Friday, June 20, 2008

All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter: No Way MBUSA!

The Dating Game (or: The Advertisement)

When I got into the seat, it was a dream: the easy rush of power, the quietness ... and well north of thirty miles per gallon on the highway. Replacing the venerable 240-D, now old enough not only to vote but to drink lawfully, seemed timely at last: Mercedes after several years without any Diesel offering at all, Mercedes launched the CDI sedan. (This was the summer of 2004, with the appearance of the 2005 year-model E320CDI). The relaunched North American Diesel was powerful and clean enough that it didn't need a bunch of complex parts (to require maintenance and fail) designed to boost performance (like the old turbos, RIP). This was an engine done right. And it was a piece of art. I was all but sold.

I am very interested in safety. My 240-D drives (even still) with the solid determination of a battleship, though it handles very nicely through its recirculating ball steering system which Mercedes had perfected well before the vehicle's christening in 1982. Weighing in at just over two tons, it is much less apt to be tossed (to the jarring and injury of occupants) than the lightweight cars one finds engineered for cost savings rather than safety or comfort. The US safety standards amendments that drove Peugeot out of the US auto market in the mid-'90s (e.g., requiring side-impact bars in the doors) mostly required things the 240-D had as standard equipment in 1982. So I checked out the new Diesel, reading the fine print, making sure it was up to scratch.

The Mercedes documentation on the car (the sales literature was so chock with specs that it's hard to think of it other than as documentation, all the more to my irritation as the contents proved dubious) talked about how the full-diameter spare tire's resistance to being blown out by the pressure of a high-speed rear-end collision had been carefully accommodated in the collision modeling and safety design. The addition of airbags over what seemed every possible surface clearly reduced the likelihood that the car's body would become the blunt instrument of death for occupants wearing their passenger restraints. Little things seemed well-thought-out: the air bag and the seatbelt warning light for the front passenger seat weren't activated unless a person sat in the seat, a fact the car noted through a pressure sensor which, according to the black-and-white print, detected whether there was 75lb. of pressure on the seat. Excellent: my backpack, briefcase, or bag of road snacks and thermos wouldn't create silly alarms, but passengers not bothering to belt in would get an alert. And I noticed other things: the window glass on the E320CDI was thicker, the doors had a double-row of seals against weather and noise, the leather was finished to withstand wear -- it looked like a solid car with respectable engineering.

And the A/C worked! Ohh, you drivers of ancient Mercedes, who have suffered long with Bavarian air conditioners when American ones stood so superior, the new A/C actually could blow cold air in August. More on the air conditioner later. Long story short: I decided the car was for me. At least, they said all the right things, and Mercedes had never lied before, so why doubt?

Road Trip #1

About the first thing I did with the car it was to rescue a friend from a bad marriage. Over a thousand miles in August, traversing the Deep South into Atlanta without halting, swooping up my passenger, and coming to roost in borrowed digs in Pensacola, safely distant from the friend's Ex and right where the on-deck hot tub promised therapy for body and soul. The 1083 miles involved construction sites, in-town traffic in Hotlanta, and food-and-fuel pauses. The A/C was blasting full the whole way. Reported mileage: 33.9.

And that's not all. As I left began my journey on the big, wide Interstate, I noticed I was being passed. When I'd driven long distances in days of yore, with different vehicles, I remember running with the swiftest of the pack on the parkway, keeping the best speed I thought I could get away with. As I set out for Hotlanta in the new E230CDI, though, I realized that I just didn't seem to have that kind of crazed mindset for the destination: I wasn't hurried. I was puzzled, as I'd always had a lead foot. I thought about it -- why didn't I want to race like a wild demon of the air over the asphalt and concrete and across the state lines to my distant destination? Why not risk the tickets and speed traps like I'd always done? Why stick to just, you know, 5-15 miles over the limit?

And the reason wasn't hard to discover -- I was in a slick ride, well-insulated from road noise, happily listening to my very own road-trip playlist*, and nothing about the car had (yet) set my nerves to the point I was dying for the trip to be over. My new-car love affair was in full swing, and I realized why everybody else was rushing on the freeway to get past me (and I have something of a lead foot): their ride sucked.

I laughed and kept on my nearly-legal pace, slowing for construction and so forth, but ticking away, with my eye on the navigation system for reassurance the strange land I crossed was really the one I wanted. With over seven hundred miles of range in the not-quite-twenty-gallon tank, I had another giggling epiphany: the fuel tank was no longer the weak link in my long-distance stop-free range. Getting 400 miles out of a 40-gallon tank in a Suburban used to irritate me, that I could have gone further without sustenance ... but as the miles piled on toward the rolling hills of Georgia, I realized I was going to need a refill (I'd drained my iced tea, the whole thermos, cup-lid by cup-lid) and a potty break.

