Highest priority is given to cars already spoken for, Boudalis said.

Aboard the cargo ship, cars are lashed down nose to back bumper; door handles swaddled in protective plastic are mere inches apart.

Longshoremen in jumpsuits loosen the straps, start engines that haven't run in more than a week, and inch each car out into daylight and onto the dock, where Mercedes inspectors check the exteriors for damage. Each car officially becomes part of the inventory once it is logged in on a hand-held scanner — a crucial system when you have a parking lot that holds 12,000 vehicles.

The car moves along to another inspector, who makes sure that wipers wipe, horns honk and seats that are supposed to warm up do so quickly and quietly. Instead of using an assembly-line approach to quality control, Mercedes employs a one inspector-one car system.

"We know who touched what car on what day," Boudalis said of the quality-control technicians.

If a problem is found, it's easy to discover who checked the car — and inspectors can go back and examine other vehicles handled by the same person, Boudalis added.

The company and its workers keep a close eye on the customer satisfaction ratings published by J.D. Power and Associates.

"We have a reputation to uphold," Boudalis said. "Mercedes is an aspirational brand for some people, and you want the car to be everything you dreamed it would be."

Vehicles are washed and dried, and then run on a small test track so inspectors can listen for squeaks and rattles. Along the way, tiny paint chips and scratches are repaired. Anything major also is fixed, but vehicles with such issues are sold at auction, not at dealerships.

(All the while, the 120-member Mercedes team also is prepping Smart Cars and BMWs. In 2010, BMW signed a five-year agreement to ship 50,000 cars — or about one-fifth of its annual U.S. production run — to Baltimore.)

For the customer who doesn't want a plain Mercedes, the processing center can add items such as spoilers, illuminated doorsills, back-seat entertainment centers, and an array of navigational and communications devices.

Boudalis says installing accessories has become a major part of what the processing center does. Among other things, it allows Mercedes to offer new electronic products — such as iPod docking devices — as add-ons long before they can be engineered into the assembly line.

There's just one thing left to do before a car is driven to the delivery-truck staging area for shipment to one of 27 states, or to 175 dealers in the Baltimore area. After a final check of a white Mercedes GLK350, Aaron Lindsey of Brooklyn Park goes to his workbench to retrieve the window sticker with the list of government specifications and the price: $48,520.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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