The Nine-Year Itch

Tim Marrs

The other day, my friend John calls me with a car question. He's got a 2002 Saab 9-5 wagon. "When you step on the gas," he says, "it makes this really bad noise, which is the same thing it did last time before the turbo died." He describes the malady in greater detail and I listen intently, considering all the possible causes of the problem, before offering my expert diagnosis: Get a new car. Man, for the sake of all that's holy, just get a new car. I know new cars are expensive, but nothing is more expensive than a nine-year-old European car. If Elin Nordegren really wanted to ruin Tiger Woods, her divorce lawyer would've stipulated that she henceforth be driven in a fleet of 2002 Mercedes-Benz S600s. No! Take the yacht! Take the mansions! Anything but that!

The nine-year-old European car looks compelling on the surface. You see something like an Audi A8, lithe and aluminum, for $12,000 and think, "How could I go wrong? This was a $70,000 car when it was new. Even if I have to put some money into it, it'll still cost less than a new Chevy Malibu." That is the fantasy. The reality is that every time a mechanic cracks the hood, you'll somehow have a bill for at least $1000. As my old independent BMW mechanic candidly put it, "It's the same skill set whether you're working on a BMW or a Ford, but with the BMW you just get paid a lot more."

Say you buy the nine-year-old car of your dreams for $15,000. You end up putting $2000 per year into it, and after five years you sell it for $6000. You've now spent $19,000 to drive this miserable, anxiety-creating trouble bucket. Meanwhile, the person who bought a new car for $25,000 has spent $2000 on brakes and service (if that), and the car is worth $10,000 after five years. Net expense: $17,000, sans headaches. You can play with the math on depreciation, insurance, and repairs, but the bottom line is that your fancy nine-year-old bargain could ultimately cost you more than a brand-new vehicle of more modest pretensions. And for what?

Not for prestige. Driving a new BMW 7-series says, "I've arrived." Driving a 2002 745i says, "I've arrived at a tent in my mom's backyard, where I live because it costs so much to keep this car on the road." People admire new cars and they admire thirty-year-old cars, but the nine-year-old car exists in a drab netherworld, neither new enough to confer status nor old enough to imply connoisseurship. The Ferrari 360 is a beautiful car, but the valets will know that it's worth about the same as a nice new Corvette.

Well, who cares what the valets think? That's an excellent point. And I do believe that you should buy a car to satisfy nobody but yourself -- if the Pontiac Aztek is what ignites your bliss, then have at it, you big freak. The problem is that cars improve so quickly that your mundane new car is often functionally superior to an eight-year-old super-duper luxury machine. By the time I bought my 1998 BMW M3, its 240 hp was surpassed by a Honda Accord V-6. Today's M3 is tomorrow's Buick, my friends. And it's not just horsepower -- fuel economy, safety, interior quality, and in-car electronics march ever forward. A guy driving a 2011 Ford Fiesta might have satellite radio, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity. Meanwhile, if the guy in a 2002 Bentley Arnage wants in-car entertainment, his options are a six-disc CD changer or an escort service.

To recap, nobody thinks your nine-year-old car is pimpin'. And even if it's got a big V-8, it might have about the same power as a new four-cylinder Hyundai Sonata turbo. But that's not the worst part. The worst part, and I speak from experience, is the reliability. Or the utter and complete lack thereof.

My brother-in-law bought a seemingly cherry 2001 BMW 530i and eventually came to distrust it so much that he started renting cars whenever he had to drive farther than ten miles. My 1991 Saab 9000 Turbo was about nine years old when it began covering more miles on flatbeds than it did under its own power. I know a guy who has a Land Rover Discovery that he claims is reliable, but when I asked if it had blown the head gasket, he replied, "Of course." If that's your answer to that question, then you have the proper expectations for Discovery ownership.

This is a well-known maxim, but it bears repeating: a $70,000 car may depreciate to eighteen grand, but it's still a $70,000 car whenever anything breaks. To name but one example, my Saab's leather shift knob became frayed, so I ordered a new one from the dealership. The dealer quoted me $165 -- borderline criminal but worth it for a leather knob that would probably last for the remaining life of the car. I went to the dealer to pick it up, and to my surprise, the parts guy arrived at the counter with a rubber shift knob.

