Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Racehorse" Haynes Was Right About The Old-Woman's Car

Over ten years ago I climbed out from behind a 1982 Mercedes 240-D – a two-ton Diesel sedan with four cylinders, no turbocharger, and acceleration like a snail heading up a wall. But it was reliable.* There, steps from the old Diesel, I met Richard "Racehorse" Haynes. We talked cars for a few minutes while approaching the auditorium that was our destination.

"I used to have a Mercedes," he said. An 8-cylinder S-Class coupe, as it turned out.

But ... used to? Why'd he get rid of it?

The answer was quick and clear: Mercedes makes "an old woman's car."

Fond of my own (admittedly sluggish) Mercedes, and having no firsthand experience with the Porsche with which he currently drove, I didn't have any particular argument to raise. We changed subjects: law. And given I was speaking to "Racehorse" Haynes, that conversation was amusing in its own right – but that's a different story. This tale is about the old woman's car.

The Old Woman's Car
Being a huge fan of my old Diesel, I was excited when Mercedes in 2004 returned to selling a Diesel sedan in the North American market. I bought a 2005 E320CDI the very summer it launched. I won't go into detail how my neighbors thought I had joined a car-of-the-month club (due to the machine being at the dealer's so frequently for unexpected service), or how little plastic parts in the shoulder belt assembly buzzed near my ear when I drove while trying to listen to the huge-priced sound system, or even how the car left me stranded repeatedly due to unexpected complete failure. And I won't go into the oft-imitated abomination that is the headrest, which forces one's head more than an inch forward of one's shoulders so one can't relax in the passenger seat (the E-class luxury seat had such awful ergonomics that L, who has significant anatomical and ergonomic training, preferred to ride in C-class Mercedes seats). I will just talk about the lag and sag of Mercedes' old-woman's car.

First: the lag. The 2005 E320 CDI did not offer 4-Matic. Two-wheel drive was the only option. So, when road conditions require harsh acceleration (e.g., a right angle on a road that winds so you can't see approaching traffic from either direction), great care was needed to obtain the best acceleration one could without pushing the rear wheels to the point of spinning out, then being called into check by the anti-skid system. But this was impossible due to old-woman's car lag.

Mercedes' vehicles are very carefully engineered – I asked high-end Mercedes-only mechanics' shops about solutions and learned that the problem exists all the way up to 12-cylinder sport coupe models, some of whose drivers had actually sold their hot rides in disgust over the issue – to wait a half-second before responding to the accelerator. Now, how long is a half-second? When you are carefully applying the accelerator searching for the most juice you can safely give the car in order to traverse a curved road with mere yards of visibility, and do so without losing control of the car to a rear-wheel spinout, you push until you feel the car is doing everything you need and then you let off so you can stop accelerating on the other side of the road. Unfortunately, the half-second lag means that you get nothing as you push, so you push a bit more, and a bit more, and by the time the car starts responding you have no idea what depth of accelerator push is having what effect on the car but by the time the car starts turning the rear wheels it's not moving at all, because they've leapt past the limits of their traction in a way no car ever behaved, even when driving a 440-cubic-inch engine in a car at least as heavy, and you've lost control of the Mercedes to a computer that is flashing a triangular warning with an exclamation point in it -- warning that the car's traction control system has overtaken the wheels.

And this isn't the scary part. Embarrassing yourself while burning rubber off your tires in public probably is bad enough, but its not the depth of this bad. No. The worst is that you are still at a stop sign, perpendicular to a curved road with mere yards of visibility along a road with a 35mph speed limit, but instead of being safely behind the stop sign waiting until it looks clear both ways you are now well into the southbound lane, moving about 2mph, with a flashing exclamation point to tell you that you're not yet in control of the Mercedes' acceleration.

In the ancient Mercury Grand Marquis, this never happened because the accelerator pedal mecahnically pulled a carburator valve, causing immediate power transfer to the rear wheels; you knew precisely what amount of push caused what acceleration because you felt it just as it happened, enabling instantaneous and intuitive adjustment to ensure you got just enough, not too much, and had complete control. But don't blame the computers. Mercedes' brake system makes hundreds of adjustments each second to prevent wheel lock-up during braking (as did the 1991 Lincoln Towncar, with its fuel-injected V-8, even more powerful than the Grand Marquis!), and could in the hands of a competent engineer solve all the same problems with acceleration.

