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November 25, 2006 6:09 PM   Subscribe

Should I buy a new car?

Apologies for the very long question. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, you can probably skip to the last two paragraphs.

I read this question and, while it is useful reading, it doesn't really answer any of my questions.

I have a 1990 Ford Taurus with about 100,000 miles on it. I own it outright (it was paid for by my parents when I was still in high school). It runs OK, but has a couple things going on that make me nervous about its longevity: the alignment doesn't seem right, I occasionally lose traction going around tight curves, and the windshield wiper motor isn't doing so hot (I live in Seattle, so this is more of a necessity than a luxury). Because of these and other factors, I doubt that the car will last more than a year or two more until something happens that "totals" it (such as an expensive repair).

I don't drive the car very much - maybe 35 miles a week - and occasionally make a 300 mile trip back to Spokane in it. If I didn't have a car, I would be able to get by fine on public transportation for the most part, but grocery store runs and last minute gigs (I am a music student) make the car pretty important. I have looked into Flexcar, and, while it is a very attractive option, it wouldn't work well for me. In summation: being carless for a week or two wouldn't be the end of the world, but I do need a vehicle of some sort.

I am a college student with about $2500 in savings, and my tuition and basic expenses (rent) are taken care of. I would like to keep at least some of that money as an emergency fund/vacation fund/rainy day fund (in other words, I'd rather not pull all of it out and spend it right away).

Anyway, to make a long story short - what should I do? My plan is to run this car into the ground (blue book value for it is about $600), but I feel as if it could kick the bucket tomorrow, in 6 months, or it could run for another year. It would not be worth putting that much money in repairs into it, IMHO, so I assume that a new [to me] car is on my horizon, at least in a year or two. As I see it, my options are: 1) buy a beater car for $500 - $2000 that may not last until I graduate from college, or 2) purchase a used car from a dealer and make payments on it. I am reluctant to do this, as I've never been in any sort of a bill-paying situation before (other than rent), but I suppose there aren't a whole lot of reasons not to, are there?

An aside: I have my eyes on a VW New Beetle, (used; 1995-ish). I have driven them before and they are comfy, fuel efficient, and happen to fit me unusually well (I am 6'5"). Also, I am intrigued by the option of purchasing a diesel car and running it on biodiesel, but that is by no means a requirement.
posted by rossination to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
I would invest in an alignment and a new set of tires, neither of which will break the bank. I don't know about replacing the wiper motor, but it sounds like the sort of think you might be able to DIY. Then drive it until it breaks down, which could be another 5 years/100,000 miles. At that point, worry about what kind of car to buy.
posted by myeviltwin at 6:14 PM on November 25, 2006

I agree. See if you can take care of the safety issue, inexpensively and drive the thing until it dies for good.
posted by Good Brain at 6:28 PM on November 25, 2006

As someone who has been in your shoes, let me give you one stern warning:

Used cars are a RISK. You have a Taurus that you know EXACTLY what its life has been, and whats wrong with it. Stick with it. A wiper motor is a trivial thing. Why on earth are you "losing traction around corners"? Stop flooring it around them, you have a FWD car, if you give a FWD car gas around a corner it will "lose traction".

Second -- Mid 90's VW's suck. The Beatle was made in Mexico I believe, and have horrible reliability issues, especially electrical (which are by far the most expensive to repair).

Your Taurus sounds like its in great shape. It should go to 130-140k miles before the transmission dies, then for $500, it will go another 40k miles.

Go to a junk yard, buy a new wiper motor (what is the issue though -- it might just be the wiper assembly. What is the exact issue with them?)

Dont use this as a way to say 'I want a new car'. Save your pennies, ESPECIALLY since you know exactly what the Taurus issue is. There is nothing worse than buying a used car that needs work.

Final piece of advice. There are more cars than people in this country. Don't ever jump on a car because its a good deal, there will be many more deals. Always give yourself a day cooling time before you commit to any car, new or used.
posted by SirStan at 6:34 PM on November 25, 2006

And as unsexy as Tauruses are, they are dead cheap.

$6k for a 2002 w/ 47k miles:
posted by SirStan at 6:35 PM on November 25, 2006

I don't drive the car very much - maybe 35 miles a week

The major expenses of car ownership are Insurance (and Registration), maintenance, and fuel. Dependent on your frequency of use, it might pay you to investigate renting vs. owining. Your insurance can be covered by the right credit card, your fuel costs remain the same and you have no maintenance costs. Plus you always get a basically new car to drive. You could probably rent a car for one day a week in a year for under $2000 plus fuel, which is easily within the average expense of owning a car.
posted by Neiltupper at 6:41 PM on November 25, 2006

Do you have a steady cash flow, like a job? I went ahead and took out a car loan and bought a year old car. Plan everything financially as if you will get rid of the car after graduation, so you won't be upside down on your loan come graduation and you find yourself needing to get rid of the car. For me having a car under warranty was probably much more expensive in the long run, but I don't worry at all about repairs. I take it in, it costs me $50 no matter what the repair is and I get a courtesy car.

