Piston Slap: Daily Driver It Ain't!

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap daily driver it ain t

John writes:

I have a 1989 Mercedes 300CE. Fantastic car, if I’m honest and it has made me fall in love with straight-6’s as well as old school German solidity. Not to mention it is nice having the only seafoam green Mercedes I have ever seen, making it incredibly unique. That being said, in the 6 months that I’ve owned I’ve had to put almost two thousand dollars into it for various wear parts. While it is to be expected with a 22 year old car of any ilk, the added cost of owning a European car have begun to take their toll I’m afraid.

The knowledge that the M103 has a tendency to blow its head gasket around the mileage I have on it now (135k) is also disconcerting. I can work on it on my own, but parts are expensive and there are an inordinate amount of redundancies that accompany that. Recently, a spark plug cap dry rotted and began arcing. Without any of the specialty tools necessary to properly remove it, it took me about an hour to get the plug wire free. Absurd, frankly. Also, several new problems have begun creeping up: The air conditioning does not work well, the driver side window will not go up or down, the insane vacuum powered everything is beginning to go, and the interior has seen better days.

For work, I was unexpectedly thrust into a delivery roll, and as such I put more wear on it then I would prefer. Naturally, this came about with little extra compensation. It hurts as well that I seem to get roughly twenty mpg on premium gas. This hurts when I have to drive as much as I do. My question to you would be: Is it worth buying something newer and more reliable/efficient? Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of money (figure around 4k-4.5k max) to spend, and being what the used car market is, the smart move is probably keeping the 300CE. However, I just wanted an outside opinion.

I have a strange fascination with large cars, yet I like some degree of handling to go along with it. Due to that, a CVPI is near the top of my list. Also, living in the North East a 4WD/AWD car would also be nice. Subaru Foresters and Jeep Cherokees have piqued my interest. Basically, what I want is something reasonable fuel-efficient (I’m ok with 20mpg if it can be done on 87 octane) and something durable and cheap to run. Easy to work on would be a useful bonus as well.

Sajeev answers:

Sometimes you folks make this too easy. It’s as if I told myself:

“Self, you aren’t exactly having a fantastic month. While not as nuts as Jack Baruth trying to get Porsche Public Relations to pull their heads out of their…sandboxes…its kinda like that. Let’s hope and pray that TTAC’s Best and Brightest pitch you a slow meatball, so you can bat one out of the park with little effort.”

You Mister John, are my savior. And my hero: not only do you know of the trials and tribulations of owning a German Engineered vehicle from the “good old days” without being an experienced tech from that era, you described it in vivid detail. Even better, you openly admit to a far more logical replacement: Panther Love.

That’s not to say that a 300CE isn’t worth the effort. Problem is, a daily driver it ain’t. Very few whips that old will pass muster when put to the test of a delivery vehicle. I can think of a handful of American and Japanese motors with a binder full of service receipts, but that’s not the point. You must join me in the land of multiple vehicle ownership. Quite honestly, it’s the only way to fly.

If you like large cars, need a durable commuter and don’t mind under 20 MPG on regular gas, get a late(ish) model Panther. Quite frankly, its one of the best partners for your current ride, and your driving needs and lifestyle. All the best to you as you explore your need for Panther Love.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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2 of 55 comments
  • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Sep 26, 2011

    At the price point you are looking at, the prior owner is going to have a far greater impact on the vehicle's longevity than the type of car you choose. Well, having said that... I will give you a list of cars to consider. 1) Mid to full sized GM sedans with the 3.8L V6 Engine. These are the most frequently used vehicles for road warriors in my line of work. They can get close right around 30 mpg on the highway. Ride very well, and have plenty of cheap and reasonable replacement parts. 2) Panthers... The fuel economy is about 20% worse than the GM sedans... but they do have cheaper parts costs. Overall I would prefer the GM vehicles if you do a lot of driving. 3) Ford Taurus w/ Vulcan V6. Excellent durability. You should be able to get a 2002 to 2003 model... maybe even an 05'. 4) Volvo 940 & 96 thru 97 Volvo 850 Don't bother with the turbos. The normally aspirated versions are perfectly fine. The 850's in particular have some of the best seats I have ever sat in. Please note that due to age, you should only get this vehicle if you're serious about doing at least some of your own wrenching. 5) Nissan models with the 3 liter V6. You may have to replace a couple of engine related sensors over the course of time. But these powertrains are among the most durable out there. Best of luck in your search...

  • Delikanli Delikanli on Sep 27, 2011

    Well as a 91 300CE owner what more can I say besides: "Your car seems to be doing better than mine!" I brought mine back from "left on the driveway for 8 years with a head-gasket leak and holes in the exhaust, leaky ac etc. It was to most expensive cheap Mercedes I have ever had so far. Partly, I have kids and little time. I do like to daydream about DIY projects, but I never get to them. So, I gave the job to an indy and after a bunch of repairs that added up to an amount that made my wife say "I hate that car..." Here I am driving it to work. Breathing in the fumes in Lincoln Tunnel with non-working AC (blows hot air so I had to open the windows) made me a little nauseous. I still like driving the car, and although the suspension needs more work and hitting potholes at 50 mph causes the steering wheel and everything else to shake, I am telling my self that I like the car. Such is the painful relationship between owner and old Mercedes. Especially if you do not DIY. For that, I got into a a garage restoration project which resulted in another bunch of money flying out the door, so my wife double hates the car as we got hit by the repairs plus the garage project—which is not done yet. Anyhow, it does not sound like you have anything serious going on yet. But, it does sound like you do not DIY. Spark plug issues etc, are piece of cake on that car vs the newer V6s. Of course, if it is your daily driver, you might not have time to plan out a DIY project. I'd say keep the faith until things start getting leaky. Watch that gasket. Panther love is a tempting thing, especially when one can pick one of those up for a few grand at government auction sites. In terms of a used Subaru, a friend picked an 02 up for around 2k in NY area. Then again, another used car can be another pit. Choose wisely. Or lease a Hyundai.

  • Tassos BTW I thought this silly thing was always called the "Wienermobile".
  • Tassos I have a first cousin with same first and last name as my own, 17 years my junior even tho he is the son of my father's older brother, who has a summer home in the same country I do, and has bought a local A3 5-door hatch kinds thing, quite old by now.Last year he told me the thing broke down and he had to do major major repairs, replace the whole engine and other stuff, and had to rent a car for two weeks in a touristy location, and amazingly he paid more for the rental ( Euro1,500, or $1,650-$1,700) than for all the repairs, which of course were not done at the dealer (I doubt there was a dealer there anyway)
  • Tassos VW's EV program losses have already been horrific, and with (guess, Caveman!) the Berlin-Brandenburg Gigafactory growing by leaps and bounds, the future was already quite grim for VW and the VW Group.THis shutdown will not be so temporary.The German Government may have to reach in its deep pockets, no matter how much it hates to spend $, and bail it out."too big to fail"?
  • Billccm I had a 1980 TC3 Horizon and that car was as reliable as the sun. Underappreciated for sure.
  • Inside Looking Out I did not notice, did they mention climate change? How they are going to fight climate change, racism and gender discrimination. I mean collective Big 3.