15 year old car randomly stalls: diagnose/repair or say goodbye?
February 9, 2018 9:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a 2003 Honda Civic that has sputtered to an inconvenient stop four times in the past year. It happened today at a red light on a steep highway off-ramp, and I had a lot of trouble restarting it. I am ok with random things breaking on my car at its age, but I am not OK with it stalling out in unsafe situations. Do I DTMFA?

Previous attempts to diagnose and fix it have failed because it happens so randomly, but the common factor is that it happens while idling on a warm engine (stoplights, stop signs, stop and go traffic, pulling into a parking space). I had it towed to my mechanic once, but the codes had cleared and it ran fine once it got there. Heck, today it ran just fine after I finally got it to start again. I took it to a dealer once, and they claimed it had a blown head gasket, but two independent mechanics scoffed and said the dealer was just recommending the priciest repair that might possibly address the issue.

My husband wants this car gone yesterday, but I've sunk money into new tires and a timing belt in the past year and had hoped to keep going for another 5 years (though I've been hoping for another 5 years for probably 5 years now). It only has 110,000 miles, and I drive it maybe 2-4 days per week (often with my kid in the backseat).

Is it worth throwing money at this issue when I can't get it to replicate with a mechanic?
Are there enough safety features in newer used cars that would make this a good time to trade up?
Should I just hunt down a 2009 Prius so I can continue to use my snow tires? Is this a thing, where people base car purchases on compatible snow tire sizes, or am I delusional?
posted by Maarika to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd buy a different car. If you can't trust it, you can't trust it.

I don't know about snow tires and all that, and I live in Minneapolis. I drive a Subaru though, so I don't really care about snow tires. I just drive.
posted by sanka at 9:13 PM on February 9, 2018

Wait. I had the exact same thing happen with a much older car and it was a very cheap fix...I'd have to look through my papers for the reciept, but IIRC, it was either the thermostat or the fan (by the radiator) had simply gotten unplugged. That's why it's fine when you're driving, but it overheats at the stop light (when there's no air going over the radiator).
Also, never ever go near the 'engine heads' guy again...he's a rip-off artist.
Also, pick up a copy of 'Car Repair for Dummies' as it is really important to be able to diagnose what is wrong with your car before you go to the mechanic. Otherwise they will just lie to you, more so if you're a woman because, well, dudes suck.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:37 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, if you want to make sure the engine or engine heads aren't cracked, just wipe your finger inside the tailpipe. There will always be some amount of black soot in there (it's burned oil) but if the engine is messed up there will be craptons of black soot. Also you will have been having to top off your oil a whole lot lately.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:42 PM on February 9, 2018

If you buy a code reader for about $30, you'll be able to get a translation of the engine lights for yourself, and not have to depend on a dealer. There's free code reader apps that sync with the physical reader, for iOS and Android. Some auto supply stores will also let you borrow theirs.

You might have just a radiator fan that needs to be replaced; or ignition coils that need to be replaced; or a thermostat… all much less expensive than a head gasket or a new car. The code reader will help you decipher that. Then you'll have more information to make your decision.
posted by culfinglin at 10:39 PM on February 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Random low RPM stopping and difficulty restarting that resists diagnosis are just what I'd expect from a barely slipped timing belt, so if they all happened since you had the belt replaced, I'd have that looked at -- but not by the people who did it or the head gasket place.
posted by jamjam at 11:02 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

My husband's car did this for a couple of years. It would just die or not start. For a while it helped to add some kind of gas treatment. But when that stopped working, a mechanic did a little looking and found some really badly worn spark plugs. We haven't had a problem since.

I would do a little more investigating before I'd throw in the towel.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:02 AM on February 10, 2018

15 years old is just comfortably middle-aged for a Honda.

I don't think your problem is owning a car that sputters randomly to a stop at idle, because really, that is a problem that any competent and honest mechanic should be able to replicate, diagnose and fix. I think your problem is lack of access to a competent and honest mechanic. Because once you've found one of those, any car you own can be made to run reliably at moderate cost; if you haven't, every car you own will just give you endless grief while sucking your bank accounts dry.

What you want is a small-scale local mechanic who doesn't advertise because they don't need to advertise because word of mouth gets them enough business to keep them in business. Talk to your workmates and your neighbours and find out who they use and if they're happy.
posted by flabdablet at 4:42 AM on February 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Intermittent problems can be extremely difficult to fix, especially if they happen as infrequently as yours does and don't leave a stored error code. You can't expect a mechanic to test drive your car for months on end until they duplicate the symptom. Sometimes it's a matter of guesswork and process of elimination (replace part(s) and see what happens.) I would make sure that the idle air control valve is not sticking/faulty. In response to your other questions- Yes, car safety has improved significantly since 2003. No, it's not crazy to let compatible snow tire size be a tie-breaker in your choice of replacement car, but do you have a snow tire and rim package, or do you have snow tires mounted to your existing rims seasonally? If you've got a tire and rim package, you're going to have to match the rim specs (offset, etc) in addition to the tire size. Or buy new rims which are compatible with your new car and have the snow tires mounted on them.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 6:11 AM on February 10, 2018

It could be something ridiculously simple. I had an old Audi that suffered intermittent loss of electrical power, and multiple mechanics couldn't figure it out. After one place sold me a new (very expensive) alternator that did nothing to fix it, a friend suggested that maybe the engine ground strap was broken, and that was it. I doubt that that's your Honda's problem, but it might be equally simple.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:33 AM on February 10, 2018

FWIW, I had this problem with my ‘95 Civic when it was about 10 years old, and it was the idle air intake control valve. Part of it that was supposed to be flexible got dry and brittle with age. Cheap to have replaced, no more stalling at idle.
posted by Kriesa at 10:43 AM on February 10, 2018

It might be something ridiculously simple, in which case, the next owner can fix it. For you and the kid in the backseat, here's another vote for gone yesterday.

Look for something from this decade with at least side air bags.
posted by sageleaf at 12:05 PM on February 10, 2018

Second the local good mechanic. It will be worth your time and money to ask your mates who they trust. Try them out and see if you feel good about them as well. And yes to all of the above about the car's problem being pretty simple to fix, it's an external component and is designed to be removed and replaced (R&R).
posted by ptm at 10:03 PM on February 10, 2018

I took it to my local mechanic today, but without it stalling in front of them and without any stored engine codes, he wasn't able to find anything. I may try another shop, but in the meantime I borrowed a code reader and will see what happens. I can't decide if I want my car to fail hard soon or never stall out again, leaving me in paranoid wait.
posted by Maarika at 8:50 PM on February 12, 2018

Posting for closure: after a summer with sad air conditioning and still busted heat, I said goodbye to the Civic, traded my car in for a 2014 Nissan Leaf, and feel like I have catapulted decades into the automotive future. I have a heated steering wheel, and I love the future so much.
posted by Maarika at 6:37 PM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

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