German cars are better? Korean cars are bad? Here are top-5 myths on German vs Japanese/Korean cars.

Hans/May 08, 2020 12:49 AM

Despite what classical economomic theories say, consumers are not the logical, rational, always calculating beings that the likes of Adam Smith say we are. We all have our own biases and prejudices and there is often very little logic behind our purchase decisions. It's exactly why the advertising industry is so big.

Korean cars are bad. German cars are better than Japanese ones. CKD cars have lower quality. How many of these stereotypes/myths are true?

1. German cars are safer than Japanese/Korean cars.

Not true, not even close. A quick look at Euro NCAP's highest scoring cars will tell you that German brands don’t often rank at the top. It’s the same with USA’s IIHS.

Safest cars tested by Euro NCAP so far

Both organizations have different test criteria and scoring methodology, so the results will vary but generally, Volvo (Sweden), Subaru (Japan), Mazda (Japan) rank very high and it is safe to say that models (most, not all) from these three brands are among the safest in the world.

A selection of USA's IIHS Top Safety Pick+ ranked cars

Some swear that German cars are safer because they use thicker gauge steel and their doors have a very solid feel to it. But vehicle safety is a lot more complicated than that, and that ‘solid German car door’ feel is just a matter of a manufacturer’s preference on how the door hinges are setup – whether its angled to make the doors feel heavy or lighter. Japanese manufacturers prefer the latter to better accomodate elderly users/children.

The solid door shut sound is also just a matter of using the right rubber seals along the door. How the door shuts has little to do with how safe the car actually is.

Also, most German cars are higher-end models and obviously these will have more safety features than a budget Japanese/Korean car. So it’s more about the class of vehicle rather than the manufacturer’s country of origin.

By the way, Honda engineers all its small cars to withstand impact from bigger SUVs. Here’s a demo done in 2015, with the Jazz and CR-V. Honda calls it Advaned Compatibility Engineering (ACE).

Note the integrity of the doors post-crash with a larger CR-V, this is not a common test.

Most car companies only do single car crash scenarios. Apart from Honda, the next closest companies that do multi-angle, multi-size, car-to-car collisions tests are Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. Toyota also does this, but not for every model.

Honda Jazz

2. German cars are better engineered

Think German cars have superior engineering? Nearly every feature that you see in a premium German car today is either already introduced in Japan more than 20 years ago, or was first pioneered by the Japanese.

1969 'Hako' Skyline GT-R had 6 cylinders, rear-wheel drive, 5-speed manual (norm was 4-speed then), available in 4 or 2 doors, dominated the tracks. It was the M3 fifteen years before the M3 existed. 

For example: In-car navigation (Honda Accord, 1981), active aero aids (R31 Nissan Skyline, 1986), electronically controlled air suspension (Toyota Soarer, 1986), four-wheel steering (Honda Prelude, 1987), adaptive suspension (Mitsubishi Galant VR4, 1987), downsized twin-charged engine (Nissan March Super Turbo, 1988), active suspension (Toyota Celica, 1989), GPS voice navigation (Toyota Celsior, 1992), direct injection (Mitsubishi GDi, 1996), we can go further but you get the picture.

Think VW's TSI Twincharged was groundbreaking? Nissan did it in 1989 - March Super Turbo, 930 cc, turbocharger+supercharger

1987 Mitsubishi Galant VR4 had 50:50 torque split 4WD, world first 4-wheel ABS, four-wheel steering, adaptive suspension, motorsports pedigree, later available as a wagon (Legnum) - better than an Audi RS4, ten years before RS4 existed

Think the Mercedes-Benz CLS was the first premium coupe-sedan? In 1985, Nissan introduced a Gloria/Cedric Hardtop. The word 'Hardtop' in ’80s Japanese car lingo meant four-door coupes with frameless doors.

1985 Nissan Cedric VIP Brougham, doing the CLS twenty years earlier. Curved rear glass still unmatched today. 

It had electronic cruise control, digital climate control, TV tuner (yes) with premium Dolby sound system and JBL speakers, rear air-conditioning, electronically controlled air suspension, steering wheel audio control buttons, automatic wipers and headlamps, power adjustable seats, electric boot and fuel lid release, and many more.

