Home » You Can Buy A Mercedes-Benz S-Class That Doesn’t Suck For Nissan Versa Money

You Can Buy A Mercedes-Benz S-Class That Doesn’t Suck For Nissan Versa Money

Gavel Gazing S-Class Ts
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Like death and taxes, car depreciation is virtually guaranteed for mere mortals. Even the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the steadfast icon of capitalist decadence, hasn’t been immune to depreciation, but depreciated examples haven’t always been brilliant. Just a few years ago, the newest S-Class on a Michelob Ultra budget was the W220 S-Class, and it was born in Mercedes’ darkest moment of cost-cutting. Now though, it’s time for the W221 to take its place, a vastly superior car that still looks luxurious today despite often costing less than a Nissan Versa.

For decades, a heavily-depreciated S-Class was a reasonably durable second-hand luxury car buy. After all, the W126 was produced from September 1979 to October 1991, and thanks to that long production life and a range of sturdy diesel engines, it provided solid depreciated transportation through most of the 2000s. The W140 S-Class that followed wasn’t quite as durable, seeing as it suffered from prematurely biodegradable engine wiring harnesses for several years, but most examples weren’t wildly complex by modern standards. However, perhaps the harness issues in the W140 were a sign of things to come, because the W220 S-Class that followed it marked a low point for Mercedes-Benz quality.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

A well-sorted W220 S-Class is still a beautiful thing. When everything’s proper, these cars ride like clouds, don’t feel too massive, commonly feature the indestructible M113 V8 engine, and come with enough toys to keep up with today’s luxury offerings. Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep a W220 sorted. Sold between the model years of 2000 and 2006 in North America, we’ve all seen several of these cars collapsed on their air suspension, but the problems go deeper than that. From serious rust issues in early models to a reed valve in the ventilation intake drain that gums up and causes interior electronics to be inundated with water, it’s common to see W220s fall apart long before their engines give up the ghost. Buying a cheap W220 was an internet car site trope a decade ago, but it probably wasn’t a good idea for most enthusiasts. Thankfully, times have changed, and another S-Class is now cheap.

And They Say A Hero Could Save Us

W221 S-Class 1

Is there really a luxury car image problem that can’t be solved by just throwing more leather and wood at the problem? For the 2007 model year, Mercedes-Benz chose revolution over evolution once again and rolled out the W221 S-Class. This brash, artful flagship felt miles away from its predecessor, and set the template for every subsequent S-Class save for the Dodge Intrepid-looking EQS. It had proper presence, with swollen arches, chunky features, and paint-matched taillight trim strips that were a nod to ribbed MB taillights of the past. The big dog on the Mercedes-Benz campus looked large and in charge once again.

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W221 S Class 2

However, the cabin’s where things really got interesting. While the cabin of the W220 had familiar elements such as a tombstone-like center stack and a buttload of buttons, the W221 felt clean-sheet, with an entirely unique-at-the-time interior. The double-hooded instrument cluster and infotainment system atop the dashboard, the minimalist row of climate control toggles, and the infotainment controller in the console would dictate the future of Mercedes-Benz interior design, and properly luxurious materials were there to back up the looks.

W221 S-Class 3

Under the hood of the popular S550 model sat an all-new quad-cam V8 churning out 382 horsepower and 391 lb.-ft. of velvety torque, and a seven-speed automatic transmission was matched perfectly to this potent motor. Oh, and then there was all the available luxury tech: substantially revised air suspension; air chamber seats that could actively hug you in turns; diffused HVAC; night vision; radar-guided adaptive cruise control that could bring the car to a stop if needed. Needless to say, buyers and the media were impressed, with Car And Driver writing:

What we have here no longer qualifies to be just a car anymore. It’s something … grander, like somewhere on it in tasteful chrome there should be a NASA badge. Call it a freeway module. Or a highway capsule. You just cannot make a car ride any more smoothly, any more comfortably, any more cozily, any more warm and fuzzily. Game over.

