What to do about my car that caugh fire?
December 25, 2004 12:48 AM   Subscribe

Driving home from my Christmas Eve dinner at my Mom's house tonight my 1997 VW Golf 'threw a rod', caught fire slightly, and died. Merry Christmas! We put the fire out with no damage to the car (outside of the already ruined engine) ... right now the best option seems to be getting a new engine rather than replacing the whole car. Does anyone have any experience with this sort of thing? Please share!
posted by anastasiav to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
Not with that particular car, but yes we've done it. Twice. Please, if you're going to do this, make sure it's a reputable place. We're batting 500, so it's somewhat of a crap shoot.
posted by damnitkage at 2:53 AM on December 25, 2004

As a side question, was this caused by lack of maintenance?
posted by Keyser Soze at 3:03 AM on December 25, 2004

I've replaced an engine in my Jeep Wrangler and it was a nightmare. If you're going to do it, go the extra mile and get a nice engine like a Jasper and don't get an Advanced Auto engine.
posted by trey at 3:58 AM on December 25, 2004

Well, the car is getting up there in age.* Two points:

1. What does the insurance company say? Did you have coverage on this sort of thing? If so, along with the cost of the new engine, you may have enough to put a nice down payment on something new or more new and not have to worry about the cost, hassle, and relative uncertainty of getting a new engine.

2. Even though the fire seems not to have caused damage elsewhere, have a reputable mechanic make sure, if you haven't already... and I CAN'T emphasize this enough. You know, just so you don't have to have X number of things fixed down the road.

So considering these two points either it'll be cost-effective to go through with the engine swap, or it won't. And even if the swap is slightly cheaper, it may be worth it to go the full-car-replacement route: less potential for things to to awry in the future, because not only will you have a new(er) engine, but a new(er) car all around it. I'm not completely against the swap, but I've just seen so many hassles surrounding them sometimes, including things like damnitkage and trey hinted at. As long as you consider all of the options, both have their own advantages, and without knowing all of your details, I'll just say use prudent judgement, and you'll be okay.

*Not that there aren't great old cars--the two I've owned were 1978 and 1981 respectively--but this is from an insurance/value POV.
posted by The Michael The at 6:04 AM on December 25, 2004

You have 3 options:

1) Get a used junk yard engine from a more recent Golf/Jetta/Passat and have your mechanic install it.

2) Get a 'short block' i.e. an rebuilt engine, but just its essentials: engine block, pistons, piston rings, and crankshaft and connecting rods. Other engine components are transferred from your old engine, assuming they weren't damaged by the fire.

3) Buy a new (for you) car.

Unless you're really financially strapped, I vote for (3) predominantly because I believe VW's are not a particularly good bet for long-term longevity, unlike, say, Toyotas or Nissans. There may be other major/expensive problems lurking in your powertrain, brake or suspension systems. Also the combination of manufacturing overcapacity, leasing, and the increasing durability of cars have created a glut of good quality used cars.

If money's tight, go for (1)
posted by mojohand at 8:48 AM on December 25, 2004

If you can, drop a tdi in there. Much hardier than the gassers and a lot easier on the pocketbook at the pump. May be a little bit more than the engine involved, but worth the effort.
posted by jmgorman at 9:08 AM on December 25, 2004

Lots of VWs lasted forever and a day, mojohand. Half-million kilometers and such.

Never replaced an engine, but I wouldn't hesitate to go to a good junkyard, select an engine, and get a local mechanic to install it. It is, I'm fairly certain, basically plug-and-play, as long as its the same model engine.

But interest rates and car sales are both at a shocking low right now, so you might find it very worthwhile to look for a car this week. In Canada, at least, you shouldn't have much problem getting sub-2% financing on Japanese cars and 0% on American cars; plus a few thousand dollars off the top for year-end discounts; plus more money off just because the dealers are desperate for business.

(And, of course, the used-car market is also good; the downward pressure on new cars applies just as strongly for used cars.)
posted by five fresh fish at 9:23 AM on December 25, 2004

Sure, Fish, that's just my prejudice. But it's an prejudice informed from having owned five VWs in the past 35 years. And you can find outlier examples from any manufacturer. Hell, I just saw a Chevette on the roads last week.

Returning to the point, in my opinion VW's reliability was always overrated, and in any event their build quality has declined precipitantly in recent decades. Thus unless I were really strapped, I would not put any more money into a seven-year old VeeDub. If it were my bucks, I'd get a used big-league manufacturer Japanese sedan.

posted by mojohand at 11:06 AM on December 25, 2004

I'll third and fourth the "find a good used japanese sedan of some sort" ... Even the guys I know who love VWs say that, yeah, they aren't all that reliable or hardy. It's not a car that I'd buy.
posted by SpecialK at 12:05 PM on December 25, 2004

Our VW set on fire, too. We were driving along, power went on and off, we pulled over, and the car kept smoking. By the time our Dad got there, there was fire falling out underneath and the roof bubbled. The fire department had to come and put it out. (Here's a picture) I think the moral of the story is= no Volkswagons.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:49 PM on December 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your answers -- b1tr0t, your info is particularly helpful.

As to those suggesting a "good used japanese sedan" ... there is a reason you don't see many of those on the road here in Maine -- with the notable exception of Subaru products, most Japanese sedan's just don't cut it here in Maine. I've never known anyone up here who has been happy with one. They're just too light and aren't built for driving on serious snow and ice. This is my 3rd VW -- the first was destroyed by a kid who ran a red light when it was at 240,000 miles, the second developed unstoppable rust at about 160,000 miles, and now this rod at 103,000 -- If I do end up buying another car you can bet it will be another VW if its not a Mini.

Keyser Soze: Not that we can tell. We believe a pin broke causing the rod to plunge out the bottom of the engine block.
posted by anastasiav at 11:10 PM on December 26, 2004

Response by poster: Just a quick update, in case anyone cares: Insurance does not pay anything for engine failure, even if the car is a total loss. They are, however, sending someone to evaluate if the engine fire did enough damage for me to make a claim.

My VW does, indeed, have a 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warrantee, but only for the first owner. Since I'm the second owner it bumps down to 5/50,000. Sigh.

Thanks again to everyone for all the help.
posted by anastasiav at 10:11 AM on January 2, 2005

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