Under-maintained car is under-maintained. What now?
October 23, 2009 8:19 PM   Subscribe

How should I keep my under-maintained 1999 Mazda Protégé running safely for just a few more months?

My car, let me show you it. It's a 1999 Mazda Protégé with nearly 140000 miles on it. I've ignored most scheduled maintenance, because I am an idiot (I know that part already, you don't have to tell me), but it's generally kept running just fine. Lately it's been showing signs of age, and I've been getting increasingly nervous that it's going to break down in some incredibly horrible and expensive way at the worst possible time. I'd like to prevent that, within reason. On the other hand, I only need to keep it alive about another 6 months, through a Boston winter, so I don't want to spend a fortune on it.

So my questions are these. What major problems have I let myself in for by doing so little maintenance? And when I bring it to the mechanic to check out the funny noise it's been making lately, what else do I really need to get done?

A particular worry: I'm pretty sure I've never had the timing belt replaced. But it's an expensive repair. How stupid would it be to try to get through these last few months without doing that? (I've been reading that this model has a "non-interference engine," meaning if the belt breaks the engine itself won't be damaged, but I'm not convinced yet.)

The car is pretty beat up, too, and its resale/trade-in value is probably close to zero already, so I'm only worried about the next few months. I'd be grateful for recommendations from those of you who are less car-stupid than me.
posted by fermata to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For a tired car, keep checking the oil and water/coolant level and top up as required. For a car that is getting onto its last legs, you may need to top up the oil weekly! You can ignore lots of things, but low fluid levels will make it die faster and/or die suddenly and dramatically.

If it is brakes or tyres, well, I wouldn't want to go through winter without addressing those. For tyres at least, you can usually buy reasonable ones for not too much money (by which I mean, ones which will do you ok for the next few months).

You don't say whether the funny noise is from the engine, the exhaust, or something else. When you take it to the mechanic, they will be in the best position to talk through what you HAVE to do, and what you could put off if you are only keeping the car for a few more months.
posted by AnnaRat at 8:31 PM on October 23, 2009

Start by taking it to Auto Zone or other car parts retail shop that will "read the codes for free" and see if there is anything the car is complaining about you might not know about.

Write down the exact codes so you can look them up on the internet and ask around.

If you aren't going to keep the car, don't replace the belt (why is it so expensive? I've replaced 7 in my life and it was about $100 bucks for the belt, max, and the same for labor).

Tell us more about the funny noise and when you hear it, too. Or Ray and Tom ... is the noise findable there?
posted by tilde at 8:46 PM on October 23, 2009

Best answer: I'm amazed that your original timing belt is still intact, to be honest. If you've gone 140,000 miles on one belt, it might leave you stranded any minute. Seriously. Whether or not it's an interference engine, it'll still cost you a tow, on top of the cost of replacing the belt.

Critical things that may cause breakdowns or premature demise in the next six months:
Fluid leaks: Engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant, and power-steering fluid.
Cracked and old accessory belts or weak belt tensioner.

Now, I wouldn't put any money into actually fixing any serious leaks at this point. It'd cost to much, given the value of the car. I'd just keep an eye on the level.
What might net you some gains is, when you go in for an oil change, ask your mechanic to put Lucas Engine Oil Stabilizer in, in place of one quart of regular oil. It'll help quiet down your old, clattery, beat up engine and reduce oil consumption in most cases. Many of my customers have had old beaters, or even damaged engines that they couldn't afford to replace and I've had lots of success with Lucas. I believe most additives are snake oil, but this stuff works pretty well.

Replacing accessory belts are worth the money, even at this point. If your mechanic tells you that they're worn out, spring for them. You don't want a belt to break and then leave you stranded when the alternator stops charging your car's battery. They only cost a few bucks and it should be less than an hour of labor to install them.

And, of course, safety issues are always important, no matter how clapped out your old weapon is. Brakes and tires are always worth it. Even bottom of the barrel cheap-o tires are better than bald tires.
posted by Jon-o at 8:58 PM on October 23, 2009

Best answer: what else do I really need to get done?

No matter how ratty you let the car get, always keep the tires in decent shape. Check the amount of tread remaining and replace them if it's low or they're bald. Also keep them inflated properly. And obviously if it's been a while since you had an oil change, that would be another thing to do.

Other than that, I agree with AnnaRat that coolant and oil levels are going to be the things you want to monitor closely. A coolant leak can be relatively cheap to fix (or keep topped up at least if it's slow) if detected early but if you ignore that then the engine will likely overheat and that leads to very bad things that cost a lot to fix. Doubly so for oil.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:00 PM on October 23, 2009

Old Protege owner: I would absolutely replace the timing belt (which probably also includes the water pump). It's recommended every 60k miles. Also, if the belt dies, your car does not die permanently (non-interference engine), but you are at the mercy of whomever can replace it in an emergency.

Proteges are notorious for cracked exhaust manifolds. If you smell gas or exhaust when at idle, you really want to get that replaced (or, you know, possibly asphyxiate).