If the 2000 S-Class was Mercedes-Benz’s “Encore”, and the facelifted 2003 S-Class was the brand’s “Relapse”, the W221 S-Class was its “Recovery”. We’re talking about a triumphant return to form that showed the flagship sedan class that the greatest to ever do it wasn’t washed-up. Oh, and these days, you can get a W221 for new Nissan Versa money.

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How Cheap Are We Talking?

Bat 2008 Mercedes Benz S550 1

Nothing depreciates like a big luxury sedan, and that’s especially true of the W221 S-Class. Forget Craigslist, we’re going all the way up to cream-of-the-crop examples on online auction sites for this. Let’s start with Bring A Trailer. Here’s a 2008 model with just 65,000 miles on the clock that’s pretty much mega-spec despite the rather conservative color combination of silver paint and black leather. We’re talking heated and ventilated front and rear seats, a panoramic moonroof, four-zone climate control, soft-close doors, a power trunk, night vision, the AMG sport package, everything you’d really want in a luxury car. The best part? This car hammered for $15,299 in late November, $2,106 cheaper than a brand new Nissan Versa S.

Bat 2008 Mercedes Benz S550 2

Granted, being a used car, this S-Class isn’t flawless. The listing mentions signs of paintwork on the driver’s door, and the left rear window blind wasn’t operable at the time of the auction. However, this car did feature recent air suspension work, a set of Michelin Pilot Sport All Season 4 tires with 2021 date codes, and a new battery, among other recent maintenance.

Mb Market 2009 Mercedes Benz S550 1

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Oh, and Bring A Trailer isn’t the only online auction site you’ll find W221s on. Over on The MB Market, this absolutely stunning green over tan 2008 S550 4Matic with 83,397 miles on the clock hammered for $16,501 just this month. Like the silver car from Bring A Trailer, it features the coveted AMG Sport package, a power trunk, and massaging front seats. However, it isn’t quite as lavishly-optioned, lacking the panoramic moonroof, four-zone climate control, heated and ventilated rear seats, and rear side window power sunshades. So, what’s the tradeoff other than the gorgeous color combination?

Mb Market 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 2

Well, this W221 S-Class comes with a Vehicle Master Inquiry, a pull of all internal Mercedes-Benz data from the radio security code to warranty repairs to recall clearance to dealer network service history. Seeing that this thing’s up to date on recall work and was dealer-serviced into 2016 should’ve been reassuring to this car’s buyer. Also reassuring? The stack of paperwork for everything from engine mounts to wheel refinishing. It shows that someone really cared about this car, and when buying any used luxury car, paperwork is key.

Truecar 2008 Mercedes Benz S550

If you’re willing to do some hunting on the typical used car classified ad sites, you can get a W221 for even cheaper than this. Here’s a 2008 S550 with nearly 137,000 miles on the clock listed on TrueCar for $10,290. That’s an absurd amount of car for the money, even if it isn’t exactly showroom fresh. It’s even specced with the AMG appearance package, which makes a real difference both in appearance (positive) and tire bills (yikes).

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What Can Go Wrong?

W221 S Class 4

Perhaps unsurprisingly, just because a car depreciates doesn’t mean everything on it gets cheaper. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has always been the benchmark in executive sedans, and even a cheap one has the servicing needs of a six-figure car.

While the air suspension on the W221 is substantially more robust than the system on its predecessor, there are a few things to keep in mind as these cars age. The air suspension solenoids may fail at high mileage, but fortunately, aftermarket valve block kits can be found for around $200. Likewise, the air suspension compressors on these cars are quite robust, but on the chance one fails, it’s possible to find good aftermarket replacements for less than $350. On the rare chance an air strut wears out, Arnott makes brand new air struts that are around half the price of Bilstein replacements, so they ring in at around $550 per front unit on rear-wheel-drive cars, $665 per front unit on all-wheel-drive cars, and around $450 per rear unit regardless of drivetrain. For what it’s worth, I only ever saw one customer book a W221 in for air strut replacement, and it was a high-mileage car. Budget for the worst, but don’t be surprised if you never need to splash that cash on a full set of new air struts.

