Fix the old car or get a new (to me) one?
April 5, 2014 10:17 AM   Subscribe

My 1986 Toyota Celica ST has 156K miles, a broken timing belt, and a bunch of other issues. According to my mechanic, it has a non-interference engine, so there shouldn't be valve damage, but it is time to move on anyway? And if I get a new car, which one?

The issues that it has that I know about:

* Obviously, the timing belt needs to be replaced.
* Last time I got new tires (a couple weeks ago), I tried to have it aligned, but the tire shop threw up their hands and said there wasn't enough caster adjustment on the front end, and that I should get the frame looked at.
* Same tire shop claims steering rack & CV joints need to be replaced. (The CV joints aren't clicking during turns yet, but I don't have a hard time believing that they might need to be replaced at some point.)
* It has always idled kind of rough when it first starts.
* It needs a new axle.
* Rear brakes need to be replaced.
* It has this intermittent problem where the headlights sometimes turn off for a couple seconds. I haven't been able to track this one down. It seems to only affect the dims circuit, as it always works to flip to brights for a couple seconds, then back to dims. I suspect the headlight switch, but I'm not sure.
* It burns a little oil, about a quart every 1500 miles or so. (At least, I think it burns it: I've haven't noticed it leaking oil.)

MPG is ~24 in town, ~32 highway.

I'm new in town, so I chose a mechanic based solely on positive Yelp reviews and proximity to my apartment. If he is to be believed, it would be ~$350 to just do the timing belt, ~$600 to do the timing belt the right way (water pump, etc), and ~$1000 to also do the axle and the brakes on top of that.

I just graduated from college and started a real grown-up job, so I could afford a car payment, but I abhor debt, especially for something like a car. If I were to buy a different car, I'd want to spend something like $3K to $5K.


1. Should I just keep pumping money into this? $1000 is probably about what the car is worth, so does it make sense to spend that much? I suppose I could just have only the timing belt done, cross my fingers, and keep driving it, but I'm tired of trying to "get away" with poor maintenance. I just want something that works.

2. If I were to buy a different car, my ideal vehicle would be a small, reliable hatchback, with everything stock and a manual transmission. Basically I want a Honda Civic hatchback, except they seem to me to be priced at a premium for their age and mileage, and are often modded all to hell. What alternatives are there that meet my criteria? Or should I just suck it up and pay $3000 for a twenty-year-old car with 200K miles on it?

More modern vehicles like a Toyota Yaris or a Honda Fit would suit me fine, but they haven't been in North America long, so even the oldest used ones are like $10K. A Ford Focus hatchback can be found for less, since they've been around longer, but I'm leery of buying domestic for reliability reasons.

3. If I sell my current car, how should I do it? Just try to sell it as-is, in non-running condition? Scrap it? Fix it and then sell it?
posted by jcreigh to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That's a lot of money to sink into such an old car. I wouldn't do that, if I could avoid it.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:29 AM on April 5, 2014

1986? No. 2006, I'd say keep fixing it; 1996, I'd weigh the options. But a 1986 car is almost 30 years old.

To buy a new car: pay the money for one or two months of unlimited carfax searches, hit up the Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide from the library, and HAUNT craigslist. Doing a search on craigslist in your area for "hatchback" from $2500-$5000 yields some decent hits. The trick with craigslist is to look 3 times a day, every day, and be fast on the dial.

Selling your car: the same way. From my experience looking for a cheap car, if you put it up for $500, say "Needs work, clear title" in the title, and list all the issues it has in the body of the message, it will move.
posted by KathrynT at 11:01 AM on April 5, 2014

a few things first. I seriously doubt you will find anyone to pay you 1000 for this car as is. It is probably worth scrap value (about 300-500). You MIGHT get a little more if you part it out on ebay, but in terms of your time and effort to do this (and it doesn't sound like you are equipped to dissassemble a car and sell parts) pretty much makes it not worth it. A dealership might give you $1000 in 'trade in value' but it isn't really worth that in terms of cash someone will pay you for it.

A non-noteworthy car from 1986 is not worth saving or repairing anymore (there are some cars that have collector value from this period but an ordinary celica isn't one of them-unless it is a celica gt+4 which you say it isn't).

So for the cost of totally repairing this car, you can get a 10-15year old rust free beater (fairly easy to come by in Southern California). I would recommend a Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4 for about 5k. If you don't like these kinds of cars, get a honda civic/toyota corrolla from about the same time period. Same mileage, cheap to repair, easy to find, easy to drive and very, very versatile.

If you are willing to go a little more money get a new KIA or Hyundai (all their cars are about the same in terms of quality so buy what you want/can afford-personally either a KIA Soul or Hyundai Veloster would be my pick but no idea what you car needs are).
posted by bartonlong at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2014

I'd want to spend something like $3K to $5K.

I'm tired of trying to "get away" with poor maintenance. I just want something that works.

