If my father’s current wife did not exist, I would have to invent her just so I would have a perfect example of somebody who absolutely hates cars. I don’t mean that she “hates cars” like your local Prius-driving Greenpeace volunteer; that person hates the idea of the private automobile and its social/ecological/economic consequences. Nor do I mean that she “hates cars” in the sense that your college roommate hated cars; that person just didn’t really think about cars other than as a way to get from Point A to Point B.
No, what I mean in this case is that my father’s wife hates whatever car she currently owns. In the past three decades I have seen her behind the wheel of everything from a flared-fender, triple-black Celica GT-S to an Infiniti J30 to a stick-shift BMW 325i. She has hated them all. The Celica was cramped. The J30 was scary in the snow. The BMW was noisy and rattled when you hit bumps. It doesn’t matter what car she has. She hates it.
Her latest car is a W212-generation E350 Benz—a 2014 model, I believe. White with a bone-colored MB-Tex interior. It is handsome, swift, silent, relatively economical, easy to park, and virtually without fault. Naturally, she hates it.
“Let me tell you what’s wrong with this car,” she said to me last week. “It’s broken. It would let me hit something.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Do you mean that it refuses to take over from you before an accident occurs?”
“Of course not,” she replied, “although I’m sure it wouldn’t bother to try to save me in those circumstances. What I mean is when I’m backing up. I just back up, and back up, and back up, but the beeping never starts. It’s been broken since I got the car.”
“Have you taken it in for service?” I inquired. She gave me the side-eye.
“I don’t have that kind of time,” she said. I tactfully refrained from pointing out that she retired 17 years ago. Instead, on a hunch, I went outside and looked at the E350. Not for the first time, I was struck by just how right Mercedes-Benz got these cars. Years from now, we will all dig the way they look, the same way we all dig the W123 right now. Mark my words on that. The last-gen E-Class has got The Look.
What it does not have, at least in the case of this particular example, is parking sensors. I was so amazed by this that I went and looked it up in the original dealer order guide.
Sure enough, it looks like Partktronic was an option on all but the most expensive variants of the W212. I went back inside to break the news.
“Your car doesn’t beep when you’re backing up because, uh, it doesn’t have any of the equipment that would let it do that.” She looked at me like I’d just claimed to have met aliens at Area 51.
“Of course it does,” she snapped. “It’s a Mercedes-Benz.”
“Well,” I suggested, “you would really be surprised at what’s optional on these cars. I mean, I was recently in an E220d overseas that had steel wheels and no fold-down center armrest.”
“Ridiculous,” was her verdict. It wasn’t clear if she was talking about the car or about my statements. I decided that I didn’t want to fight this particular battle any further, so I left the room and never mentioned it again.
My father’s wife is far from alone in misunderstanding precisely what equipment, and what capabilities, her car offers. Many years ago I read that the majority of Volkswagen Vanagon owners were pretty sure they had front-wheel drive–because all the other Volkswagens at the dealership had it, so why wouldn’t the van? It’s also apparently common for owners of various European cars to think they have AWD when they don’t. No prizes for guessing that this is most common among second and third owners of entry-level Audi models.
I don’t blame these people. Some time ago my refrigerator broke down and I was utterly astounded to discover that it had two compressors; one for the freezer and one for the regular part. I would have gone to my death thinking I had a one-compressor fridge. The same is true for my heat pump; it wasn’t until it died that I fully understood the difference between my heat pump and my furnace. I thought it was all part of the same thing. Don’t get me started on what people think their computers can do, or what they believe regarding their insurance policies. Most of us are remarkably content to know nothing about anything outside our very narrow areas of specific interest.
As you’d expect, this kind of willful ignorance drives the automakers nuts. They spend billions of dollars to give you AWD, direct injection, intelligent crumple zones, and every other feature known to man, only to find out that their customers either don’t know about it or assume that it’s part of the competition’s product as well. Then you have the stuff that is frankly too complicated to explain to the customers. The new Mazda Skyactiv compression-ignition gasoline engine falls into that category, I’m afraid. I feel bad already for the salespeople who will have to explain it.
Not that salespeople always deserve our sympathy in that regard. I once knew a young woman who bought a lightly-used ‘84 Camaro Berlinetta from her local Chevy dealer. “It’s got the big-block,” she told me. “I’ll show you.”
“This,” I said, a little afraid of upsetting her, “is the 2.8-liter V-6.”
“Yes way. If you look not-so-carefully,” I pointed out, “there are only six spark plugs.”
“The other two,” she replied, looking at me like I was a very stupid person with some very stupid ideas, “are in the back.” There was nothing to say. Except one thing.
“You know, I think you’re right. Any chance you and your big-block Camaro are free for dinner tonight? I’ll pay for gas—because we both know these Rat-motor Chevys are thirsty.” Jonathan Swift once wrote that there were none so blind as those who would not see. To that, I would add: and there are none so deaf as those who are listening for a backup beep that will never come.