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Whining About the End of Mercedes
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

1997 Mercedes SL500
Laguna Beach, California, May, 2004

1997 Mercedes SL500 with brown soft top

return to specifics of the 1997 model

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This is an under-construction rant about how they're "not made like they used to be." It's well documented that Mercedes reliability is off as of around model year 2000, but what's also paramount is that Mercedes stands behind its cars 110%. The people I've met who've had duds and lemons were taken care of, some even given free new cars, and otherwise quite happy and still driving and loving and buying even more Mercedes.

I took Mercedes' level of dealer and manufacturer support for granted until I decided to buy a BMW, which had far better reliability ratings. I enjoy visiting my Mercedes dealer, and would rather have teeth pulled than deal with the BMW dealer who sold me my BMW.

This was bourne out in Consumer Report's April 2005 issue which listed the 2003 Mercedes SL500 as one of the very least reliable cars on the planet, and definitely a used car to avoid, and then showed it was rated almost the very highest in terms of customer satisfaction. The newest. least reliable SL500's owners had the highest percentage of respondents who would definitely buy another one. You gotta love Mercedes!

My cars have always been fine, and when I bring them in for maintenance I'm simply handed the keys to some other car to use, usually another Mercedes, until mine is ready. You don't get that anywhere else I've been.


For over one hundred years Mercedes both invented the automobile and just about everything in automotive history. A Mercedes cost double that of an ordinary car and was completely different. For one hundred years the only car you could buy that always just worked was Mercedes. Somewhere around the time Mercedes bought Chrysler in the late 1990s Daimler decided to make cars compromised for cost to compete with everyone else, which was OK since the Japanese had learned by 2000 to make cars as reliable as Mercedes, even if they lacked soul. Thus the market for cars costing double that of regular cars shrunk since you could get a perfectly good Toyota or Lexus that ran great, even if it was boring. Unfortunately Mercedes doesn't know how to make an inexpensive car work well, which is why they bought Chrysler and also why new Mercedes models introduced since then are among the world's least reliable cars. See the April, 2004 and April 2005 editions of "Consumer Reports" for the details. The 1990s SLs are great, but beware new models introduced in the late 1990s and today.

That edition shows Mercedes' recent slide down to the bottom of the reliability chart, far below Hyundai and Kia, with the latest models! I asked my dealer who chalked it up to "well, Mercedes drivers are more picky about everything so they show poorly in surveys," but the Consumer Reports reliability ratings are based on real problems like electrical failures. JD Powers tends to focus more on the paint, which can be ignored. More here and here (towards bottom) and here. On March 31st 2005 Mercedes recalled 1.3 million defective cars made since 2001 with bad electronics. This is the biggest recall they've ever made, in fact, it's hard to recall any serious recalls at all by Mercedes before 1999 when they only made quality.

A few months after the April 2004 issue Consumer Reports tried to address, in a sidebar, why Mercedes and other European cars had fallen so much in reliability. They thought maybe it was the cutting edge technology now employed, but realized that Mercedes has always pushed the envelope extraordinarily well is past decades, and that Honda and Toyota have even more nutty electronic technology in their cars, and those cars work great. It was left as a dilemma, and my opinion simply is that if you want a luxury car on a budget you have to slum with a company known for making good, inexpensive cars like Toyota's Lexus brand. Unfortunately real luxury cars like the former Mercedes were great; they just cost double other cars because they didn't cut any corners. For the past 5 years they've been cutting corners and not very well. It's like trying to retrain a CEO to work flipping burgers: an enthusiastic kid is going to do a better job than a seasoned CEO who'll consider it beneath him.

The New York Times had an article on this in the February 8th, 2005 edition. If you sign up you can read it here.

People may be overjoyed that today you can get a Mercedes for $30,000 or less, just like a Ford Taurus. Unfortunately Ford knows how to make a cheap car and Mercedes is still learning.

When you make the very best and everyone knows it you don't have to advertise. Mercedes never did. They sure have to now.

The great news is Mercedes stands behind their cars 110% and even when they do suffer debilitating electrical failures they'll come get you and put you immediately in another car, and the repair work is done well the first time with no run around. I'd rather drive an unreliable car with great service than a more reliable car with poor service. I just fear trying to own a 2005 Mercedes in 2015 after the warranty runs out. Mercedes will still take great care of you, just that all the service expense is now on your nickel.

