Saturn longevity?
December 16, 2003 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Found out last night that my car (96 Saturn with 108k miles) has a leaking head gasket, which will set me back about $1200. Before I spring for the repair, I want to be confident that the car will stick around long enough to be worth it. How long can you reasonably expect to keep a car on the road? Is this a sign that she's crossed the line into being an unreliable money sink?
posted by COBRA! to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
If your odometer were at 20,000 mi or 200,000 miles, the answer would be relatively easy. But 108K, which might seem like a lot o mileage (especially to anyone over, say 40, who grew up with horrible Detroit product), these days is not particularly indicative of anything.

Best bet: spend $50-$100 to take the car to a trusted mechanic who will evaluate the major systems, almost as if the car were one you were considering buying. Provide him with any dates/odometer readings of major work you know about. He'll let you know what expenditures you might be in for and how soon, and you can make an informed call.

Having said that, there is still that element of surprise which adds zest to all things.
posted by luser at 7:40 AM on December 16, 2003

$1200 seems a bit high for a leaky head gasket - but with engines these days, I don't know. It's a fairly simple procedure.... if you have any skills under the hood, you might want to try and tackle that one yourself. However, I'm not familiar with that particular car, so it may take a bit of work to actually get to the gasket - in the good old days, it was a 30 minute job.
As for the age and reliability of the car - assuming the car runs fine, and you have kept up maintenance on it fairly regularly, there is no reason to assume that the car is "on its last legs."
Saturns came out with a bang, claiming reliability and high resale values.... but most was hype. The car is about average in reliability - although owners tend to get fussy when you mention that. Given that, there is no reason to expect that your car is about to bite the dust if this is the only problem you have encountered - it's a common occurence as the miles pile up, and should not be viewed as something that signals a major problem in the days ahead.
If you know anyone who can look over the car, or have a station you can trust to give you advice, get them to check it out for ya.
posted by bradth27 at 7:42 AM on December 16, 2003

If the only thing wrong is the head gasket, it might be wise to keep it. You should find a good independent mechanic to give it a good once-over. I've used the services of the Cartalk guys' Mechan-X-Files in the past to find a good wrench turner with good success.

Also, the Saturn is for the most part plastic-bodied, so I'd say you'd be wise to hold onto yours, since it appears you live in the great snowy north with its salt-encrusted roads.
posted by SteveInMaine at 8:00 AM on December 16, 2003

The problem with changing the head gasket on a Saturn (why it's so expensive) is that it's an overhead cam. Were this a Honda, it wouldn't be too bad, because the timing belt is dry-- not part of the oil-return system. On the saturns, however, the timing chain cover must be removed, and the cover itself contains the oil pump. The timing chain itself is a six-hour (book) job.

Cobra, I hope your mechanic suggested changing the timing chain at the same time--and does not charge you any more than parts, since it has to come off anyway.

108k? What's your sense of the car? has it been quite good to you except for this? then keep it. If it's already nickel-and-diming you, drop it. The best thing you can do is change your oil religiously. Every 3000 miles - I don't care that the manual says every 7500. My ex-g/f has a '91 Festiva with 250k miles on it. The oil-changes are *still* made at multiples of 3000, never missed a one.
posted by notsnot at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2003

I could see repairing the car for that price, but we need more data on what is actually wrong. Quite often when a head gasket blows, it warps the metal of the head. (The head is the big chunk of metal that holds the spark plugs, valvetrain and camshaft and sits above the engine block)

Sometimes this warpage can be machined off, sometimes the whole head needs to be replaced. If the head didn't sufffer any damage, that price is exorbitant.

The car will easily last for another 3 years when repaired. Compared to a car payment, you will likely come out ahead by repairing an old car unless the karmic cost of driving a klunker gets on your nerves.
posted by machaus at 8:16 AM on December 16, 2003

For that car, it really depends on if it's a single overhead cam or a double. Still the job should only be about $500 on the low end and about $800 on the high. Even if it's a double overhead cam, it shouldn't be $1,200 bucks. I agree that it sounds far too high. Keep shopping, keep getting estimates. One of them will give you a good price.

As far as it being worth it, your car should be worth between $2,000 (low) and $3,500 (high). Even if the car is only worth $2,000, it's not a question about whether the repair is needed, nor the repairs worth. You'll either have to fix it or, discount the cost of the repair in your selling price to dump the car, either way... you gotta pay.

If you hate the car, dump it and get a new one. If not, then fix it and drive it until the wheels fall off... which could be in another 90-120k miles... or, it could be another 5k to 20k. But, other than completely throwing a rod, or spinning a main bearing, you're pretty much dealing with the worst case scenario for that vehicle.

If you have to dump it, be honest about the repair and hand the buyer your estimates... IMHO a good alternative to that car would be a 1995-1997 Buick LeSabre... Lots of bells and creature comforts, a very dependable drivetrain (arguably the best GM engine ever created) and very similar operating and insurance costs to your Saturn but, with far more value and quality.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 8:16 AM on December 16, 2003

I agree that $1200 is way too much...Last year, I had my timing belt AND head gaskets replaced for $1200 (87' nissan truck w/ 156k miles). Like everyone else here, I'de suggest calling around till you find something you like (beware though, sometimes you DO get what you pay for!)
posted by jmd82 at 8:26 AM on December 16, 2003

Right on, thanks for all the advice. I also thought $1200 seemed a little steep (it's the single-cam Saturn, not one of the fancy dual jobs), but that was a dealership estimate and I assumed I'd be able to get it done more cheaply if I asked around among actual mechanics.

The car's been rock-solid until this point, so I'm pretty inclined to keep it. Any suggestions from other Twin Cities folk on good, honest mechanics around here?

And SteveInMaine, you are dead right about the beauty of a plastic body on these salty roads. I see other cars of comparable age start to rust and I laaaaaaaugh.
posted by COBRA! at 8:29 AM on December 16, 2003

Re: Twin Cities mechanics--I hear nothing but good about Parent's, at 36th and Lyndale. I've been happy with work done at Autopia (23rd and Hennepin), but I get the sense they're a bit pricier than some.
posted by Kat Allison at 10:55 AM on December 16, 2003

Personally, if an American car made it to 100K before needing any major repairs, I'd call it good and get rid of it the next time it needed anything pricey. For a Japanese car, of course, you want to double that mileage figure.
posted by kindall at 8:22 PM on December 16, 2003

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