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How Do You Turn On The #@!&% Air?


You'd think a $105,000 luxury car like the new Mercedes S550, with its highly tuned suspension, seat massagers, and ultraquiet cabin, would be a joy to drive. And it is, in every way except one. Mercedes had to go and copy BMW's complex, cumbersome iDrive system, the Windows-like interface that drivers must navigate merely to play a CD or cool down the interior. Toggling from the stereo screen to the climate menu to get the AC running requires a series of twists and clicks of the controls, not to mention keeping at least one eye on the screen. Whatever happened to the button with the snowflake on it?

Such is the state of the luxury vehicle. Upscale cars may be faster, safer, and more reliable these days, but they're also more annoying. That message comes through clearly in the latest Initial Quality Study from J.D. Power & Associates Inc., which, like BusinessWeek, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies. The research firm rejiggered its survey this year to separate real defects from design flaws, which have become a bigger gripe in recent years. Mostly it's the fancy German brands -- Mercedes (DCX), BMW, Audi -- getting dinged for their overwrought gizmos, poor ergonomics, and other design missteps. "Some auto makers are finding ways to give you [everyday] technology and make it more complicated," says Joe Ivers, J.D. Power's quality and customer satisfaction chief.

SOFTWARE SNAFUS

You know something's amiss when BMW ranks 27th out of 37 brands in overall quality. No, the Ultimate Driving Machine isn't conking out on the highway: BMW tied with Toyota brand (TM) for third place in terms of quality defects. It was complaints about iDrive and other softer design issues that shoved Bimmer down in the overall rankings. Owners of BMW's new 3-Series also complained that the window and door lock mechanisms either were hard to reach or use.

Audi turned in similar results, ranking a respectable 12th for defects but 24th for design flaws. Mercedes ranked 16th and 29th, respectively. In Mercedes' case, buyers griped that the new seven-speed transmission used in the CLS 500 coupe shifted awkwardly. It turned out to be a software flaw. Both BMW and Mercedes contend that, with so many luxury options, the controls must be integrated into one computer system to avoid a dashboard overloaded with buttons.

What if you want the latest gadgetry without having to read a manual as thick as a phone book? According to the latest Power study, Lexus is the brand to beat. Toyota's luxe nameplate is No. 1 for fewest defects and No. 5 for fewest design flaws. Says Ivers: "Lexus has the functionality, just not the complexity." What a concept.

By David Welch


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