In 1998, I’d just started my dubious car-journalist career by writing a string of reviews of new vehicles a typical university student could afford – 14 road tests of cars with an MSRP under $20,000, and every one of them with four cylinders and front-wheel drive, prioritizing economy and reliability. Because of that, I don’t actually recall how I ended up with the keys to Mercedes-Benz’s just-launched E55 AMG for a week. Its $98,100 list price was five times that of the cars I was testing and its 354 hp was about double what I’d grown accustomed to.
What I can recall is the lasting impression that car made on me. It made an impression on my still-evolving car-testing skills by showing me how composed and comfortable a car could feel while travelling at serious speeds (indeed, I’m lucky my 21-year-old self survived a week with it without getting arrested), and it made an impression on my wallet, too, as I poured whatever meager income I was making back then straight into its 80L fuel tank so I could go for another run. At the time, I thought it was the very best car in the world, a road-going missile that could seat four in comfort, that rode as well as it handled, and had a rock-solid feel that I hadn’t experienced before.
Fast-forward 18 years, and I’m shopping for a car. I’m looking for something to make a long highway commute in – something comfortable but with a bit of character. The new-car choices within my budget are similar to the ones I was reviewing back in 1998: economical, reliable, and, these days, actually stuffed with a lot of neat technology that you couldn’t get back then. But they’re all a bit lacking in character. Then I start looking at used cars on the autoTRADER app, and am reminded, surfing for everything and anything under $20,000, how big German cars, especially those with V8s, depreciate. Swiping past hundreds of Audis and BMWs and Benzes, this black 2001 E55 AMG – a facelifted version of the car I drove back in 1998, and with just 56,900 km on it – hovers into view. Suddenly, I’m transported back to that time, and I simply can’t think of any other car. The dealer and I trade a couple of Facebook messages, and I’m down at the store within a week to pick it up.
Buying a 15-year-old AMG Mercedes as daily transportation is not what you would call a logical decision. In the city, it sucks back an average of 17 L/100 km. Oil changes require a quite a lot of Mobil 1 synthetic, and I’ve burned through one set of rear summer tires as well as a set of rear winters. Cars of this “W210” generation also have a reputation for rusting, and indeed most of the ones you see still on the road have corrosion developing around the door sills, lock cylinders, and various other places. (Indeed, my car was repainted early in its life under warranty to deal with rust issues; I’m curious to see, after this harsh winter, if it’s going to start rotting on me.)