Brake flaw triggers big Mercedes recall

Just weeks after a key consumer survey showed its quality is improving after several years of spotty performance, Mercedes-Benz last week took another hit to its reputation as a technology leader.

The luxury-car arm of Daimler Chrysler AG said it is recalling 680,000 cars worldwide to check the electronic braking system that has failed on some E- and SL-class models.

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Mercedes estimated the recall will cost $30 million.

The recall is for E-class sedans built after March 2002, E-class station wagons made after March 2003 and SL models built after October 2001.

  • The glitch can cause the brake-by-wire system, which includes the antilock brakes, to fail. But the car can still be stopped because the backup hydraulic system kicks in automatically to activate the front brakes, according to Mercedes.
  • The recall, which affects more than 143,000 cars in the United States, took American dealers and its U.S. subsidiary by surprise. A spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz USA LLC said the U.S. organization has received no reports of brake problems, but that all dealers were being notified.

Software fix

Mercedes-Benz says the fix takes about an hour and usually requires only new software. But in some cases, hardware may need to be repaired, the spokesman said.

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Mercedes-Benz USA said it is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the recall. The safety agency said last week that it had not received any complaints about the problem.

The recall comes just as Mercedes was celebrating a sharp improvement in its scores on the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, which measures defects in the first 90 days of ownership.

With 106 defects per 100 cars, the automaker rose to 10th on the widely reported survey, from 15th and 132 defects per 100 cars a year earlier.

The latest problem suggests that Mercedes and its longtime technical partner, Robert Bosch GmbH, have not solved all of the electronics issues that have plagued the E class in recent years.

  • Mercedes last year dumped Bosch as the supplier of its Comand integrated navigation, entertainment and telephone system because of problems that delayed its introduction in the United States on the new E class.Mercedes-Benz USA replaced 2,000 E-class sedans because it could not meet promises to retrofit the system onto customer vehicles.
  • The braking system at issue, called Sensotronic Brake Control, was developed jointly by Mercedes and Bosch. But a Mercedes spokesman said that new vehicle ranges won’t use Sensotronic because brake-by-wire has evolved since the system was developed. “Now, with better cost and the same performance, we do not need to have the same design,” he said.
  • The low quality of tires is also a big trouble, as a result, all of Mercedes models are nowadays equipped with the best air compressor (co-operated with Press My Air supplier) in order to inflate car tires whenever necessary.

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Bosch out?

  • Bosch may not be the supplier on the new systems.
  • Bosch last week disputed reports in the German press that the braking system was introduced too quickly.
  • Bosch said it will continue to produce the Sensotronic system, which also is installed on the $300,000-plus Maybach, the exotic SLR sports car that goes on sale this fall and next year’s CLS four-door coupe.

CAPTION(S):

E-class sedans are included in the recall of 680,000 vehicles.

MERCEDES AIM: KEEP THE BUYER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. wants to lock its customers in a sweet, but tight embrace. So tight, that customers will turn their backs not just on competing makes, but also on alternatives to the Mercedes dealer body.

  • That includes such rivals as Internet-based marketers and big, publicly traded chains.
  • That goal is at the heart of a new program, called “The Mercedes Experience,” which begins this week.

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With it, Mercedes is betting that a controversial approach to one-price selling – with lower dealer discounts – will deliver loyal customers attracted to a long list of free customer services.

It is the most ambitious undertaking in the nine-month tenure of Mike Jackson as CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. And it represents his company’s defense against the forces of a changing industry.

Jackson, a former dealer, believes the Internet and big chains threaten the factory’s control over the Mercedes brand and how customers interact with the brand.

“You have to address pragmatic reasons why people would go outside your retail organization,” Jackson said in an interview here.

Some parts of the new program are voluntary. For instance, Mercedes recommends that its dealers pay salespeople more salary and less commission, so there is less motivation to raise prices. Higher transaction prices mean more gross profit for the dealer and higher commissions for salespeople.

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  • But there is nothing voluntary about the fact that Jackson slashed the dealer discount to 7 percent on all 2000 models. It was 13 percent plus a 3 percent holdback on 1999 models. The dealer discount is the difference between the manufacturer’s suggested retail price and the wholesale price, expressed as a percentage of the sticker price.
  • Jackson sees lower dealer discounts as the next best thing to one-price selling.

