When you tell people you own a 20-year-old German car, they look at you with a mix of appreciation and pity. This has been my experience, at least. Not that a 2002 Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG is one of those highly sought-after German cars, but it’s still two decades old, and it’s mine. Keeping it, though, hasn’t been the maintenance nightmare that the internet paints the ordeal out to be. Yeah, I’ve dropped about $10,000 into the car in maintenance and repairs since I got it in 2012, but that’s largely all been preventative.
You hear horror stories of rod bearings exploding, mysterious noises, complex wiring, and general electrical woes from things that just refuse to work anymore. As of this writing, my car is still at a relatively young 99,700 miles and nothing rattles in the interior. The only thing that’s stopped working is the onboard navigation system’s CD changer (because the maps are stored in a series of six or seven CDs—imagine!) but I use Google Maps to get me where I need to go anyway, so it’s a non-issue.
A few more things about me and my car: I keep it garaged almost every day of the year, I wash and detail it frequently to protect the paint, and I only put about 3,000 miles on it annually. It has a pretty easy existence compared to most urban commuter cars. But when I do drive it, I want it driving as well as it can.
Anyway, it’s that fun and chill week between Christmas and New Year, so I thought I’d tell you a bit about my singular experiences that’ll hopefully demystify aged German car ownership a bit.
That $10,000 figure excludes things like gas, insurance, parking, and the $4,300 or so I spent shipping the car to California and back. The single biggest mechanical repair I performed on it was replacing the air conditioning unit. The car stopped blowing cold after a while, and after many refrigerant top-ups, I finally determined there had to be a leak somewhere and just had the whole thing pulled. It still doesn’t blow as Arctic cold as it used to, but it’s fine. That job cost me about $800.
Here’s the thing, though: Everything else I’ve spent money on has been preventative. Nothing’s blown up in my face and rendered the car undrivable. I get my oil changed regularly, I abide by a healthy service schedule, and I keep a meticulous spreadsheet of when I had a job done, how many miles the car had on it at the time, where the shop was, what the job was, and how much it cost. I don’t skimp on parts or consumables and I don’t ignore new noises that pop up when they do. Because of all of this, I believe that car reliability is largely a myth; I’m of the mind that if you take good care of your machine, it’ll love you back. Just because you own a Toyota, it doesn’t mean you can skip on all the maintenance and still expect it to run “like a Toyota.”
And since the C32 is as old as it is, there are so many threads across so many forums from owners comparing notes about their cars over the years that it paints a pretty clear picture of stuff that likes to go wrong. There are two standout issues that beleaguer the W203 C32: a faulty radiator and doors that like to rust.
The Valeo Radiator Issue
I’ve written about my car a few times before, and in 2018, a very helpful reader and ex-C32 owner reached out on Twitter about the defective Valeo radiators that apparently can leak coolant into the transmission fluid and ruin the transmission. They recommended that I confirm whether or not I do have the Valeo radiator, and if I did, to see if it was leaking at all and said that I should get a whole radiator replacement and a transmission fluid flush just to be sure. I found that I did have the defective radiator, I replaced it with the forum-recommended Behr one, and also had the transmission fluid flushed for good measure. Supposedly, these transmissions are “sealed for life,” but, come on, nothing should be sealed for life except a cursed tomb.
I’m glad I caught this problem early and before any leaking happened because I’m pretty sure replacing the entire transmission would have cost me more than the car is worth.
Starting around 2013 or 2014, when the car was just over 10 years old, I noticed some rust bubbling up around the bottoms of all four doors. Forum users confirmed this was an issue that plagued them as well and the fix wasn’t so straightforward. I brought the car to three body shops and all confirmed that while they were happy to sand down, Bondo, and paint over the rust, it would just keep coming back because the door panels were rusted completely through. There’d be no structural damage; it would just look ugly.
Well, I’m vain as hell and this problem tortured me like nothing else. Every time I walked up to the car, I couldn’t not see the rust bubbles. Whenever I detailed the car, I had to take special care to be gentle with polishing those areas, lest I flake off even more paint. These weren’t panels I could just replace, either. I could have sourced four new doors from a salvage-yard W203, but I’d have to find them first, buy them, get them home somehow, and then get them repainted. Even then, there was no guarantee the rust wouldn’t come back because the problem appears to be endemic to these C-Classes.
Finally, through a happy accident, I stumbled across a body shop in Queens that offered to cut off all the rust from the panels and fabricate and paint new metal. This was not a cheap fix, but as I had spent the past seven years agonizing over the issue, I was ready to have it resolved once and for all.
The cause of the problem, as the shop manager showed me later on, was that Mercedes had lined the bottom of the doors with a sort of rubber “taco” that cupped the edges of the metal. It wasn’t for any really useful purpose that the manager could determine, but did trap moisture whenever the car got wet and essentially treated the bottom edges of the doors to standing water. Hence, the rust buildup down there. Now, the taco is gone, the new metal is in place and painted, and you truly cannot tell the difference.
Those of you who’ve heard me complain about the rusty doors can rejoice with me because as of last year, the C32 is completely rust-free! I no longer have to fear driving it in the rain and I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted from my shoulders. The car finally looks as good as I feel when I drive it. That alone is worth every penny.
The 100,000-Mile Service
The car is quickly approaching 100,000 miles and I’m emotionally ready for it. It’s a threshold to cross. But in preparation for the event, I treated it to a checklist of repairs I’d had sitting on the back burner just so it can live this chapter of its life to the fullest. The left lower control arm needed replacing (again), there was a leaking gasket covering, a broken screw in the driver’s side door, and I needed new spark plugs.
The spark plugs, man. You don’t really notice a lumpy idle creep up on you until you’re sitting at a light with your new spark plugs. We’re running smoooth as glass now, baby.
Of course, none of this could have been possible without a ton of trial and error with countless local independent mechanics and shops. (Stop going to the dealer after your warranty runs out, please and thank you!) Over the years, I’ve amassed a Rolodex of go-tos who have all treated me well and have priced their services fairly. Of the bunch, I want to shout out Nicky, owner and manager at Formula Body Works in Long Island City, Queens. Nicky’s been in the business for 40 years and he’s the one who fixed my rust issues once and for all. I’ve seen pictures of the other things he’s done—including fabricating an entirely new wheel arch for a pickup truck—that are nothing short of miraculous.
You don’t always come across good and honest people every day, and especially when you find a shop you like and trust, you hold onto them. I’ll need the best team to keep the C32 running in tip-top shape because I intend to keep it forever.
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