Auto Q&A: Routine service on a Mercedes is expensive, but cheaper than the alternative

"I knew service and parts would be expensive, but I was not prepared for the frequency of these services."

The Mercedes-Benz E350 Convertible during the press preview for the North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Center January 11, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan.
The Mercedes-Benz E350 Convertible during the press preview for the North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Center January 11, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. –Bryan Mitchell/Getty Images/TNS

Q: With my eyes wide open, about 18 months ago I bought a like-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz E350 convertible with 32,000 miles. Because of the wonders of depreciation, this $68,000 beauty was mine for less than the cost of new econobox.

I knew service and parts would be expensive, but I was not prepared for the frequency of these services. Oil changes are very reasonably required every 10,000 miles or year. However, did you ever hear of brake fluid being replaced in a mild climate every 20,000 miles? Transmission flush and change at 70,000 miles or spark plugs at 60,000 miles? These are what the owner’s manual requires.

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The car runs beautifully, and the last year and a half and 28,000 miles have been marvelous. Obviously, I want to keep enjoying it, and if that’s what it takes to do so, I will. Not at the dealership that gets $210 per hour but at a fine independent shop I’ve found. I had been most apprehensive about all the electronics and all the electric motors, but the frequent service doesn’t seem to be aimed at preventing failure of these systems.

Should a modern auto really require that much service, or is it a mere revenue generator?

–Mike

A: This sounds like quite a love affair! I looked through the maintenance schedule for your E350 up through 150,000 miles, and other than the frequent brake fluid replacement, wiper blade replacement, and convertible top inspection/lubrication recommendations, your car is not unusual in other maintenance needs. I’ve always been a believer in brake fluid renewing, perhaps every three or four years, to prevent corrosion of expensive ABS/traction control components and to insure safe braking. The 20,000 mile interval is strict. However, considering the hydraulic control unit runs close to $3,000, I’d do it! At least there isn’t a timing belt to replace!

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Today’s cars and light trucks require significantly less maintenance than those of the past thanks to electronic fuel injection, distributorless ignition, sealed wheel bearings and grease fittings, better lubricants, and so on. Cabin air filters are an example of additional maintenance, but they can often be replaced by the vehicle owner with a little elbow grease. Your combination dust and carbon filter is fairly easily accessed from beneath the passenger side instrument panel once the below-dashboard cover is removed. There are at least a half dozen YouTube videos showing how.

Wow! $210 per hour could hurt very quickly! I’m thinking your larger concern beyond maintenance will be the cost of certain repairs that will be inevitable on an aging vehicle with lots of bells and whistles and a component-assembly parts replacement philosophy. Electronic parts are typically pretty robust. You’re correct about the motors and mechanisms — a good reason to keep up with lubrication and attentive observations, especially on the convertible top. Whenever a mechanism runs slowly, groans or squeaks, it’s important to get right to the cause before more damage is done.

What’s odd is there’s no mention of renewing engine coolant. I’d certainly do this, along with hoses, every four to five years to prevent costly corrosion damage to engine parts ($3,000 cylinder heads, among other engine parts, plus oodles of labor!) and heater core (10 hours labor to replace) and to reduce the chances of an over-heat catastrophe. I’d also renew the fuel filter early (rather than at 150,000 miles) to help the fuel pumps (about $1,200 for all three) live a happy life. And a rear differential fluid change at five years might encourage long life from the $4,000 differential assembly.

Auto Q&A: Lunging car may indicate failing brakes

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By Bob Weber, Chicago Tribune

Q: I have a 2008 Toyota Camry Solara convertible with a sporadic brake issue. Occasionally, the car will lunge forward when the brake is applied as though the accelerator is stuck. I have taken the car to two separate Toyota dealers who cannot diagnose the problem. They say the car performs normally for them.

— G.W., Allentown, Pa.

A: When our brakes fail, we often get the feeling that the car lunges. You can usually restore braking performance, at least temporarily, by pumping the pedal. Most likely, your master cylinder is failing.

Q: I have a 2002 Pontiac Bonneville SLE. It’s the 205 HP, 3800, 6 cylinder. I love the car, and it’s in excellent condition with 122,000 miles on it. Lately the engine has been missing when driven in a hard rain. After leaving a drive-through car wash recently, it acted as though it wouldn’t make it home. The next day it drove fine. Before I take it in for service I would like to have an idea of what to be suspicious of. Is it a faulty seal, cracked hose or wire?

— R.C., Chicago

A: It seems as though water is causing something to short out, and that something is probably an ignition coil. Each of the three coils fires two cylinders. With the engine running, try spraying each coil with water to see if any act up. Replace that coil or all three if you are worried.

Q: I have recently replaced all four tires and had a brake job. My car then started making a scraping-type noise on the right side whenever the brakes were applied. I took it back to the shop that did the brake job, and they said I needed calipers on the right side, which I went ahead and did. The noise is back! It seems to be rotation-related. When the brakes are first applied, the scraping noise is very rapid and then it slows as the car slows. Do you have any idea what it might be?

— G.D., Carver, Mass.

A: It sounds as though the brake wear warning tab may be contacting the rotor. Some brake pads have a little steel tab that touches the rotors when the pads wear to the point of replacement. The tabs make a scraping or hissing sound when the brakes are applied. Because you recently got new pads, the tab may have been bent. Have the installing tech take a close look.

Q: I have a 2015 Nissan Rouge with the onboard navigation that needs updating. It has been providing very strange directions lately and I have used my cellphone for navigation instead. Should I continue to use my cellphone for navigation?

— M.R., Palatine, Ill.

A: Use your smartphone or use a discrete GPS unit. These are kept up to date without having to trek to the dealer or pay for updates.

Q: I have a 2005 Santa Fe that needed some engine work that required removal of the serpentine belt and tensioner. The car has 120,000 miles and the belt has never been replaced. I was informed that the tensioner broke when the mechanic was removing the part. Is this common? Who should foot this bill?

— B.P., Homer Glen, Ill.

A: Unless you can prove negligence, you have to pay. On vehicles with as many miles and years as yours, things wear out, become seized, or even require prying to remove. Stuff happens.

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