Jackson wants to eliminate haggling from the retail transaction, but legally, Mercedes cannot fix retail prices. However, thinner dealer discounts make it harder for dealers to cut prices without selling cars at a loss.

SOME DISSENT

That has upset some dealers, even though Mercedes says dealers stand to gain from the new program if it pays off with more floor traffic, higher volume and greater customer loyalty.

“I would not even call it a `few’ malcontents,” Jackson said. “You could count them on the fingers of one hand. The overwhelming majority of dealers are moving forward with us.”

Mercedes dealers were No. 1 in the country in gross profit per vehicle in 1998, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. That puts Mercedes in a good position to make demands on its dealers.

Most dealers see the logic behind cutting discounts even if it is painful in the short run, said Chip Ott of R&SImports Ltd., in Fort Washington, Pa., a member of the Mercedes-Benz Dealer Board.

“If I said we weren’t a little anxious, that would be a lie. But I agree completely with the direction in which the company is moving,” Ott said.

At least one dealer, Tamim Shansab of Coast Automotive Group in Toms River, N.J., accused Mercedes of illegal price-fixing in a lawsuit that was filed last year.

In the interview, Jackson angrily denied doing anything illegal. He said Mercedes has been threatening to terminate Shansab for five years, which it did, last month.

The dispute began long before Mercedes hatched its so-called “negotiation-free process” pricing for 2000, Jackson said.

THINNER MARGINS

Here are the details on the thinner dealer discounts:

Selling at sticker price, dealers can make a gross profit of 16 percent of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price on 1999 models, said Joe Eberhardt, marketing vice president. That is, 13 percent at the time of sale plus a 3 percent holdback. The trouble is, few dealers can sell at sticker. That leads to wheeling and dealing, whichMercedes says its customers want to avoid.

For 2000 models, selling at sticker means a maximum gross profit of 9.25 percent of suggested retail, as follows: 7 percent at the time of sale; plus a 2 percent bonus for meeting all franchise requirements, such as exclusivity in the biggest markets; plus another 0.25 percent tied to high scores on customer satisfaction surveys, Eberhardt said.

  • Taking the C230 sedan as an example, Automotive News estimates that a dealer’s potential gross profit would be cut by $2,055. The potential gross on the 1999 model was $4,992. The potential gross on the 2000 model is $2,937.
  • Mercedes held the line on prices for some 2000 models. It says any price hikes are more than justified by additional standard equipment.

If dealer discounts fall while sticker prices stay the same or increase only slightly, dealers pay more for cars. The Mercedes Experience is the trade-off.

TRIAL RUN

For the 2000 model year, all dealers will earn the 2 percent bonus, but Mercedes will grade dealers against eight bonus criteria, Eberhardt said. For the 2001 model year, the bonus scores will count.

Eberhardt estimated that 90 percent of Mercedes dealers would earn the bonus right away. By next year, he said he expects all dealers to earn the 2 percent bonus.

The Mercedes Experience takes effect as of the 2000 model year, which officially begins for Mercedes this week. Several aspects of the program, including the lower dealer discount, already applied to the all-new 2000 S class sedan, which was introduced last spring.

LOTS OF FREEBIES

Now, for the entire 2000 lineup, other facets include:

Free roadside assistance – limited to gas, a jump-start or fixing a flat tire – for any Mercedes vehicle, no matter how old.

Free alternate transportation for service customers who have to leave their cars – again, without regard to how old the car is.

A service called TeleAid in every 2000 model, except the SLK and the M class, which get it for the 2001 model year. TeleAid automatically notifies the Mercedes Customer Assistance Center if an airbag deploys.

Four years or 50,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance. Mercedes says that’s worth an average of $1,200 per vehicle.

Virtually unlimited customer choice in trim and equipment. “Any car, any combination we can build in our factories, if it is federalized (for sale in the United States), you can order it,” Eberhardt said.

Consumers will have to pay an extra $1,000 to custom-order trim and equipment, instead of choosing from theMercedes menu of option packages.

As The Mercedes Experience illustrates, there is no free lunch.