So I filled up, got a 16-oz bottle of Mountain Dew (when it's good and chilled, what else tastes so cold?), and struck the road again.

The user-interface on the seat adjustment is pretty good: you see an outline of the seat on the door, and you can move the seat forward, backward, up, down, tilt the seat, recline or straighten the back, and adjust headrest height. So I thought it'd be a no-brainer to adjust the headrest so I could take the last few sips of the drink without having to turn my head 90ยบ to the road. Mind you, on an empty freeway this might not be a big deal, but I was amidst some nasty, bumpy construction covered with signals commanding drivers to cross yellow lines to follow where there was usable road rather than letting them drift on autopilot. I needed to pay some attention, and the fact the headrest wouldn't let me lean my head back to drink so I could just lower my eyes to keep a view of the road was just ... well, it was silly. More on the headrest later. Suffice it to say that I assumed my inability to get the high-end luxury seat adjusted just right was a failure in my understanding of the controls, and I was confident I'd get it sorted out sometime I wasn't actually trying not to drive under a bunch of heavy-treaded construction machines on the Interstate.

I got my friend home, after a short break near Pensacola, and went about my business.

Road Trip #2

My next trip was a trip straight to Gulf Breeze, which is right next to Pensacola in the far western panhandle of Florida. My passenger, M, was professionally accustomed to long plane rides and brought squishy, U-shaped pillows in preparation for the 550+ mile trek. I scoffed. Surely, in a luxury car like this, a pillow like that is some kind of anachronism, no? Alas. It turns out that when you lean the seat back, the headrest still pushes your head forward of your shoulders to the point you can't possibly expect to sleep. Pillows are needed to bring your shoulders forward to the point that the headrest's rearmost-adjusted position doesn't shove your head through the sunroof (or so it feels). You cannot sleep in the passenger seat while you are fatigued from driving and are being spelled by a copilot.

Mind you, you can adjust the headrests forward of their rearmost position, which is hilarious to imagine. I mean, people whose necks are shaped to accommodate that position must be members of some other species. During this trip, and while in the passenger seat unconcerned with controlling the vehicle, I slowly came to realize the problem with the seat adjustments and the headrest weren't some failing of mine at all. The seat was designed to by used exclusively by old men with a terrible khyphosis. If you had normal, nondysfunctional posture, you needed to bring your own seat. My frequent driving companion L, professionally experienced in ergonomic analysis as part of physical therapy training and practice, abhors the front seats, prefers to sit in the back, and rates the C-Class Mercedes seat above that of the luxury seat in the higher-end E-Class sedans.

The nature of the headrest problem became clearer somewhat later, once L had a chance to ride around in the car. However, a few two weeks into owning the car, it -- the whole car -- suffered an abrupt and utterly complete absance seizure as I was approaching an intersection and I had to stand on the suddenly-unpowered brakes to make sure I didn't cruise across four lanes of traffic and total the car on a lamp post. Unable to restart the new Mercedes, I found myself -- in the August heat, in full daylight, in view of the public -- pushing the car on foot backward out of the intersection and back onto the street by my home. Shaking in fear of what almost happened, I called the dealer and they sent a wrecker after it.

Welcome to the Car-Of-The-Month Club

I got my first Mercedes loaner. It was a car they apparently were unable to sell the year before, and lacked a bunch of the options I'd spent good money to get. But hey, it wasn't like I was going to be spending a lot of time in a loaner, was it? Surely not!

A few days later they said they couldn't reproduce the problem. I spelled out how unpredictable power and braking failures in the middle of city traffic weren't something I was prepared to tolerate and that if they could not fix it they needn't bother returning the car. They kept hunting.

On questioning by the service personnel, I had to admit there were some non-Mercedes parts on the car, all of which were recommended by the selling dealer and installed at or by the dealership prior to delivery of the car. Principally among these aftermarket-extras was a security system called Mobile Guardian that, in addition to its strong work reducing my insurance premium 30%, was supposed to be able to track the car's location and offer me the power to disable the car remotely if I discovered it was up to something I didn't approve (like, someone stole my keys and made off with the car). The system was supposed to show me where the car was when I asked, and when I tried to query the GPS unit using the online tool and the login information that was tied to the unit in the car, I discovered the car was allegedly in the lot of Greenway Mercedes Benz, the dealer that had sold me on the system and had arranged its installation before I took delivery of the car. The system was supposed to give me good, accurate directions, and after waiting forever I got a map claiming it was sitting miles away in the Dealer's custody even back in the first few days when the car wasn't in the dealer's care.

