Things German: The lies, cons and the myths

There is quite a conundrum when it comes to discussing the legend that is German construction. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Iconic British marques (Mini, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Bentley) made a name for themselves by pushing the envelope in their respective utility and luxury niches through unbridled charm and sheer pluckiness, but once taken over by the Germans, cold calculation was inducted as the modus operandi.
  • These the same Germans we hear about who install not so much engines as live grenades under their bonnets (BMW)? Or use some grass species instead of copper in their wiring harnesses and CAN-bus systems (Volkswagen)?
  • I still know people who swear by German products even when they secretly cry themselves to sleep at night over Check Engine lights that refuse to go away, or a DPF that has malfunctioned for the third time in a month.

Baraza, I  have this thing for German-engineered products, and this applies to cars as well. It stems from the myth that ‘if it’s German, there is no need to ask questions’. You are talking Daimler AG, Volkswagen, Porsche, etc. I drive a Volkswagen, but a few experiences have shaken my confidence in this German thing. For starters, my car has a Check Engine light that refuses to go away. There are also issues with electric window knobs, and much more. Is this ‘but it’s German’ thing a facade?

Tony.

Tony, listen. There is quite a conundrum when it comes to discussing the legend that is German construction. You see, on the one hand we have their build quality, which is exact and uses tolerances that can only be convincingly measured using lasers, if at all. And on the other hand we have Volkswagens with their gearbox issues and DPF issues and perennial Check Engine lights.
Iconic British marques (Mini, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Bentley) made a name for themselves by pushing the envelope in their respective utility and luxury niches through unbridled charm and sheer pluckiness, but once taken over by the Germans, cold calculation was inducted as the modus operandi. They became exact.

For the past 25 years Audis have had the best automotive interiors outside of a Bentley dealership. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

The Germans really know how to put together a car, that is not in question. For the past 25 years Audis have had the best automotive interiors outside of a Bentley dealership.
But are these the same Germans we hear about who install not so much engines as live grenades under their bonnets (BMW)? Or use some grass species instead of copper in their wiring harnesses and CAN-bus systems (Volkswagen)? Or buy transmissions with fasteners made from unprocessed clay (Volkswagen, again)?

There is such a word as ‘overstatement’, and it may be to blame here. German cars are built well — though material science as practised by external suppliers may still be in its infancy if we are to believe our eyes and dashboard warning lights — but they are not without fault. The godhead may just be fallible if you look too closely at the emperor’s new clothes.

And that was the thing: Germans over engineer their vehicles; they just can’t leave well enough alone. It’s not enough that they make an SUV, but it has to have a 10 cylinder engine and turbochargers and adjustable height. Making a luxury saloon car is not enough: it has to be dead quiet at 320km/h.

Yes, the German ‘thing’ is a facade; and this is how it is propagated. It starts from the days of yore when German cars were actually overengineered with the intention of making them last forever, a theme that kept cropping up every now and then in the early parts of 20th-Century Germany (read on German military history or political speeches made before 1945 to get the gist of this).

Riding on this perception into the late ’90s and eventually into the 21st Century, German automakers became more globalised in ownership and operation, and some of the traits that made them ruthlessly efficient as automakers were diluted as they dressed in more corporate cloth.

First was ceding the helm from an unflinching dictat...
(Cough)

Let me rephrase that...

First was ceding absolute control of a board or an individual to shareholders and (God forbid) union workers, a concession which had the ripple effect of introducing pecuniary thirst from investors and a hedonistic need to toil less for more money from the workforce.

So the workers wanted higher pay for less work, while the shareholders expected higher profit from smaller investment. There was only one way out of this quandary: shortcuts.

Shortcuts in the supply chain, shortcuts in the production line, shortcuts in research and development, shortcuts everywhere.

Quality dropped as more dollars per invested dime were avariciously sought every which way. Standards were compromised. The very pillars of these manufacturers’ original existence — leadership in perfection and innovation — were casually and blatantly tossed out the window as something calling itself “The People’s Car” proceeded to make a premium saloon car that was a Bentley in disguise and created an SUV to compete with the Range Rover. Were the Phaeton and the Touareg people’s cars any more or fuel-injected fishing lines into the pockets of the wealthy decadent?

The other entity which sought to dominate air, land and sea through pioneering technology and premium luxury decided domination in quality was not as important as domination on the stock market and introduced a hateful little thing called an A Class that was the exact opposite of what anyone expected a Mercedes-Benz to be: cheaply-built using shoddy materials, ugly, unstable, and with power sent to the wrong axle. It was not so much a Mercedes as a pitiful attempt at poaching sales from lower ranking European marques like Renault and Citroen.

However, as the German ship slowly and imperceptibly sank into the depths of ignominy that comes from being a sellout, their earlier reputation for bullet-proof boffinry persisted.

I still know people who swear by German products even when they secretly cry themselves to sleep at night over Check Engine lights that refuse to go away, or a DPF that has malfunctioned for the third time in a month.

The thing with being a German car owner is, like the German car makers of the ‘80s, fastidiousness is in their blood. They have a low tolerance for sloppiness and mediocrity (hold on, I see the contradiction); and therefore they are the exact people I would send you to if you wanted me to show you what car maintenance should look like.

No fault goes unrepaired, fuel tanks rarely drop below half before being refilled, their windscreen washer bottles contain correct paint-friendly detergents at recommended levels, their interiors are vacuumed professionally at the car wash and tyres are changed promptly at 50 per cent tread. German car owners, like German car makers from the 20th Century, are OCD-driven perfectionists.

And that is why we think German cars will last forever. They probably will, originally because they were built by engineering geniuses out of adamantium once upon a time, and currently because they are owned by financial geniuses who cannot afford to let them slip.