Those two statements are contradictory. For that money, you will just buy another beater with similar problems if you're unlucky or a newer car that has problems that may need more expensive parts. If that is the case, just fix the one you have. It's only worth moving on if you are prepared to spend enough to get a car that is actually reliable. In my opinion there is no value in a car between the $4K and $10K range. Either buy the sub$4K beater (and you already have one of those) or spend more than $10K. You could drop $1K now on your car in maintenance and it will likely not cost you more than another $1K in the next two years. Big deal. Anything you bought now for that $2K will be a shit box. And in two years you will have a different financial situation, which allows you not to be bounded by the decisions forced on you by your current money pit.

If you only want to spend $3-5K on the replacement car, fix the one you have. The headlights is likely a switch (do that yourself), the oil usage is normal (and within parameters for some new cars). Ignore the axles until they are more of a problem and also the steering rack. Spend the money for the timing belt (done properly) and the rear brakes and just ignore the rest.

Your current car is worth nothing, but conversely, it's also costing you nothing but maintenance. I'd fix what needs to be done right now and put away the amount equivalent to a reasonable car loan (say $250 a month) from now on for your 'car fund'. You can keep fixing the car from that fund when it needs it and in a year or two you will still have enough money for a sizeable downpayment on a newer car. At that stage you will either have enough money to spend $10-12K on a car or you'll be more comfortable with your monthly expenditure to get a loan for one.
posted by Brockles at 1:02 PM on April 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Need a tax goodie? When you get your new car, donate your old one to a charity e.g., your local public radio or television station. It is unlikely that your old car will bring you much in trade in value, if a dealer would even accept it.
posted by Cranberry at 1:19 PM on April 5, 2014

It's worth considering that interest rates are really low right now. You would take on debt, but not lose a lot of money over the course of paying off the loan, by buying a new (or new-ish) car. You would also save quite a bit of money on repairs (which would not be the case on another old, $3-5k beater). For example, you can get a Kia Soul from 2011 to 2013 for something like $11,000 to $14,000.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:16 PM on April 5, 2014

Your car is at the age where no matter how much money you put into it, things are just going to keep on breaking and you are just going to pour more and more money into it (while having it frequently in the shop, inconveniencing you) until something finally breaks for good. Get rid of it. Put it up on Craigslist for $500 with a list of all its problems (make sure to say that it will have to be towed away) and it'll be gone in less than a week.

I disagree that a reliable car cannot be found for $5000 or less. You will have to be careful and there may not be a huge number of options, but if you do your research, are patient, and make sure to have any potential cars checked out by a good mechanic, you should eventually find something that will at least be much more reliable than your current set of wheels.
posted by Scientist at 2:46 PM on April 5, 2014

What are your driving habits? e.g.: What is your commute like, and what type of driving do you do in your off-hours? How many miles will you be putting on your car in a week?

I'm thinking you might want to follow Brockles' advice to keep the devil that you do know (this car) running for a while. Since you are new to your city, you are probably still developing your lifestyle there, and your driving needs and desires might shift over time. Those emerging needs/wants will help guide your more long-term decision-making re: vehicle ownership.

There is something to be said for having a beater as your daily driver, and giving zero fucks if it gets scratched/dented/drops dead; and renting shiny-nicer cars for longer road trips on the weekends (car rental places often have dirt-cheap weekend rates).

You don't really sound like a person who drives for pleasure, but if you are, then I think you should seriously consider stepping up your car-buying budget by another $10k so you can get something that you feel GOOD slipping into every day.

Also: after you get the timing belt dealt with, perhaps take the car to a few other mechanics. It may be the alignment issue has a solution other than the one your current mechanic has offered. Were you having steering/handling issues before you put on the new tires?
posted by nacho fries at 3:41 PM on April 5, 2014

I disagree that a reliable car cannot be found for $5000 or less.

To clarify, that wasn't at all my point. The current car would likely be reliable for a year or so if all the issues were fixed (for $1500 or so). It is, after all, a Toyota.

I'm saying that it is a gamble that you will get a car that is any *more* reliable than the existing car in the sub $5000 bracket. You might, but you might not. The current car is a known quantity and needs maintenance just as much as any other car will so it won't be a step up to any significant degree beyond 'possibly less likely to break down' if you buy another sub $5000 car, in my experience.

It's all about the motivation of the seller - From the buying experience I have had myself and seen, the sub-$5000 price bracket is precisely the bracket where people use the (oft repeated advice on here) mentality of "fix that issue and sell it before something else happens" level of reliability. It's the kind of age/mileage where people sell out of requirement or existing problems than because they are trading up. You may luck out, or you may inherit someone else's lemon. The $10,000+ band is usually people that are trading up in their cars because they want a newer one, so it's a generally safer purchase, in my experience.
posted by Brockles at 3:49 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

What are your driving habits? e.g.: What is your commute like, and what type of driving do you do in your off-hours? How many miles will you be putting on your car in a week?