I got kinda down on the Mobile Guardian system at the time, concerned it didn't live up to the claims made to sell it. Looking back now, though, I realize the system's strength: it was so prescient that even early on it understood the car's true home was on the dealer's lot where it was installed, and immediately recognized there was no point in measuring its movement someplace it would not consume warranty services. Mobile Guardian was telling me straight-off that I should disable the car there and save myself years of dreary automotive heartache. Ahh, but we are riddled with foibles, we mortals, and trust not even to our keenest tools. And then there is the entire literature on escalation of commitment.

But Greenway Mercedes-Benz wasn't about to believe something like Mobile Guardian would explain the car's behavior. After all, Mobile Guardian had been good revenue, no? And I wasn't the only Mobile Guardian customer they'd fleeced. So After over a week I got a call that the car was ready and I could pick it up.

All better.

So on the appointed day I stood in the exhaust-swept breezeway between the showroom and the managers of the service department. And I stood. Ah, the heck with it. I wandered in and ogled the cars. I giggled at the apparel sporting three-pointed stars. I tried to pour myself a drink but discovered the fountain had only carbonated water, and no Coke syrup. I scowled, poured the foul stuff out, and threw out my disposable cup. I tried to amuse myself examining a $300K+ Maybach (aren't sites with splash pages demanding your language obnoxious? can't they read your browser's report of the language in which you prefer to download content and go from there?). Sadly, the Maybach was locked and the salespersons were not operating an amusement park, though inquiry revealed these things were generally sold to such types as rappers and sports figures who haven't yet figured out the value of money and think paying $300K for a stretched prior-model-frame S-Class Mercedes makes them seem more important, rather than merely more gullible. Paying a hundred grand and a half for a bulletproof S-Class Mercedes might impress me, mind you. It's not about spending money; it's about getting value for the money.

Eventually I found a service advisor and asked what on Earth was causing my "ready for pickup" car to be so long waiting. They weren't giving it a free detailing and wax job, were they?

Ahh, no.

It turned out the guys had gotten into the car, and had started bringing it around ... only to have it die on them. These are the turkeys who, under questioning, stated that they'd identified and fixed the problem. I realized they hadn't figured out anything at all and had just tried to give it back to me because they were stymied and wanted their loaner back. Now, confronted with the problem and unable to start the car, they reported inability even to estimate when it might be ready.

I got in the loaner and left. The loaner doesn't get 30+mpg, by the way, even on the highway. But there's an upside: despite the loaner documents making you promise you'll stay within 100 miles, nobody ever called me to task for driving the thing to Dallas repeatedly, or to Louisiana, or to Austin. And while I paid more for fuel, I was putting miles on someone else's car, avoiding $100 oil changes (the E320CDI requires not only heavy-duty oil filters to which the 240-D had made me accustomed, but also a special Mobile synthetic oil with a viscosity rating of zero), and ensuring that in the summer of 2008 I would have only about 43,000 miles on my car rather than the 50K+ that would blow the warranty that I apparently needed if I was to survive as a Mercedes owner. So I told myself it was A-OK. And it was just a fluke, they'd straighten it out.


The call came in that the problem was the Mobile Guardian system. They had no theory how or why, but the sophisticated electronic security stuff on the Mercedes that communicates with all the onboard parts' onboard controllers to make sure you're using only Mercedes-authorized parts (and incidentally, aren't using a part that's ever been electronically paired with some different Mercedes) seemed to intermittently freak out and die when the Mobile Guardian system was running. After some discussion I explained that I wasn't interested in policing the love life of a teenage daughter, I was just in it for the insurance break, and they offered to swap me for a Lo-Jack. I was tired of playing games. I couldn't track the car with Lo-Jack (just the cops), and I couldn't disable it (though apparently Mercedes can eavesdrop on the car and track it by GPS), but I could get it back and have it work. The Greenway Mercedes-Benz wouldn't answer questions about the relative price of Mobile Guardian and Lo-Jack, and I figured I was getting the driveshaft, but I was tired of the loaner.

I bought my car to drive it.

To make a long story short, and to finish the first post on this blog, I ended up turning the car in under warranty for loud clicking noises in the front suspension, afwul reeking odors issuing from the air conditioner, inexplicably dying lamps, funny buzzing noises at certain speeds, a passenger-seat sensor that imagined there was a human in the seat despite that my library book didn't weigh 75 pounds, spurious engine warnings, inexplicable "crashing" of the Command system (which means: no maps, no radio, no navigation system, nada), and ... well, you would not believe how many times some of these things had to go to the shop before Greenway Mercedes-Benz was able to figure out what to do with them or how to address them. Many times -- with the noises, with the odors, with the absurd headrest position -- they tried to tell me this stuff was normal.