I have a secure job, but I still made sure I had 6 months of payments always in my savings and checked to make sure I had the ability to take out student loans to cover it. That's sort of risky, I would never want to use student loans to pay off another loan, but in a worst case scenario I'd rather take my chances with finding a good job after college than defaulting on a loan. Besides if your only debt is ~$20,000 after college that's better than most. But that is worst case scenario.
posted by geoff. at 6:51 PM on November 25, 2006

You could always use Flexcar when necessary. It complements public transit nicely and is much cheaper than car payments/insurance/registration. Flexcar is pretty good in Seattle.
posted by digitalis at 6:53 PM on November 25, 2006

Oh wow, 35 miles a week. That's nothing, I drive that a day. Don't buy a new car for the sake of buying a new car, sorry I missed that. For me a car was much, much cheaper than it would be to live next to school. You just don't want a crappy car. Understandable, but 35 miles a week is so small just fix the car when it breaks.
posted by geoff. at 6:54 PM on November 25, 2006

I had an old clunker in school. I figured what my note would be to buy a newer old car. I then put this amount in the bank every month. That piece of crap car lasted an additional 2 years. I had a nice down payment saved up by then.

Stick with the clunker, you may consider renting a car for the trip to Spokane.
posted by JujuB at 7:15 PM on November 25, 2006

Have you actually found a 1995 VW New Beetle? I didn't think such a thing existed. The New Beetle was introduced in 1998.

Anyway, to answer your question, I'd say run the Taurus into the ground. Do what you have to do to make it safe to drive, and it may end up surprising you with its longevity. I'm also in college right now, in a city with poor public transportation and little to do around campus. I have about $8500 in savings, and I can think of far better things to do with that money than putting it towards a new-to-me car, which will decline in value the moment you take possession of it.

And that's coming from me, a car freak since childhood.
posted by roomwithaview at 7:37 PM on November 25, 2006

If you're only traveling 35 miles a week, you could sell the car for a few hundred buck and buy a bike. You'll be doing something good for your health and you won't have to deal with diagnostic issues.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:54 PM on November 25, 2006

If you want a diesel, you're pretty much looking at a VW, a full-size truck, or something older than your existing Taurus. Mid-90s VWs aren't exactly renowned for their reliability, and neither are Detroit diesels from the '80s; you don't sound like you're looking for a full-size truck. On your budget, I'd save the biodiesel idea for the next time you buy a new car.
I think that in your situation I would probably look for an early '90s small Japanese pickup with a four cylinder engine. If you find one with relatively low mileage (under 100k would be dreaming, but you might find one in the neighborhood of 125k), they're at least as reliable as anything else of their vintage and they offer excellent utility (especially if you need to haul large/numerous instruments to any of these gigs), decent gas mileage (especially given how little you drive), and head- and legroom for us tall types. Toyotas probably hold their value a little too well for your budget, but a Mazda B series (pre-1994; since then they've just been re-badged Ford Rangers, which aren't appreciably more reliable than your Taurus) or a 1992-ish Nissan Hardbody might just do the trick. If you make the Spokane trip in the winter, you may want to look into 4x4 models, but that will drive up the price.
posted by willpie at 9:00 PM on November 25, 2006

Do not get the Beetle. I had a 2001 VW Beetle, and while it zoomed around and was certainly stylish, I had the worst sort of reliability issues.

On top of the interior of the car dying a hideous death thanks both to shoddily made plastic parts (which one must constantly replace... I think I replaced the parking brake lever 3 times, the center console latch twice, and the interior door handles once) and some horrible satan-spawned sort of rubberized paint that flaked off with the sightest provocation, here's a general rundown of things that were above and beyond routine maintenance:

At about 10k miles, the headlights went and had to be replaced (at the time, these had to be replaced by the dealership...$70 bucks each, yay!).

16k miles, the front and rear brakes and rotors.

24k miles...secondary air pump, mass airflow sensor, vaccuum hoses

30k miles... engine gasket

40k miles...brake light switch. At this point, the dash lights also get a strange bug. Going forward, wanting the lights on will require a firm thump to the dash. Seat warmers decide they now have two settings only: "painful scorching" and "off."

50k miles...oil pump, water pump, proprietary battery, serpentine belt. Around this time, it was also determined that the persistent juddering in the front was due to something in the brakes that was improperly mounted when the car was built and warped over time.

70k miles...AC dies in Texas August heat due to some expensive and difficult to track down short in the wiring. Brake light switch dies again.

80k miles...secondary air pump dies again, new vaccuum hoses. After initially being told it needed a new engine, it is found that it simply broke an oil seal and a bit got jammed in the oil pickup tube. This all has to be replaced, too.

90k miles...water pump (again), secondary water pump, timing belt

...at this point, I traded the damn thing in for a Prius.
posted by kaseijin at 9:05 PM on November 25, 2006

Response by poster: Fantastic - thanks for all the sound advice, folks. The "losing traction around corners" thing is an alignment issue, methinks, and the wiper motor issue has to do with that I can use my wipers for all but the fastest setting, which is apparently controlled by a different motor. Some research/DIY/junkyard hunting may be in my future.
posted by rossination at 12:11 AM on November 26, 2006

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