Also, CV joints. If you hear a clicking when turning left or right, you really need to replace them. If you don't hear a clicking, but they tell you the boot is ripped, you may be able to get away with it until you junk the car. Just know that a failed CV joint results in a wheel that is essentially (if not physically) removed from the car.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:10 PM on October 23, 2009

OH, and if you are going to run the car until the belt breaks, put a good jump bag in there. Extra jacket, change of clothes, shelf-stable food and water, an extra hundred bucks in ten dollar bills. And a blanket.

And jumper cables. And an old friend of a book you haven't read in a while, and a flashlight and maybe some glowsticks or something.
posted by tilde at 9:10 PM on October 23, 2009

OH, and if you are going to run the car until the belt breaks, put a good jump bag in there. Extra jacket, change of clothes, shelf-stable food and water, an extra hundred bucks in ten dollar bills. And a blanket.

Really, you should do this regardless of the car you drive (to answer my mother's question of why I have a funnel in my trunk, "What if I'm stuck at the side of the road and I need a beer bong?!").
posted by dirigibleman at 9:21 PM on October 23, 2009

Just know that a failed CV joint results in a wheel that is essentially (if not physically) removed from the car.

Yeah, and the still-attached portion of the axle will probably flail around and do some damage.

posted by Jon-o at 9:24 PM on October 23, 2009

Oh! I just thought of something! Your headlights might have glaucoma. When I bought my 98 Protege, my headlights basically didn't illuminate anything because of the scratches and haze. Get yourself some PlastX and/or several grades of really fine (like 1500-2500 grit) sandpaper and go to town (I did the PlastX by itself the first time and found a huge difference, and later the sandpaper, but didn't find any more difference). This is one of those things that you can do for cheap that enhances your safety.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:59 PM on October 23, 2009

If you do nothing else, change the oil and oil filter (number one cause of engine damage, IMO, is not keeping up with oil changes) and do the timing belt repair.

Re the timing belt, sure, it's expensive, but you do not want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard in January in New England with a dead car (no engine = no heat).
posted by zippy at 10:12 PM on October 23, 2009

Best answer: I wondered how much you plan to drive in the six months, if you've had the car from new. The former because 10 mi./day and 74 mi./day are very different. The latter because 140k on a t-belt is waaaaaaaaaaaay up there.

If you didn't buy the car new, any chance that someone else did the belt? People have been known to put stickers somewhere findable in the engine compartment with the date/mileage of the belt replacement.

If that's n/a, the dicey thing is that lotsa places charge a lot to do the belt. It's a lot quicker (cheaper) on some cars; dunno about your Maz, but it could be that most shops would charge you more than the car's worth.

If you're confident that it has 140k, maybe look around on craigslist for someone with references who works for about $40/hr, rather than closer to $100 shops charge, getting it and the water pump done for a couple hundred or so (including parts)?

As people have noted, if the oil's not fresh or close, it's worth changing it, keeping an eye on it and the coolant.

I wouldn't sweat the CV joints unless, when you turn, it sounds like your hub caps are full of big rocks grinding together. They'll make their little clicking noises for a long time before they go out. In my poor-student days, I drove a lot longer than six months with some noise from a CV joint and had no problems, have heard cars go by with horrendous CV noise. The click click does get louder, to the grinding-rocks stage.

Any guess when the battery's been replaced? Cold weather takes a toll on 'em and there are some decent ones for relatively cheap. Consumer Reports has reviewed them.

As people have noted, tires are critical, worth it if needed, even for cheap ones.

In general, baby it, baby it, baby it.

On a positive note, my father's approach to cars sounds like yours and he has driven Mazda Proteges to the better part of 200k.
posted by ambient2 at 11:20 PM on October 23, 2009

Looks like the private party sale value in Fair condition is about $1500, so you'll at least get the timing belt cost back out when you sell it.

Since it's a non-interference engine, you could either replace it now, or get a AAA membership and have it replaced when it breaks. Keep in mind that it's going to break whenever it's least convenient for you, guaranteed.
posted by electroboy at 11:20 AM on October 24, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I can't believe how much help you all were!

OK: number one, I'm persuaded to bite the bullet and get this work done, even with the little time I expect to be driving it, and I'll just call it deferred maintenance costs and be done with it. I just need to check my records and make sure they really never did do the timing belt, and then it's off to the mechanic. And then I'll reread this whole thread and make some other decisions.

Jon-o, zippy, ambient2: I have, at the very least, been fairly good about changing the oil, so there's that.

Jon-o, rhomboid, ambient2: Yes, new tires are a must. Two of the four are hurting and need replacing before winter. That's been a given since last winter.

Electroboy: I'd about given up on reselling the car, so that's encouraging. I checked Edmunds and it came up with a comparable estimate too.

Ambient2: Also encouraging about your dad's experience with Protégés. If I weren't planning a likely move to the other coast, I would certainly be in no hurry to get rid of this one. So we'll see.

Again, I'm blown away by the quantity and quality of the suggestions you guys made. Thank you all!
posted by fermata at 12:27 AM on October 29, 2009

Response by poster: Oh... and I do have a AAA membership. Always.
posted by fermata at 12:28 AM on October 29, 2009

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