When people talk about cars, a line you'll hear over and over is that German cars are the best. This reputation was previously earned through the roaring success in motorsport (both rally and circuit racing) as German cars became the benchmark for technological advancement and build quality within the European market, but that doesn't mean they're the best choice of car across the globe when you look at them as an overall package - build quality, reliability and more importantly cost. While we've got it lucky here in Europe, the Americans across the pond have to pay a higher premium due to the cost involved in importing cars into the country, in the same way that we Europeans have to pay a tad bit extra for a Tesla. So unless you're dead-set on the car you want and are willing to pay the premium, chances are you'll find better value for money on an American model.
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German cars are also designed with European roads in mind, whereas American roads are very straight and wide (hence the popularity of muscle cars in America) a car in Europe must be able to handle the often narrow, winding roads which is why they're praised for their good handling capability. The same goes for parking spaces - they're quite small in the UK and cars only seem to be getting larger, so to help make parking in short spaces easier, the wheels usually angle inwards when you've got a full steering lock on.
Have German Cars Always Been The Best?
Not really. Back in the '80s, Audi was nowhere near as synonymous with quality as they are today, so it's taken quite some time for them to raise the bar, however, BMW was busy creating some iconic models like the M3 & M5 which have achieved collector status to this day. What did happen in the '80s though, was the launch of the Group B rally, commonly described as the golden era of the rally sport. Audi took to the stage with their Audi Sport Quattro S1, which is now one of the most recognisable rally cars of all time despite being just over three decades old. While the Germans did gain some degree of social status back then, the reality was that you wouldn't see nearly as many as you'd think out on UK roads - you were more likely to see the likes of Ford Escorts and Vauxhall Cavaliers.
On the topic of styling (albeit a subjective topic) German cars to tend to have more of a presence thanks to their muscular wheel arches and perfectly creased body panels, so the desire to have one for yourself starts to set in before you even get a chance to go for a test drive. Trouble is, there's often a Russian doll effect with manufacturers range of models - take Audi for instance, over the past ten years each model has looked incredibly similar to the rest of the range, it's only since 2016 and onwards that they've started to give each model its own identity.
Looking back towards Motorsport (with the exception of the rally), Germany is home to some of the most famous racetracks in the world, including the Nurbergring, which is famous thanks to its challenging carousels, long straights, and the fact that it's also the longest circuit in existence. This made it an ideal home for the German Grand Prix, giving the circuit heightened media attention and eventually became a testing ground for manufacturers to experiment with prototype cars and face-lift models, so being so close to home, it's fair to say that BMW's M division, Mercedes-AMG and Audi's Rennsport tuning arm have a slight advantage when it comes to research and development, testing the cars on one of the worlds most challenging circuits after all.
Germany is pretty much the epicentre of the motoring world, in both the manufacturing of cars and the culture behind them. It's definitely one of the best countries to actually own a car in, as it's the only place in the world with an Autobahn, which is essentially a (semi) unrestricted motorway and most German cars can achieve way over 100 mph, it's actually now common practice for German manufacturers to electronically limit the top speed of performance models to 155 mph.
When it comes to reputation, one of the lesser mentioned points is that war played a significant role in the expansion of operations and the level of efficiency achieved before many other manufacturers. When Wilhelm Kissel of Daimler-Benz (pre-Mercedes-Benz) realised that world war two wouldn't be over quickly, the demand for civilian cars would begin to dwindle, so production started on military trucks, aircraft engines and spare parts. When the war was finally over, the German car manufacturers had drastically expanded their operation; both the size of their workforce and the number of factories had increased, ready for the production of civilian cars once more.
The Germans are often more... efficient as opposed to creative when it comes to naming their cars - Audi A1, A2 & A3, BMW 1, 2 & 3 Series, Mercedes A, B & C Class - on face value they don't denote anything, merely which model the range begins with to provide an indication of scale, but when you get to specific engine/trim levels, it gets even more granular... the numerals refer to the engine under the bonnet, there's usually a reference to what type of fuel the car uses (like TFSI or TDI for petrol/diesel and often 'E' for a hybrid). It's a rather dry system, but it's a timeless naming convention and doesn't fall victim to rudely translated names like the Mitsubishi Pajero would have in Spanish speaking countries.
