Repair or replace my car?
April 28, 2010 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Repair or replace my car? (A few different circumstances than previously posted.)

I bought a 1997 Toyota Celica with 74,000 miles a couple of summers ago. Gentle reader, I now need a new motor. They told me to watch the oil--"these old cars burn oil" but apparently I didn't watch it close enough. Please don't hate. You couldn't do a better job hating than I. After using every contact I have, I have found a mechanic (who comes highly recommended by a friend) who will replace the engine for about $1000 and I can also purchase a 3-, 6-, or 12-month warranty for a couple hundred bucks.

Other facts: It is a two-owner car, me beng the second owner. I was scrupulous about oil changes (just not the miles in between *sigh*)
The previous owners had no maintenance papers, but I think they kept it in good shape.
It now has about 108,000 miles on it. The only thing I have added is
a timing belt, front brakes, and the engine light is on for the catalytic converter (mechanic estimates $400).

Aside: I have enough saved for the job. However, they are cutting where I work and I will probably find out next week. It would be a bad idea to go into a car payment plan unemployed. (Of course, it woulld be bad to be unemployed and broke.)

Public transportation where I live is worse than deplorable. I can carpool with my friendly co-worker, but only a couple days a week. I could give the car to the local technical college and save a ton of money -- but they are done until fall, and of course could take a long time to do the job. Ive thought of getting a bicycle (exercise too!) but around here the drivers would just as soon mow you down as look at you.

Finally, what's to keep it from happening again? I have this plan of being totally anal with a notebook and noting miles and just checkng it every single fill up. It grieves me that I could have done this just to save a minute.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total)
I am not familiar with the Celica, but a lot of Toyotas will run for a very long time. It's probably the smartest and cheapest decision to replace the motor.

On oil changes, the miles don't really matter that much - you can do them every 3,000 miles but really every 6,000 won't make that much of a difference. It sounds like your problem is the oil level. Your car was burning oil, so there wasn't enough to lubricate the engine.

On a car that burns oil, you can avoid this problem by checking the oil level religiously every time you get gas (and maybe more frequently, until you get a feel for whether it is burning oil or not.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 8:25 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Toyotas regularly last for 250,000 miles, so I would definitely repair rather than replace. And if you get laid off, you'll need transportation to find another job. I ride my bike a lot, but I just can't see going to a job interview on a bike.

Maybe I'm being ignorant here, but if it's getting a new engine, wouldn't that mean it would lose the tendency to burn oil?
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:44 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This entirely depends on your philosophy on the subject; are you figuring this based on the cost of transportation, or are you basing your decision on the car itself being an investment?

If you are thinking about the actual cost of transportation, I think this is a no-brainer. If you get a new engine with a one-year warranty for $1200, that's complete assurance and transportation for $100 per month. If you got a new car, you would be looking at paying around $1000 for TT&L as well as whatever down payment you made. If you made no down payment, and got an insanely low $300 payment, then your cost to drive the thing over the next year would be $4600.

$1200 to drive warranted and care-free for a year, or $4600 for the same thing. Hell, you could buy a new engine every year and you would still be coming out ahead.
posted by Willie0248 at 8:47 AM on April 28, 2010

Repair, definitely. And check the oil every week or every fill up, whichever is sooner. Once you get into the habit, it takes no time at all. A roll of kitchen towel in the boot (trunk for you, I think) will prevent any temptation to put it off because none are available at the fuel station.

$100 for an engine change is pretty good, and worth it I think.
posted by Brockles at 8:49 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

An engine is going to cost you 2-3 months worth of new payments. With nothing else obviously going wrong I'd do it.

"Finally, what's to keep it from happening again? I have this plan of being totally anal with a notebook and noting miles and just checkng it every single fill up. It grieves me that I could have done this just to save a minute. "

On older cars with engines that weren't nearly as tight as modern power plants it was common to check the oil every morning. I still do this (along with checking tire pressures religiously a habit which comes from driving truck) and it's pretty well the norm on fleet vehicles. It only takes a few seconds.
posted by Mitheral at 8:56 AM on April 28, 2010

I would also recommend repair IF
a) the rest of the body is in good shape and rust free. Not sure where you are, but in the Northeast body rust can make a big difference in the repair/replace scenario.
b) the exhaust is in good shape. (See rust and road exposure above.)
c) your mechanic inspects the car and tells you there are no other serious break or electrical issues.
posted by anastasiav at 8:58 AM on April 28, 2010

I would certainly replace the engine if you can actually get it done for $1,000. And a few hundred for a warranty makes it very worth while.
posted by JayRwv at 9:04 AM on April 28, 2010

Another vote for replacing the engine. If your car has no other problems, you're back to a running car for $1000 or so. If it's a manual transmission, you might want to have the clutch replaced while the engine is out.

