Mercedes Watches as Competitors Shift (More) Gears

On 14 May 2003, Mercedes announced its new 7G-TRONIC gearbox, a world’s first for an automatic gearbox with seven gears. In its day, it was something revolutionary when its competitors were either on 5-speed or 6-speed automatic gearboxes. Seven gears, Mercedes said, would vastly improve fuel consumption and acceleration.

In mid-2009, Mercedes launched the new W212 E-Class. In a span of almost six years, you would have thought that Mercedes has perfected the manufacture, installation, running and reliability of the 7-speed gearbox. But curiously, the base W212 E-Class models such as the E220 CDI, E200 CGI and E250 CGI were all still using the 5-speed gearbox which should have already been replaced by the newer, more capable 7-speed transmission. Despite the 7G-TRONIC’s claimed benefits, Mercedes certainly took their time in implementing it to all of its models. Sometime in 2011, Mercedes finally gave the whole W212 range the option of 7G-TRONIC. What went wrong?

Mercedes is distinctly different from BMW and Audi because it develops its transmissions in-house. While BMW has implemented on an immense scale ZF Friedrichshafen AG’s new 8-speed torque converter automatic across its range, with Audi even quietly inserting the same gearbox in its cars – most notably the A8 – Mercedes has stuck to its guns with its closely guarded 7G-TRONIC. With something that is made exclusively for Mercedes, it has none of the economies of scale enjoyed by ZF, which sells its 8-speed gearbox today to Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley, BMW, Audi, and even Chrysler,  just to name a few. Even Audi, with its innovative S tronic gearbox, enjoys the economies of scale with select implementations across the Volkswagen Group. To recover its costs, Mercedes has to make sure it makes as many Mercedes cars as possible fitted with 7G-TRONIC, for as long a production life cycle as possible, so that it can spread its sunk costs. What that means is Mercedes will respond slower to changing market demands, if the 7G-TRONIC gearbox starts to appear irrelevant. Already, cracks are starting to show on the surface.

Consistently, we hear of the 7G-TRONIC’s poor response, intuitiveness and efficiency when compared next to ZF’s stellar 6-speed and 8-speed inventions. While Mercedes’ transmission had its heyday in the few years following 2003, its competitive advantage was quickly eroded when Mercedes failed to further innovate. Granted, Mercedes made an effort with 7G-TRONIC PLUS that features a new torque converter with even greater efficiencies, reducing torque converter slip substantially. However, I can’t help but wonder if Mercedes would be better off using the industry standard ZF gearbox, freeing a substantial part of its own investment in gearbox technology that is (at worst) inferior or (at best) merely matches whatever is offered by specialist suppliers in the industry. Its limited volume application and extraordinary costs involved in producing its own transmissions is, in my opinion, crippling its competitiveness, flexibility and profitability.

So back to the question about why Mercedes took so long to replace its 5-speed gearbox. I would hazard a guess that due to inflexibility in the application of the 7G-TRONIC gearbox to the new turbocharged four-cylinder motors in the W212, Mercedes had to take a longer than usual time to adapt the gearbox to the cars. The nearly two years when the lower-spec W212s had the 5-speed gearbox was a trying time for Mercedes while BMW rolled out its 8-speed F10 models and Audi equipped B8 A4 models with 7-speed dual clutch S tronic transmissions. Customer satisfaction was also severely eroded because the 5-speed was essentially unchanged from almost a decade ago in older models like the W211 or the later W210s. When the 5-speed gearboxes were finally phased out, Mercedes was merely meeting the minimum standards of the competition with 7G-TRONIC, not even leading its class. That result seems rather difficult to justify the amount of effort Mercedes puts to produce in-house. Maybe it is time for it to shift gear into a more efficient way of doing business.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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3 Comments

  1. Great article. Mercedes and many of the Japanese makes seem to be left behind. Honda and Toyota are even offering 5 speed gearboxes in this day and age! And as you pointed out the W212 e class and the W204 class rolled out with 5 speed gearboxes. Sadly Mercedes is no longer the “engineered like no other car” premium marque it used to be.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Well, at least Mercedes have upgraded all the latest W212s with the 7G-tronic – but even that is lagging behind the new ZF 8-speed gearboxes used by BMW and Audi. It needs to rethink its strategy, and quick!

  3. Hi,
    Interesting article. I think one should take into account that Mercedes produces a far greater range of vehicles (vans, lorries, busses, and probably others), and they might therefore need to have an active gear box design and production centre for all their vehicles. Furthermore, more endurance is demanded of a Mercedes than of a BMW. A notable example is the taxi market.
    Not withstanding this, Mercedes cannot deny that it went through a dark period (relatively speaking) from from the start of the millennium, which it is hopefully coming out from. Lets hope that the 9G will offer a more satisfying drive.

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