We ask the
experts: Is this car worth saving?
fix or not to fix?
That is the dilemma most car owners have faced at one time
or another since the invention of the horseless carriage: Should I fix my car
or cut my losses and sell it for another?
We've asked three top car experts to share their thoughts
on one of modern life's more baffling -- and expensive -- dilemmas.
Their advice may surprise you.
But before we get to the good stuff, a few disclaimers.
- We're talking basic transportation here, owned by working
stiffs like you and me. The presumption being that if you actually had the
bucks to slap down for a new Lamborghini, you would hardly feel conflicted
about whether to fix it or not, right?
- Your car still has some trade-in value, i.e., it is not
"driven out," to use car-speak. For talking purposes, that puts it at about
five to seven years old and under 100,000 miles.
- You're faced with a serious repair estimate, $1,000
or more. A new transmission, say. A new engine. Or maybe a new air-conditioning
system. Big, scary stuff requiring lots of expensive parts and labor. This
is not a brake job, a tune-up, a timing chain replacement or other scheduled
- You like your car.
Sure, you're scared. After all, your car is
the second-largest purchase in your life and new ones run more than $22,000
on average today.
Let's find you some expert advice -- quick!
Meet the experts
We put our dilemma to three car experts:
Paul Duchene is a national automotive writer whose work
has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and many
national newspapers. He restores foreign and domestic cars and races motorcycles.
Don Vorderman has been writing about cars for 30 years.
He is a former editor of Automobile Quarterly, former automotive editor
of Town and Country magazine and former executive vice president of the
International Motor Press Association.
Bill Csogi is a 17-year ASE certified master mechanic. He
Critic of Naples, Fla., an automotive inspection, appraisal and investigation
Here are the key considerations when deciding whether to
fix your clunker.
How old is your car?
Or more to the point, how old is too old?
"The first cutoff is when the warranty is going to expire;
you've got to ask yourself what you're going to do," says Csogi. "The second
would be around 100,000 miles."
Duchene agrees. "When you get to 50,000 to 60,000 miles,
in three to four years, that's the first time you think about trading it. The
second time is at about 93,000 to 95,000 miles, or five to six years. After
that, you're going to drive it out."
What's your mileage?
As the saying goes, it ain't the years, it's the miles. Specifically, whether
your car has been used primarily in stop-and-go city traffic or for long-distance
"Cars that go on longer trips last longer than cars that go on
shorter trips several times a day," says Vorderman. "The favorite cars
of both cabbies and cops are big, old-style American sedans with big, slow-revving
engines. They are almost always in use. They last so well because they don't
go through the countless heating and cooling cycles that a family car does."
However, he adds,"Cars that are expensively designed and expensively made are
unlikely to have those problems at all."
"If you're only driving in the city and your journeys are
less than 20 miles, you can figure that everything wears at double the rate
than if your driving is a mixture," says Duchene. "If you're just in town, going
traffic light to traffic light, 100,000 miles is a very old car."
Where do you live?
If you live in areas of the country where winter means snow, chances are your
car is experiencing the corrosive effects of road sand and salt. Remember: rust
"If you're living in Boston or Detroit, a 6- or 7-year-old
car is done for," Duchene says. "Rust is basically irreversible. You can repair
a car indefinitely in the right climate by simply subbing out parts, but if
you're dealing with rust, there's a point where it's over -- he's dead, Jim."
He adds that city driving also means more wear and tear
on the body.
"The more time you spend in town, the more people open doors
into it, the more people back into it, and so the quicker it gets looking scruffy
and old," he says. "It's pretty hard to get enthused about fixing a car that
looks like it's been attacked by somebody with a bag of walnuts."
Is your car foreign or domestic?
This isn't a value judgment; there are dandy cars in both camps and some real
dogs, too. But it can affect your trade-in value, as well as how many more years
you're likely to see out of your car if you bite the bullet and go through with
that costly repair.
"Domestics require maintenance at a much younger age than
imports, and imports can last typically twice as long as domestics, as long
as they're maintained," says Csogi.
He would go ahead with transmission work on a 10-year-old
Mercedes or Acura and expect to get another decade out of them; on a similar
vintage Cadillac, he would forego the work because other pricey problems are
likely just around the corner.
Vorderman is just as hard on domestics and sub-par imports.
He wouldn't hesitate to put major work into a Mercedes S-Class diesel, which
probably wouldn't require it until 500,000 miles anyway. "If you've got a Kia,
however, you're probably going to have to repair it a couple months after you
bought it," he says. Hence those enticing 10-year, 100,000-mile warranties.
OK, but would he put a transmission in a 5-year-old Taurus?
"No. You're only prolonging the pain," he says. When a car made to those standards
starts to let go, "get away from it quick."
Vorderman's rule: "If a domestic car develops major trouble
in the first 100,000 miles, get rid of it."
Duchene agrees: "If you're using it for highway commuting,
250,000 to 300,000 miles is not an unreasonable prospect in an Accord or a Toyota,"
he says. "The GM stuff and the Ford stuff holds up pretty well to about 100,000
miles or the four- to five-year mark, and then it starts coming apart."
That said, he recommends making your next car a domestic
-- an older domestic, that is.
"If you buy a '68 Chevy, you won't get the gas mileage,
but you'll get a big car that you can fix and that, second, you won't have to.
When a Honda Accord finally wears out at 300,000 miles, there really isn't much
worth saving, whereas when your '69 Chevy Impala is getting really tired at
180,000, you just stick another motor in it. If you do it yourself, you'll spend
about $600 and off you go."
Csogi says many of his baby boomer clients are doing exactly
Making the smart move
Repair or replace? Tough call.
Our experts advise getting a second opinion from an ASE
or IATN certified mechanic, even if it means paying a towing bill to do so.
"If they're an honest shop, they're not going to mind you shopping them," says
You can also use the Web to research what other owners experienced
with similar make and model cars. Good vehicle satisfaction data can be had
Vision and Consumer
Bottom line from our panel: If it's a quality import, repair
it. If it's a domestic, question it. And if you're looking to save money on
your next car, search out a quality previously leased or used car rather than
-- Posted: Oct. 1, 2002