Becase it was limited only to Japan, Mercedes-Benz never really knew how far behind the W126 S-Class was.

Power came from a 3.0-litre twin turbocharged V6 that made 230 PS, at a time when a Ferrari 308 GTB made about 255 PS.

It would be another 10 years before the S-Class could match the Cedric's features

Yes, German car makers make very good cars, but it will be stretching the truth to say that they are better than the Japanese or Koreans. German brands are mostly aimed at the premium segment so they invest a lot in branding, thus giving you the impression that 'Vorsprung durch Technik' is an allure exclusive to Deutschland, but in truth they are just better at marketing themselves.

Korean/Japanese cars are usually aimed at the masses and their cars are a reflection of their customers’ demands rather than lack of ability.

Lexus and Genesis are already putting many German brands back at their place but it will be a while before consumers see them as equal. You can't expect to overtake Mercedes-Benz's 130 plus years of heritage with just a few generations of excellent cars.

3. BMW has better handling but Mercedes-Benz offers better comfort

Only half true. If you are talking about an S-Class, then yes it is true. If you are talking about an A-Class, C-Class, E-Class, not true.

W205 C-Class is less comfortable than today's Camry but few will admit it - poorer seat support, noisier cabin, poorer ride and handling 

The current generation Mercedes-Benz engineers no longer know how to tune comfortable suspension without resorting to expensive air or adaptive suspension.

Nearly every BMW, irrespective of suspension option, has better ride and handling than a Mercedes-Benz but never mind a BMW, because even a Toyota Camry is now more comfortable than a C-Class, with better handling too.

4. Mercedes-Benz is more reliable than a BMW, Korean cars are unreliable

Not true. The image of indestructible Mercedes-Benzes might be true during your father/grandfather’s era, but these days, the difference is not a lot. Plus, today’s BMWs are no longer as fragile as the ones from the ‘90s.

No car company can afford to build cars like the W124 anymore, not even Daimler.

Underneath every BMW/Mercedes-Benz are a collection of parts that are made by the same group of German suppliers - big names like Bosch, Continental, Schaeffler, ZF, Getrag, etc.

Although word of mouth tells a different story, there’s little data to conclusively say that a Mercedes-Benz is more reliable than a BMW.

To keep cost low, both BMW/Mercedes-Benz no longer make as many components in-house as before. The Germans will allow the likes of Bosch/Continental to take the lead in R&D, before purchasing their designs. This allows them to shorten development time and stay ahead of the technology curve, crucial if you are a premium brand.

48V mild-hybrid solution used by nearly every German car maker was first developed by Continental in 2016.

Today’s German car manufacturers operate more like a systems integrator. The customer is paying for the brand’s prestige so these companies will only focus on bits that the customer sees. For everything else, the basic design and engineering is led by suppliers.

This also explains why Audi/BMW/Mercedes-Benz are all introducing large screen format digital instrument panels at more or less the same time. It's the same story with NFC digital key for smartphones. Because the same supplier is pushing out these solutions to every German car maker, all of whom are eager to buy.

Many of the tech introduced in premium German cars are not developed in-house, but by their suppliers.

Isn’t that what the Japanese/Korean do too you ask? Yes, but in a slightly different way.

Asian manufacturers believe in self-reliance, even if it means that they can’t introduce new features as fast as the Germans (work is slower if you insist on doing everything yourself). They will come up with the design themselves and get their suppliers to produce it.

Asian manufacturers insist on holding full control over the intellectual properties and to have a deep understanding of the basic knowledge behind every car-related tech - something about Confusian values of determing your own future and taking the harder route to secure knowledge.

It's also why Lexus will never have the kind of inconsistencies seen in BMW's integration with smartphones - the infotainment only supports Apple CarPlay but the NFC smartphone digital key feature supports only Android devices. It's classic example of integrating modules developed by different parties, each having a slightly different approach.

