Showing posts with label Mercedes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mercedes. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Apple After Autos?

Previously, Apple entered deals with auto makers for iPod integration.

Given the crummy user interface on Mercedes' "Command" system, I was excited Apple might sell high-end auto makers on a less user-hostile interface using Apple tech.

According to Apple's recent patent filings, the future is here. Apple describes multitouch skins that would put controls on steering wheels and enable context-sensitive modification of interfaces. Thus, the silly icon for the in-car built-in phone you didn't order need not roll your eyes the whole life of your auto ownership: the buttons you see would be multitouch surfaces whose descriptors would vary with what you were doing. Zooming and moving maps should be vastly better with this than with the existing map system, which is so heinous that I haven't had time to finish my excorciating comments on it.

The short story: the included maps are obsolete on the day the car is delivered, the categories in which destinations are sorted make it impossible to find the post office in the town you just drove in (or hell, your own town), and the slow and cumbersome mechanism for scrolling about and zooming on the map looks like something that might have been dreampt up decades ago for a sci-fi movie targted at a culture in love with buttons and happy to suffer. And it crashes.

So let's hope -- whether you own Apple, or just drive cars -- that Apple has some success pitching its UI tools to auto makers. At least at Mercedes, they're in desperate need of a lifeline.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

North Texas at Ike+4

Today we set out to make lemonade.  

You know, from the lemons we got in the box that contained the power outages, school closings, difficulty retrieving work materials from a city over 300 miles away (well, using our decreased-traffic evacuation route, at any rate), cancelled jobs, lost earnings, and so on.

It turns out that the Houston Zoo has a reciprocity arrangement with the Dallas Aquarium, and L and I set out to check it out.  Funny thing, when you ask Google about the Dallas Aquarium, it tells you about an establishment called the Dallas World Aquarium which, though I'm sure it is very nice, is not the same place and doesn't have a reciprocity agreement and -- if you are sharp-eyed and have exact change and can get away with spending so little -- will require you to spend at least $2.50 trying to park during the week.  Granted, $2.50 is peanuts compared to downtown Houston, and certainly to anywhere space is genuinely precious, but it is irksome at any price to part with money, after fighting through all the places you might have change and end up overpaying just so you don't get towed, and then discover you're in the wrong place.

Let me tell you that the Dallas Aquarium has free parking.

The Mercedes E320CDI, which got us over 35 miles per gallon despite evacuation traffic and stops for food and traffic signals, is not to be trusted on how to find the Dallas Aquarium.  If you type in the street address and ask for directions, it'll surely lead you in the exact opposite direction from the Dallas World Aquarium and get you lost in Dallas, which is very easy to do. (Signs aren't marked here with the clarity of some places, and I've frequently gotten lost here on freeways though I'm virtually never lost in strange places unless I'm following the instructions of a navigator who's also lost.)  Google Maps, by contrast does a great job of identifying the spot.

This is a key reason Mercedes should ditch its lame navigation partner and provide an interface that can be driven by a docked iPhone.  Between Google Maps on iPhone and the impending TomTom application, people will be able to get maps with as much accuracy and recency as users care to obtain.  By contrast, I have pics I'll post on the performance of the built-in navigation system that will show you that it was full of BS the day it was delivered, and is only getting more inaccurate as time passes.  Bot more on that later.

The Dallas Aquarium isn't a big affair, but it's got some fun sights.  While we were there a Giant Pacific Octopus was fed a crab about a foot across.  You can tell the octopus is female because as it scrounges about looking for things, the third arm to the right of the mantle is as active as all the other arms, and isn't protecting this arm (which in males bears its reproductive organs) by holding it against its underside.

At least, you could tell this in the wild, supposedly, according to Sharon.  In the little enclosure the GPO had no trouble at all spotting its prey, and she darted to it, herded it against a wall, and put an end to the panicked flailing of its few visible appendages in virtually no time at all.  After a couple of moments, she took her kill to a spot against the wall of the tank near the top and started chomping away on the crab's exoskeleton to access all the edible little bots within, a process we learned would take over an hour.

The stone fish were fun to see.  When their eyes are closed, you have to be looking for a stone fish to see the fish.

The Dallas Aquarium has a couple of Giant Alligator Snapping Turtles, one of which is bigger than you are.  Eep!

The wierd exhibit occupant award has to go to a lobster whose leg-tips look like overgrown pipe cleaners, or baby-bottle brushes.  Highly colorful, it's got a shed (from molting) exoskeleton on exhibit in the breding lab window.  Huge dude.

The Dallas Aquarium also has air conditioning, by the way.  Did I mention the parking was free?

One thing the E-Class Mercedes' navigation system will reliably do is to give you directions back to a known-good destination from where you are located, provided the map it carries on a DVD includes the roads between the two destinations.  In Dallas, it seemed pretty good.  In Houston, construction has obsoleted lots of commonly-trafficked areas (say, I-610 anywhere near the Galleria).

If you drop in on the Texas State Fair -- the grounds of which house the Dallas Aquarium -- drop in and see the ginormous snapping turtle, the numerous stingrays, the pirhana, and the sea monkeys.  Yes, sea monkeys.  Did you know the sea monkeys advertised in the backs of those magazines aimed at kids are actually brine shrimp?  Now you know.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The first post on this blog was a lengthy assault on the quality of Mercedes' modern products, including the suggestion that the superiority of Japanese product reliability ratings is understated, because Mercedes survey respondents' experiences are so bad that they are unwilling to catalog the whole nightmare for survey-takers.


Given that Google is now willing to accept auction bids on trademarked terms, I'd have thought that ads for Lexus would be appearing where articles discussed (and dissed) the Benz. It's not like Google gets paid by advertisers for impressions; it gets paid for clicks. If my post on the recent Mercedes products has had any impact, it'd be to reduce clicks on Mercedes ads.

Incidentally, I've personally stopped four Mercedes sales by answering questions truthfully about my own experience with the car-of-the-month club operated by Greenway Mercedez-Benz. The salesfolks there get kinda testy when I ask whether the things I hate about the car have been fixed, suggesting strongly that they haven't. Deep down, I love Mercedes, which is why I'm so hard on them. Until they shape up, don't reward them.

Effective discipline requires consistency!

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.