Ur-Turn: Das Beste…Wirklich
At age 64, I have been driving legally for 48 years. I have bought and sold many, many cars. Some were good, some were not, some were meh!
So a question emerges, what was the best car of them all?
As of November, 2013 I would have said, my last daily driver. A 2006 Mercedes-Benz W211, otherwise known as an E 350. I bought it off-lease exactly five years before. It had 42,000 miles when I bought it, and 87,000 at the end.
No car is perfect, of course, but as the years went by, I developed a surprising affection for what I called “my German taxi with plastic seats.” Previous rides that I had “holstered,” in Farago-speak, included BMW 540i, Acura TL, and Lexus IS 250. And the Benz was really reliable. Lexus reliable. It never failed to start or left me stranded by the roadside. It was serviced annually at the local dealer at fees ranging from $400 to $1,000.
The 2 major flaws I experienced were with a jammed sunroof and a failure of the electric trunklid closer. The sunroof problem the dealer estimated could cost as much as $1,000. Fortunately, a friend is very knowledgeable about this problem. When the roof is opened, a front wind deflector pops up, powered by 2 simple flat metal springs. These springs are held in place by (what else?) 2 plastic brackets. It is a horrible design. Even the mechanically illiterate would look at the bracket and declare it inadequate. And this design is found on many, many modern Mercedes. The brackets break, and the broken pieces end up jamming the roof track. New brackets are like $11.00 a pop, easy to install, and the track was easy to clean and lubricate. So I dodged a bullet on that one. The trunk closer fault was diagnosed to be a short in the rear electrical harness and the dealer replaced it for around $800. Not too bad for 45,000 miles of very pleasant motoring.
The car has many pluses. I have always thought that Mercedes-Benz, of all the imports, offer the best combination of ride and handling. They are designed to excel at autobahn speeds and they have amazing road sense. I have owned quite a few Mercedes before and this is a very common characteristic. The other strong point is the overall packaging of people and cargo. Lots of room, front and rear, and a huge trunk. The seats, front and rear were also very comfortable. The paint work was the finest I have ever seen. The Harman-Kardon stereo was also superb.
The main flaws were high levels of road texture noise, as bad as any I have ever experienced. And a way too “flexy” body structure. Over really bad bumps, all 4 doors rattled. That never used to happen on a Benz. Other W211s (and the replacement W212s) I have ridden in exhibited the same symptoms.
So, as I was saying, I liked the car. But five years is a long time and it was time for a change. I live in sunny Palm Springs, and had recently installed solar power on my house. I decided that my next car would be a plug-in hybrid. I’ll write about that selection process soon. So I put my immaculate Mercedes on Craiglist and Cars.com and soon had several interested buyers. During a test drive, one of the prospects said they could smell gas fumes outside of the car. I had it checked out, and sure enough, my car had developed a leak in the fuel tank. On a Mercedes, the fuel tank is beneath the rear seat cushion. The tank itself was sound, the leak was in the large plastic canister above the tank which included the fuel pump and sending unit. Here comes the good part. You cannot replace just the canister. It only comes as a unit with the tank.
What’s even worse is that this is a known flaw on the W211 series (and probably others.) My local dealer even had them in stock (for an 8 year old car), that’s how often they fail. So here’s your introduction to owning an older, out-of-warranty Mercedes (or any other German car). The fuel tank lists at $1,900 and another $600 for installation. Is this acceptable? “The best or nothing.”?
It made me realize that today’s Mercedes-Benzes are not nearly as well designed, or well built as they once were. The company that used to be run by some of the best engineers anywhere now operates as a maker of expensive fashion accessories. Since most of their customers lease their cars for 3-4 years, the cars are always under warranty. But who will want them when they become 7or 8 years old?
So the question I propose to you, the best and the brightest, is: does any automaker today design cars to really last?
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My '04 Accent is right around 100k miles, about 60k of which my wife and I have done since she bought it 4 years ago. In that time, outside of consumables (I'm hard on the brakes), we've replaced the washer fluid pump and the coil (so, figure equivalent to one monthly payment on a new Accent). It's an utterly miserable car, but I think it'll keep lasting out of spite.
If you're looking for a manufacturer whose cars are all reliable, you're asking the wrong question. In this day and age, no manufacturer builds enough pieces of their own cars to be reliable as a unit, I don't think. Even the best companies can have bad models -- for any marque that isn't Lexus, the difference between models is probably going to be as much as the difference between marques. My logic would be as follows: 1) Buy at the end of the run. Design problems tend to get fixed over time, suppliers get replaced, etc. 2) Buy something simple. The fewer options it has, the simpler its design philosophy, the likelier it is to last. 3) Buy something common. The more there are of a given model, the more likely its design problems are to be known -- and the less it will cost to fix what inevitably does go wrong.