My Dad emailed me yesterday. It seems his 1995 Infiniti Q45a is back at the dealer getting steering rack boots and a water pump. Recently, it got a battery, and had some wiring under the back seat repaired. The wiring had gotten wet because, likely, the sunroof drain tubes are plugged up. The sunroof doesn’t open, so we can’t clean out the drains.
This is how cars rapidly unravel.
The Q was an amazing machine when new. Sure, it was fast. But it also handled thanks to its active suspension. The brakes and OE tires were never anything to write home about, but the car wasn’t really meant for track duty. The interior was stunning, sporting early Q45 simplicity highlighted by a healthy dollop of shiny dead tree material. Like all Bose systems of the era, the stereo was impressively loud but kind of muddy. The Sony 10-disc changer’s cartridge fit Dad’s home stereo.
Dad still loves his car, but despite the low miles – only around 90k – rust and general cosmetic disrepair are taking over. Japanese luxury cars from this period, save maybe the Lexus LS400, really don’t age well. The overly processed all leather bovine interior is coming apart everywhere anyone has ever touched it (the back seat area is largely perfect). Trim pieces are falling off here and there. Each suspension corner needs its nitrogen spheres recharged; the car hasn’t “sat down” yet but absolutely crashes over even the mildest frost heave.
The time to say goodbye is getting close.
Ah, but what to replace the Q45? As Dad says, “What do I really want to drive?” Some parameters, the needs and wants if you will:
- It must be an automatic, as my mother doesn’t drive a manual transmission. CVTs need not apply.
- It must be a four-door, as their other cars are a BMW Z3 and a Datsun Roadster.
- While it must have four doors, it doesn’t have to be a five-place; it can seat only four.
- All-wheel drive would be good, but it’s not 100% necessary; Dad doesn’t like front wheel drive.
- It should be relatively easily serviceable, but not constantly need it.
Now, my father is tall, but he’s really only tall from the waist up. He has the same 32-inch inseam I do, but at 6’-3” he’s close to 7 inches taller. Getting in and out of shorter cars can be tricky for him. Entering the Q45 requires him to sit down while hunched over, and then rotating his hips and legs to get the rest of him in. I’ve never seen him not do this, except entering convertibles, so I suspect his next car will require it as well. Despite his height, he hates not being able to see out of today’s high-waisted cars.
Further, he only drives about 3,000 miles per year, so he doesn’t see the need to plop down $500 per month for 5 years on his next car. Ideally, he doesn’t want a payment at all.
So what to get? How about…
BMW 530i, 2001-2003
The last of the inline-six E39 5 series were the best. Introduced in 1997 as the six-cylinder 528i and the V8 540i, the earlier cars are really not aging well unless they’ve been fanatically looked after. For Dad I’d recommend the lowest mileage 530i he can find with the Sport package. Likely it will have the Premium package, too, with all its electronic doodadery.
The M54 six-cylinder is relatively bulletproof if given regular cooling system components and attention to the crankcase breather system. The transmission will probably never have been serviced; if Dad can get a car with lower miles, the transmission can be serviced, hopefully extending its useful life beyond the normal 130k-mile range. A 530i will definitely need a winter tire package to augment the standard traction and stability control. It will ingest a steady diet of window regulators and tires, and the dashboard displays will eventually shed pixels, but that’s okay. The rest of the car pretty much works.
Real World Pricing – The nicest one in the world is less than $15k, but you won’t find it in Minnesota.
Infiniti G35 & G37, 2007-now / M35 & M45, 2006-2010
I don’t really know anything about these, and I don’t really care enough to research them. So why are they on this list? Dad’s had them as loaner cars from his dealer and seems to like them. Plus we know he can physically fit. Further, he could literally go to Infiniti today in the Q45 and drive out with one of these, though if he ever bought a loaner car I’d beat him with his Hobart mixer.
A couple of different engine choices, rear- or all-wheel drive, big TV screens in the dashboard… very much a modern sedan with the luxury items marketing departments say we need. Most of the colors seem to be a version of black or silver, and they’re all probably good cars in the traditional Japanese way. It’s not a slam, it’s just not exciting.
Real World Pricing – Any of them is under $25k with reasonable miles, which seems expensive for a car he’s never going to be in love with.
Mercedes-Benz E Class, 1986-1995
Arguably the last Mercedes built to a standard, rather than a cost. The later examples, in either inline-6 or V8 format, are the most refined. Ideally, for year ‘round use in this part of the world, you want seat heaters and traction control, as well as a good set of snow tires. Weak points include rust, vacuum leaks – because everything is vacuum controlled – original engine wiring harnesses, head gaskets and the electronic throttle body on the six-banger, and rust. Always with the rust. As with a lot of older German cars, you’re buying the previous owner as much as the car.
Having lived with a high-mileage 1995 E320 for almost four years, I can tell you a well-sorted W124 is really a phenomenal car for almost anything you’d care to do. It’s quick, stops well, and even at almost 20 years old still has a great presence on the road. It has enough technology to be a modern car, but not so much that you’re always worrying about the next impending meltdown. Dad likes mine, so that helps.
Real World Pricing – Anything under $8k for a lower-mileage late W124 with history is probably a bargain.
Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, 1999-2002
I’ve always found the W210 E Class to be kind of uninspiring. Maybe it’s just the workaday examples I see in this part of the North Woods, with decomposing trim, shoe-sized rust holes, and 20-inch chrome wheels sourced from the local auto parts store. They work as cars, but most really come off as Accords with a hood star. However, there is one version I would run up to, rather than away from: the E55 AMG.
