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Dear Tom and Ray:

I need some advice on buying a used Mercedes Benz. I need a nice four-door sedan for my job and I do a lot of driving. I would like a used Benz, but I am not sure what to look for. I would like to spend between $10,000 and $15,000. I would appreciate any advice you have. - GuntherTOM: Judging from the scrap paper you wrote this on and the handwriting, we'd have to conclude that you're definitely not Mercedes material. If you had sent us a typed letter on fine parchment, preferably written by your secretary, we might point you in the direction of a Benz. Our suggestion to you, however, is that you lower your standards.

RAY: That really is our suggestion, although not because you wrote to us in crayon. What many people don't realize is that a used Mercedes will need repair as often as anything else. And given the cost of parts and service for luxury cars like these, you may find yourself in chapter 11 right after your first exhaust system replacement. When you're budgeting for a car, consider not only the purchase price, but also the cost of maintaining said vehicle. A used car will always cost more to maintain than a new one, and a used foreign luxury car will cost more than just about anything except a condo in New Jersey.

TOM: You should consider looking at new cars. The Ford Taurus, Olds Cutlass and Honda Accord can all be had with new car warranties for about $15,000. If your neighbor has just come home with a Jaguar and you're absolutely determined to get into the luxury class, consider a 2- or 3-year-old Acura Legend. They're also expensive to fix, but luckily, they never break.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a fairly minor cosmetic problem, but I would like to solve it. My wife's car is a 1988 Volvo 760 Turbo station wagon with four-wheel disc brakes. On the front wheels only, a black powdery substance from the brakes discolors the wheel covers. It is easy enough to clean off, but I am curious as to why it doesn't happen on the Volvo's rear wheels or on my car, an Acura Legend coupe, which also has four-wheel discs. - James

TOM: The black powder is residue from the brake pads. It comes out because the air that cools the brakes sends it out in that direction. There's a plastic shield you can buy that goes behind the wheel and stops the powder from getting out. That would eliminate the dust problem, but it might interfere with brake cooling.

RAY: The reason it doesn't happen on the rear wheels is that the rear brakes are smaller and do far less work than the front brakes. And the reason it happens on your wife's Volvo and not your Acura probably has to do with the design of the brakes, the wheels and the air flow around the brakes.

TOM: We'd recommend against the brake shields unless they're Volvo approved. If they do interfere with brake cooling, you'll get poor braking at high speeds, your discs can warp, and you'll find this cosmetic problem has suddenly become a financial problem. I'd just wipe the powder off every couple of weeks and apply the money you're saving on brake jobs to that inevitable turbo replacement you're going to need.

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