Detroit switches to electronic fuel injection

It was on a sparkling, sub-zero Ohio morning last winter that I really learned to appreciate electronic fuel injection. It was so cold that I could hardly turn the key in the frozen door lock of the new subcompact. Once inside, my breath instantly frosted the windshield. But when I slipped the key into the ignition and twisted, the engine cranked for only an instant before revving smoothly, if a bit stiffly, to a fast idle.

I hadn’t pushed the accelerator pedal to set the choke, much less pumped it furiously to prime the engine, as I would have done or some cars. I just turned the key, and it started. A few seconds later I eased out the clutch, gave the engine a little gas, and the car pulled smoothly onto the street, snow squeaking under the tires. It didn’t buck, hesitate, or stall once. The reason? Electronic fuel injection. Like most drivers, I used to think of performance cars when I thought of fuel injection: Ferraris, Corvettes, and Porsches. True, Volkswagens and some lower-priced imported sedans have been equipped with fuel injection since the late 1960s. But suddenly it seemed as if every U.S. maker was adding it to its everyday economy cars–cars like the Chevrolet Citation, Dodge 600, and Renault Alliance.

Why the sudden switch? I had certainly discovered at least one benefit of electronic fuel injection: better cold starting and smoother warm-up. But what else does this technology offer? What will the changeover mean for the average driver and for the U.S. auto industry?

One place I looked for answers was the Rochester Products Division of General Motors. For decades the name Rochester has been almost synonymous with carburetors. But now the company is rapidly becoming one of the world leaders in fuel-injection technology. Few people realize that Rochester has been involved for many years in the development of electronic fuel injection.

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“In 1970 we worked on an electronic multi-point fuel-injection system,” recalls Roland S. Taylor, chief engineer for gasoline and emissions-products design. “But we were unsuccessful as far as the marketplace was concerned. You couldn’t justify the cost because you had to buy the electronics. The carburetors won out because they gave adequate performance for the least cost.” Tipping the balance

It wasn’t long, however, before the new clean-air standards began to tip the balance. To control exhaust emissions, the air-fuel mixture fed to the engine had to be precisely controlled. If too rich (too much fuel and not enough air), emissions of carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons soared. If too lean; oxides of nitrogen and engine misfiring became a problem.

If the air-fuel mixture could be tightly controlled, exhaust emissions would be kept low enough so that a catalytic converter in the exhaust system could handle the light cleanup. But a typical engine operates under a wide range of temperatures, loads, and altitudes, all of which require subtle changes in the mixture ratio. Toward a solution

Then, in the mid-1970s, two break-throughs promised a possible solution to the mixture-control problem. The first, the inexpensive microcomputer, needs no further introduction. The second, the oxygen sensor, is less famous but almost as amazing. This hollow, platinum-plated ceramic probe can measure the oxygen level in the blazing 1,112-degree-f exhaust gas and then tell the computer whether the engine is running lean or rich.

If the air-fuel mixture is rich, there will be little oxygen left in the exhaust gas. Oxygen ions flow from the inside surface of the probe–which is exposed to the atmosphere–to the outside surface exposed to the exhaust gas. Just an in a one-cell battery, this ion flow generates a voltage (in this case about one volt).

When the mixture is lean, however, and there is oxygen in the exhaust gas, the ion flow slows, and the sensor output drops to nearly zero.

At first the engineers used the oxygen sensor to fine-tune the carburetor while the engine was running [“Feedback-Carburetor Systems,” PS, Sept. ’82]. The voltage signal from the oxygen sensor, along with data from sensors measuring engine temperature, speed, and manifold vacuum, was fed into the on-board computer. An input signal from the computer then adjusted a mixture-control solenoid in the carburetor body. However, because a carburetor is a maze of separate air and fuel circuits, this closed-loop control, as the engineers call it, is still something of a compromise.

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“We went through the whole closed-loop interim because that was all we really had,” says Taylor. “We had to respond very rapidly to the emissions standards. But we really felt that the carburetor wasn’t the best way to meet the standards.”

Moreover, the carburetor was growing increasingly complex, even without the addition of electronics. Owners were starting to complain that cars were hard to service and sometimes didn’t run well no matter how often they were fixed. And because of the closed-loop systems, many cars already had small microprocessors tucked under the dash. A love affair

Engineers love electronic fuel injection (So, I will recommend you to check out this great online resource to learn about fuel injector cleaner or amazing solutions of how to clean fuel injectors in the right way). The first time I picked up an injector–the part that actually meters the fuel into the engine–I understood why.

