Once the maker of the world’s finest automobiles, Mercedes’ brand image has been heavily diluted over the years.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve adored the Mercedes-Benz brand. While my school friends rattled off facts and figures about the latest Lamborghinis and Ferraris, I was more enamored by the graceful lines of an R129 SL-Class, the gravitas of a W140 S-Class, and the sheer elegance of the C126 SEC.
Based on my use of the internal factory codes, it’s safe to assume I’m quite the geek when it comes to Mercedes-Benz models. Well, the older ones, anyway. You see, over the last few years, I’ve fallen out of love with the world’s oldest automaker. It happened gradually, but I find myself looking at the current lineup and not feeling an ounce of excitement.
Instead, what I feel is sadness. A great sadness as I mourn the loss of the brand I once knew. No longer are Mercedes-Benz vehicles sophisticated. They’re overstyled symbols of excess. Overstyled bastions of vulgarity that scream, “I have money” rather than whispering, “I have good taste.”
Before I go any further, I should state that this is merely my opinion. You might disagree and argue that older Mercedes’ were built for wealthy octogenarians, and the brand’s new direction is youthful and exciting.
I still think Mercedes has gone off the rails, though, and here’s why.
Let me lay my bias out on the table in the interests of clarity. I grew up around Benzes. Both my grandfathers owned a Benz, and so did my parents. My first car was a W123 230, and I still drive a Mercedes. In fact, of the seven vehicles I’ve owned, six have worn a Three-pointed Star.
Like many people, the sheer attention to detail fascinates me about Mercedes vehicles. You may get your kicks from rapid 0-60 times, but I’ve always found greater satisfaction in how a solidly constructed door shuts or the way a beautifully engineered switch feels in your hands.
Older Benzes were built to be the best cars in the world. For some time, that was even Mercedes’ tagline: “Engineered Like No Other Car.” And for a time, that was true. Nothing could match a ’70s or ’80s Benz for build quality, engineering integrity, safety, or innovation. They were made to be superb luxury vehicles, and to hell with dynamics, outright performance, and driving thrills.
You wanted thrills? You bought a BMW or an Alfa. And that’s what I admire most about Mercedes during this era. The company knew what it was and made cars that were unmistakably its own.
If you ask me, things started to go awry in the late ’90s. Mercedes hopped into bed with Chrysler to create the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler “merger of equals,” which left both companies worse off. Mercedes dumbed itself down, rapidly expanding its lineup to cater to a broader range of customers.
While some newcomers, like the CLK and SLK, could be considered true Mercedes’, products like the hateful W163 ML-Class and an A-Class that preferred falling over to driving around an obstacle greatly diluted the brand’s image. Can you imagine a century-long reputation for quality and engineering being undone in a decade?
Well, it happened to Mercedes. By the mid-2000s, the brand was reduced to making cars with shameful quality. Talk to anyone who purchased a new Benz in the early ’00s, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing: “It was great… when it wasn’t in the shop.”
With a far too extensive lineup that came to include horrors like the R-Class, Mercedes had killed its image of exclusivity. Even today, the brand isn’t as prestigious as it once was. What do you expect when you’re making vehicles to compete with the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Transit? And with the nightmare that was the DaimlerChrysler era, the quality was gone, too.
But some of these cars still had something going for them. Vehicles like the W220 S-Class, the R230 SL-Class, and the C215 CL-Class were still beautiful, desirable, and packed with innovative technology. What’s more, they still kept those fundamental Mercedes tenets: comfort above all else.
Later Mercedes models, like the W204 C-Class and the W212 E-Class, brought vault-like build quality back to the fold. It looked like the brand was on the mend, but another looming problem existed.
I’ve always felt that modern German cars feel very similar. Back then, a Mercedes E-Class felt vastly different from a BMW 5 Series. But because manufacturers benchmark each other so closely, the latest iterations of these cars feel very similar. Aside from styling and technology, there’s nothing that sets these cars apart from each other.
The latest SL is the perfect example of this. Mercedes (well, Mercedes-AMG) was so determined to build a true Porsche rival that it made a clone of the 911, albeit with its engine in front. While it’s true that the original 300SL Gullwing was a sports car, every open-topped SL since the ’50s has been a grand tourer.
Despite its nomenclature (Sport Light), an SL has always been revered as the grand tourer convertible. No other manufacturer could offer you the same blend of comfort, innovation, quality, and style. The new SL? It’s no different to any of its rivals.
Now, we have BMWs that ride smoother than their competitors from Stuttgart and AMGs that can outhandle their rivals from Munich. To me, Mercedes has become a status symbol – something you lease to impress the neighbors and fill your spot in the executive parking lot.
Perhaps the current S-Class is the only modern Benz to remain faithful to the company’s original ethos. But, to me, there’s still something missing. The cabin is dominated by screens and technology, leaving me somewhat overwhelmed. Style is subjective, but the anonymous rear end and bulbous front fascia leave me uninspired.
I walked away from my brief drive in the W223 S-Class a disappointed man, thinking I’d much rather have a 7 Series were it my money.
To be fair, this is a problem that plagues many modern automakers. A luxury car interior should be a refuge from the world. Fine quality materials, such as leather, wood, wool, and metal, should be the order of the day. Not silly screens stuffed in every crevice.
The lineup of EQ electric vehicles is devoid of any character or emotion. The EQS lacks the stateliness that a flagship Benz should have, and the Maybach EQS SUV is just about one of the most ostentatious vehicles I’ve ever set my eyes on – a big no-no for a Mercedes.
And let’s not forget about the ridiculous technology. Mercedes-Benz pioneered anti-lock brakes, the crumple zone, multi-link rear suspension, stability control, adaptive cruise control, and even brought the airbag into the mainstream.
Admittedly, the brand still debuts impressive safety tech. New models, for example, blast 80 dB of white noise before an impending accident to prepare your eardrums for the noise of a car accident. But the oversized MBUX screens, the unnecessary gadgets, and the silly features make most of these cars feel gimmicky. A Mercedes should be straightforward, serious, and devoid of frills. What E-Class buyer needs to watch TikTok videos in their car?
Sure, give me TikTok integration and the ability to hold Zoom calls if you must. But can I have a traditional grille and a Three-pointed Star hood ornament? Unless I buy an S-Class or Maybach, that’s now a no.
Perhaps I’m wrong, and my viewpoint is outdated. But I’ll end with this. Decades ago, Mercedes-Benz was considered the most desirable automotive marque in the world. I can’t imagine the same being said today. After all, I don’t dream of driving a GLB-Class one day.
With all that I’ve said, I will admit that modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles are still excellent and impressive to drive. It’s just that they don’t move me emotionally like they once did.
I get that brands have to evolve, but Bentley and Rolls-Royce have shown us this can be done without abandoning the standards on which the company was built. Thankfully, Mercedes made its older vehicles to last. So I’ll enjoy those for as long as I can and remember the brand for what it used to be – the maker of the finest cars in the world.