- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

I suppose it is inevitable that the more complex anything gets, the more likely it is to break down.

That is one explanation for a spate of problems reported for cars made by some of the world’s best car manufacturers — Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Saab, VW and Jaguar. Some of these vehicles have more than 35 motors that do nothing but reposition the front seats.

Consumer Reports’ preview of 2005 cars says models from all of these manufacturers suffer from lack of reliability. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is the little electronic add-ons that are at the heart of the problem. Thus, nifty gimmicks may not work, or may just function intermittently. Power windows going down may suddenly reverse direction and go up. Key fobs that open trunks remotely may also set off the alarm simultaneously. Warning lights flash on for no apparent reason and stay on irritatingly. Meanwhile, the guts of the car, the engine and drive train, function just fine.

The Consumer Reports’ preview takes particular aim at the BMW 5-series and 7-series, the Mercedes S-Class and E-Class, the Jaguar X- and S-types and the Saab 9-3. Volkswagen Jettas, Golfs and new Beetles also are sub-par when it comes to reliability, the magazine says. All in all, these are expensive cars, not ones you drive off the lot and expect problems. Few things make the heart sink faster than a glitch in a ew car that theretofore made your buttons burst.

Japanese cars, for whatever reason, apparently have avoided these problems. A full 29 of the 32 best-rated cars were Japanese, the report said. Toyota and its high-end subsidiary Lexus, once again stood at the top of the list for reliability, especially the Avalon, the Camry, the Highlander and the RAV4.

Cars from the United States ranked above the Europeans, including the Buick Regal and the Pontiac Grand Prix, but 11 American models placed poorly: the Hummer H2, Chevrolet Astro van, Lincoln Navigator and the Chrysler Sebring convertible.

Consumers can probably take heart that these problems are being addressed and it is to be hoped will be rectified in future editions of the same models. Sales people forced to deal with complaining consumers make their discomfort very clear to dealer hierarchies, who in turn pass their complaints up the line to manufacturers.

Louder yet are the numbers these manufacturers’ accounting departments reports. Word gets around about reliability, and sales are affected. Sales of BMW’s 5- and 7-series are down by 5 percent and 19 percent respectively in the United States this year. Mercedes-Benz overall sales have dropped by 1.6 percent and VW has slumped 15 percentin the United States so far this year.

Car executives have to take note of numbers such as these because they are public companies, and at some point stockholders will scream, either at the annual stockholders’ meeting or by simply bailing out of the stock. Executive heads can roll when that happens. This is all part of the free market system, which can be ruthless. Ultimately, however, the consumer will benefit. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

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