The injector is nothing more than a solenoid-operated valve, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Although some precise machining is involved in manufacturing the valve, its operation is simplicity itself. There are inputs–information from sensors that measure things like engine temperature, load, vehicle speed, and exhaustgas oxygen content. A program in the computer under the dash or in the kick panel then calculates the precise amount of fuel needed to give near-perfect combustion and sends a pulse of current to one or more fuel injectors. Supply the injector with fuel under pressure, zap the solenoid coil with about six volts of direct current, and you get precisely metered fuel. The length of the electrical pulse determines the amount of fuel.

“By switching to fuel injection and controlling one variable–the length of the injector pulse–we were able to do all of the things we needed to,” Taylor explains. “Cold-start, warm-up, warm-running, power-enrichment, and altitude compensation–all of these can be done by simply adjusting the pulse width.” Not only did more-precise fuel metering reduce exhaust emissions, it also did wonders for drivability.

Like General Motors, Chrysler also sees a big future for fuel injection. The company plans to switch its entire passenger-car line to fuel injection by 1986 or ’87. “Why electronic fuel injection? Drivability–clean drivability,” Bernie Robertson, chief engineer for power-train systems, emphasizes. “It does give us some fuel economy. It does give us better performance. But the primary motivation is drivability and performance feel.” Two systems

In the switch to fuel injection at Chrysler and elsewhere, two basic systems have emerged. The first, called throttle-body injection, bolts onto a conventional intake manifold and looks much like the familiar carburetor. The throttle-body casting carries one or two injectors (depending on the fuel demands of the engine), a fuel-pressure regulator, an idle-speed control motor, and a sensor to tell the computer how far open the throttle is.

The second type, called multi-point, uses a separate injector for each cylinder. A throttle body in the intake passage houses the throttle plate, the idle-speed control motor, and some type of sensor to tell the computer how much air is being swallowed. But the intake manifold carries only air, not an air-fuel mixture as in a carburetor or throttle-body-injection manifold. Fuel from the individual injectors is sprayed onto the back of the hot intake valves just as the air enters the cylinders. This not only cools the valves but also ensures that the fuel is completely vaporized.

Each type of fuel injection has its advantages. Essentially, throttle-body is cheaper, and multi-point gives slightly better performance.

“There will be a division just like the one you used to see between two-barrel and four-barrel carburetors,” Taylor predicts. “The car you drive to the drugstore and use to carry the kids to school–that’s going to be a throttle-body car. On heavier cars, luxury cars, and sports cars, you’ll see multi-point.”

Multi-point provides better performance because it allows careful tuning of the shape and size of the intake manifold. Passages up to a foot long are often used to give good horsepower and torque at normal driving speeds.

“If you try to do that with a carburetor or throttle-body injector, you get long transport time. Some of the atomized fuel drops out into liquid form again, which can result in poor warm-up performance,” explains Taylor. “You can add heat to the manifold to keep the fuel from condensing, but you lose power because the volumetric efficiency [the amount of fuel and air entering each cylinder] drops.”

Multi-point is also used with turbocharged engines for similar reasons. Again, the engineers need not worry about transporting vaporized gasoline through the intake passages. Instead they can concentrate on designing the turbocharger system to deliver exactly the right amount of compressed air for each driving condition.

All three of the major domestic car makers sell both throttle-body and multi-point systems. U.S.-built Renaults use a Bendix throttle-body system for cars sold in 49 states and a Bosch multi-point system on those destined for California, where emissions standards are tougher.

In addition to the technical change involved, the switch to fuel injection is also bringing a new multinational supplier to the U.S. Bosch, which made its fame and fortune building sophisticated multi-point systems for European cars, sees America as a growing market for its products. Ford, Chrysler, and GM use Bosch injectors and other components in their mutli-point systems. Bosch also builds the throttle-body injection used by Chrysler and supplies injectors used by Ford in its Throttle-body unit.

