- Are you thinking about buying a Mercedes-Benz?
- Have you noticed how cheap at least some of them seem today?
- Are you seduced by the notion of 'superior German engineering'?
- Or do you just think the time is right for you to drive your first true luxury car? Indulge yourself?
- Is it time to step up from those Japanese or South Korean cars you've been driving and get something better?
If that's you, it's time to seek professional help.
The Bible alleges Moses climbed a mountain, the better to receive the moral code of conduct for all of humanity etched in the hi-tech miracle of clay, by the divine hand itself. The Koran claims Mohammed flew to Heaven on the magic winged horse of Allah. And the Encyclopedia Moronica alleges that Mercedes-Benz is engineered like no other car.
Three fairly strong statements, with one thing in common: they’re all bullshit.
1. The incredible blandness of being mainstream Mercedes-Benz
I’ve been privileged to drive several Benzes I can’t afford. S-Classes, C 63, CLS 63, E 63, SLK 55 - and trust me, anything ending in ‘AMG’ is awesome. Awesome to drive; not necessarily awesome to own.
I’ve worked, in the distant past, as a consultant to Mercedes-Benz, which was interesting, at times. Elite Mercedes-Benzes are very impressive cars. To drive. But affordable Benzes are profoundly gay - and I mean ‘Village People’ gay. ‘John Wayne’ gay. ‘Leather chaps with matching G-string (yee-haw)’ gay. Which is fine, if that’s what you want … but it comes as something of a shock if, at a seemingly affordable price, you’re after something a little more heterosexual. Except of course in prison.
Modern mainstream Benz is off its meds in general. See the incredible fuss they're attempting to kick up over the Federal Government's recent announcement to green light grey imports >> and thereby deliver a fairer deal to Australian car buyers.
This is not the only recent monumental Mercedes-Benz arc-up. The company recently participated in the least dignified character assassination of non-genuine alloy wheels, effectively insulting the integrity of some very responsible aftermarket alloy wheel manufacturers. See how Merc tried to spin-doctor the alloy wheel story >>
They're not alone. Volkswagen are assholes too. See how Volkswagen betrayed the world >>
2. A binary brand proposition. (Or: why marketers should do more 'negative implication' analysis)
Mercedes-Benz describes itself publicly as “the best or nothing”. A breathtakingly arrogant, binary proposition. Hubris doesn't get any more extreme than that. According to the in-house Benz bullshit purveyors themselves - or the architects of perception, if you prefer - if big, bad Benz is not the best, then it’s nothing. Well done - if the barrel of the bat-pumpy is resting on your foot, you might as well go ahead and pull the trigger.
Not much wriggle room there.
Seriously, the bullshit wrapped up in car company advertising is extreme. See how profoundly every brand is wrapped up in bogus advertising and marketing >>
Two things appear certain to me: Mercedes-Benz is vastly inferior to what most people probably think it represents, and it’s not the brand it once was.
3. If enough people say it loud enough and often enough, it simply must be true, right?
The people who always tell you Mercedes-Benzes “last for ever”, that they’re “years ahead of the competition” are often the arseholes who buy a new S-Class every two years. So how would they know? Or people who’ve never owned or driven a Mercedes-Benz. So how would they know? Or Germans, whose attitudes are invariably coloured by the deep shame of … being German. So, how would they know?
This concept: “superior German engineering” is laughable. (Like the Islamic fundamentalist sex doll, the unique selling proposition of which is: it’s the one that blows itself up.)
4. Would you believe - dollar for dollar - a modern Japanese or South Korean car packs more hi-tech?
Maybe the thing that sets Benz apart is advanced technology. Shitbox-tronic. Fellatiomatic Plus. Stuff like that. Fact is, 99 per cent of automotive hi-tech is available to all carmakers off the rack. And it’s cheap. It’s an e-mail to Denso or Bosch or Johnson Controls. If you’re a carmaker, it’s like ordering in a takeaway pizza and some hookers. It’s that easy.
Adaptive cruise control is the classic example: A radar and a computer and a handful of cable ties. Adaptive cruise in a Japanese or South Korean car is exactly the same as adaptive cruise in a Merc. Ditto autonomous emergency braking. LED lighting. Proximity keys. You name it - in technical terms it’s the same ones and zeroes and the same black boxes going into a Kia or a Benz, from - in many cases - the same external supplier.
Dollar for dollar there is more advanced technology today in a Hyundai or a Kia or a Toyota or a Mazda than there is in a Mercedes-Benz. Dollar for dollar. Suck it up, Benzophiles. This is a fact, not opinion.