The Volkswagen Golf & Polo sit amongst some of the best-selling cars in Britain, so something to consider is that there are more owners out there ready to sing its praises. One of the most important factors of perspective/current German car owners is the perceived quality of their car. Look at the Japanese car manufacturers like Toyota - they have a reputation for being absolutely bombproof, but the materials often used around the cabin can feel brittle or flimsy to the touch which has a huge effect on whether somebody will make the purchase. If you're at a dealership experiencing different cars, chances are you'll fall in love with a German car much easier as the seats will be comfy, all the controls will be nicely damped and it'll make you feel a certain level of confidence, whereas other brands may feel a tad more utilitarian, so unless you're disciplined on what you want in a car, it's easy to be allured.
"Perceived quality doesn't always equate to real quality."
When people use the term "German engineering", they're usually using it to describe something well-made. The Germans have reached a point where people across the globe people class their manufacturing ability synonymous with quality. Even advertising taglines are written in German, despite being used for advertising in English speaking countries, speaking of which - they also like to flaunt their public perception of superiority in their slogans:
- Audi - "Vorsprung Durch Technik"
- BMW - "Freude Am Fahren" / "The Ultimate Driving Machine" / "Sheer Driving Pleasure"
- Mercedes-Benz - "The Best Or Nothing"
- Porsche - "There Is No Substitute"
- Volkswagen - "Das Auto"
German Car Stereotypes
With popularity comes notoriety, or in the case of cars - stereotypes. People can draw stereotypes from pretty much anything, but with certain brands, there's the odd remark that just sticks, for instance, BMW drivers not using their indicators, Audi drivers tailgating people, performance Golf owners weaving in/out of traffic on the motorway. Thing is, these remarks can be true of anyone, it's just now that the stereotype is out there, people start to look out for them. Mistakes happen - it does not cause and effect that a driver may sway into your lane simply because it's to be expected of, say, a BMW (for example) it's purely down to the individual, but some people buy in to these stereotypes and avoid buying a particular brand because of it's given reputation.
Which car manufacturers are German and which are simply German associated?
The traditional German car manufacturers are BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche & Volkswagen, but what you'll commonly see is a reference to the German "big three" - BMW, Mercedes-Benz & Volkswagen Group. The Volkswagen Group is one of the worlds largest automotive conglomerates, consisting of:
VAG isn't exclusive to just German brands. By taking on extra brands like SEAT & Skoda, the reputation of their brands skyrocketed. The perception of German quality had effectively transferred over due to all the sharing of parts between the brands and the streamlined manufacturing process helped with both research & development of models and reducing the overall price tag of the cars. So for example, if SEAT releases a Cupra model, people know that it's using a Golf R engine. People know that Golf Rs are great, therefore it'll always have that selling point.
Are German cars reliable?
A tricky one, most would say yes but WhatCar's survey says no - its the mechanical stuff that the Germans tend to get right, but the majority of reliability issues that get reported are to do with the electronic components, and due to the higher price tag of German cars, if something goes wrong, chances are it's going to be expensive to replace. That's if something does go wrong though.
As for what the general public actually experiences, according to the What Car? reliability survey of 2018 which looks at the most reliable brands you can buy, none of the German cars were mentioned until 16th place, which was BMW, followed by Volkswagen at 17th, Audi 20th and Mercedes-Benz at 26th.
We can look at this two ways - are German cars not reliable or are they marked down because owners of expensive German cars are more likely to complain while owners of 'lesser' brands might just 'put up with it'?
So, are German cars the best?
It depends on the type of car ownership you prefer. It depends on the type of car ownership you prefer. If you were to ask our personal lease and business lease customers they'd say yes! If you were buying a car with the intention of running it into the ground, then perhaps look towards one of the Japanese manufacturers, they'll run for hundreds of thousands of miles without any mechanical issues, typically. If you prefer to change cars every few years, then Germans may be the best choice depending on budget and whether you truly want one, on the assumption that you wouldn't own the car long enough to experience any issues for yourself. Cars are mass-produced though, so encountering minor issues regardless of the manufacturer is very likely to happen but this is where the perception of superior 'German engineering' comes in which suggests that the production line itself is better.
Outside the realm of car ownership, the Germans simply have a wider line-up of high end performance models, so there's an increased chance of attracting fans, other manufacturers tend to have one or two sporty models and draw the line there instead of creating a performance variant of nearly every model in the range, like Audi.