But Mercedes doesn't want you to have controlled acceleration. Mercedes is an old woman's car. Mercedes only cares about stopping. Even when you buy a 4-wheel-drive Mercedes, you don't get 4-wheel acceleration every time you punch it -- you get two wheels until Mercedes thinks traction is failing, then you get a reactive switch into 4-wheel mode, which lasts only so long as Mercedes thinks you need it. I haven't bothered to test whether Mercedes' 4-Matic products are any better about getting across this intersection, but I've found the answer and it's such an elegant, fun answer there's little point to making excuses for Mercedes' broken products.

And a half-second delay in acceleration is broken. It robs drivers of control. It strands them at 2mph half into a lane of traffic that cannot be vetted for safety because the foliage and curving road make a pipe dream out of visibility in any conditions but night, when headlights might warn of traffic by illuminating the opposite side of the road from oncoming traffic. And rush hour is nowhere near nighttime. The half-second isn't required by any computer system, but is a direct result of a computer system that is buggy, sickeningly buggy, and probably drove my stroke risk several-fold before the vehicle finally convinced me it needed replacement.

Mind you, the Mercedes didn't suck from bumper to bumper. The engine was a thing of beauty, pumping out ample power from six cylinders of twin-turbocharged Diesel engine. The power would have been much more appreciated, especially at the low end where Diesels have so much torque, if the accelerator lag didn't make it basically uncontrollable unless you drove like you were on your way to Church on Sunday along roads marked only with high-visibility stoplights as traffic signals, so you could trust that at every intersection it didn't matter when you moved or how quickly because you relied implicitly on the safety created by your legal right-of-way. God forbid that some municipality install a stop-sign that required you to wait until judgment and observation were required to assess safety, or that the stop was anything but an all-way stop.

The power of the engine could be felt not only in the acceleration, control of which was usurped by computers whenever lag made it impossible for a human to assess, but even driving. For example, one day I felt a vibration akin to a rumble-strip while slowing to a stop on a freeway access road. I checked, and I was nowhere near the road edge. But as I slowed, so did the frequency of the rumble, until at idle it was a slow procession of little bumps. The light changed and I touched the accelerator -- and felt the pace of the rumble strips speed.

I've seen cars that had plastic bits hanging into their wheel wells, and I've seen cars dragging parts, and I've seen all kinds of things. And this particular car had been in the shop so often with weird and intractable suspension issues that caused all kinds of clicks, bumps, and other strange noises and feelings that I frankly could imagine just about anything. Within a half mile, I had to stop: the vibration became so heinous, and the noise so awful, that I could not be reassured by the voice on the tele-aid system that there was no problem. There was a serious problem, and it was getting worse. I will save you the troubleshooting nightmare and cut to the chase: two of the engine's three (sophisticated, vibration-isolating, liquid-filled) engine mounts had failed. Basically, the engine was being held up from falling into the street by forces being exerted on the transmission. Without warranty, the repair would have been thousands of dollars. This was at about 50K mi, when factory warranty would have just expired. They say extended warranties are not a good buy, but let me tell you: don't own a recent Mercedes without one.

Undrivability didn't require 50k miles to materialize, though. Before 1K, the thing died within a block of home with no explanation, and I found myself pushing it backward out of the intersection in which it had halted. Mercedez-Benz of Greenway Plaza carefully inspected the car and pronounced it cured, but when I went to pick it up, it died the exact same way on the valet. Apparently, dealer-added security technology didn't play well with at least some of the car's numerous built-in computers, which went on strike at odd and unpredictable intervals. Eventually Greenway Mercedes removed the gear and replaced it with LoJack Early Warning, which I do not recommend unless for the insurance discount; it's a long story, but LoJack won't tell you where the car is, and Houston Police Department (to which LoJack will refer you if you call looking for your car when a tow driver drops it in an unknown location in Houston) will transfer you numerous times before you finally realize nobody at HPD has any way to obtain the location from LoJack, either. See, LoJack won't find it for you, only for the police; and the police expect LoJack to help you because finding your car isn't their problem and they've no idea who to call to get a car located with LoJack. But the insurance discount is real; price it, compare it to the LoJack product, and make a business decision. They will never find your car (the owner of the lot where the car is dumped will help you on the next business day), but the insurance discount will come like clockwork.