More great news is that Mercedes is making some cars today more insane than anything ever unleashed at your local dealer. Today anyone can walk into a dealer and drive away in a car with blown V8s and V12s with more than 500 HP!! Back in the 1960s blown V8s on hand-built drag race cars made 1,000 HP, but often exploded and had to be completely rebuilt after every 6 second race. Even today NHRA drag races are never broadcast live since engines still explode and everyone has to wait around a half hour while the oil is cleaned off the track (Auto Week, 21 Feb.. 2005, pg. 47.) Today you can drive the Hell out of these AMG cars every day and just change the oil now and then with parts and service are at every local dealer and they run on pump gas, not nitro. If they do blow up Mercedes will reload it for you for free under warranty. These are great times for cars. Even discount cars are crossing the 300 HP line, and these are net figures, not the exaggerated gross figures of 1960s hot rods.

Phoney Coupés Instead of Leadership

Back to history. Mercedes as you see invented just about everything important. Sadly today their ads just tout a fantasy lifestyle and innovations that aren't. For instance the biggest thing Mercedes is pushing today is the CLS as"the world's first 4 door coupe" as if that was earth shattering. (four page ad in "Travel and Leisure," February 2005, pages 12 - 15.) On the other hand, Consumer Reports, page 64, April, 2005, describes it as a "four door sedan with a swoopy, streamlined roof that leads Mercedes-Benz to refer to it as a coupe." Big deal. It's not a coupe; the CLS has pillars between front and rear windows so it actually appears to be a fraudulent claim. Hmm, have a look at the movie "Blue Crush" in which the girls drive around Hawaii in a ratted-out 1963 Chevy Impala (I'm guessing at the model) that's a real four door coupe.

own the world's first four-door coupe for $300!

If you want a real four door coupe you might want to buy a 1966 Lincoln Continental, and of course everyone wants a 1975 Buick Apollo four-door coupe (VIN 4XC69), but many have to settle for the 1973 Chrysler Newport (VIN CL43). OK, I honestly don't know or care when the first four door coupe came out, but we all know it was old news even 40 years ago. How about something we do care about, like dual front/rear V8 engines, turbine engines, gull wing doors or 900 HP blown V8s? Unfortunately at the sub-$100,000 discount prices Mercedes charges you don't get anything different that you get from other cars for the same price today.

1973 Chrysler Newport: a real four-door coupe whose cachet Mercedes hopes to emulate

Remember that in the 1980s Mercedes' cheapest was $30,000, just like today. Back in the 1980s that was two to three times what a normal car cost. At the time people were embarrassed that Mercedes would make such a little car for only $30,000, the 190. Actually the 190 was made to the same high standards back then, just smaller. 20 years later inflation has raged, decent sedans from Ford and Toyota cost $30,000 and Mercedes' bottom model is still down in the mud at $30,000. Horror of horrors, I think the new 2005 SLK can be had in a version without automatic climate control just like a Chevrolet. All Mercedes since the 1970s or 1980s have had automatic controls.

Sorry to whine. I'm just ticked that Mercedes hasn't continued their innovation since the purchase of Chrysler and isn't making vehicles in their own class with base models starting at $50,000, which is what $30,000 was in 1985 in 2005 dollars. Owning a Mercedes used to be a big deal, and today everyone has one and they make the ML series in someplace like Alabama. Mercedes used to test every new model for years in secret to work out every possible bug. They could do that because they had only a few models, every one excellent. Today they have many, many times more models and no time to test them all they way they did. Today they just push them out the door to try to catch everyone else at the same price point. Again, just my opinions. Do get a 1990s SL series before they're all worn out.

Stories abound of all sorts of quality issues, which thankfully Mercedes always makes right. This is great during the warranty period, under which I've heard of people who have had such lemons that Mercedes has voluntarily replaced the entire car, but I'm cautious about buying one without the factory warranty. Not to fear, Mercedes has the best warranty and support program on Earth. My 1997 is still covered under the extra-cost Starmark Warranty till 2007! As of 2005 the Starmark Warranty has been renamed Certified Pre-Owned.

