Mercedes-Benz World, UK
If you have ever watched a 10-year old boy play a car-based top trumps game, you'll know that small boys love to obsess about fast, expensive and glamorous cars. But mostly fast cars.
It's less well-known, but teenage girsl also seem to like the good-looking cars. With them, though, it's more about style and design than horsepower and acceleration.
So a three-storey building full of expensive, glamorous and above all fast cars might sound like a good day out for the whole family. Even more so if the small boys, teenage girls and their parents can prod, poke, sit, tweak, fiddle and generally play with the cars to their hearts' content without pushy salesmen, over-protective security or too many other small (and not-so-small) boys and girls trying to do the same thing.
Such, it would appear, is the Mercedes-Benz World experience in Brooklands, Surrey, in the UK.
It is a car showroom, but a spectacular car showroom which is more about presenting the brand as prestigious, but user-friendly, than it is about selling cars.
It is the sixth and largest such centre around the world, set in the grounds of the former Brooklands race track. Brooklands was the home of world motor sport in the 1920s and 1930s, with its high-speed, banked racing circuit. Unfortunately, it has more recently been a disused former industrial area, while the short section of concrete track that remains has become a listed monument to Britain's racing heritage.
Mercedes revived the area around the former race track, adding more modern asphalt tracks for handling, with a wet circle and wet track for skid testing and an off-road driving course as well as the 16,650 square metre building. All of this is in prime Surrey land, adjacent to both to the A3 and the M25, at the centre of the UK's wealthiest population.
The result is a centre where Mercedes can promote its own brand messages of quality and performance, along with its sister brand Smart and the tuned, high-performance variants of Brabus and AMG.Simultaneously, the company is trying to throw off the negative image of stuffiness and inaccessability which has grown up around the Mercedes brand.
Mercedes has brought in a staff which tries to please. If you ever felt nevous about entering a Mercedes showroom, knowing that you will never own a car bearing the three-pointed star, that feeling disappears immediately. The staff are there to help; to welcome visitors and to show off all the good points of the vehicles and of the brand. They do not stand guard over the over-priced, gas-guzzling monsters contained in the building. Visitiors — of every age — are free to climb in the vehicles, adjust seats, pull levers, open hatches, wipe grubby fingers on the paintwork and anything else they choose to do — within reason.
One of our friends' children has an obsession with the rear trunk on cars. He assiduously opened the trunk on every single one of the 100-plus cars in the showroom and closed most of them — the ones he could reach, or those with electric closing mechanisms. The others were left open. Not one single staff member complained or even commented, in anything but a friendly, positive way.
So, of course it was no problem for either adults or kids to get into the cars and pretend, for an hour or two, that they had the £90 000 or so to drive one out of the showroom.
If it were just a showroom, however, it would not be such a good day out. Within the building are a few more attractions. To be honest they are not that great, but they add to the family feel. There's a mini simulator which moves the car through the factory from sheet metal to finished vehicle, in full 3-D with moving seats and vibrations and so on. There's also a history of the Mercedes-Benz brand and some other displays which offer edutainment for the masses. Quite apart from the cars, it has a cafe with high quality food at reasonable prices, an up-market restaurant and clean, plush toilet facilities, full of walnut and granite.
The real killer app for the showroom is the tracks outside. Mercedes offers training courses for all ages of driver. I guess those who buy a top-of-the-range vehicle might get a couple of days' driving as part of the package, but the most interesting for me was that they offer training to under-age drivers. My own two kids, aged 14 and 10 took part in a kids -v- parents driving challenge. They won, of course — the thing is set up for the kids to win. But as part of the experience they got 20 minutes in a Mercedes A-class on a dedicated track with patient instructors showing them how to drive, reverse, park and negotiate a slalom, emergency stop and other manouvers.
The track noise of has caused some noise pollution. Add to that some rock concerts for preferred customers and others, and the local residents have complained about noise from the site. I doubt their complaints will be heard above that of the squealing tyres and revving engines.
Talking of the track, I mentioned that the competition is set up to make the children win (and quite right too). Now maybe it's immodest, but I think I'm a pretty good driver. I've been lucky enough to drive some high performance vehicles around private tracks, on wet handling circuits and on ice and snow. Over the years I've picked up some technique for driving on public roads and also on the track. I've never had any penalties on my licence.
The A-class — like a lot of front-wheel drive cars — suffers from serious under-steer if you get it wrong. The short handling circuit has been designed to highlight this characteristic: one of the corners has been designed to trap unwary drivers. It is tight, and tightens progressively through the bend, which will make the car go off the track if the car enters too fast. It didn't catch me.
I'm hoping my kids can pick up some of those same tricks and tips when they eventually learn to drive, but if we can get them on the track a few times, maybe they can absorb some of this before they reach the legal driving age.
During the competition I enjoyed myself. I drove fast, but safely. I lost a lot of points for being, erm, enthusiastic. I've no problem with that. I knew what I was doing when I put my foot on the gas, and I wanted to make sure the kids did beat me.
The drivers who scored maximum marks were the ones who were cautious, took the corners at low speed, and gained a lot less enjoyment from their five laps of the track.
In conclusion, Mercedes-Benz is looking for drivers who are safe, slow, and uninspiring. Perhaps the brand image is not changing after all.
Sources, further information