Friday, May 12, 2006

Is the world car as worldly as it seems

I like to buy good things. Once I have learned what to look for I try to buy the best I can afford - at the best price, naturally - and then use it until it is totally worn out. It feels like I spend my money more wisely that way.

Of course, sometimes my obsessive search for good value can backfire. I ordered some Bang & Olufsen earphones online recently, but instead of buying them from Bang & Olufsen, I bought them on eBay, for a third of the price, from a guy who claims to be selling the OEM version. Of course, when they turned up they looked just like the Bang & Olufsen earphones, they fitted just like Bang & Olufsen earphones, and I must say, they even sound a lot like Bang & Olufsen earphones - much better than the standard ones that came with my MP3 player. Of course a lot of that comes down to the quality of the fit. But you see, they are not Bang & Olufsen earphones, they are just like Bang & Olufsen earphones. This message is hammered home by the brand name 'Like' written on the side. And because they are not the real thing, I feel a little ripped off.

It's a similar ripped off sense that my sister-in-law felt when her landlord finally replaced her washing machine, which promptly failed. When the warranty repair man came out from the washing machine company he said, 'This looks just like one of ours from the outside, except that we only make washing machines. We don't have a washer dryer - this is a Chinese rip off.' And so chinese rip offs have been on my mind lately.

Of course, I can always console myself that I once owned a Mercedes-Benz. I loved it - loved it enough to take pictures, as you can see - it gave me confidence at a time when I had none.

It reassured me, as I drove up to a job interview, that I didn't really need a new job. So I got the job, of course. And through that job, I met my wife, and her dad approved of the way I kept my car, and so on - life began again.

The Mercedes-Benz S class has, for generations, been the pinnacle of automotive development. They were consistently twenty years ahead of their time, and the biggest of the saloons - the Mercedes 300SEL 6.3, the 450SEL 6.9 and the 560SEL were frequently described as the best cars of their time. Mine was 26 years old when I bought it, and was the best value car I could buy at the time - it had the exact same specification as the 26 years younger, top of the range Holden Commodore (the large GM saloon in Australia) of the time, for a quarter of the price.

The cars were so good - and so damn expensive - because Mercedes-Benz built them up to their own standards, rather than down to the local standards. And the Merceds-Benz standard exceeded the local design rules everywhere on the planet. They were a world car.

But is the world car so worldly now? Mercedes' reign has certainly been under assault in the last decade and a half - first BMW rose to glory; now Audi is coming in from behind, snapping its jaws and making aggressive noises, and even the Volkswagen Golf is as much of a world car as the Mercedes ever was. So when, in the past, governments and expats would only ever buy Mercedes - because who on earth knew what a Holden Commodore, or a Kia Proton was back then - there are now a raft of excellent cars to choose from, and Mercedes is just one of them. (Case in point, our UK car is a Golf.)

In the face of this competition, Mercedes should be focussing on the strategy that made it so good in the first place - setting its own standards higher, and living up to them. It looked like it was doing so well with the new E Class - a superb piece of engineering, until it started having problems with its electrics. And the very sexy new S class was released, and then embarrassed when, in early March, Mercedes-Benz recalled 33,000 S class cars in China.

Nowhere else, but China. There was a problem with the evaporator lines and the fuel lines coming into conflict with eachother and causing leaks. The problem isn't really relevant, but the fact that it only happened in China is. You see, if the world car fails it should either fail worldwide, or fail in some specific localised component. It should not fail in a local market on a sub assembly so crucial as the fuel system.

How is this going to make the Chinese market feel. It's going to make it feel like Mercedes-Benz is shipping sub-standard product to market in China. It's going to send the message that China may be an important market to make money in, but it's not important enough to ship good product. It's almost as if Mercedes Benz is not waiting for Chinese counterfitters to copy its product with some sub-standard immitation, because it's heading into the marketplace to do it itself. And that's not on.


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