The clicking and bumping that occasioned slow turns on smooth pavement was an interesting lesson in maintenance. Either Greenway Mercedes lied about replacing all those suspension parts, or Mercedes' suspension parts are horribly short-lived. But there is a third option: Greenway Mercedes is incompetent, and misdiagnosed the problem repeatedly, replaced a part unrelated to the issue you demonstrated over and over after they said they'd fixed it, and kept charging Mercedes for warranty work. Actually fixing the problem would be to kill the goose that was laying the golden service eggs, no? Much better to run you and Mercedes in circles. But I conjecture. Other Mercedes-certified mechanics were shocked to hear the lengthy story of my suspension woes with the 2005 E320 CDI, completely disbelieved that Mercedes would build a product so frequently failing, and suggested in no uncertain terms that the folks at Greenway Mercedes might not be the biggest crooks in the country, but were probably the biggest crooks west of the Mississippi.

So I started having its many warranty problems handled by the evidently more competent technicians at Alex Rodriguez Mercedes. These gentlemen will bring you your loaner, swap you your car, and bring you yours back fixed – all on a schedule you agree in advance. You never have to sit in a waiting room, fight traffic, suffer scheduling problems and so forth just because you had the bad judgment to believe that because Mercedes could build an outstandingly reliable car in 1982, it would surely be able to build a reliable car in this century. Let me save you some trouble: they've completely forgotten how. But if you live anywhere near the Johnson Space Center – the place Man first tried to reach when it spoke those first words back from the surface of the moon and uttered the word "Houston", but which is too unimportant to be allowed to display any of the Space Shuttles it successfully guided into space and back – I urge you to rely on Alex Rodriguez Mercedes-Benz. They can't make the car more reliable, but they'll make you much happier while it's being maintained.

One fine day I made an appointment for A-Rod Mercedes (as they call themselves) to look into why my stereo had quit working. This was a pain for me; I like music, which is why I paid a fortune for a plussed-up sound system. I wasn't exactly surprised that it had failed; I'd had the "Command" system (which includes the plussed-up sound system controls) crash repeatedly, including while I was depending on it for maps in a strange town while under a deadline, and remain broken and unbooting for days at a time, but this time I was determined to show a competent** technician the problem so that it might finally be diagnosed and fixed. After years of this kind of mistreatment, I was determined to have it solved before the extended warranty ran out. So I explained that I had a non-emergency problem, I wanted a loaner, and I was scores of miles away. A-Rod Mercedes' friendly service advisers set me up with an appointment to have a loaner delivered the very next Monday – less than a week away – so they could sort it out with minimal inconvenience.

A few other things associated with the Command system died over the next couple of days. I assumed it was an expansion of the audio problem; the radio, the auxiliary input I used for an iPod, the mapping system (which has a voice component), all became unresponsive. Still, the Mercedes' broad array of potential text messages available to warn the driver about everything from upcoming maintenance to impending engine calamities lay silent, suggesting that nothing particularly critical was amiss, just another audio-related bug. So on Friday – three days before the Monday loaner dropoff appointment – I don't expect serious trouble when I get the car loaded with people for a little outing. Everybody is in the car, everybody is buckled, the garage door is open, and I move to turn the key.


A red backlight emphasizes the message that there is a malfunction. But since it's not even trying to turn over, I know damned well there's a malfuction. And I call A-Rod, who promptly sends a flatbed to haul off the dead husk of the "powerful" Mercedes. Diagnosis? For over a week the car had been slowly shutting down "non-essential" systems out of concern over a "dying" battery. One would think that if the car were at the point of deliberately killing non-essential systems in anticipation of failure, it might send me a little note that failure was at least foreseeable. But no, I got stuck for the Nth time by the "new" Diesel, which disgusted me mostly because I had come to Mercedes' defense so many times when explaining how the "old" Diesel had withstood so much for so long. (And still does: everything but the crummy A/C system runs like a champ, and the A/C system is just hopeless because it was designed by people who live in a country where A/C is an option and not a necessity in a roadcar. New Mercedes A/C systems were designed by a team Mercedes sent to Arizona not to come back without an A/C that could be sold in the South with a straight face. So the new A/C is very powerful but assumes that it's being used in a dry desert, and so promptly fills with condensation in the swamps of coastal Texas and thereafter, following an incubation period, gives off a persistent and nasty mold smell that dealers pretend is not a systematic problem even as they cycle through a long list of imaginative fixes that plainly reflect substantial post-development engineering resources, but none of which work. Short term, your dealer can kill it with harsh treatments that leave the car smelling like a chemical plant, but long term it all just grows back.)