The rapid adoption of new technology means brands like Mercedes-Benz can no longer differentiate themselves from purportedly lesser cars by virtue of clever new technology. As soon as it’s on sale, some 25-year-old brainiac with a laptop pulls the new widget to bits out on the bench, and he’s reverse-engineering it like a 15-year-old, which he can still remember being. Only he makes it better, cheaper and more reliable.
In the automotive game today, new technology is a few months worth of head start at best. And it’s always introduced into the elite Benzes only millionaires buy - not the three-pointed shitboxes marketed to mortals - by the time it’s in those, it’s already in your next Toyota.
5. Is Mercedes-Benz really still building the best engines on earth? Did it ever do that?
A quarter of a century ago, a premium German car was actually better. A lot better. It was premium, by definition. (Today it’s really only premium by perception.)
In the olden days, the premium German car had fuel injection. Everything else: carburettors. Remember those?
But today, modern engine technology is available off the rack. They can only sex it up with perception. The Volkswagen Group owns the classic example of ‘perception premium’: TFSI - turbo fuel stratified injection. It sounds so unique. So German. So technical.
TFSI: It's the kind of bomb that only Jack Bauer could de-fuse (with Chloe O’Brien running comms and tech support). Volkswagen says: We’ve got TFSI. It elegantly frames the marketing. It neatly consigns everyone else, by implication, to the domain of shitty old engines. But all TFSI actually means is engine plus turbocharger plus direct injection. It’s a classic piece of marketing bullshit wrapped around technology that’s available to all carmakers. And everyone is doing it.
Above, (left two images): Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo has more impressive engine fundamentals than Mercedes-Benz A180, while (right two images) Subaru WRX's 2.0 Turbo similarly embarrasses Mercedes C250. Analysis below
A Hyundai Veloster Turbo has TFSI, and so does an A-Class Benz - but they can’t call it that. Trademarks. In fact, the 1.6 turbo Veloster has a brake mean effective pressure (see below) that's almost 39 per cent better than than Mercedes-Benz A180 - and they’re both 1.6 turbos with direct injection. Veloster is 39 per cent more thermodynamically impressive. (The best or nothing.) They’re even the same price.
Subaru versus Benz in the 2.0-litre turbo class: also not a fair fight. A WRX Premium - still under 50 grand - has a 25 per cent higher brake mean effective pressure than the 2.0-litre turbo in that $70,000 Mercedes C250 shitbox. You know, the car which has eight out of 10 brain-dead motoring journalists spontaneously jizzing up their Levi’s - which is hard to explain in the locker room, except to other brain-dead motoring journalists. Subaru’s doing a better R&D job on its engines than Benz, too. The numbers are in. (Best or nothing.) The Benz’s combustion management is singing the Village People’s greatest hits all the way to the redline. The WRX is rocking AC-DC.
See my comprehensive Subaru WRX & WRX STI reviews >>
Hyundai and Subaru are, by objective measurement, doing a better job with fundamental thermal efficiency. Don’t shoot the messenger. That’s ‘science’, not ‘opinion’.
BRAKE MEAN EFFECTIVE PRESSURE: HUH?
Brake mean effective pressure (BMEP) is one of the ways engineers measure which engines have the highest thermal efficiencies - the bigger the number, the better the underlying combustion management. BMEP is the average pressure acting on the piston through the expansion stroke - an entirely theoretical number.
Basically, if you're an engine designer there are a few cheap ways to make more power. You can just make the engine bigger. All other things being equal, you'll get more power from more cubic inches. Alternatively, you can spin the engine faster, because power equals torque times revs - so if you can maintain torque production, more revs equals more power. Maybe not more useful power, but more power - which is always good for the marketing brochures and advertising.
A harder, but more efficient, way to get more power is to do it independently of spinning the engine faster or pumping up its displacement - by managing the combustion process better. You can do that several ways. By increasing flow dynamics in the cylinder head, via multiple valves, using direct injection, pumping up the compression and using higher octane fuel, variable valve timing - whatever. Essentially, the elegant objective is to get more useful work from each drop of fuel you decide to burn. (Or you can do what Volkswagen did and run the fuel mix really lean, which drives NOx emissions through the roof and threatens to take the entire company down, but hey, it's an option.)
BMEP is basically power production, per CC, per rev - in other words, it's an assessment of power produced independent of revs and displacement. It's about efficiency.
You can calculate your own 'bastardised' BMEP by taking the peak power figure and dividing it by the engine capacity, and dividing that by the rpms at peak power. Then you can compare it to the same calculation for other engines. Just make sure they're the same units: all in Watts, CCs and rpms (or all in horsepower, cubic inches and rpms). Whatever. Don't mix the units. This approach works best with similar engines - similar displacements and induction systems.