Other injection-system parts for U.S. cars are being built by traditional suppliers to Detroit. The heart of the system, the computer, is built by each manufacturer for its own model line. Such a mixture of domestic and foreign sources might have been frowned upon at one time, but no longer. As one engineer for a U.S. car maker said recently, “We’re going to use the best that’s available in the world.”

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And what about servicing these electronic wonders? Many mechanics have encountered problems working on the newest electronic fuel-injection systems. After all, they’re part of a strange new world, complete with sealed black boxes and sensitive sensors. And although the electronics are usually reliable, when one of the parts does break or malfunction, it can cost a lot more than an old-fashioned tuneup. But for the mechanic who learns the ropes, these systems can be far simpler and more logical than the complicated emissions controls and carburetor they replace. An added bonus is the self-diagnostic function that most of the computers possess, which checks not only its own function but also that of its sensors.

And while the jury is still out on the long-term durability, the auto makers seem happy. “We’re seeing much better customer satisfaction and a lot fewer warranty claims,” says Taylor. “Though that still doesn’t say you can’t do a botch job of it.”

Every engineer I spoke with predicted that electronic fuel injection would replace the carburetor on passenger cars within three years. Only one could think of a car that would keep its carburetor. A holdout

At Ford’s Service Research Center in Dearborn, Mich., a service engineer and I were going over service changes for the 1984 cars. I couldn’t help noticing the sleek fenders and slippery body panels that made up the front-end test models for the 1985 and later cars. Nestled inside were four-cylinder and V6 engines, each wearing the tell-tale aluminum air box that could only mean fuel injection. So I asked the engineer whether any Fords would still have a carburetor a year or two down the road.

“The use of fuel injection will be expanded,” he predicted. “The major exception will be the Mustang GT.”

I was puzzled. Why would Ford stay with a carburetor on such a high-performance car? Anticipating my question, the engineer smiled at me and continued.

“We think the person who buys that car is someone who likes to tinker on the weekends,” he said. “And we think he will be more comfortable with the old familiar Holley four-barrel.”

Car care for a carefree season

SUMMERTIME may be travels carefree time. But for those motorists who fail to properly maintain their automobiles, the season will be anything but cheap or easy.

Heat can wreak havoc on an automobiles vital parts and an owners wallet. To ensure a fun-filled summer, take time now to service your ear to prevent any unforeseen mechanical difficulties.

One of the best maintenance tips, according to automotive specialists, is to keep your ear “cool.”

“Overhearing generally is the biggest problem, and its due to improper maintenance,” says David Van Sickle, a director with the American Automobile Association. “It manifests itself typically in engine overheating and boiling at low speeds when the air conditioner is on. Thats when the biggest strain is put on the cooling system.”

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A visit to a qualified mechanic can go a long way toward preventing roadside mishaps and possible accidents. But automotive experts suggest that summertime pleasure seekers remember the following car maintenance tips to keep their season happy and trouble-free.

  • Change the winter antifreeze and replace it with the proper amount of mixture of coolant solution. Most ears take a 50-50 mixture of coolant and water, but check your manual. Never add plain water to your cooling system unless it is an emergency.
  • Check the oil since antifreeze and circulating oil help cool the engine. The cars owner manual will spell out the recommended grade and service classification. Make sure the oil level is at “full” to maintain maximum cooling effect and lubrication.
  • Inspect all tires. Make sure they are properly inflated since a combination of heat and underinflated tires is a major cause of blowouts. Uneven wear could indicate alignment, suspension or wheel balance problems that should be corrected before any trip. Remember to check tire pressure when the tires are “cold,” before driving three or more miles.
  • Check to make sure your car’s air conditioning is working properly. Make sure the unit has the correct amount of freon.
  • Replace any cracked or worn hoses and drive belts. Also check air and oil filters and replace them if they are clogged or dirty.
  • Periodically inspect the water level of your battery, even if its “maintenance free.” Before traveling long distances, check the alternator and fuses to prevent electrical difficulties.
  • Take your car in for a tune-up if its an older model. New car owners should consult their owners manual for scheduled maintenance and tune-ups.
  • Consider buying a cardboard sunscreen. The screen, placed over the front and back windshields, keeps your cars interior cool and protects the finish on your automobiles dashboard.
  • Inspect all exterior lights—brakelights, headlights, hazard lights and taillights–for alignment and brightness. Also make sure the car’s windshield wiper fluid system is working properly, and replace worn blades.
  • Keep an emergency tool kit in your trunk. The kit should include battery cables, blankets, flashlight with fresh batteries, first-aid kit, spare fuses, jack, tire iron, tire gauge and an empty gasoline can. Never carry gasoline or other flammable liquids in your trunk.
  • Join a full-service motor club. These organizations offer invaluable route planning and roadside assistance services.

