Funny noises about Mercedes reliability

Mercedes-Benz, once a byword for reliability, has slumped to 28th in one table Picture: David Moir

THE German car industry has become a byword for quality and for decades Mercedes has been the most respected marque of them all.

But if Janis Joplin was alive today she might be adapting her famous song to implore: "Oh Lord, don’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz".

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For the manufacturer has slumped from the top of one vehicle reliability study to 28th and seen a similar plunge in its most recent profits, down 62 per cent to 211 million. This year Mercedes Car Group was forced to admit that its luxury cars were prone to break down.

For a company that markets itself on quality, it was a damaging admission.

Experts warned of the "critical" importance of re-establishing the traditional image of a Mercedes, but added that it was suffering partly because of an American obsession with details such as the paint finish rather than the fundamental engineering of its cars.

Parent company DaimlerChrysler has been forced to delay the launch of new models in order to fix problems while for the first time in seven years sales have fallen behind rival German firm BMW.

There was further bad news when it was revealed the US Securities and Exchange Commission was looking into claims by a former employee that the company had bribed officials - an allegation DaimlerChrysler says "has no merit".

Peter Wells, a senior research fellow at the centre for automotive industry research at Cardiff University, said Mercedes had suffered in some league tables because of less serious, "initial quality" problems related to paint, fit and finish of some vehicles.

But he added: "Mercedes have also had some quite significant problems with more fundamental quality issues with electronic systems in the cars.

"One of their senior management said recently they were going to step back from being the pioneer of some of these systems.

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"There’s a perception that Mercedes tried a bit too hard to push forward some of the advanced electronic systems."

These includes the "adaptive power train", which basically helps drive the car, and sophisticated communication systems.

"As an operating environment, a vehicle is a lot more demanding than a computer on a desk," Dr Wells said.

He said it had appeared Mercedes had "taken its eye off the quality ball" and tried to save money by using cheaper components a few years ago, but said that the company had since addressed this.

Ensuring the highest quality was more important for Mercedes than for other manufacturers, Dr Wells stressed.

"It’s critical to them. But the problem is they are being judged by a market that isn’t ideally suited to them, based on an American perception of quality," he said.

"This is a perception of ‘initial quality’. If you take a longer view of quality, that’s where Mercedes and other European companies come out better.

"That’s more down to the fundamental engineering of the car rather than ‘Is the paint finish nice and the panel fitting perfect’. That’s quality for longevity."

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Analysts believe part of the problem is that Mercedes engineers were sent on secondment to Detroit to fix problems at the company’s Chrysler arm and their expertise was missed.

DaimlerChrysler’s chief financial officer Manfred Gentz said that closer quality controls at Mercedes were paying off and the expense should begin to diminish as the company pays out less to fix flaws.

"The positive story is, we can say and prove that on vehicles that left our factory a year ago, there were almost no problems and the quality is significantly better than some of the vehicles we delivered in earlier years," Mr Gentz said.

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