The ‘affordable’ older luxury car

One of the easiest ways to find yourself on the short end of the used-ear stick is to buy an “affordable” older or higher-mileage luxury car. With a handful of lucky exceptions — such as inheriting grandma’s low-mileage, garage-kept Cadillac — a low-cost luxury car is by definition an oxymoron. Such a car is almost always a tired and nearly worn-out former luxury car that is perhaps two more coffee stains and a cracked windshield away from being fit for lawn sculpture.

When a car sold new for $50,000 is being peddled to you for $10,000 or less, common sense should tell you there’s probably not much left to pick over. A couple of thousand bucks may buy a perfectly decent used Corolla, but all it’ll get you in a luxury car is several thousand pounds of chrome-plated woe.

The very things that make a luxury car “luxurious” — features like heated power seats, climate control air conditioning, digital display GPS and so on — are also the very things most likely to develop malfunctions the older the car gets. It’s an engineering maxim that the more complex something is, the greater the chances of a problem developing — and the greater the odds of a problem occurring sooner rather than later. Now, this isn’t a big deal when the luxury car is only a few years old and still under warranty. But once the warranty period has expired and the years have taken their inevitable toll, watch out!

Here’s an example from personal experience. I once inherited an older Lincolnthat came equipped from the factory with a load-leveling suspension. The car had a mini-compressor onboard and air springs (instead of conventional springs/shocks) at each corner of the car. This was fine — until the front springs failed and would no longer hold air pressure. Then the car’s body would flop down on the deflated springs — the “low-rider” effect — which may have looked cool in some quarters, but nonetheless made the car undriveable. Cost to repair? More than 1,500 bucks, chief! Like almost all luxury cars, this one had climate control air conditioning. Instead of knobs and levers to adjust temperature or fan speed, there was a digital panel and electronic control. This feature, like the air-spring suspension, is a nice convenience when new or at least still under warranty; but when the electronic control unit fails, the entire “head unit” or controller usually must be replaced, a repair that can sail past $1,000 faster than you can say “rich, Corinthian leather.” Similar problems tend to occur with such commonplace luxury vehicle features as ABS brakes, traction and stability control. You can also solve these risks by finding an online shop to sell OBD scanner (for example here), and then use it to check the carefully the engine problems.

Spending several thousand dollars on a car worth maybe $4,000 on a very good day quickly gets to grate — since the car is not worth a penny more even after the repair, and you’re still facing the imminent possibility of some other expensive thing falling apart.

Even basic maintenance bills can be much higher for the luxury vehicle — and more likely than not, you’ll have to pay exorbitant perhour costs to hire a technician with the training and equipment to deal with it all. A “basic” tuneup and cooling system service on a Mercedes, BMW or Lexus easily can be hundreds of dollars. Just replacing a headlight can be a heart-stopper. And brake work? You don’t even want to know.

Non-luxury cars usually don’t have an abundance of complicated electronic features, so there’s less to go wrong. Assuming the basic stuff (engine and transmission) are mechanically sound, the odds of a major drain on your wallet are pretty low. And when something does go wrong, or service is required, the hit will be less. Remember, non-luxury cars are built with economic considerations in mind; part of their sales appeal is not just a value-price on the showroom floor but the promise of a relatively inexpensive vehicle to service and maintain down the road.

Luxury cars, in contrast, are designed with little, if any, concern about over-the-road costs. What matters is having the latest thing. Who cares about 10 years from now? People who buy $50,000 luxury vehicles aren’t worried about $500 tune-ups or $800 brake jobs, either — so neither are the manufacturers, who build their machines without worrying about how much their complex features will cost to keep up. But even when the car itself is no longer worth a fraction of the $50,000 it once commanded, the cost of that tune-up and brake job hasn’t changed; if anything, it’s gone up.

Short of a termite-infested crack house, a luxury car near the end of its useful life is one of the hungriest money pits there is. Don’t be tempted by the lure of chrome, leather and a fancy name on the fender. Far better to acquire a solid older car than someone else’s “rode hard and put up wet” one-time luxo-cruiser.