If you buy these three cars, you might spend just as much to run them

Confession time: When cars are involved, I love a bad idea. I’m the one saying “OK, but what about…” when people warn me not to buy some nightmare project. Part of me still pines for a Land Rover Discovery II. My daily driver is a 240,000-mile Saab 9-3 wagon I bought with only a cursory inspection from a friend before driving it home cross-country. I purchased an Alfa Romeo Spider despite the advice of several Alfa owners telling me to get a Miata.

My personal derangement is due to equal parts unstoppable optimism and a need for wrench-based therapy. Which means I can’t resist looking at cars that seem like a solid deal but come with all kinds of yellow flags. That’s only if things go wrong, of course. You can save money by doing some of the work yourself! These are the lies I tell myself when window shopping for cars like this. I find them irresistible, and I know that some of you do, too.

With that in mind, here are three examples of cars that seem cheap, but will probably exceed the purchase price in short-term maintenance costs. Have any other bad ideas? Let us know in the comments section. And no, we’re not going to talk about the Volkswagen Phaeton. Even I know better than that.

1985–1997 Bentley Turbo R

1991 Bentley Turbo R
1991 Bentley Turbo R RM Sotheby's

Do a quick internet search and you’ll find several Turbo R examples for sale under $20,000. That’s an awfully tempting way to check Bentley off the bucket list. You get that old-school three-box design, the gorgeous inlaid wood interior, and the venerable 6 3/4-liter V-8. It’s even good for a six-ish second 0-60 mph time. What better way to live out your stoplight Grey Poupon dreams?

Like many a six-figure car, the Turbo R was built to a high standard, and high standards aren’t cheap. This car has a hydraulic suspension and brake system that takes five liters of a specific, expensive fluid that needs to be flushed regularly. Later cars have electronic ride height control, which means pricey dampers that this hefty, 5,000-plus-pound beast is prone to wearing out. And the stock tire size is typically only available from Avon, $524 each from Tire Rack as of this writing.

On the other hand, a Bentley for less than a new Honda Accord. The temptation is strong.

2003–2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class

2004 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG
2004 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG Mecum

Expensive suspension systems are a theme when it comes to cheap cars that cost a lot to run. Almost anything else that goes wrong is either an annoyance or catastrophic. In between are things like the SL’s Active Body Control, a hydropneumatic suspension that helps keep the car level in corners and constantly adjusts to road conditions. It has a lot of parts, all with a reasonable probability of failure when you get into the high-mileage, sub-$20,000 price range of the SL 55 AMG. And, to be clear, when they’re this cheap, you should get the AMG model.

A comprehensive rework of the system at a dealership will come close to the price of the car. Which sounds like sheer lunacy before you get into all the different electronic components of the R230 generation that could fail. On the other hand, 500 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque and a noise from the hand-built supercharged V-8. That’s nearly the same output as the current SL 63 AMG for pennies on the dollar.

Another theme here would be to do your homework and only buy a car that’s been taken care of. That makes it much easier to convince yourself that nothing will go wrong with the car you buy, and when it does go wrong that nothing else will subsequently fail.

2002–2006 Maserati Coupé

2002 Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa
2002 Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa Mecum

If there’s any used car that screams “danger,” it is definitely a high-mileage modern Italian car. Sure, you could buy a pretty nice 996-generation Porsche 911 for little money, but that sounds safe, which is boring. Live a little, and find yourself a Maserati Coupé with its screaming 4.2-liter Ferrari V-8. And once you have one, enjoy the quirks of Italian car ownership. Surprise, the door lock button is mounted near the map lights. Of course.

And then there’s the Cambiocorsa gearbox, a single-clutch automated manual transmission similar to the F1 gearbox in roadgoing Ferraris of the era. It costs around $5,000 to replace and sometimes lasts 20,000 miles. I’ll do the math for you: that’s 25 cents a mile in clutch, regardless of how nice of an example you find. Not necessarily cost-effective for a daily driver. It’s still cheaper than owning a Ferrari, though. Then again, for a few clutches’ worth of money you can get a newer GranTurismo with an eight-speed automatic. Yes, this line of reasoning is a slippery slope.

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