It is an illusion; a well executed and expertly choreographed holographic presentation that has been the result of an unwitting collaboration between seller and buyer.

PHOTO| COURTESY

Above, Volkswagen Touareg and, below, BMW M240i, both of them engineered in Germany. Are they as reliable as their cousins from the 1980s?

PHOTO| FILE

Unfortunately, no. Especially if they are not locally assembled, and so tropicalized. But the thing with being a German car owner is, like the German car makers of the ‘80s, fastidiousness is in the blood.

*****

Be careful with these little, powerful cars if you are a novice

Baraza, I recently turned 30 and I would like to gift myself with my first car. I am not a competent driver at all, and so I will be learning on this car. My dream car is the BMW X1 but my mum feels that is too expensive for a first car, and that it will be too costly for me to learn how to drive in it.

What are your thoughts on this? If you agree with her, these are my other choices for my first car.

I would greatly appreciate if you could help me decide by letting me know the pros and cons of each and which you would go for. Your feedback will be greatly appreciated as I’m having the worst case of analysis paralysis: My choices are Volkswagen Golf MK6, Toyota Auris (second generation), BMW 116, Subaru Impreza hatchback (fourth generation), Mazda Axela (the 2012 update with the SkyActiv powertrain, or the third generation). The car will mostly be used for city driving.

Val.

Of the cars you list, I’d go for a MK6 Golf GTI, or a turbo-charged Impreza. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Val, I don’ t know what your family’s economic situation looks like; you could be part of the one per cent where a BMW X1 is mere trifling compared to what your coffers can come up with when the mind is set.

But then again materfamilias puts the kibosh on the Blue Propeller under the explanation that it costs a fair bit and is inappropriate for a self-confessed incompetent first-timer.

She is right.

Of the cars you list, I’d go for a MK6 Golf GTI, or a turbo-charged Impreza — let’s call a spade a spade and just say the WRX; or a 2.4 litre Auris, or an energised MazdaSpeed 3 — an Axela with extra cubic inches and a turbo.

You?

Do not buy any of these cars. While they may not have the X1’s wildly expensive maintenance protocol, their performance capabilities lie outside the reach of self-confessed incompetents.

I have close to two decades of driving experience, so I know my way around that kind of horsepower. Take note that I omitted the BMW 1 Series because you specified the 116, which is... erm... rubbish in some ways. I wouldn’t be caught dead trying to buy one. What I want is a 130i at the minimum. But that’s just me.

In the real world, a naturally aspirated Impreza is not a bad punching bag for a newbie driver learning the ropes. As I’ve stated here several times before, Subarus can grin and bear their way through a substantial amount of abuse that the rest would have thrown in the towel for much earlier. I’d prescribe one with a manual transmission, just to widen your admittedly thin motoring skill set a bit more.

The pros and cons of these vehicles pale into insignificance in the face of the need to improve your helmsman ship. I have deliberately omitted that part because I have a word count limit which I’m crossing just about now, but more importantly, because I will be sharing the road network with you and I’m not sure I want to compensate for yet another inept driver with my defensive skills. I want you to learn and be better.

All the best!

*****

Baraza, thank you for the very informative column. I don’t know much about cars but l drive a 2007 Subaru Forrester with a manual transmission. The car has served me well since 2012, but it has had two major challenges; it continuously burns or breaks the clutch, and jerks while even at high speed. My local mechanic accuses me of poor driving where the clutch is concerned even though I have driven manual cars all the 15 years of my driving life. He has also been changing one thing after the other trying to sort out the jerking problem, including plugs, fuel pump, and cleaning the fuel tank.

What could be the issue here?

Kagwiria Kioga.

Kagwiria, I’d wager between your mechanic and yourself, someone is not doing things right as far as the clutch is concerned; and it could be you. Frequent burnt clutches are symptomatic of abuse at the end user level more than professional incompetence on the installer’s end, since it typically takes two or more mechanics to successfully replace a clutch. Fifteen years’ experience is not an automatic guarantee of expertise, especially if you were taught wrong or refuse to acknowledge correction where available.

*****

My Toyota Wish is leaking oil, and it has covered less than 55,000km

Baraza, a month ago I purchased a 2010 Valvematic Toyota Wish, and two weeks later I took it to a friend’s garage, where he found out that the chassis had some oil spill. This prompted him to check the engine oil gauge and it was extremely low. He later found out that the plastic engine oil filler lid was cracked and was spilling oil all along. I replaced it the following day and my main worry is, will that oil spill again? If so, what will be the impact on the engine? Last week I braked heavily and heard some drum-like sound on the left front wheel. What could that be? The car is at 54,800 kilometres and I’m planning to service it and change the tyres from size 15 to 16.

How would this affect handling?

Mohamed Dalal.

I purchased a 2010 Valvematic Toyota Wish, and two weeks later I took it to a friend’s garage, where he found out that the chassis had some oil spill. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

You, my friend, may be a victim of fraud. That car has not done 55,000 km; there may be a digit missing from that figure. Cracked oil filler lids are not to be expected on any cars unless they have rotted for a while; exposed to the elements. And by “for a while” I mean many, many years. I don’t know what you mean by some drum-like sound on the front left wheel, but if it is a kind of cadence then you are looking at a loose wheel or a warped brake disc. The oil leak and resultant low level will of course have an impact on your engine.

Oil is used to clean, cool and lubricate certain engine parts, so low levels mean less cooling, cleaning and lubricating; and the result of that is progressive component failure on an incremental sliding scale, with the engine seizing violently at its apogee. Engine replacement is the only known cure for this kind of seizure.

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