6. If Benz is so excellent on the engineering front, why do they fail so damn 'always'?
How about reliability? Maybe Benzes are just built better. But if German engineering were actually superior, why does every independent study reveal that current Mercedes-Benz cars are way below average for reliability? And they’ve been this way for about a decade. (Best or nothing.)
This poor reliability shouldn’t be a bolt from the blue. Consumer Reports in the USA listed the S-Class and that repulsive front-drive rainbow coalition CLA-Class in its least reliable cars list for 2014, plus the aforemention jizz-inducing C-Class and jungle king GL-Class in the same list the following year.
Above: four Mercedes-Benzes waiting to break down, again, yesterday. (L-R: S-Class, CLA-Class, C-Class and GL-Class.)
These things are supposed to be the best. (Or nothing.) Another unpalatable truth steeped in actual research. Expecting reliability from a Mercedes-Benz is like listening to Kim Kardashian and expecting to learn something profound.
7. Benz is safe - no doubt. But even here, it fails the 'best or nothing' test
Perhaps Benzes are safer. (They are pretty safe.) The Jizz-inducing C-Class scored 36.46 out of a possible 37 in the independent ANCAP safety tests. Pretty good score. Impressive, in isolation. A very safe car, in isolation.
The Hyundai Genesis scored 36.88.
Best or nothing...
Talk about hoisting yourself with your own petard.
8. The unkindest cut of all is often experienced at trade-in time. Cue the defibrillator...
Once upon a time, the superiority of German engineering was actually earned. (That was in the olden days between the dinosaurs carking it, and the advent of Twitter.) Superior German engineering was once something you could say out loud without feeling like a kind of automotive Rolf Harris (that’s Australia’s Bill Cosby if you’re visiting from the USA).
In the 1970s, when Consumer Reports first started researching reliability, brands like Mercedes-Benz did come out on top. And it remained up there for some years to come.
But then, in the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz released the M-Class. An epic shitbox. Have you noticed they even changed its name now, to get some of the filth off? It’s a GLE now. The M-Class was to Mercedes-Benz what George W Bush the second was to Mensa. (Or perhaps we all just misunderestimated it.) The ML represented little taste of things to come, unhappily enough.
Here’s an acid test, what Einstein would have called a thought experiment: if Mercedes-Benz was in fact still superior as recently as 2005, wouldn’t it be more sought after in the used market, and therefore - thanks to Economics 101 - wouldn’t it command higher prices? So let’s check resale...
LONG-TERM RESALE EXAMPLE
Above: A 2005 ML 270 CDI Special Edition - and a damn fine looking conveyance it was, I’m sure you agree - was $81,700 brand new, here in Oz, and it sells privately today for an average of $11,600, retaining 14 per cent of its new value. A Toyota Prado Grande was cheaper than the Benz in 2005 ($72,710). But it sells today privately for an average $23,350 - retaining 32 per cent of its value in the same time. So, it was nine grand cheaper to buy, and worth about $12,000 more today.
Check the numbers - Prado versus ML. Just to be clear - you’d have saved nine thousand dollars up front, and walked away 12 grand better off today, for a total of $21,000 better off. Just by avoiding the bad bush-bashing Benz because … status. Kinda says it all about value, quality and long-term desirability. Except to state that the Prado also has three more seats, a proper spare tyre, a low-range gearset, real off-road capability, it’s tougher, and it has Japanese build quality (as opposed to the USA, where the M-Class was built - if that’s the right term. ‘Put together’ is probably a better euphemism). Best, or nothing.
9. Flagship S-Class sales have tanked over time
Back in the 1980s, and earlier, when German engineering superiority wasn’t yet an oxymoron, Mercedes-Benz had a core strength. The company sold big, fat, superior saloons to big, fat, superior corporate arseholes. And their silicone-enhanced trophy wives. Sociopathic Teutons queued up over the horizon for that crap. Even in the first year of this Century, Mercedes-Benz was doing a tidy line in S-Class corporate robber-baron arsehole and coke dealer transportation. They sold 660 S-Class saloons in Australia that year, in 2000, at an average price of $244,000.
But S-Class sales have tanked. Last year Mercedes-Benz sold just 331 S-Class saloons, at an average of $343,000. So, in 16 years of sales and marketing, inclusive, the number of flagship S-Classes has dropped by half. Despite the fact that the S-Class today is 24 per cent more affordable in real terms, as a proportion of average weekly earnings. And it’s not as if we’re short of rich arseholes or successful drug dealers. We’ve still all stocked up on those.