I've driven cars with air conditioners in the swamps of coastal Texas for years, and let me tell you none has smelled like this one likes to smell during autumn and spring. This isn't oversensitivity on my part, it's a design defect. As must be whatever causes the car to chew up and destroy a rocker arm once or twice a year. And those unsigned form letters telling me there's nothing really wrong with my car but that MBUSA appreciates my money very much, they really tell you just what Mercedes-Benz means to you as a consumer (and when you call to get the imbecile whose name appears on the bottom of the form letter, and they tell you the problem that you are describing appears nowhere in your letter, and you show them by page and paragraph just where you spelled it all out about their blatant, ongoing problem their dealer was unable to fix during the lemon-law period ... priceless).

People with a good view of my parking space asked me repeatedly in the first several months if I'd traded in my E-Class Diesel, because they kept seeing me in little C-Class jobs. Then they asked me if the SUV was mine. Then they asked me why I went and got sport rims. I didn't do any of this stuff, of course. I was in loaner after loaner ... after loaner. Observers laughed at me and my Mercedes. I was in the Car of the Month Club: free membership with every new Mercedes. You get to push your Mercedes out of the intersection on foot, you get to have it towed because the warning indicators claim you have a serious engine problem (when you have a serious failure in some engine sensor), you get to bring it back over and over for problems the techs at Greenway Mercedes-Benz never seem to fix, or imagine they've solved when the act of lifting the car on a hydraulic lift moved the bearings out of the position in which the problem was exposed ... you get to meet all the guys running Mercedes' automotive service branch, and when they fill their drink machine you get a free Coke. Totally free, dude!

When the J.D. Power survey came, I couldn't fill it out. There weren't enough blanks for all my service incidents, and there were so many incidents in the first two years that I couldn't keep them all straight without documentation, and the documentation at the dealer seemed so encoded I had no way to comprehend what was really done on a service ticket. I tried to answer the stuff on J.D. Power's online form, but honestly, with the demand for all the specific dates ... I threw in the towel. It'd take forever to document the detail J.D. Power wanted. I gave up. So when you see the survey results for Mercedes' reliability, keep in mind the possibility that the reported mean numbers may be skewed optimistically because it's a lot easier to fill those things out if you don't intend to answer them accurately, and it's easier to say everything's juuuust fine.

So, for the coup de gras I called the sales folks at Greenway Mercedez-Benz today and asked about the possibilities of trade-ins. After all, Mercedes has a shiny new BlueTec engine (gotta love sites that move their content then put up a big Flash app to tell you the page moved; these guys are something else) and has had four years to bear the bugs out of its sedan. And it was obvious I needed to do something before the warranty ran out, as owning one of these new Mercedes out of warranty was clearly an abysmal idea. From Larry I learned that, no matter how sparkling a condition I kept my auto, they'd never give me better than the price of a "fair" specimen on trade-in. I also learned from Larry and the Kelly Blue Book that a Mercedes doesn't hold its value like a Harley: in less than four years, over half the car's value had gone up in smoke. Trading in for a new lease on the warranty wouldn't be a matter of $10-$15K, it'd be enough money to buy an entire high-quality car built by a manufacturer with a reliability record easily surpassing that of Mercedes.

I'll be back to talk about the trim by the bottom of the passenger doors, the decisions made in the user-interface of the Command system, the funny buzzing noises you get from the cheap, vibrating plastic parts at the head of the seatbelt assemblies, and to show you pictures of the stuff in question. I'll also share a few things that work really well with the car (like the coating on the rims that make cleaning off brake dust a dream in comparison to the 240-D) and some stuff that's just unbelievably bad across the entire Mercedes line (like the lag between your accelerator action and the car's sleepy decision to, like, finally begin to engage the engine so you will move).

I'll also be back to talk about other things that the Jaded Consumer finds exceptionally delightful or barfimoniously droll. I'll be happy to take up consumer experiences involving things that involve very little pecuniary pinch, and things that are absurdly costly; things that are tangible, and things that are not; everything that is sought to be sold and should not (or should), whether it's a limp salad or a misdirected government policy -- everything where your hard-earned time and money should be returning to the consumer precious value, I will be happy to judge for your reading pleasure.

*: The glove box in my model of Mercedes didn't have the CD changer in the glove box, but in the console beneath the electronic command center; the upshot is that there was an exposed mini-stereo jack in the glove box where I could attach a portable music player with all my tunes on it. I couldn't rig a recharge there without leaving the glove box open and running a cigarette lighter DC power adapter to it, and my experience with this kind of setup is that power fluctuations caused by the poor interface between the plug and the socket tend to cause audible pops and so forth that make listening a chore. I did resort to this on smooth roads where I didn't think I'd get much cable jostle, and I got stuck doing it eventually despite construction and nasty roads due to battery failure ... but a modern music player will have much more battery life and this won't be an issue. Also, lots of cars now offer a much better integration option with your music player and will allow recharging and even control from the steering wheel ... if you are willing to part with more money than the music player cost you.

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