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THE CAR DOCTOR

Used luxury sedans with poor reliability

Plus: Smell from HVAC, removing interior stains

By John Paul
Boston.com Correspondent / November 20, 2008

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Q. I'm about to buy a used 1998 Mercedes-Benz C230 four-door sedan. It has 120,000 miles on it but the overall condition is amazing. The leather is as good as new and the engine is very quiet. I heard that this particular model had a lot of problems and was told to "keep looking". I would like to know if this is the case, because this car is a beauty. I don't want to end up spending a fortune fixing all the little problems. If this doesn't work out, do you have another suggestion for a small luxury but sporty sedan?

A. The 1998 Mercedes Benz C230, like many Mercedes models that year, had their share of electrical problems. In general the C230 can be an expensive small car to repair. Other models to look at might be the BMW 3 Series, Acura TSX and the Lexus IS300. They may not have the same level of luxury as the Mercedes-Benz, but would be more reliable. If the Mercedes is still your choice, have it checked by a qualified technician before you buy it.

Q. I have a 2000 Saab 9-5 with 100,000 miles on it. Recently, a coolant leak occurred and the repair shop replaced the water pump. Everything was fine for about a week and now every day or two, I see coolant leaking. What should I do? With these recent repairs, I am thinking about a new car. What do you think of the Infiniti G35 with all-wheel-drive or the Lexus GS hybrid?

A. Bring it back and have the garage test the cooling system pressure. If it is a very slight leak, the garage may add an ultraviolet dye to the coolant to trace down the leak and repair the problem. Regarding the two cars you are considering: the Infiniti G35 AWD is fun to drive and good in the winter, although reliability has not been as good as some other imports; the Lexus GS with AWD is equally good in winter. The hybrid Lexus is a nice car but the cost of the hybrid option makes the car expensive and the fuel economy, at least when I drove one, was never over 22 mpg, although the performance was very good.

Q. I have a 1999 Chrysler Town and Country minivan and the airbag light stays on. Since I have noticed this problem the horn won't work either. What's wrong and will I be able to get an inspection sticker?

A. Many Chrysler vehicles, including your minivan, have a part in the airbag system called a clockspring that fails prematurely. It also affects the horn. Since this is potentially a safety-related issue, Chrysler did issue a recall. Call Chrysler customer assistance at 1-800-853-1403 for more information. The inspection process in Massachusetts has changed, If the airbag light is on, you will be issued a rejection sticker.

Q. I have a 2008 Ford Escape with the cloth interior. I have never owned a vehicle like this one – even water stains the interior fabric. Is this a problem with my car or is this a Ford problem?

A. I'm not sure what the problem is, but you are not alone. The cloth interior in the recent model Escapes are very prone to staining. I would call Ford customer service and register a complaint. The number for Ford is 1-800-392-3673.

Q. I have a smell when the defroster is on. It usually goes away by the time the windows clear up. Would changing the cabin filter help? I also heard you can spray disinfectant into the air vents. What would you suggest?

A. The cabin filter, like any air filter, can clog and limit airflow. Unless there are rotting leaves, it shouldn't produce a smell. The smell is generally caused by mold build-up in the ductwork and on the air conditioner evaporator. You could try spraying Lysol or some other commercially available disinfectant. Some specialty shops and dealerships will use a two-part process that cleans the affected area and then coats the evaporator with an anti-fungal coating.

Q. I drive a 2005 Mercedes and I would like to know how to remove red soda stains from my gray carpet.

A. Whenever in doubt about cleaning your car, it is best to consult a professional detailing shop. At these "clean-up" shops they have all the chemicals and soaps to safely clean your car inside and out. If you do want to try it yourself, use a commercially available home carpet cleaner. Before you attempt the stain, try the cleaner in an inconspicuous area first to check for color fastness of the carpet.

John Paul is the public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England. He can be reached at jpaul@aaasne.com.