But it’s time to turn from that sick chapter in human history and debunk the myth of “superior German engineering.” Bare minimum, the term should at least be converted to the more precise description of “superior marketing hype.” Start with the moniker “Volkswagen” – “the peoples’ auto.” That’s a folksy, encouraging name with a trustworthy ring to it, arguably much moreso than “Touareg” or “Tiguan,” a couple of VW’s current models. VW has also been described in fairly recent ads as simply “Driven.” I owned a Volkswagen in the ‘60s and found that it was driven, … far too often, to the shop for required mechanical repairs. Here are a couple of vintage ads from that time:
Notice the manufacturer’s clever descriptions, … with both of which I wholeheartedly agree: “Lemon” and “Volkswagen doesn’t do it again.” But I inserted no personal opinion in either of those ads – just removed a bit of text beneath the word “Lemon” in the first one so that we could focus on the operative, one-word descriptive assigned by the manufacturer. Apt, in my opinion. That VW was a “lemon” because it required (as in, specified in the owner’s manual) that the engine’s four valves be adjusted every 3,000 miles – a job not to be lightly tackled by the average car owner under his shade tree, especially in winter. Off to the shop we go, where mechanics trained by German engineers often could NOT, in my practical experience, make accurate valve adjustments, even with proper German tools. Hello burned valves! Hello pricey little valve job! Hello, parts profits for VW! I’ve never looked back at the Volkswagen line since then.
Next, let’s visit the vaunted BMW – the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” I believe it has affectionately been called. It was also ballyhooed in older ads as “sedan of the year for five years in a row.” A comparison with my experience is, however, instructive. I own a 1997 Ford Expedition with about 180,000 miles on it. Bought it as the second owner when it had 24,000 on the odometer and was two years out of the chute. Since, I’ve had the spark plugs replaced once, bought tires every 50,000 miles just to keep good rubber on the road, and have had the PCV valve, brakes, and a set of front shocks replaced once. Replaced the battery and, of course, have had regular service to nurture the drivetrain with clean oil, filters, and other fluids. Oh, and the 6-disc CD changer (thoughtfully installed at the factory in the console between the driver’s and front passenger’s seat – novel idea!) finally quit working last fall after having been played mercilessly for 178,000 miles of pleasureful, musical driving. This big “gas hawg,” which often hauls a mountain of cycling or camping gear, gets about 18 mpg on the road at 75 mph, 15 or so around town, depending upon the stop-and-go. No VW economy on this one, but I don’t feel particularly ozone-layer-destructive, since I now put about 4,000 miles a year on it. And this truck offers great road visibility so that I can see and avoid traffic snarls and oncoming text messengers before they broadside me at an intersection. Pretty handy, especially since auto accidents annually claim the lives of about 60 times more people than U.S. military troops killed in the entire war in Iraq. (Why is no one staging a protest?!) Not to mention physical comfort. Not luxury, but comfort.
Roll in the Beamer 528i, please Vana, and let’s take a look! My wife’s car is NEWER than my Ford and has a third FEWER miles. But it’s engineered to last and provide driving euphoria, right? (I won’t digress here about the seats being so low that I struggle to haul my skinny butt out of one, to exit the car, what with my knees higher off the ground than said butt!) Starting in the passenger compartment, the CD changer had expired before we bought the car used, so the previous owner (widely known as a fastidious engineer type who’s religious about maintenance protocols) had installed a Pioneer after-market CD player – in the trunk! Where the original was – how handy! I can just see a dad driving his teen daughter to a sleepover in his fine BMW and she objects strenuously to his boring music. “OK, sweetie, just hop out – in the rain – and change the CDs. I’ll pop open the trunk.” Eyeroll. “Dad!!!” Big sigh.
Well, the after-market CD changer not only died soon after we purchased the beast, but it wrought sporadic (aka unpredictable) and sudden, rapid exhaustion of the car’s battery at the most inconvenient times and inaccessible places — a peculiar idiosyncracy that no mechanic seemed able to ferret out with the most sophisticated computer diagnostics. But I can tell you that accessing a “down” car and hooking up jumper cables in a tight, multi-floor, pay-in and pay-out parking garage is not my idea of fun. Not even if it’s to rescue Mama. After several iterations of this exercise – not the kind that improves cardio-vascular functioning – I was told I should “probably remove the after-market CD changer because we’ve heard that BMWs and Audis have sometimes manifested this issue.” Don’t you just love techie talk?! Not to mention that the Beamer’s fuel mileage is no better than my Ford’s although it’s half the size and half as comfortable.
“We” have owned the BMW for just over a year. We’ve replaced the alternator twice, almost all the exterior light bulbs and a handsome little sensor (as in, $680 US) of some sort that resides in a wheel well (only slightly less convenient than the trunk-installed CD changer) to enable and regulate, among other things, some of the instrument panel functions AND the anti-lock brake system – hence, not an optional fix. And our BMW is back in the shop today after being towed because, as my wife and I motored home at 35 mph on a busy city street, this German “ultimate driving machine” suddenly started wailing like a banshee. Nearby pedestrians and other motorists must have incurred whiplash injuries from straining to see what in hell was happening and how soon they were gonna die! I wonder when a plaintiff’s lawyer in going to call me seeking recompense for his clients’ damages, pain and suffering.
A phone call just told me the repairs to the brake system will run just over $1,600. I love this BMW, this engineering marvel!
Well, the good news is, there is more German precision engineering to be had out there — at a considerably higher entry fee, of course (MSRP: $366,000 + Destination Fee: $2,750 for the 2010 Mercedes Maybach). Mercedes-Benz’s recent ads say it so eloquently, so simply: “Something more.” What? The price? Afraid to find out – and suspecting I already know the answer (since today’s tow truck operator said he hauls “far more Mercedes than BMWs”) – I look sideways at the highbrow Mercedes. Think I’ll be staying with my old Ford. If I trade up, it’s to Japanese technology. German superior engineering? Nein danke! Nicht!
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© Michael Stubblefield, Jan. 13, 2011. All rights reserved.