At the price the mechanic is quoting, I'm guessing this would be a used engine from Japan. Not at all a bad thing - these motors are usually in good shape and have low mileage compared to ones from the US.
posted by zombiedance at 10:07 AM on April 28, 2010

$1000 for an installed engine is a fantastic deal, though I would wonder what you're getting in the way of a replacement engine. Do you have any idea what the quality of the engine is? I put a used engine in a car once rather than junk it but had at least an oil report from it so I had a hint of confidence it was worth the labor cost.

Though, really, at 1k? That's 4 car payments of the cheapest car you could buy. If you get another year out of it you've gotten a great deal.

In your shoes I'd opt for the repair; it is almost impossible to spend as much as a new car doing repairs on an old one. If you can have the slightest confidence than you'll be able to drive this car with no more significant outlays in the next year then that's certainly the best situation for someone with a dicey employment situation to be in.

By the way, I hesitate to suggest you try to low-ball someone who is already giving you a great deal, but the mechanic will have to disconnect the exhaust headers and reconnect them to the new engine; perhaps you can get him to do the cat at the same time for not as much money.
posted by phearlez at 10:23 AM on April 28, 2010

Besides comparing the cost of repair to replacement, consider that the broken, immobile car is almost worthless, while the repaired car will be worth at least a couple thousand if all else is in good shape. You'll almost certainly come out ahead by fixing the car, whether you decide to keep it or not.

Also, don't be so hard on yourself; this probably isn't entirely your fault. If a Toyota is already burning oil at 74K miles, it's probably because the original owner neglected the maintenance. With any luck the replacement motor will be in better shape than this one ever was while you owned it.
posted by jon1270 at 10:29 AM on April 28, 2010

Don't be so quick to write off bicycle commuting. You didn't say where you're located, just that the drivers are dangerous. I live in Texas and ride a bike 17 miles each way to work. Although I never considered my city (Fort Worth) to be particularly bike friendly before trying the commute, it really is okay to get around here on a bike. If this might be a consideration for you, I recommend joining and asking any questions you may have in the Commuting and Living Car-Free forums. The collective hive mind there on all matters bike related is ginormous.
posted by Doohickie at 10:59 AM on April 28, 2010

Nothing wrong with replacing an engine. A lot of the japanese high compression, high performance engines burn some oil, not sure why. The Honda H series are notorious for this, and the b and d series will also sometimes do it. I am less familar with the toyota engines but I would think they can't be too different, so these things happen. I am also somewhat suspucious of a complete motor replacement for 1k, but if it is legitmate that is a great deal. It is almost always worth it to replace/repair even major components on an otherwise sound car than replace the whole car, those payments and insurance for a new car really add up fast.

If you don't have an engine sourced yet or your mechanic is pulling one out of junk yard that might not be in the best shape you have some other options. There are several places that import Japanese domestic market engines with low mileage (weird japanese emissions rule is the reason i think) for a decent price and most of the time they will be a drop in. Do a web search for import motors online and pick one close to were you live.

When you are replacing the engine always, always, always replace the timing belt/chain, water pump, front and rear main seals and any other gaskets involved with the above items. These things are really easy to do with the engine out of the car and really hard to do with the engine in the car. If it is a manual transmission replace the cluth/pressure plate and get the flywheel resurfaced as well. All this will probably add 2-400$ to the price but will save you lots of time and money done the road and will replace the most trouble prone items on any car. Also replaceing the seals and gaskets will help insure your new motor doesn't burn as much oil and thus less likely to cause you the same problems. The last suggestion i have is to replace any of the bushings on the transmission shift linkage since this will most likely be apart anyway, it almost always make the transmission shift like a brand new one for a few dollars.
posted by bartonlong at 11:00 AM on April 28, 2010

What about the water pump? Isn't that supposed to get taken care of when the timing belt gets replaced? (Maybe it did, but you just didn't mention it.)
posted by Madamina at 11:40 AM on April 28, 2010

That won't matter if he gets a new engine. The water pump is an internal part and won't be carried over from the old engine unless it is specifically requested (because it's a new part, perhaps).
posted by Brockles at 12:17 PM on April 28, 2010

My above advice assumes it is not a new engine, but rather a used engine sourced from either a junk yard or engine dealer-in which case the parts are not new. To the best of my knowledge japanese car companies do not sell crate engines the same way that american car companies do, in which case you are pretty limited to the aftermarket in replacing an engine.
posted by bartonlong at 1:48 PM on April 28, 2010

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