W221 S Class Rear Axle

As with any Mercedes-Benz model, the W221 S-Class came with a variety of engines over the course of its life, and some are more stout than others. The pick of the range for ownership would be a late 2008 to 2011 S550 with the M273 naturally-aspirated V8. Why those years? Well, early M273s had timing system problems, specifically the idler gear sprocket would fail. This was rectified starting with engine serial number M273….088612, which would’ve been produced sometime in 2008, so any M273 in that revised serial number range or any earlier M273 that’s had its idler gear sprocket replaced with the updated part is a solid bet as far as engines go.

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From the 2012 model year to the end of production, Mercedes-Benz replaced the naturally-aspirated M273 with the bi-turbocharged M278 V8. While this came with a boost in output, it also came with a reduction in reliability as Mercedes-Benz didn’t quite get this engine right the first time around. I’ve seen bore scoring in these engines and their M156 AMG counterparts, which mandates either an extensive engine rebuild with cylinder liners, or complete engine replacement. In addition, early timing chain tensioners weren’t the greatest, and there’s a technical service bulletin out for premature valve guide wear, which requires cylinder head disassembly to fix.

Mercedes Benz M275 V12

Thankfully, if you’re looking for a W221 with more firepower, you have options. If you’re looking to avoid the AMG tax and cruise under the radar with effortless acceleration, the S600 is an engineering marvel. Featuring the hand-of-God M275 biturbo V12, this thing pumped out 512 horsepower and 612 lb.-ft. of torque in stock form. With just a simple ECU flash, you can bump those numbers up into genuine supercar territory. These fearsome engines do have two common problems, and although they’re both minor, they’re still ruinously expensive. See, each bank of cylinders has all of its coils integrated into an ignition cassette, and both ignition cassettes cost around $2,750 combined. Ouch. Oh, and the engine’s voltage transformer is known to fail, with a replacement unit costing $608 from FCP Euro. Otherwise, maintaining an M275 really just consists of normal car stuff, which is incredible for a twin-turbocharged V12. Coincidentally, the M275 was also used in the S65 AMG, although those V12 AMG cars are not cheap to buy.

Finally, there are the AMG V8s, the M156 and M157. The M157 is really just a variant of the M278 so I’d avoid it like the plague, but the M156 is a different story. It’s the engine that spawned the legendary 63 AMG nameplate, a 6.2-liter naturally-aspirated overhead cam V8 pumping out 518 horsepower and 465 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s a furious coked-up cannonball of an engine, but it’s not without its flaws. While head bolt failure is well-documented and feared, another potential issue is valvetrain wear. The parts geeks at FCP Euro wrote that “Camshaft replacement should be considered a regular maintenance task,” parts no sensible person would ever consider to be wear items.

W221 S350 Bluetec

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On the rarer end of the engine spectrum, avoid the S350 Bluetec diesel model like syphilis since the OM642 diesel V6 is absurdly expensive to maintain. The S400 Hybrid used to be a better choice if efficiency is key, but we’re getting into the age and mileage window where this fairly early Mercedes-Benz hybrid system is starting to require repairs.

Oh, and do keep in mind that transmission conductor plate issues are basically inescapable. I wrote an article on these electronic components, and it’s worth a deeper read if you’re interested in a W221. The short story? To have the conductor plate in the seven-speed automatic replaced, you could be looking at a $2,000 bill. Oh, and you’ll probably want professional replacement, as it’s a part that requires programming on this transmission.

Should You Buy A Cheap W221 Mercedes-Benz S-Class?

Mb Market 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 3

Much like a cheap Porsche Panamera, I wouldn’t recommend a cheap W221 S-Class to the average driver, but depending on your skill set and budget, and which model you choose, it might not be the worst idea in the world. If you’re handy with a wrench, are willing to budget $2,000 to $3,000 every year in parts and DIY maintenance, and are just looking at a well-sorted S550 that falls out of the engine production range affected by idler gear sprocket issues, why not? These are immensely pleasurable cars, and the perfect foil to a loud, low-slung weekend machine.

