Can You Afford To Maintain It? 1998-2005 Mercedes Benz S-Class (W220)


Early last year (2015) I was asked by a reader whether it was alright for him to buy a first generation Porsche Cayenne. As you folks know, the Cayenne is a luxury SUV that was made by Porsche to save Porsche from an early death. It sold by the bulk carrier loads and you can see them in every large city in Malaysia. But after doing some research, by doing a lot of reading, calling up friends who have or had such a vehicle the reply (which is here) was that you could, if you have money. Lots and lots of money. Really lots of money. Anyway, this time I'd like to talk about the best car in the world, circa 1998 to 2005 – the Mercedes Benz W220 series S-Class.


The reason why I want to discuss this car is that this flagship model can now be had for under RM40,000. It was around RM400,000-600,000, either as a slightly used unregistered grey import or a brand new unit by Mercedes Benz Malaysia when it was a current model. So now, two generations of S-Class have passed the question to ask whether such a car would be a reasonable purchase someone who has a yearning for it when it was brand new.

The Styling


Now the W220 is a successful design in terms of its styling. It is quite an endearing design. It did not have the bulk or tank-like proportions of the earlier W140. It did not have the aggressive looks of the newer W221 series and if you noticed, the newer W221 is the sportiest in terms of styling of the newer S-classes. It has shapely wheelarches that come up and out of the bodywork. This W220, may not be an attention seeker but in some ways, the current S-Class, the W222 is now styled without any aggressive lines like the W220 instead. The W222 may have a larger grille, more sculptured sides and LED lights (we shall get to this later), but it has its sportiness and aggression reeled in. But it still looks good with a set of large 18inch wheels plonked onto it (like the one above). So in terms of looks the W220 does not feel that outdated actually.

Common Models in Malaysia & Specs
Just look at the amount of buttons you can press...and the tech behind it.

The most common of the W220 S-class in Malaysia are the petrol powered S280, S320 and the S350. All can be had in either the normal version or the long wheelbase L versions with not much difference in pricing. The S280 is fitted with a 2.8liter V6, the S320 with a 3.2liter V6 but the S350 comes with a 3.7liter 235hp v6. Why they didn't just call it the S370 I don't even know. All would be fitted with Mercedes Benz's 5G-Tronic automatic transmission until the end of production with the 7G-Tronic onlyin the V8 models but only in the final few years of production.

So this is an S-Class, this usually means that it had the latest in automotive technology at the time. It had everything:-
Airmatic air suspension, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and Brake Assist, 8 airbags (2 frontal, 4 side airbags and 2 window-airbags), LED brake lights (one of the first few cars using them), Distronic cruise control (which could maintain a set distance between the S-Class and any vehicle in front), Speedtronic adjustable speed limiter, Keyless Go, Rain-sensing windshield wipers. Auto Light sensors (one of the first few to have this now common feature), automatically adjustable instrument display and the COMAND screen's backlight, Parktronic visual and audible parking aid with sensors in the front and rear bumpers, passenger side mirror can swivel down automatically when engaging reverse, to help see the curb, automatically heated exterior mirrors, fully automatic climate control system with pollen and charcoal filters with optional separate rear-seat climate controls, COMAND system combines the controls for audio systems, the television, the navigation and the telephone, an optional BOSE sound system, self opening and closing boot, self-closing doors, standard electrically adjustable seats with memory option, massage seat options, Auto-dimming interior and driver's side exterior rear view mirrors, Xenon headlamps (bi-xenons starting from late 2002 facelift), Linguatronic voice recognition system which can be used to control the audio system, navigation system, and a cellular telephone through voice commands and Pre-Safe, the integrated Mercedes-Benz collision avoidance and response system, debuted with the W220 S-Class facelift in late 2002. These long list were some of the features.

So, with this in mind, you are actually buying a spaceship. The Space Shuttle had less electronics than this barge. The W220 was a car ahead of its time and if you sat in one from the year 2000, it would have all the modern conveniences that most of us in 2016 are used to having. In fact, it may still have more.

If you drove one you'd actually find the car pretty good to drive. It was the first S-Class with a rack and pinion steering wheel. It was nimbler than the W140 prior to it. So much more nimbler but once you get to tight spots it does feel large. In terms of size it is smaller overall than the W140 but the passenger cabin is bigger. It has better interior packaging but it has a smaller boot (which even a W211 E-class could be bigger). It is super quiet even to this day and you could cruise in silence at over 200kmh even in the base S280 model. What do you expect? It's still an S-Class.

The Issues
The issues of the W220 are numerous as it has a very, very long equipment list (as stated above). And do note that it was also built at a time were Mercedes Benz decided that it was good business sense to cut some costs when it came to producing their cars. It may have affected the W220 slightly as I shall now get to the nitty gritty details of W220 owning.