Way to go on flagship saloon sales, team Benz Down Under. You’re the best. (Or nothing.)
10. A-, B- and C-Class and their spin-offs (cheap Benzes) are the bulk of the Mercedes-Benz brand
The sales mix is sprinting away from ‘premium’ too. Back in 2000, Mercedes-Benz sold just under 10,000 cars (9544) and SUVs in Australia. Last year: just over 30,000 (31,472). I could turn that into a shit-hot press release. We’d be filling up the boardroom with high-class call girls and blow, and not coming out for a week.
Of course, you’d need to be very selective on how much granular detail of that story you’d care to tell. See, back in 2000, slightly less than half the range was C-Class or smaller. But last year, more than 24,000 Benzes sold here were C-Class or smaller - So: A-, B- and C-Class and their spin-offs and derivatives. They’re mainly selling baby Benzes.
More than two thirds of sales in 2015 were the ‘honey, I shrunk the Benz’ cars. Traditional sales of big, fat Benzes to corresponding arseholes have only grown less than three per cent per year - that’s less than inflation - while there’s been nearly 500 per cent growth in these thalidomide baby Benzes. The Benz brand is on the most profound downmarket trajectory.
Above: A creche of baby Benzes, yesterday. Proper rich people must be face-palming themselves around the first world.
It’s almost like, despite itself, Mercedes-Benz still has a luxury division, but they’re slowly coming to the realisation they’re actually a Japanese carmaker, trapped in a premium German carmaker’s body. The Caitlyn Jenner of German carmakers. Like Michael Jackson - whitest black entertainer ever. And just look at how well that ended.
The cheapest Mercedes-Benz you can buy today is the lady-boy of premium German cars better known to us as the A180. The Boy George of Benzes. $37,000 gets you a badge and a very basic car. Some would say nasty. Four spare seats for those times when, you know, it’s rainin’ men. For the same money, you could buy a Mazda3 SP25 Astina - the works burger of Mazda3s. And the case for the Mazda is compelling.
The Mazda3 SP25 Astina:
- 60 per cent more acceleration, and you don’t need premium unleaded like in the Benz.
- And while the premium paint is $1200 in the Benz, it’s free in the Mazda.
- Voice recognition is standard in the Mazda. So’s the good audio system - that’s all three grand extra in the Benz.
- Adaptive cruise and lane departure warning - standard in the Mazda - two-and-a-half grand in the Benz.
- 18-inch alloys - standard in the Mazda; $1000 in the Benz.
- Bi-xenons, LED DTRLs and a sunroof are all standard in the Mazda; $2500 in the Benz.
- And a proximity key: again standard in the Mazda; $1000 more in the Benz.
Tick all the boxes and that $37,000 mardis gras A-Class is going to cost you $48 grand - and it’s still not going to overtake like the Mazda. Not even close. The Mazda is a seriously good car. The Benz is confused at best.
Premium - in this context - means high value, or a value in excess of that which is normally or usually expected. When you look at those two cars through the prism of that definition, it’s pretty clear which one is in fact premium - and it ain’t the Benz. Mercedes-Benz has spent a decade or more shitboxing itself up - or at least climbing down from the summit of Mt Superiority and duking it out - ineffectually - at Japanese and South Korean price points. And blowing megabucks on marketing as a smokescreen.
Unless you are stupid rich, and you can afford an AMG GT or an S65 AMG, the Mercedes-Benz you’re about to buy is - on the basis of probability and analysis/benchmarking - just another average car, only with a three-pointed star up the pointy end.
Critics will say: The drive experience. I’m sorry? Of the A180? Are you mainlining Thorazine? That car wouldn’t pull the bishop off an altar boy. Or they’ll say: “The build quality.” Right - the build quality: two words: Consumer Reports. Contemporary Mercedes-Benz reliability sucks. Objective fact. Or, people will say (and this is my personal favourite from the department of ‘when logical thinkers turn to meth’) they’ll say: You just don’t understand. Maybe not. Because I live in the real world. So, if that’s you, saying any of that, cranking up the outrage, getting set to defend Mercedes-Benz’s honour, to the death, because chivalry’s not dead, clearly, let’s play ‘f^&k off’. (You go first.)
These things are machines. The vast majority of truths about them can be evaluated. Objectively. They can be listed, enumerated. Analysed. Compared with benchmarks. If you think mainstream Mercedes-Benz is superior, in the face of the massive evidence to the contrary, because of the badge, because of some Colonel Sanders-esque secret sauce, then you are wrong. It is not possible to prosecute your case using the hi-tech miracle of ‘evidence’.
Take your head out of the blunt end of your digestive tract and see for yourself.