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We ask the experts: Is this car worth saving?

Sell or fix your old car?To 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.

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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 maintenance.
  • 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 owns Car Critic of Naples, Fla., an automotive inspection, appraisal and investigation company.

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 commuting.

"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 never sleeps.

"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 that.

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 Csogi.

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 at Auto Pacific, Strategic Vision and Consumer Reports.

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 buying new.

-- Posted: Oct. 1, 2002

Lease or Buy? How much car can you afford? Bankrate helps you do the numbers with our calculators
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