The AirMatic suspension
The biggest issue would be the fact that the W220 is the first S-Class to use air suspension. The Airmatic suspension is bloody comfortable. It uses pneumatic suspension system with an adaptive damping system to adjust the dampers according to road conditions. It uses air bladders in place of conventional steel springs on each corner of the car. The air bladders are adjusted via a air pump/compressor that automatically adjusts according to road conditions. These can give way. Both the air bladders and also the pump itself. The Airmatic air bladders will either wear out from use OR wear out from LACK of use. This is because the rubber seals, being rubber may crack when it dries out as it just sits and the elasticity or self lubrication does not happen.

So when this happens, and you would know when it happens you need to get the Airmatic strut changed immediately. You can tell whether a W220 air suspension is going to die or has died when one end of the car sits lower than the other. Usually W220's weak point in the rear struts. You will usually see W220s with the butt dragged low when this happens.

The airmatic strut usually leaks from wear and tear. So once this happens the air pump or compressor will keep on pumping air to try level the car. As there is a leak, the car will never level out and they you will have a pump that works all of the time. This would lead to a worn out pump if you do not change the airmatic strut immediately. Causing more money to come out.

These days, a remanufactured strut could cost you anywhere from RM1,000 to 2,000 for one piece. A brand new strut could cost you somewhere in the region of RM3,600 to RM4,500 each. A new pump could cost you RM2,000 if it has died on you. There is also a chance that the self leveling sensor is the main problem if the W220 does not level out. This is a repair under RM1,000 or less.

So if you have a W220, use the car often. Letting the car sit would mean that the rubber seals dry out. Driving them is a much better option. But one has to still be prepared to replace the struts every 4 years or so at the minimum.

Suspension linkages
Aside from that, do note that the W220 has a double wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear suspension. The front suspension has 5 ball joints per side and a lot more rubber bushings. Some of the arms are aluminium. So if you need to change a lot of bushings and ball joints. Expect to pay a lot. Somewhere within the region of a couple of thousand Ringgit per front or rear if the handling isn't what it is supposed to be. Maybe more if the aluminium arms need to be changed. Of course, the Mercedes Benz ball joints aren't that high priced. If one or two need changing, it would be just in the low hundreds of Ringgit.

The M112 Engines
As for the V6 Engines, the M112 uses a twin spark plug setup. Plug change intervals are long, about 100,000km but you need 12 long life plugs. Say at RM30 per piece....x 12 = RM360 or thereabouts. Do keep an eye out on the timing chain bearings and the camshaft sprockets. Usually some rattle when the engine is cold. Costly damage if worn. Aside from that the crankshaft pulley cum harmonic balancer may fail at 100,000km. This would cost you under RM1,000. Aside from that I seem to believe the M112 engine is a fairly reliable engine that would last years without any need for an major overhaul.

Electrics & equipment
If you are getting one, make sure all the gadgets work. The first few years (1998-2000) build quality was a little iffy due to Mercedes taking cost cutting measures that nearly wiped out their reputation. So again, make sure everything works. There are lots of little electrically operated stuff that have little electric motors and lot of wiring. There have been cases where some cars need new wiring looms. One of the causes is the ventilation plenum chamber that sucks in fresh air. Usually it drains clear of debris but if it is clogged, water overflows wetting the carpets inside. It also enters the vent blower motor and wiring loom causing shorts and sometimes necessitating a new loom. I have been told that it affects a lot of S320 models locally. S280 and S350 models aren't that susceptible to a wiring loom change. So there you go, but either the S280 or the S350 (with the exception of the RM5,388 per annum road tax of course – the S280, somewhere around RM1,624.00 per annum). So just make sure everything works as it should.

Rust? Not in Malaysia
What about things like rust? Here in Malaysia Mercedes Benz, even from the time of cost cutting do not rust. We do not have winter so we do not salt out roads. Corrosion seldom happens on Mercedes cars here in Malaysia even if you're located on Penang Island and surrounded by the sea. Even the 5G-Tronic is fairly reliable (and used in most Mercedes Benz cars of the era) with a refurbished gearbox at around RM4,000-5,000 or thereabouts.

Conclusion - Can you buy it or not?

So what does all of this mean? It means you are still buying an S-Class. Tons of equipment and luxury always means there is a price to pay. I personally think that the only real issue about running a W220 on a daily basis is the fact that I would need to allocate RM1,600+ per year on road tax and then I would need to allocate at least RM10,000 a year for maintenance before I feel ready to own one. 

I would also feel the need to be prepared for a failing Airmatic strut every three to four years of ownership. But I suppose this is the price to pay for something supremely comfortable and stable after all these years – 200kmh would feel like 100kmh. And if I bought one for RM40,000, I would have saved on suffering from massive depreciation. There always is a price to pay for something like this.

I would love to have one with 18inch AMG wheels and with the newer front and rear lights. Paint it a nice Paladium Silver (Mercedes Dark Grey) and it would actually look quite contemporary. Some may think that you're actually driving a S-Class from one generation back instead of two.

So again, with cars like these, it is all about finding the right one and then properly maintain and drive it. Money is obviously the key to happiness in this case also.

Compare this W220 above with the new W222 below....It does look quite up to date yes?

NOTE: All the prices stated are rough estimates. It could be less. It would definitely be more at the Mercedes Benz dealer.




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