Date registered: Feb 2011
Vehicle: AH-64 Apache
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It seems that you can pick up the W210 E-Class for a cheap price. Diesel 210's seem to be extremely rare in my area, so I can only vouch for the gasoline engines. I own a '97 E320 with that M104 engine - and while it never leaves me stranded, repairs seem to pop up on a monthly basis. These monthly repairs seem to cost me anywhere from $50-350. Fuel economy on the M104 is wonderful, getting me a little over 30MPG on the highway.
All older Mercedes will have higher maintenance demands, but the trade-off is having a beautiful car with amazing performance, handling, and safety.
Besides the W210, you could also look into the older 190D. They seem to be quite reliable with amazing fuel economy. I was actually looking into a 190D for myself, to use as my commuter car.
If you really need your car to be economical and cheap, I would look into something Japanese. Honda, Toyota, Nissan - something with a little 4-cylinder to get you from Point A - Point B. Like a previous post, you can always get another Mercedes later on, once things have panned out.
Best of luck!