A rubber shift knob for $165? Was this the work of the famed rubbersmiths of Boergflappen, a hand-hewn piece crafted from virgin stock carefully chiseled from the secluded Arctic rubber mines of Gnorkflug, predistressed by the calloused hand of Stig Blomqvist himself? No. It was a piece of crap with nasty flash lines and a shift pattern glued on top. I told him to keep it. If I'm paying $165 for a piece of rubber, it better be a Catwoman costume containing Michelle Pfeiffer. Also, the year should be 1992.

If that's what Saab is asking for a shift knob, imagine the bill when the air suspension craps out on your 100,000-mile Mercedes-Benz S-class. To paraphrase the late, great Notorious B.I.G.: mo' problems, mo' money.

So beware, all ye who scan the classifieds in search of the perfect union of panache and value. Sure, the 2003 Audi RS6 had 450 hp, only 1436 of them were sold in the States, and you can find them now for less than twenty grand. But buying one is a horrible idea. Isn't it?

eugeneclad
I am sorry to post this but i can't help it (owner of 9 cars total at this current moment, 3 bmws incl. 'the beast', 1 benz v12,2008, 1992 xjs v12, etc....NO domestics,except 1 srt8)I pay A LOT in maintenance...preventative that is....on my euro cars....nothing considerable in repairs though....when i turn the steering on my e39s i know exactly where it'll be, so precise, so perfect! Every time! Those brakes on my beast, are worth the 4x multiplier on any chevy brake rotors/pads....no need to compare pedal feel, because there is NO comparison to malibu,impala or any other current corolla, hyundai,accord etc.....I think ezra's article-like the only other one i read, them5 vs Tesla drag- is waaay off my logic tolerance...i am a hardcore bmw fan, but still own vw group cars and a benz....maybe NOT as easy/cheap to maintain as an accord, but rewarding in an other dimension....I would expect an auto-writer to have more of the sense in me.....like c&d cheering for stick shifts....i am not subscribed to the mag this guy writes in, but i was long time ago...Sorry that an auto-writer is NOT aware of the real life, or is typing articles to bump sales of cheap, unsafe,unfun new cars......PS# a perfectly maintained e39 does and will outlast a boring corolla/accord on any given decade! Also PS# i get 37 mpg on my e46 convertible at 62 mph constant speed....civic hybrid got only 44mpg same road same time following me! Well worth the 0.x gallons more i used over 90 minutes driving ...with the ultimate driving machine....also, ezra, when u get a chance, drive a benz v12( ok, unreliable!!! Accepted) cross country....i wonder if you'll drive anything else-knowing you can afford the 16mpg ...This wa s a waste of time to type this ...but i feel better now.....;) long live the e39!!!!!! ;)
LexE30
1999 M3 stick shift will crush an accord. Have you tried lately ? My 97 328i will dust them toward the middle of 2nd gear. Halfway through 3rd, the accords stop comin, even in my classic e30. In my mind its a Kuhmo vs Michelin battle really.
LexE30
In response to Ezra Dyer's article entitled The 9 Year Itch.Ezra, Ezra, I love ya, but c'mon, let's not confuse M3 driver and Honda Accord driver. I would even venture to say never think you are talking to the same people when you talk M3 vs. Accord.Why ? Because a name like M3 implies the kind of unnecessary parts the Honda Accord owner will never go for. But your job is to continually educate, not divide (leave that to me, please). If you want to make an accurate comparison, how about a used bmw 328i vs. a new Accord. Your 98 M3 was (I think) finally a product that again was actually M-badged and not just a total factory M-job. The 98 328i rather, was the earlier 93-'95 M3 perfected and turned in a regular 3-series, just the progression that you point to in almost any car.The guy who wants reliability on a budget cannot go wrong with a 96-'98 328i, no matter the miles. Those things are bulletproof as compared to any bmw predecessor. There is no Auto-Union (Audi) project or ever Benz that compares in reliability to the base 3 series. An M3 is for the crazy people who not only know they will put loads of money in their car, they cannot wait to.Don't get me wrong though, the Honda Accord is one of the most beloved cars of all time, just not by M3 gear heads