With an Apple CarPlay retrofit and a little attention to touching up used car cosmetics, these fifth-generation S-Class sedans still feel like modern luxury cars, just with less terrifying complexity. More than that, they’re a historical triumph for Mercedes-Benz, an emergence from a dark era of cost-cutting and panic. If it weren’t for cars like this, enthusiasts probably wouldn’t care as much about the current direction of the brand, which just goes to show how quickly a legacy can be built.

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(Photo credits: The MB Market, Mercedes-Benz, Bring A Trailer)

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100percentjake
100percentjake
3 months ago

Man, the W221 is when I completely stopped caring about Mercedes. The styling got ugly and now every Mercedes had to be *sporty*. AMG took off so now the S600 has to be a *muscle car* instead of just being a big pillowy luxury heirloom vehicle that AMG then transforms themselves into a muscle bruiser.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
3 months ago
Reply to  100percentjake

They should offer a James May Edition that makes all components from the softest possible material and delays engine and transmission response. That’s the S Class I’d buy fifteen years after it made any kind of difference to Mercedes Benz

William Domer
William Domer
3 months ago

Never just never. Step away from the car sir, if you value your financial life. When I look fondly at an old MB my wife says if I can afford 2, I can buy one. I have an old bullet proof Lexus

Linh Luu
Linh Luu
3 months ago

There really is nothing like daily driving an S class. We’ve had two W221s, an 07 550 and an 08 63. They’re remarkably solid, serene and feel ridiculously special even if they’re quite old now. The 550 ended up being one of the early ones with the timing gear issue so we sold it at 96K and the 63 was replaced by W140 420. We do a lot of our own wrenching and for the most part, these cars are not difficult to work on especially when compared to a BMW or Audi.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
3 months ago

I am really not used to seeing a W221 in this day and age without cloudy headlights, scuffed up bumpers, dull paint, collapsed air suspension, and duct tape residue around the windows, kind of neat to see one in decent shape as they were meant to be.

Stephen Walter Gossin
Stephen Walter Gossin
3 months ago

After some extensive wrenching on a prior-era SL, I definitely see the retail allure with these cars, but that allure is laced with one-level-deeper peril. Similar to games of chance, party drugs and most of my prior relationships.

https://www.theautopian.com/how-i-saved-a-once-90000-mercedes-sl-i-bought-for-1900/

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
3 months ago

No. Absolutely not. First of all, I would bump those maintenance figures up to 3-4k per year. This of course depends on labor rates and such where you are, but in my area, those figures are low. If you are looking to buy in the Versa end of the market, there is virtually no chance you have the money to maintain an S-Class. Recently I had a customer come in who said his boss gave him his S550 as an end of year bonus. We advised him to sell it immediately before it got any worse, but privately admired his boss’ genius way to ditch that money pit.

Also, those seats with the side bolsters that inflate as you turn aren’t cool, they’re just irritating.

Goof
Goof
3 months ago

If we include the cost of paying others for maintenance, I’d agree.

Yet, the author said: “If you’re handy with a wrench … and DIY maintenance.”

If you’re willing to seek out “value” parts and are willing to DIY everything on it, I’d say $3,000 to $4,000 a year — with some being close to zero, and some being far higher — that’s an accurate number. That’s $35K per decade (in 2023 $s), every decade, forever.

— —–

I had a neighbor who after fulfilling his dream of buying a new, V12 Lambo, decided that the better “daily” car for himself (and his wife and 50lb dog) was a Rangie. I only ran into him so often given how busy he was. He was never someone who was going to DIY anything, but overall he really enjoyed the experience a Rangie provided.

We talked costs at one point. I said, at the time — in 2016 $s — that if he was willing to spend $600 – $650/mo in out-of-warranty maintenance, amortized, in perpetuity, then that was what he should budget for long-term Range Rover maintenance. $7-8K/year. That includes all the labor being done by others, possibly including a dealer.

Given his career and his wife’s job, that was fine by him. It’s far more than I’d ever personally want to spend on one vehicle’s maintenance, but for what he needed it to do and the luxuries it provides, some will happily spend that. No depreciation or fuel. Just consumables and replacing stuff that fails or wears out. It’s the price of admission.