So I asked about this "battery failure". The Diesel has, after all, two big-assed batteries. Oh, I'm told, they both failed. Ahem. Both? At once? I'm thinking its the recharging system; one of the batteries had just been replaced less than a year before. Haha, that battery will be replaced under warranty, but the other one will be about $400. I search online, certain I can find a better price, but I can't: the online price for a comparable battery is actually worse than I am quoted by A-Rod Mercedes. The thing is huge, uses cutting-edge technology to produce enormous cold cranking amps, and just can't be had for cheap. The alternative is that I can't start my car; so I shell out, dubious about the charging system and about the battery life and about the reliability of a car that knows it's failing but chooses to keep the fact a secret even while shutting down ill-designed electronic subsystems I assumed were falling to crasher bugs I'd previously seen.

So I start looking for a different ride.

Trading Three-Point Stars for Four Rings
And let me tell you what fun that new ride is. With approximately the same engine displacement, the 6-cylinder 2008 Audi A6 Quattro*** has comparable interior room, a trunk that's vastly bigger even than the 2.5-corpse trunk of the Mercedes, and full-time four wheel drive. This is a huge win. You want to cross an intersection, the car doesn't lose traction then claw to get it back: it uses all four wheels to get you across with no perceptible loss of traction.

You are at full speed on the freeway and some nutjob thinks it's a good idea to swerve directly into you? The Mercedes was controllable at speed, to be sure. You turn the biiig leather wheel and, dampened beneath a fortune in ground-insulating suspension, the front wheels turn and lean on Mercedes' peculiar front-end control system and the car – driven against the front tires by the rear tires' answer to the call of the relentless Diesel – is pushed sideways out of harm's way while you rely on anti-skid technology to protect you from the risk of strange traction issues on the freeway. Once in your new lane, the Mercedes settles down from the swaying induced by the little duel between the turned front tires and the pushing, ever-pushing rear wheels. And then you're back in the bank vault, insulated from the world, safe.

The same incident passes quite differently in the Audi Quattro. You pull the wheel with the same force – part fear of the near-wreck, part anger at the risk caused by the idiot coming your way – and there is no swaying left-to-right, no conflict front-to-back, no post-lane-change settling-down period. You turn the wheel and the Audi doesn't grudgingly agree to change lanes only while grumbling about what an imposition it is to be asked.

Instead, the Audi leaps with excitement, thrilled to do your bidding, ecstatic that you've asked it to do something more interesting than keep straight-on between an endless series of dashed lines. The Audi's all-time four-wheel drive pulls you where you want to go, ignoring road oil, rain, debris of other cars' shredded tires and shattered fiberglass, and eagerly awaits your next command – its next fondest wish. Sure, the Diesel in the Mercedes has more torque and feels like it's got more raw power, even though the Audi's gasoline engine has much more listed horsepower, but most of us aren't in a roadrace and are unconcerned with track times. What we want is to know what it feels like.

And in the Audi, I feel in control. Not worried about unexpected equipment failures. Not worried about lag in reacting to emergency commands. Not worried that the maps will quit while I'm in a rush in a strange place. Not worried even that the buzzing of Mercedes' plastic parts signifies other overlooked details with safety and reliability implications that will bite me, hard, in the back when I am most vulnerable. In the Audi, I am not worried at all about the car failing for any reason to perform exactly as I demand. And that security, and that control, represent the kind power I care most about.

* Except the A/C. Well, that was reliable too I suppose – it reliably sucked.
** Competent technician in this circumstance means a technician qualified by the absence of any relationship to Mercedes-Benz of Greenway Plaza.
*** After the value fiasco I had with the new Mercedes, I was gun-shy about buying new. In 2004, the '05 was the only recent-generation Diesel to buy from Mercedes, and my personal history with cars was to keep them longer than a decade so I didn't really have a lot of concern about resale value. Never having owned an Audi, but liking the reliability and performance implications in a firm able to take 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in a grueling long-distance torture event like LeMans (in 2010; in 2011 they took 1st after losing their other cars to crashes while overtaking slower Ferrarris, for the tenth victory in twenve 24-hour races), I thought buying used would give me an opportunity to try one out for a few years to see it if treated me like I expect a car ought.

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