Here’s a sentiment likely held by my parents, the internet, Consumer Reports, mechanics, radio hosts, YouTubers and just about anyone who can drive. Japanese cars are generally more reliable than German cars. To an extent, this is largely true. After all, it doesn’t take a lot of searching to find that the Germans can’t always make timing guides, bearings, intake manifolds, variable valve timing systems, electronics or seals work flawlessly. However, just because old German luxury cars might not be as reliable as old Japanese luxury cars doesn’t mean that every German car is much more expensive to run than a comparable Japanese car. What the internet doesn’t tell you about old Japanese luxury cars is that parts costs are often insane. Don’t believe me? Read on.
Let’s start with two flagships from the midst of the Great Recession, the 2009 Lexus LS 460 and the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S 550. Both of these executive sedans are quiet, cossetting and absolutely brilliant on long road trips. They both have V8 engines, they both have air suspension and they both have a bewildering array of gadgets and gizmos. But what do typical consumables like struts and brake discs cost? Let’s start with the Lexus.
[Editor’s Note: Thomas is obsessed with BMWs, so — as someone who believes writers should be allowed to fly their weird flags — I figured he could go nuts on this post about German versus Japanese luxury car ownership, even if it’s not something that applies to Torch or me. I do wonder if German car parts are cheaper because they fail so often, and have necessitated a more solid supply base. -DT]
Air struts — come on, they’re going to wear out eventually and they’ll cost a pretty penny to replace when they go wrong. From Lexus, front air struts are $1,658.40 each. Ouch. Blow out a pair of those and you’re looking at $3,316.80 just in parts. If you’re the DIY sort, you could hit up a reputable online seller like mylparts and catch a slight discount of $1,406.97 a strut, or $2,813.94 per pair. Decent savings but still not cheap. Meanwhile, the S-Class has a major perk of superior parts availability. Forget dealer pricing, let’s head straight over to a reputable online vendor like FCP Euro to find brand new OE front air struts for $1,220 apiece. That’s $2,440 for a pair or a savings of $373.94 over the third-party vendor’s OEM Lexus struts before factoring in shipping, a really solid chunk of change.
While air struts are hopefully something you’ll only need to replace once, brakes are more of a going consumable. On the Lexus, OEM front discs from mylparts are going for $76.82 apiece while rear discs retail for $94.41 apiece. Add up all four and you get a total of $342.46. Not bad. Still, the Mercedes proves cheaper once again with FCP Euro offering OE ATE-supplied front discs for $106.99 and rear discs for $43.79. Add up two of each and a set of discs ends up totaling out to $301.56. The last time I checked, $40.90 in savings isn’t exactly insignificant.
Okay, so maybe you’re not in the market for a flagship. With these gas prices, who could blame you? Maybe you’re more of a compact sports sedan person who’s cross-shopping a pair of stylish and sensible rear-wheel-drive three-pedal options. The 2007 BMW 328i and the 2007 Infiniti G35. Let’s see what major consumables are like on these things.
How about a set of dampers? OEM front dampers from Infiniti’s official parts site retail for $297.68 each. Yeah, I needed to collect my jaw off the floor as well. Third-party vendors of OEM parts can certainly do better, with typical pricing of $238.68 each. Strangely enough, rear dampers are cheaper through Infiniti’s official channels at $160.65 apiece. That’s $798.66 for a full set. What are these dampers made of, myrrh? Let’s contrast this with OE sport pack Bilstein dampers for the BMW because of course you’d find one with the sport package. Each front strut retails for $115 through FCP Euro which each rear damper retails for a sensible $73. Add it all up and dampers for the BMW cost $376, or $422.66 less than a set of dampers for the Infiniti. Holy crap. If you’re the wrenching sort who values high-quality OE or OEM parts, you could replace the dampers on the BMW, replace the electric water pump and thermostat preemptively and still have $55.99 in the bank.
Alright, let’s move onto brake discs. OEM front and rear discs for the G35 retail for $90 apiece from Infiniti, but third-party vendors are legit with the savings. We’re talking $69.30 apiece, front and rear for a grand total of $277.20 for all four. Hey, 23 percent off isn’t bad. So what about discs for the BMW? Well, OE ATE-supplied discs retail for $59.99 up front and $50.99 out back, or $221.96 for the set. I don’t know about you, but savings of $55.24 buys like half a tank of premium.
Now you may be wondering why I’m using OEM parts for the Japanese cars and OE parts for the German cars. You may even wonder what difference the letter M makes. Don’t worry, I’m here to break it down for you. OE or original equipment parts are usually identical to the parts installed on cars at the factory. They may have gone through a few revisions but they’re guaranteed to fit every time and not be any worse in quality than the stock parts you’re pulling off. OEM or original equipment manufacturer is just an OE part with the car manufacturer’s name on the box as opposed to Bilstein or ATE or Continental.
We know who supplies OE parts to German car manufacturers, but who supplies OE parts to Japanese car manufacturers? As ever, it’s a mix of brands. Denso supplies a lot of electrical components, Exedy moves volume in OEM clutches, Akebono offers brake pads for several factory applications, and Tokico manufactures a lot of dampers. However, it can be difficult to trace a supplier to a manufacturer and sometimes it’s almost impossible to buy OE parts. Not every manufacturer uses the previously-listed suppliers and some suppliers don’t even have a consumer web presence in North America.
For instance, many Toyota trucks use Sumitomo brake pads that are almost impossible to get outside of heading to the dealership parts counter. It’s a similar deal with Tokico, a brand that doesn’t even have a web presence in North America. Meanwhile, suppliers like Mahle and Lemförder that supply to German manufacturers are much more forthcoming with OE status and have a huge presence in North America, often through distribution deals with independent retailers. Ergo it’s much, much easier to get OE parts for a German car than OE parts for a Japanese car.
So there you go. Sure, the average depreciated German luxury claptrap will require more fixing than the average old Japanese luxury car, but if you’re handy with a wrench, total cost of ownership using good parts might be closer than you think. Believe it or not, I found this out the hard way. My old G35 was lovely but parts costs were abominable. [Editor’s Note: One of the reasons why I sold my Lexus LX-470 was that parts pricing was absurd (Also it was a bit boring and it sucked gas like you wouldn’t believe). -DT]. For instance, not only did the radio fail, the radio was discontinued when it failed, a pretty poor practice for a common failure point. Replacing the radio with an aftermarket unit required changing the entire center stack. When I sold the G35 for a slightly slower 3-Series, everybody thought I was crazy. Well, I’ve now owned the 325i for a little more than two years and I’ve saved thousands of dollars over my first two years with the G35. As ever, your mileage may vary, but it really does pay to look at total cost of ownership. You could end up with a posher, nicer-to-drive vehicle for very similar overall money.
Lead photo credit: Thomas Hundal