Less rare than the Porsche-built W124 500E/E500, and substantially less expensive than the W211 E63 AMG that came later, this could be a great Q-ship for used Camry money. It’s subtle, too, until you firewall the throttle. Then the 5.4-liter V8 pulls up its skirt and puts down 349 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. Problem areas are few, but can include things like a $6k transmission replacement, if the box hasn’t been looked after. Other weak, but not deal-breaking, issues include fuel pumps, mass-airflow sensors, and… that’s about it. Again, with an E55 you’re buying the previous owner and the car’s history.
Real World Pricing – Despite relative rarity, these are almost everywhere for less than $12.5k with books and records, but you probably won’t find this in Minnesota, either.
Mercedes-Benz E Class, 2006-2009
The early W211 cars had some teething issues in the form of electrical bugaboos, so let’s move passed 2003-05 to the facelift. In my opinion, these are the last of the handsome E Classes. You can trace the design evolution way back, as opposed to the newer W212 with its random angles and strange lights. The interior – despite having a television screen in the middle of the center stack – is classic Mercedes, and the safety features will make you forget about your Volvo. Available with all-wheel drive, and with and without Airmatic suspension, these are solid sedans likely to just work for a while given regular maintenance and low annual mileage.
Real World Pricing – They made a lot of them, and you should have some change from $20k for either a later V6 or V8 model. Choose the color and options you want – your car is likely nearby. Some of the later ones could even be Starmark certified from the dealer.
Subaru Forester 2.5XT, 2008-2013
Let’s get this out there right now, okay? It’s a station wagon. It’s not a hatchback, and while the vehicle type is listed as “SUV” it’s still just a tall Japanese station wagon. You know, the kind my family fondly remembers from when we were all a lot younger. This one is just bigger, and has all-wheel drive. And a turbocharger.
Station wagons are incredibly useful vehicles, and this one is no exception. The combination of space and pace in all weather conditions is compelling. Given the tall greenhouse and higher driving position, Dad would definitely be able to fit in and see out. Based on the Impreza STi engine, the little pancake four-banger could certainly be modified to produce much more than the stock 224 horsepower if he ever got bored. Like many other cars, Subarus have their issues, like head gaskets and axle shafts. The 5-speed transmissions can be a weak point, but that’s not going to be a problem for him. Those other issues probably wouldn’t rear their heads for a while.
Real World Pricing – These are strangely a little hard to find. Plenty of other trim levels, but the XT is a bit thin on the ground. I’m guessing $25k would get you into something closer to a 2008 while still keeping the miles reasonable. Frankly, I’m a little surprised these are so expensive, but the XT is the one to have if you’re looking.
Volkswagen Passat, 2006-2010 / Passat CC, 2008-2012
I will probably catch hell from certain readers for suggesting any product assembled by the Volkswagen Audi Group. Indeed, my father so hated his Audi dealer in Connecticut that he swore he’d never own another VAG car. That said, by the time he replaces the Q45 he won’t be living near those idiots, so there might be a Passat or CC in his future. Besides, I still have friends at two of the local VW dealers, and barring that avenue there are several excellent independent shops in the area.
The B6 Passat was a departure from the B5 in that it wasn’t based on ancient, heavy Audi technology. Rather, it was based on the then-current Jetta platform, allowing its character a certain lightness. The 200 horsepower four-banger turbo liked to spin up quickly, and the 280 horsepower VR6 was a monster in either front or all-wheel drive 4Motion configuration.
The late Passats and none of the CCs had the stupid, eye-strain-inducing blue dashboard lighting. Both cars are handsome – the CC more so – though sadly the 2011 Passat and 2013 CC gained the bland corporate face of other Volkswagen models. The cars in general have about the right level of technology baked in as far as safety features go, and either could be had without navigation. Of course, Volkswagens in general don’t have the best reliability record, but for the annual miles Dad drives he could probably have one for a long time without catastrophic failure. That’s not just faint praise; the Passats, while not Accord or Camry reliable, seem to be better than complete garbage.
Real World Pricing – For Dad I’d say go with the VR6/4Motion combination in either CC – assuming he could fit – or Passat clothing. Why not? Prices aren’t that different nowadays, and many VR6 cars came with the gorgeous and comfortable Sport interior. Budget $15k for a reasonable one, maybe even a VW Certified example.
Ferrari Mondial, 1985-1993 (aka – The Wild Card)
I go back and forth between the earlier 266 horsepower Mondial 3.2 and the later 300 horsepower Mondial t. The former is a slightly simpler animal you can perform the all-important timing belt service on yourself. The latter is the last of the breed and makes more oomph. Plus, a good friend has a lift we could use for the belt service. Neither is particularly expensive to buy in terms of both new cars and Ferraris. Indeed, we looked at these back in 1995, and pricing was right in line with the Q45.
Yes, for the yearly maintenance Dad could probably buy a decent if not outstanding W124 Mercedes. To paraphrase something he once said, “I want a [car]. I don’t want a pet.”
Of course, he wouldn’t be able to drive it all year ‘round, and thus he’d have to get rid of his beloved Datsun Roadster. He would also need to get a winter beater, and my parents having four cars is just silly. I suppose I could make the sacrifice and take the Datsun off his hands.
It makes no sense. So why is a Ferrari of any kind on the list? Because he’s always wanted one, and isn’t that reason enough?
Real World Pricing – What do you want to pay? A great example of the old axiom to buy the best example you can afford. Budget $35-40k and then $3k a year on maintenance and repair. Be pleasantly surprised if the annual bill comes in at… less.
Your TTS staff is certainly taking suggestions. What do you think, oh, loyal readers? What should Dad be driving next?