Curbside Classic: Mercedes W210 – Mercedes’ Deadly Sin #2: Hubris

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Transcripts from an imaginary boardroom meeting at Daimler-Benz AG World Headquarters, Stuttgart, Germany, late 1990:

CEO: “Gentlemen, we have a crisis. The new Japanese luxury marques are killing our sales, especially in the ever-important American market. The biggest threat is Toyota’s Lexus, which builds cars that are probably 90% as good as our cars or better, and sells them for half the price we charge. Any ideas on how to  make our cars less expensive?”

Vice President #1: “Boss, maybe we could figure out how Toyota is making these cars such a great value for money proposition, and replicate what they do?”

CEO: “That would be a good idea, but that would mean that we would need to set up design or engineering operations in Japan, and that would cost a lot of money.”

Vice President #2: “We could create a lower-end brand for the USA, as we only sell highly equipped models there.”

CEO: “Also a good idea, but we would need to retool for new models if we are ambitious, or at least have different sheet metal stateside either way. We do not want to have a lower-end car look like a Mercedes stateside, do we? That would dilute the brand over there.”

Vice President #3: ” How about we cost-cut to the nth degree, and stop over-engineering our cars? You know over-engineered cars like the W201, W124, and W140 have been huge drains on the money left to spend in other departments, solely because of the over-engineering. Also, if we cost-cut, we would not need to spend any money setting up operations anywhere else, and we would be able to save money at production, and we could sell at lower prices.”

CEO: “Perfect! We can save money, and keep prices lower for the Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura buyers. Best of all, none of the prevalent lease-and-trade-after-five-years crowd will note a single difference in the old and new cars!

Vice President #3: “I meant for that to be sarcasm. Anyways, I will probably get a large bonus for this idea. I said too much.”

Now this conversation probably did not happen at the 14th Floor of Mercedes Benz’s Headquarters in Stuttgart, but it might as well have happened. This is the bastard child of the results, fictional or not. Bastard status was dealt with the swift blow of cost-cutting, as no one will ever know “the father” who gave the W210 this debilitating issue. Anyways, I invite you to enter the world of the Mercedes W210; a new low, for a new, throwaway decade.

The main competition for the 1991 Model Year: Lexus Edition

The main competition for the 1991 Model Year: Lexus Edition

 

As most car people know, the Mercedes W210 was born during the time Lexus was growing rapidly, and kicking Mercedes’ backside in sales as a result. This happened because Lexus, and the other Japanese luxury marques sold a car that was 95% as good as a comparable Mercedes, for 75% of the price. Lexus was probably the biggest threat to Mercedes, often bring called the “Japanese Mercedes” for its subdued car designs, high build quality, and rather liberal use of high quality components

Mmmmm...Glorious underengineering and adequate quality!

Look at das glorious underengineering und less than adequate quality! Savor the cheapness und badness of the components that make up this “fine” German automobile. Enjoy das not at all attentive engineering, that we probably farmed out to a random engineering firm in a third-world country.

 

Mercedes knew that they had an impending crisis when they saw this one, and acted accordingly. As any good car company would, they cost-cut the entire lineup starting around 1993. This gave cars they built from then on issues such as biodegradable wiring harnesses, among other equally fatal issues. In fact, a poignant quote comes to mind, “Mercedes Benz used to produce the finest automobiles in the world, now they just make cars.” Their cars still had phenomenal build quality as they had in the past, but certain components were cheapened. The cost-cutting would not fully hit until the introduction of the W202 C Class in 1993. The W202 would be the first taste of the “new” Mercedes. It was the death knell for over-engineered Mercedes, just as the W140 was the death knell for the reliable and dependable Mercedes.

Photo by self

When new, the W210 was an “attractive”, “well-engineered”, “safe”, and “high-quality” car. Indeed, that is what a Mercedes should do undoubtedly; provide a well-built, well-engineered, safe, and attractive car that should easily outlive the owner. Also, some have been lucky, and found W210s that they find quite nice. These owners will keep and love their W210s for a long time, and undoubtedly keep the supply of “survivor” W210s at a semi-constant level. Alas, the W210 was not meant to provide this to the average American, who is notoriously lax on car maintenance schedules. Even Mercedes owners in Europe found regular issues with the W210. As someone once said, “This car (the W210) changed Mercedes from being a maker of cars that are dependable, well-built, and attractive, to being ‘manufacturers of bling-mobiles’.”

Top photo by Brendan Saur. Bottom photo by Paul Niedermeyer

Top photo by Brendan Saur. Bottom photo by Paul Niedermeyer.

 

Eventually, the Mercedes W210 descended into the lowest level of automotive hell: beaterdom. There, it would experience a trial by fire. This trial by fire would result in the W210’s numbers massively thinning out over the years, even though many were built.

Photo by Brendan Saur

Photo by Brendan Saur

 

The Mercedes W210 was a huge paradigm shift for Mercedes, as it introduced cars that did not age well visually or mechanically, unreliable, and badly built, to a crowd of people who bought cars that were supposedly well-built, reliable, and attractive. They completely abandoned the premise of substance, and left it for style over substance. This was the introduction of a “new” Mercedes; it left a sour or bitter taste in the mouths of many buyers, encouraging them to run, nay sprint, to their nearest Lexus, Acura, or Infiniti dealer.

See the resemblance yet?

See the resemblance yet?

 

I fact, I think I have figured out what the W210 would have been in a parallel universe, the “blobfish” Ford Taurus! First, both cars were released with radical new styling, compared to their predecessors. Both cars ditched attractive, aerodynamic styling for these not-so-hot messes. Second, both cars had the same basic powertrain design as their predecessors. Third, both cars displayed horrible build quality compared to their predecessors. Lastly, both cars were an attempt to change the marque’s position in the market, with Ford supposedly going upmarket with this generation Taurus, and Mercedes going slightly downmarket with the W210.

Photo by self

Mercedes, you thought that you could fool people with a car as bad as the W210, couldn’t you. Most of your buyers in the ever-important American market leased your cars for a few years anyways, right? Issues with ownership would only come to the occasional long term owner, and the second and third owners of your “Fine German Automobiles”. As the action show star Mr. T said once, “I pity the foo!” I “pity the foo” who thought that Mercedes could cost-cut to high heaven, and not create bad results. Had they forgot about GM’s misadventures in cost cutting? GM was still an “addict” to that “drug”-cost-cutting-at the time, y’know.

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