STUTTGART - Customers worried about safety are cancelling orders for the Mercedes-Benz A-class despite a massive, quick reaction by the company.
The car went on sale on 18 October. Four days later, top Daimler-Benz executives got their first hint of trouble. They were still in Tokyo, and they had just completed their 12: 30pm press conference introducing the Maybach concept car.
Daimler executives in Sweden called to inform them about a damaging article published by the auto magazine Teknikens Varld.
Editors had put five people in an A-class and given it the moose avoidance test, a sharp double lane-change at 60kph. The car rolled to its side, injuring one passenger. Swedish test driver Robert Collin said that in his many years of job experience, 'something like this never happened.'
Juergen Hubbert, the executive in charge of passenger cars, and Dieter Zetsche, the executive in charge of marketing, discussed the situation immediately and sent an accident specialist to Sweden. They met again on 23 October in Japan, mapping out the company response.
'Any car can be rolled'
At first, they were inclined to treat the event as a fluke. 'Any car can be rolled over,' was the official company line. Spokesmen said Daimler-Benz had not been able to duplicate the accident. 'Our engineers see no reason to change the chassis.'
At least one other magazine was able to roll over a car. Everywhere magazine and consumer groups tried. The damaging result was that no one said the car handled well. The A-class was unstable in the moose test.
With the A-class Daimler hoped to lure more women. Younger drivers. New customers. These customers care about safety. Daimler spent DM2.5 billion ($1.4 billion) developing the car, and a lot went on innovative safety ideas. In a crash, the engine slides under the driver's feet.
After more testing, Daimler discovered that there was a flaw. The car could roll over in the moose test if the tires were the Goodyear GT tires that had been delivered to 1,500 of the first 3,000 customers.
The tires had been developed by both companies to give a comfortable ride. Now, Daimler said, it had learned that the soft sidewalls could fold in during the moose test, letting the wheel dig into the road, causing a rollover.
Mercedes takes action
The stakes had been raised.
Daimler announced decision after decision.
The company would recall the cars and replace the Goodyears with Continentals or Michelins.
'The moose test will be a standard part of the test program from now on,' said Zetsche. 'The Micro Compact Car Smart will also be tested this way.'
Hubbert said a driving-dynamics workshop will be held for journalists within several weeks to prove the stability of the modified A-class.
In the parts bin was a Bosch electronic stability program, sold as a DM1,700 option on its S- and E-class cars. The ESP applies brakes and adjusts acceleration precisely to correct a skid. It would be fitted as standard on the A-class, costing Daimler DM100 million.
'Of course, despite the extra costs we will be able to earn money with the A-class,' said Hubbert. The Daimler-Benz board expects the investment costs to be returned within three years.
'A glint in the eye'
Not all the reaction has been gloomy and sober.
On 4 November, Mercedes-Benz of Denmark/Sweden ran full-page advertisements in 70 Danish and Swedish newspapers. The ad features an upside-down picture of an A-class over the