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Monday, March 18th, 2013

1998 SL500 Maintenance: Months 1-9

Well, the good news is that the re-education of the 500 Benz's transmission is proceeding apace, and I also sprang for some new rear brake pads that thankfully (1) do not incessantly spew dust on the wheels like the old ones, and (2) seem to have fixed the low-speed squealing that I used to hear.

But I'm still chasing the root cause of another issue that I had the guys at MB Elite check out—a most un-Mercedes-like hard ride on bad roads—and as I'm suddenly in full-on maintenance mode here, I figured I'd go ahead and itemize my maintenance costs since buying the car nine months and about 8,000 miles ago.

I already knew that most of my post-purchase investments in the 500 Benz had been of the elective variety, i.e. stuff the car probably didn't really need, but I hadn't crunched the numbers till now. So, the grand total for what I'd consider necessary and non-routine maintenance?


That's right: zero cash dollars.

To wit, the car hasn't thrown a check-engine light once (well, except for that time I accidentally left a hose disconnected), or any other warning light, for that matter. It doesn't even burn any oil. Fundamentally, the thing just monotonously starts and drives. I find this remarkable, especially since I did the unthinkable, according to all the online Benz forums, and bought a car that didn't have any service records.

Of course, the key word there is "fundamentally." Yeah, if I'd put myself on a shoestring car budget these past nine months, I probably could have gotten away with just one routine "A" service ($267 including oil change), one additional oil change ($130), and three new tires ($550 with insurance and alignment). But I believe in being a little more proactive than that, and also, this is such a nice car that I almost immediately became a believer in getting it set up the way the Mercedes engineers intended—and keeping it that way.

Accordingly, I've paid a number of elective visits to a gaggle of L.A.-area garages in hopes of making the 500 Benz tip-top, and here's the damage, blow by blow.

1. Second key. Car only came with one. Must be purchased through a dealer. $195

2. Tow hook cover. A plastic panel that commonly goes missing from the front fascia. Mine didn't have it. $140

3. Cruise control switch. Mine didn't work. I didn't like that. In related news, I never use cruise control. $223

4. Belt tensioner pulley. Engine was occasionally making the following impolite noise when cold:

German Motor Car thought it was the BTP. Noise persisted. $130

5. Shift-lever "shutter". Tragic mistake by yours truly here. The shift lever didn't want to go past "Drive" into the lower gears (4-3-2-1), so eventually inspiration struck, and I decided to power through the resistance. Don't do this. The little plastic thingy (Benz calls it a shutter) that keeps debris from falling into the shift mechanism had apparently wandered off-course before I bought the car—an easy fix—but my elbow grease broke it and sent plastic shards down into the mechanism. The whole assembly had to come out and come apart, which meant removing the center console. Disaster. $448

6. Steering column "sleeve". I'm not even sure why this soft-touch column wrap exists—potentially a prime example of old-school Mercedes over-engineering—but anyway, it was loose and would slide around a little when I hit the turn signal. The culprit was a bolt buried deep in the column, which meant the whole steering-wheel assembly, airbag included, had to come off. I said cool, let's do it. Incidentally, the wheel itself was obviously misaligned when I got the car back, and it took two (two! TWO!) return visits to get that addressed. $300

7. Crankcase vent pipe. Identified as "broken" during a pre-road trip safety inspection. Asymptomatic, but I did see the discarded pipe, and it was in rough shape. This was my first visit to Westwood Mercedes. $80

8. Drive belt. Westwood Mercedes' attempt to fix the cold-start squeak from #4. Success.* $125

*UPDATE (3/31/13): Nevermind, the noise came back after the car had sat for two days in the rain and relative cold of San Francisco. No joy.

9. Climate control TLC. Fan started making an intermittent high-pitched whine when the car was coasting. Sounded kind of like this:

Larry at Westwood Mercedes blocked off what he called a leaking vacuum line. Noise disappeared; functionality seems unaffected. $100

10. Highway vibration second opinion. Repeated (free) wheel-balancings at my tire shop (Discount Tire) hadn't completely smoothed out the highway ride, so I went to a high-end wheel specialist—Wheel Enhancement in Culver City—for a diagnosis. They said the wheels were almost perfectly balanced, made a few wheel-weight tweaks that actually exacerbated the vibration, and charged me aggressively for their 20 minutes of trouble. $80

11. New rear brake pads. Pad life is monitored by a team of electronic sensors that report back to a dashboard warning light, and that light has yet to come on. But I didn't like the aforementioned dust and squealing issues out back, so I had MB Elite put on a pair of original-spec rear pads last Friday. $170

12. Intake manifold TLC. MB Elite also informed me that the slightly rough idle I'd always noticed in Park and Neutral was due to a vacuum leak in the intake manifold. "We're surprised the check-engine light hasn't already come on," they said. "Do what you gotta do," I replied, "and throw on some new spark plugs while you're at it." Did this rather invasive procedure fix the problem? No sirree Boris. But, uh, I guess another thing that was asymptomatically broken got fixed. (Okay, even I blanched a bit at this one.) $588

Elective Total: $2,579

Then there's the smattering of little dents and dings that I've had removed by the best guy in the business (I'll put up a post on that process with photos someday). Figure another $250 for those.

Moral: By virtue of being so damn endearing, the 500 Benz has taken my automotive OCD to a whole new level.

Speaking of which, I'll report the expenses for my neurotic ride-improvement project as soon as MB Elite, or perhaps the next contestant, determines exactly what's worn out and puts things right. Sneak preview: the 500 Benz's suspension components are not what I'd call attractively priced.

Now, for perspective, the effective purchase price of the car at this point—which I'll define as the selling price plus upkeep—is about $16,500, give or take a few hundred. So in nine months, I've graduated from new stick-shift Nissan Versa territory to new automatic Versa-with-a-sunroof territory. I'm still pretty pleased with that.

[UPDATE (6/27/13): I just got back from a 2014 Nissan Versa Note driving event, and the Versa Note S Plus ($16,230 with destination) not only lacks a sunroof, it's got manual locks and crank windows, too.]

But if you're wondering, yeah, I'm going to try to tone down the OCD a little once I get the ride sorted.

It's so noble, though...

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