercedes-Benz makes a lot of cars for customers with serious aspirations. Just out of college, looking for bit of respect? C-Class. Mid-level manager aspiring to the next rung on the corporate ladder? Take an E. Mr. Got it All looking for a set of wheels for the woman who isn't his wife? CLK cabriolet. And a car for the woman who is? The SL. The clear link in all this is badge snobbery. In fact, if class consciousness has a symbol, it's a three-pointed star. So what's one of the brand's current campaigns for their $96k CL500? "Mercedes-Benz: For Everyone." Right.
Post-modern irony aside, it's true. Mercedes-Benz wants to sell a car in every automotive niche. (Not to mention the ones they invent.) Mercedes can get away with it too. If Mercedes produced the equivalent of Europe's proletarian Ford Ka and slapped a MB badge on it, the automotive press would slam it and tens of thousands star struck buyers would go straight out and buy one. Oh wait, they did. Mercifully, US buyers were spared the rolling atrocity known as the A-Class. That said, it may be only a matter of time before the entirely inappropriate B-Class finds its way into trendy loft livers' assigned parking spaces. Badge snobbery über alles.
Consider the Gelaendewagen, or, since Mercedes-Benz of North America started importing them directly, the G500 and G55 AMG. The G-Wagen has been guzzling its way over the world's peaks and valleys since the 1970s. The $81,000 truck– and it is a truck in spite of the price– has passed the previous record holder to become the longest running Mercedes-Benz chassis. The G-Wagen beat-out the iconic R107 body SL convertible. Could you imagine Mercedes-Benz peddling the R129 SL of the 90's today? I can. The company only retired the convertible a little over three years ago.
Back track for a moment. Mercedes-Benz is a fantastically successful car company. Like Porsche, they've consistently beaten their previous year's U.S. sales records for more than a decade. On the face of it, attributing Mercedes-Benz's profits to a simple combination of name and emblem is disingenuous. There's a great deal of substance behind the company's name and its star.
Mercedes-Benz rose from the ashes of WWII to build the best cars in the world, for more than five decades. They weren't always pretty– the 1970s were a particularly troubled time in their design department-– but the company achieved a quality standard that no other manufacturer could touch. Cars like the stalwart 300SD stand the test of time. Literally. Today, that bullet-proof German quality is little more than vehicular folklore. Engineered like no other car in the world? That's fine by Lexus, as Toyota's luxury brand builds far better cars than DaimlerChrysler's Benz. MB vs. BMW or Audi? No contest.
It is difficult to identify the exact moment when Mercedes craftsmanship went south. Then again, you could say the moment arrived in 1993, when Daimler-Benz built a plant in Alabama to manufacture the M-Class SUV. Soccer moms took a second mortgage on the house just to roll-up at practice in a new ML320. When the corporate volk back in Stuttgart realized that US buyers were snapping-up the new M-Class despite failed transmissions and electrical problems, the pressure was off. Why use high-cost components or materials that car buyers can't see and don't care about? Brand extension and "de-contenting" kept MB's hugely profitable juggernaut moving forward.
A decade on and the German marque ranks lowest among the luxury brands in reliability. The latest issue of Consumer Reports highlights this fact. Reliability is listed as "below average," "poor," and "below par," for the C, E, and S-Class, respectively. "Poor reliability" and "Mercedes-Benz" in the same sentence? Where is "vault-like" and "dependable"? It's been more than a decade since any of the automotive press used those terms to describe a Benz and I'm hard pressed to see their return anytime in the near future. The chintzy E350, vault-like? I don't think so. The all new ML500 dependable? I'll believe when I see it. There is nothing about the current Mercedes-Benz lineup – save the SL – that warrants that kind of praise from the media.
Like the rest of western society, Mercedes-Benz is living on credit. It's been paying nothing towards the debt to its own name. There comes a point when the line expires and the loan is called. When that happens, the customers walk away and into the ready arms of the competition that has been making reliable, sound, solid automobiles all the while. It is not just General Motors and Ford that the Japanese are keen on passing. If Mercedes-Benz wants to continue its run, it must stop making cars "for everyone" and manufacture only the best. That is, after all, what everyone wants.
[Gunnar Heinrich runs www.automobilesdeluxe.blogspot.com]
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