I work 5 days a week, and my commute is 4 miles one way. So 40 miles or so a week for work, plus personal trips and errands, I'd say maybe 80 miles a week total from in-town stuff.

However, last month I drove down to different parts of the bay on two weekends, Albany one time and Fremont the other time, which probably added about 350 miles or so for that month. But as you point out, I'm new here, so I don't know if that's something that I'd do on a truly regular basis.

In any case, my "amortized weekly miles" for the month I have been here is about 150 miles.

I don't drive for pleasure. I do have some preferences: I tend to prefer smaller cars, and I like how a manual transmission feels (automatics are mushy), but I would sacrifice those things for reliability or cost.

It may be the alignment issue has a solution other than the one your current mechanic has offered. Were you having steering/handling issues before you put on the new tires?

No, but on the rear driver's side tire, the old tire was worn more near the outside edge of the tire than near the center, which I thought might be due to misalignment, so I wanted to get it aligned so that the new tires would wear more evenly. FWIW, the aforementioned tire shop measured that same wheel as being somewhat out of alignment, if I understood them correctly.
posted by jcreigh at 4:30 PM on April 5, 2014

I'm not you, so I don't know what your financials are, but here's a situation I was in:

Had a mid-90's Volvo 850 sedan. It would not pass smog unless everytime I put a new catalytic converter and went to a friend-of-a-friend smog shop that would turn a blind-eye to the visual check. It burned oil and coolant (white smoke). One of the tires was always going flat. It had shit gas millage. The battery was going bad. In short, it was going to be a money pit.

I had budgeted 9k-11k on a nice late-2000's Honda Fit only to discover that for that price plus used car-loan interest (~5%) it would almost be the same price as a $16k NEW car with the 0.9% interest rate (some are even 0% APR, but .9% is like $350 over the life of the loan). PLUS ITS A NEW CAR WITH WARRANTY! No more repairs for at least 60k miles! That piece of mind is really really nice after having a car that's a junker.

After negotiating with the dealer got $1500 trade-in on the Volvo, which I know the dealer would scrap anyway since it's a clunker. My monthly payment is ~$250 and the only downside is the full-coverage insurance, which is a little pricey in LA.
posted by wcfields at 4:55 PM on April 5, 2014

on the rear driver's side tire, the old tire was worn more near the outside edge of the tire than near the center,

Then why is the shop complaining about not enough caster on the front end? Odd. Is that just a confusion in the posting?

If the tyres are very old (so the wear is very small) and you are driving 8 miles a day, I'd absolutely keep the car you have now. That's teeny tiny mileage.
posted by Brockles at 5:31 PM on April 5, 2014

Yeah, given your update, here is what I'd do: keep the car. Fix the belt (add in the water pump), get a second opinion on the brakes (see if they have another 1000 miles on them), and to hell with the alignment. You've already sunk money into new tires. They will probably outlast the car's useful lifetime, uneven wear or not. Just get those tires rotated on schedule, keep an eye on the vital fluids, and start doing research on your next car.

Man, that is a short and sweet commute by California standards! Even if you break down on your way to work, your inconvenience will be pretty minimal. You might think about getting a beater bicycle (or folding bike), storing it in the back of the car under a blanket, and have that be your "breakdown" travel insurance.
posted by nacho fries at 5:47 PM on April 5, 2014

Then why is the shop complaining about not enough caster on the front end? Odd. Is that just a confusion in the posting?

As I understand it, they noticed the issue on the front end, and just gave up, and didn't do any alignment at all. (They also didn't charge me, which was nice of them, considering they did nothing.)

The tire shop is a big, nearly-national chain, and I'm starting to feel like any time they hit a situation that can't be dealt with in an absolutely cookie-cutter way, they just punt.

(But yes, it's also possible that I misunderstood something that was told to me, and have inadvertently misrepresented the situation here.)
posted by jcreigh at 5:59 PM on April 5, 2014

(Argh, really not trying to threadsit, but I just realized I didn't directly address the question: Yes, the uneven wear was definitely on the back, and the shop was definitely complaining about not having enough caster on the front.)
posted by jcreigh at 6:37 PM on April 5, 2014

any time they hit a situation that can't be dealt with in an absolutely cookie-cutter way, they just punt

I've had this experience as well. They punt, or they recommend replacing an entire (expensive) system, rather than taking the time to diagnose the individual components to figure out a less costly alternative.

Was it the tire shop crew that recommended the brake job and axle as well? If so, I'd definitely go for a second opinion on the legitimacy of those diagnoses. (Tire shops looooooooove to upsell unnecessary brake jobs. Easy money for them. And "needs a new axle" might also mean something like "cracked boot needs to have an eye kept on it, but no biggie for now"...)
posted by nacho fries at 6:50 PM on April 5, 2014

AA62? Maybe. Last of the RWD Celicas. ST160? Nah. Maybe if it was an ST165 GT-Four. It's time to let it go.
posted by Talez at 8:23 PM on April 5, 2014

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