like me that would soon drive the Original Honda Prelude ('78?) or a classic 87 CRX before they ever bought a new Accord.My next door neighbor just purchased a brand new Honda Accord, top of the line, black on tan, beautiful car. But her driveway is very much outclassed by the 92 E30 318i ragtop and 97 E36 328i in mine. Why ? Precisely because I have fulfilled my automotive dreams with less cash then she used for her down payment. And because both of my cars are close but not M cars, they are as reliable and as easy to maintain as two Toyota Corollas. I say Corollas instead of Accords, because I believe my insurance company considers the Accord a full size automobile.In closing, I love Ezra's writing and this article stayed on my mind for a year. But apparently, I am the guy getting over on everyone. I own two really, really nice bmws that cost me a couple grand a piece that are both faster, cheaper on insurance and a 1,000 times cooler then any Honda Accord in the universe.
disagreement
As the owner of a 2002 Arnage (T) I could not possibly disagree more. In 2008, after someone so graciously ate 240k in depreciation, I stepped into my Bentley in the mid sixties. Comparably priced cars were limited to an Audi A6, BMW 5 and many other fine cars that did not compare to the Bentley. In an attempt to talk me off the ledge, I spoke with a Bentley service writer who explained the 6.75 engine was in use since 1959 and pretty much bug free, as was the transmission, which GM made and perfected in the mid sixties. He did not talk me down. I went back for the test drive and one run of the 3 ton plus car from standstill in 60 in the low fives sold me - not to mention the dozen trees and sixteen or so cows that gave their lives for my backside to wrapped in comfort. Three years service bills, in the aggregate are about $1,500 and the value of the car is exactly what I have into it. As for entertainment, 750 put an Alpine with bluetooth, ipod and sirius in the dash. I am happy.
civdiv99
While most nails were hit on the head, some were mangled, and some missed. Not only is it the same skill set as any other car as his mechanic comments on, but unless you are a glutton for punishment, parts are readily available from a variety of sources and cost no more than those for a 9 year old Chrysler (thinking of my neighbor doing repairs & maint on his mini-van). And, some of us drive a certain model(E39 in case it matters) because we LIKE them even though we could afford to buy the newest model. Ever open minded, I drove around in a new 2011 Chevrolet that my wife wanted (NOT an economy model), and in the end prefer the refinement and manners of my poor old, unreliable, BMW. I bought her the car, and still drive my 5 series, every day, whether 100 plus or below zero out. Rain, snow, whatever. And it's DEFINITELY the choice if I'm leaving town. Repairs have run a couple hundred dollars (parts only) over several years. I'm having a hard time seeing how this is somehow a bad idea?
bwik
Nice column. More true than not. But if you wrench your own, you can have splendid automobiles. The key is whether or not you maintain it. Of course an un-maintained car is a crapcan. A well maintained car is just as good as it ever was (2002 A8, etc). Sometimes peoeple just want excellence, not to show people how high their paramilitary or medicare billing contract pays them.
chuckchack
Great column, but it misses the point a bit. Buying just any 9 year-old european car is an exercise in Russian roulette with your wallet. Cases in point are crapcans like Saabs and big, complicated sedans like said BMW 7-series and Audi A8. Buying the RIGHT 9 year-old european car can be a great deal. Like my black '99 5-speed M3 convertible. Bought it when it was 9 years old, from the original purchaser, with service records, etc. I do my own work, so labor costs are not an issue, but it's needed nothing but a set of tires and a radiator (which cost under $200 in case you're wondering). Valets here in Boston know it's old, but they still compliment it more often than not. And yes, a new Accord sedan with a V6 will probably suck the headlights out of the ol' M from a stoplight, but it'll probably suck the headlights out of a '64 Ferrari GTO, too. But which would you rather drive?

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