Toyota won't buy critical tech from suppliers but will form JVs to develop it. Prime Planet Energy & Solutions is a Toyota-Panasonic JV to produce hybrid/EV batteries.

Toyota and Honda for example, manufactures even the most complex hybrid components either in-house or at a joint venture controlled by them. This way, they have a deeper understanding of the technology and are able to exercise stricter control on cost, quality, and future improvements.

Even if it’s farmed out to a supplier, it will be to one that has deep ties with the car maker, Toyota and Denso for example, or Hyundai and Mobis.

The image of Korean cars being unreliable and suffer from high fuel consumption is also no longer accurate. The Hyundai-Kia group now makes some of the best cars in the world, and the latest Genesis range are proof of that.

Genesis G80, a more reliable Audi?

In fact, some reliability index have even gone as far as saying that Genesis has overtaken Lexus in terms of quality and reliability. Today’s Hyundai/Kia are no less reliable than a Toyota/Honda. In fact, these new generation of Korean cars might be even better.

While there's little doubt about Hyundai/Kia's product excellence, the competitiveness of Hyundai Sime Darby Malaysia and Naza Kia Malaysia is another matter.

5. A Mercedes-Benz C-Class/BMW 3 Series is a C-segment car, can’t be compared to a Toyota Camry/Honda Accord

Absolutely not true. The explanation below by the European Commission should end any debates. There is no argument about it. A C-Class/3 Series/A4 is a D-segment sedan. 

Who said C-Class/3 Series is a C-segment car?

Local internet communities have a tendency to shout down anyone who associates a D-segment sedan to a compact executive sedan, insisting that the latter is a premium C-segment car, which is wrong because that's where the A-Class/1 Series sit.

In the '90s, a 3 Series/C-Class was often mentioned in passing with the Ford Mondeo/VW Passat but by the 2000s, the market has expanded to include a lot more rivals. To maintain editorial focus, the motoring media coined the term compact executive sedan.

This term was never adopted by the ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association), which continues to report sales of these 'compact executive sedans' under the D-segment, but that's OK because it makes reviews a lot simpler. 

C-Class/3 Series/A4 sales are parked under Upper Medium (D segment)

So can you compare a Toyota Camry/Honda Accord/VW Passat against a Mercedes-Benz C-Class/BMW 3 Series? Yes, the two are not direct rivals, but they fall within the same shopping basket, so to speak.

Comparison test by Auto Motor und Sport - Passat v 3 Series. Nothing unusual here.

Oddly enough, a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Hawaii feels compelled to convince customers cross-shopping with a Camry

See, the whole argument of rigidly limiting car-to-car comparisons to within the same segment only applies on lower-range cars, where the purchase reasons are more functional rather than emotional.

Someone who is shopping for a Perodua Bezza is not going to be looking at a Proton X70, but once you get closer to the RM 200,000 mark, you are reaching what we call aspirational cars and cross-segment shopping is the norm, because the purchase reason is no longer driven by a basic need, but emotional appeal, which has no logic to it.

Just because someone is shopping for a RM 300k car doesn’t mean that he/she won’t consider a RM 200k car, and vice versa. It’s a case of mind vs the heart. 

Any Porsche sales person can tell you that it’s common for customers to walk in asking for a 911, but will eventually decide on a Panamera or a Cayenne simply because they recognized that reality is very different from childhood dreams – a middle-aged men struggling to get in/out of a low riding 911 is perfect material for meme generators.

It’s a similar story with the C-Class/3 Series segment. Many upgrading from a Camry/Accord can’t accept the lower levels of comfort/features just so they can show off with a prestigious badge.

In fact, addressing the shortcomings of the C-Class/3 Series with a significantly better Camry is a key part of the product brief for the Camry’s chief engineer Masato Katsumata.

The overachieving Kia Stinger is another example but over here import taxes don't work in the car's favour, which is a shame. It's also the same reason why the Genesis never took off here.

So there you have it, car myths and stereotypes that are no longer true in 2020.

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