Last edited 3 months ago by Goof
The Dude
The Dude
3 months ago
Reply to  Goof

This is definitely a situation where leasing is the right answer.

Echo Stellar
Echo Stellar
3 months ago

This is the correct take. Mercedes engineers have dedicated themselves to complexity, cheap parts, and a manufacturing approach that very quickly takes parts out of production. Including common wear items for cars that are only 10 years old. In Mercedes’ mind, any off-lease Benz are throwaway trash that are best forgotten. Quickly. Unless your at-home skills include metal forging and robotic systems to meld titanium to cheap plastic, using 3,134 uncommon fasteners, stay away.
Plus, whenever I see a used Benz, the last thing that comes to mind is wisdom and status…
Ask me how I know.

Sam I am
Sam I am
3 months ago

Beautiful cars and an interesting thought exercise, but my Lexus LS460 checks many of the same boxes, and, being a giant Toyota, will outlive the cockroaches. And/or Keith Richards.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
3 months ago

Or you should not do that. Although this is a better car then w220, there is a lot of minor shit on these cars that could cost a Nissan Versa to fix if you can find someone who can even fix it. Things like ESP, Brake Assist and Drivenamtic or whatever it’s called. The fine art of being able to diagnose and thus fix MBZ’s version of making it work, is being lost to time. Even though this edition was better, Airmatic ages like cheddar cheese in the Maldives. Star is a little more transparent then the vague codes Airmatic graciously provides from the previous generation, but still fairly witchcraft and hope repair. For a home shade tree, a lot of potential to get very challenging. Everything is all integrated into Command. And good luck taken this to your mom and pop, they just figured out what metric is. Your local Mercedes dealer will look at it, at around 300 dollars an hour. I’m a Mercedes guy, I drive one every day. I periodically work on them in exchange for money. The w221 would no be an ideal introduction to the brand.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
3 months ago

Did you not see The Bishop’s article earlier today? W140 is the S with the Class: https://www.theautopian.com/why-did-80s-rockers-love-mercedes-so-much-cold-start/#comment-273290

They look way better than the W221, have fewer issues, and you can find them well-sorted for around $20K.

HOT_HATCH
HOT_HATCH
3 months ago

The 5 year cost of ownership of the MB will eclipse the purchase price with ease, and after spending 30k on what will then be a 22 year old car, you’ll be left with an S class that’s worth 8-10k.

Still seems better than the Versa.

Racer Esq.
Racer Esq.
3 months ago

The stack of paperwork for everything from engine mounts to wheel refinishing.”

On a car with 83,397 miles that’s not refreshing, that’s justification for the dramatic depreciation. Changing fluids and filters would be refreshing. That it has already required pretty significant repairs is the reason these collapse.

When these were new they maybe offered prestige. Now? Certainly not.

“With an Apple CarPlay retrofit. . .” Comes standard on the Versa.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
3 months ago

If you’re handy with a wrench, are willing to budget $2,000 to $3,000 every year in parts and DIY maintenance…”

This is key – and most folks who purchase these aren’t smart enough to realize that German Luxury Depreciation comes hand-in-hand with German Luxury Maintenance.

You cannot forego the latter, or you’ll have a timebomb on your hands – and would have been better off w/ the Nissan.

Goof
Goof
3 months ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

The BOAT acronym historically applied to Mercedes and Porsche.

BOAT: Bring Out Another Thousand.

I’d put Range Rovers specifically on the BOAT as well, since they’re popular now.

Gee See
Gee See
3 months ago
Reply to  Goof

At least for Range Rovers they are such hot commodity for thieves it is the insurance firms problem! 😉

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
3 months ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

I know it’s heresy to say here, but I’ve gotten to the point where this is the case with any older car for me. My MR2 Spyder, which is a really cheap to repair, really reliable older car, still has enough issues for this cash strapped California engineer to feel stressed out by.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago

Such an ugly car. It basically looks like a larger Versa, so I wouldn’t expect to pay that much more for one.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
3 months ago

As always, the most expensive car you can buy is a cheap, used, German car.

SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
3 months ago

Jeff_Goldblum.jpg

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