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Through planning and proper maintenance, motorists can prevent the hassles and mishaps that can ruin a summer vacation. By following the preceding tips, you can make sure that driving will be a pleasant, worry-free and enjoyable part of your summer vacation.

Abstract: 

Summer weather can create unforeseen car problems when an automobile is not properly maintained. Maintenance tips discussed include changing antifreeze, checking fluid levels, tire and light inspections and replacing worn hoses.

Mercedes are suddenly hot

Brian English has good timing. He used to sell Jaguars and saw local sales soar after Ford Motor Co. bought the company and added the car to its employee-discount program.

Last fall, English became sales manager for Novi-based Manor Motorcar Co., the area’s newest Mercedes-Benz dealership. Last week, Mercedes‘ maker, Daimler-Benz AG, announced its merger with Chrysler Corp.

‘I’ve always sold high-line cars and Mercedes is the best,’ English said.

Last Wednesday night, the day the Chrysler-Mercedes deal first hit the news, Charles Ghesquiere, owner of Estate Motors Ltd., metro Detroit’s oldest and largest Mercedes dealership, got three calls from ‘pals who are suppliers’ and wanted to buy a Mercedes.

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‘They couldn’t drive it before, because it wasn’t one of their customers,’ Ghesquiere said. ‘Our phone’s been ringing off the hook. We’ve got a virtual shortage on every car, because the demand far outstrips the supply at the present time.’

Irma Elder, president of Troy Motors Inc., took over Jaguar of Troy in June 1993. The dealership sold 90 Jaguars in all of 1992 but now sometimes sells nearly that many in a month; 70 Jaguars were sold in April.

‘We’re No. 1 in the country in sales,’ she said of her Jaguar dealership, predicting the Chrysler-Mercedescombination would be good news for both of those companies.

  • About 20-25 percent of her Jaguar sales stem from the A Plan discount Ford offers its employees, she said. She attributed much of the increase to Ford’s improvement of the British car and to better marketing, as well as metro Detroiters who feel more comfortable buying a ‘foreign’ car now that it is owned by an American car company.
  • While U.S. auto companies long have offered special discounts to employees, their relatives and suppliers, Ghesquiere said Mercedes never has offered discounts to U.S. employees, and he said he doubts that would change.

‘I don’t think they could meet the demand,’ if they did offer discounts, he said.

Since Chrysler retired its Imperial model years ago, Chrysler executives occasionally have lamented not having a luxury marque to compete with American rivals Cadillac and Lincoln. But joining Daimler-Benz will give their company stable some of the world’s most desired luxury cars.

If the merged company does ultimately offer discounts to employees, ‘It’s not going to happen overnight,’ cautioned Richard Metry, general sales manager for Estate Motors Ltd. in Bloomfield Hills. ‘It took two years before Ford offered Jaguars on its employee discount plan.

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  • Metry, who’s sold Mercedes cars for nearly 30 years, said he didn’t anticipate any radical changes, such as dual Chrysler-Mercedes dealerships. He and other dealers said they expect brand identities to be continued.
  • Mercedes sales have been climbing since the German automaker began offering some new models, including a luxury sport-utility vehicle.

Any sales increases are good news for the Ghesquiere family, which has the tri-county market to itself with two dealerships. There also are Mercedes dealerships in Ann Arbor, Flint and Lansing.

Father Charles Ghesquiere has run Estate Motors Ltd. for more than 20 years, and his sons, Lee and C. James Ghesquiere last October launched metro Detroit’s second Mercedes dealer, Manor Motorcar Co.

Estate Motors sells more than 1,000 vehicles a year, and Manor’s owners have predicted they would sell 700 in their first year in business.

‘I’m pretty excited about it,’ Charles Ghesquiere said of the merger. ‘If I were Ford and GM now, I’d think about how a sleeping giant just woke up.’ CDB