Date registered: Dec 2004
Vehicle: CURRENT: 2007 CLK550 Cabriolet, 2002 C240 FORMER: 2001 ML320
Location: Birmingham, AL
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Actually, the pre-MY2005 facelift models are fine for the most part. About the only real problem I can think of that would make a difference is the LCD panel in the older instrument cluster dying from heat where the facelift version seems to have that problem solved. There really aren't a lot of performance mods for these cars in terms of engine upgrades, but there are plenty of aftermarket "dress up" parts. For MPG, the best choice is the C230 Kompressor, and that will likely be the easiest model to find.
Not only are there potential transmission problems with MY2006, that's when they switched to the new M272 V6 engines, and the early versions of those can have bad balance shafts (search the forum for "balance shaft" and you'll see).
As for overall reliability, my advice is this: There are two types of people who should own a used MBZ - the one who is a skilled DIYer and can tackle most any repair, or the one who does not mind shelling out thousands of dollars every year for various repairs and maintenance. These are complex cars that will last a long time, but do require more TLC than the average Toyota or Honda. Actually, your Crossfire was a Chrysler-bodied version of the former SLK model, which was based on the former (W202) C-Class. If you ever did any work on it, then you'll find some familiar things in the W203.