Under construction: more issues:

Used to have just a few almost perfect models. Today Mercedes makes dozens of models.

Because every model ran for a decade or more your investment was protected since your car still looked new a decade later.

These near perfect vehicles used to have models that were the same for years. For instance, the R129 SL500 sold for twelve model years, and the previous R107 version sold for close to twenty. Mercedes made the investment to make it perfect, not fix it in the next model

Even the alloy wheels were designed for perfection, not style. Mercedes used the same 15 spoke rims for all models in the 1980s and the previous version for all models in the 1970s. They used the same rims, the very best they or anyone could make, on every model from top to bottom.

One windshield wiper is superior to today's cheap two-wiper system.

Every Mercedes in the USA had every option. You want the best and you got it. If you had to pinch pennys you got a Lexus. Today, like discount brands, you have to pay extra for light packages, navigation systems, climate control, remote controls and even the radios. Every 1990s SL500 for instance simply came with the best sound system available, period.

Materials used to be expensive, long wearing, comfortable and unique. Even with your eyes closed you could touch the ceiling, window switch, door panel, seat material or whatever and know it was a Mercedes. The seats for instance were made of a magic material called MB-tex which was some sort of perforated wonder vinyl that lasted forever and was more comfortable than leather. Likewise the door panels, switches and consoles weren't the same plastic and the headliners weren't the same fuzzy fur that every other discount car had, like today. The grilles were metal, not painted plastic, and not cheap metal, but stainless steel. Even the bottom of the line model 190 (1982 - 1994) has stainless steel front trim, and the design of the grille knocks down dirt so my 190's engine compartment, even after over 150,000 miles and almost 20 years, is still clean without ever needing to be detailed. Today the $350,000 Maybach appears to have merely a chromed plastic front grille.

Speedometers were matched to the maximum speed of each model and engine. Diesels might only have had a 100 MPH speedometer and the V8 version of the very same car might have a 150 MPH speedometer. This allowed the best legibility for each model, since you weren't wasting half the speedometer scale for speeds the car couldn't hit. Today cars just have the same speedometers, and sometimes for vanity reasons they are made even less useful and hard to read. For instance, the 2003 - 2005 SL55 AMG can only go 155 MPH unless you tweak the firmware, but the speedometer goes all the way to 200 MPH, making the readings for the speeds you can go all scrunched together and harder to read.

My dad taught us that only products which were the same as their competitors needed to advertise, since a small change in perception went a long way towards driving market share. Likewise unique products that people know are superior don't need to advertise to set themselves apart. You always see Toyota and Ford ads because their cars are almost the same as their competitors. Likewise you see tons of beer and cola ads, but few ads for wine. You never used to see ads for Mercedes, and today because they're the same as everyone else you do. You still never see Bentley or Ferrari ads.

Today Mercedes is just another brand trying to compete with every other brand on equal terms, no longer a super vehicle twice as expensive and three times as well made that had no competition. Too bad there's so small a market for cars with six figure price tags.

If you work for or with Mercedes and its marketing arms I'd love to hear from you if I'm misunderstanding something. I'm a journalist and do my best to report based on the best research I can get. Please convince me I'm wrong and that Consumer Reports is lying in the April 2005 issue where their research of over 800,000 cars shows recent Mercedes models to be less reliable than Hummer, less reliable than VW, less reliable than Lincoln, less reliable than BMW, less reliable than Mini, less reliable than Saab, less reliable than Saturn, less reliable than Porsche, less reliable than Cadillac, less reliable than Audi, less reliable than GMC, less reliable than Volvo, less reliable than Dodge, less reliable than Chrysler, less reliable than Nissan, less reliable than Kia, less reliable than Mazda, less reliable than Mercury, less reliable than Ford, less reliable than Jeep, less reliable than Chevrolet, less reliable than Buick, less reliable than Pontiac, less reliable than Suzuki, less reliable than Hyundai, less reliable than Infinity, less reliable than Mitsubishi, less reliable than Acura, less reliable than Honda, less reliable than Subaru, less reliable than Toyota, less reliable than Lexus and less reliable than Scion. Mercedes only beat out Land Rover and Jaguar, and not by much. Great. (Page 18, April 2005.)

return to specifics of the 1997 model

return to specifics of the 1997 model

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