Reader Question: ’98 Benz eKey Issue?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

David asks: I Recently purchased a 1998 Mercedes E300. It has 177K miles on the odometer. It was owned by a man who is a retired Mercedes mechanic out here in CA and it was his personal vehicle for 7 years. Physical condition is extraordinarily good. He gave me all service receipts, which are very detailed.

Problem is – and he told me about it up front – the smart key/ignition. Sometimes key will not turn or will turn and not start/crank engine. Have you ever heard of this problem with these cars? So far, I’ve always got it to start, but this is worrisome.  I hesitate taking it to the dealer, as my resources are limited, and I know from experience that dealers are famous for replacing things until they finally get the right one to fix a problem.

Another thing I do not like is that unless the engine is actually running, you cannot take the transmission out of Park. I do not of course expect a diagnosis, but perhaps you could point me in some direction.  I’ve not had time to do any research on the web – too many other things going on. (I’m 81 and still farming out here – I like to restore old tractors from the 1930s/40s). Oh, the owner mentioned to me that one of the other Mercedes like this that he owned, had the same problem and he got a guy in Southern CA to do some kind of electronic work-around with a button under the dash to by-pass the problem. Cost him about $400. But this sorta sounds like an expensive band-aid to me. I paid $6.5K for this car and I really like it. Thanks for your help and all of your articles on Lew Rockwell.

My reply: This sort of thing is a common problem with “e” keys – which came into currency in higher-end cars such as your Benz first, in the ’90s. Most have some type of transponder within them that electronically unlocks the car’s ignition system, as opposed to the merely mechanical unlocking performed by the old/purely physical ignition keys. If there’s a glitch, the car’s engine won’t start – even though the “key” is in the ignition (as is the case, IIRC, with your setup, which predated the current push-button regime).

What worries me about your situation is that the Benz mechanic who owned it prior to you wasn’t able to fix it. It may simply have been that he did not wish to spend the probably outrageous sum a Benz dealer will demand for a replacement “e” key. However, aftermarket replacement keys are available (see here) and for not outrageous money – though you will have to go to a dealer to get the key programmed.

I’d look into this first, before messing with the car’s wiring as that might cause additional – and more serious – problems.

The not being able to get it out of Park thing is probably a factory saaaaaaaaaafety thing. Mercedes is more than usually guilty with respect to such things. Keep in mind that everything – just about – in cars such as this is electronic and electronically integrated. It’s the nature of the beast!

PS: In re the reference to Lew Rockwell. I get that fairly often and while I’m grateful Lew republished my stuff, my stuff appears here on first – and more often! If you like my stuff, I hope you’ll come here first – and more often!

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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