Should I keep sinking money into this piece 'o junk?
July 19, 2007 8:54 AM   Subscribe

My 2001 Chevy Impala, which has given me nothing but problems for most of the time I've had it, has thrown another doozie at me. It overheated out of the blue yesterday, and it was pouring out coolant from the bottom. I brought it to my trusty mechanic this morning. He called and told me it was the head gasket in the rear (?) and that his shop doesn't get involved in engine repairs. He recommended a place, and they said *if* the cylinder heads aren't cracked, it would be ballpark $1300. I'm getting close to paying this thing off. There's

Let me give some background on this car. I started off leasing it back in 2001, and I loved it. Because I lived in a rural area at the time, and loved the car, I switched it to a loan about 2-1/2 years later.
About one year into my new loan, the transmission completely failed and I had to have a rebuilt one put in. GM acknowledged it was a "known issue", and despite its being out of warranty, I harassed them enough to get 25% reimbursement for that repair.
Right on the heels of that ~$2,500 debacle, the lock cylinder got messed up, $800. Then down the line, the manifold intake gasket busted, $600. Later on, the entire rear brake system failed and that set me back ~$1,200.
I had all new tires put on it last winter, a new windshield, and the fan switch was replaced about six months ago.
I hate this car SO MUCH. The engine shop said if the cylinders are cracked, etc, it could be as high as a $3,000 repair.
My current payoff is $2,500. So I am stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. It kills me to think of pouring that much more money into this piece of junk. I'm hoping you trusty MeFites might offer some advice on what YOU would do.
To further explain my crappy position, I am a single mom who gets bupkis in child support from my ex-husband and I work full time and don't have boatloads of money to play around with.
Thanks in advance!!
posted by meggie78 to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total)
Keep an eye on this other thread posted earlier this morning.
posted by jamaro at 8:59 AM on July 19, 2007

Sell it for scrap and use the grand that you save to get a cheap Japanese beater. This is unlikely to be the last problem you have with a 2001 Chevy anything.
posted by Optamystic at 9:00 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: LOL sorry, please remove. I swear I didn't post that one ;)
posted by meggie78 at 9:01 AM on July 19, 2007

oh my this is odd...
posted by efalk at 9:03 AM on July 19, 2007

So you've poured over $5000 in repairs into a car that's 6 years old, and are facing $1300–3000 more?

From a strictly practical point of view, you don't want to throw more good money after bad. And in terms of peace of mind, there's a lot to be said for having a car you just don't need to worry about—but that's hard to put a price on.

If you could replace this car with something more reliable for the price of repairing it, that would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I don't think that's in the cards.

A used Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, vintage 2001—two cars that are known to be reliable—would go for about $7000. Would a new, reliable car be worth a $4000 peace-of-mind premium over your current one? Only you can answer that. And if you answer it in the affirmative, where does the money come from? Dunno. But if I were in your shoes, I would try to make that happen. See if your bank will loan you the money, and start poring over Craigslist.
posted by adamrice at 9:11 AM on July 19, 2007

my mama always said 'keep your car until you are on a first name basis with the tow truck driver.' Sounds like you might be there.
posted by Gregamell at 9:15 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Should I keep sinking money into this piece 'o junk?

No. You're done. As Optamystic says, this is so, so not the end of the repair road for an Impala.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:24 AM on July 19, 2007

American Cars suck. Buy a 1995 Honda Accord for whatever this repair would cost and you'll be happy forever.
posted by thilmony at 9:54 AM on July 19, 2007

Best answer: Frankly, I'm not surprised by your experience with Chevy. I consider them the worst cars on the road -- bar none -- for overall reliability, workmanship, materials and even style. I had an '01 Tahoe and dumped it three years later after it gave me all sorts of mechanical problems, while mouldings came loose and the interior roof panel kept falling down. And every time I see a car with a headlight or parking light out it is invariably a Chevy. No wonder they're in such trouble. Get rid of it -- and good luck.
posted by terrier319 at 10:00 AM on July 19, 2007

I've been you. The unexpected, always expensive, car repairs killed my monthly budget when I just didn't have wiggle room. When my last car was giving me trouble (I sunk about $2,000 into a car worth about $500 in the last three months) I thought I was gonna either kill myself or my car. I went car shopping and ended up buying a brand new car. I always swore I'd never buy new, but new car dealers are anxious to sell and offer some awesome financing that you can't get anywhere else (my total cost of financing is $800). I don't think bad credit will hold you back as much as you think - they also would have used my clunker as a trade-in. I bought a bottom of the line Toyota Yaris (no a/c, manual windows) and it worked out cheaper than an older, reliable car. Cars with a reputation for reliability also have a price premium in the used car market so you are faced with the choice of paying a lot more than you wanted or getting a cheaper car that someone else was deferring repairs to (plus paying used car lot interest rates). The monthly payments mean I can plan my finances better and I shouldn't have any unexpected repairs because of the warranty. I'm saving a lot on gas and the Canadian gov't is giving me $1000 for buying an eco-friendly car (I don't know if the US has similiar programmes). So, I am pretty happy with my decision although it seemed a bit of jump at the time. Good luck with your decision.
posted by saucysault at 10:20 AM on July 19, 2007

According to the Kelly Blue Book, the private party resale value of this car, even in "fair" condition, is $4,925. So while it may be a POS and in obvious need of immediate mechanical repair, once fixed it it should be worth ~$5k to someone, somewhere.

Before getting it fixed, I would check with GM and see if there might be some sort of recall. A little bit of Googling reveals that a lot of people have similar complaints about the head gaskets on these vehicles, and they seem to focus on the use of GM's DexCool coolant additive. (It also appears there may have been a recall for the failed intake manifold gasket you also mention you suffered through.) Recalls are issued via technical service bulletins, or TSBs, so armed with info about your specific engine model (i.e., 3.4 or 3.8 liter V6), you can peruse the TSB's for these motors at a site like This will give you the various titles and a brief summary of the TSBs for your specific car/engine. Next, use the Find function in your browser and search the AllData results page for the words "gasket" or "coolant". AllData would like to sell you the actual contents of the TSB, but nothing says you can't take the TSB number you glean from their site and feed that back into Google to read the full contents somewhere else. Once you have a possible TSB number, you can go to your local dealership and see if they will fix the motor under warranty. It may be something of a longshot, but it shouldn't take more than an hour and a few phone calls to see if there's merit in this approach.

Good luck!
posted by mosk at 10:34 AM on July 19, 2007

Best answer: Your previous repair history and costs are immaterial to the question of fixing or replacing this car, unless the repair involved were a repeat or a related issue, of something you'd previously repaired. Frankly, some of what you've related ("Later on, the entire rear brake system failed and that set me back ~$1,200.") sounds like you've been had by previous repair shops. That, particularly, is just a poor explanation of a very, very expensive repair, for what should have been, at the very outside, a $250 repair of rear brakes. $800 for a steering column lock cylinder? Ridiculous. But that's all sunk cost, which you can't consider in the current situation.

Currently, the Kelly Blue Book trade-in value for a car like yours, in the 48205 zip code, in fair condition, with 75,000 miles, base trim and options, is $3380. In "good" condition, it could be as much as $4,100. If you were able to sell to another private party, Kelly Blue Book, would suggest that you would get from $4925, to $5545 for the car. With a payoff of $2500, you could afford from $1280 to $3045 for the repair, depending on what you'd do to dispose of the car when repaired, according to Kelly Blue Book valuations.

So, if a head gasket is blown, but there is no other mechanical damage, you might be able to have the engine repaired for as little as $300 to $500, most of that being labor, as gaskets for the head, intake, and exhaust manifolds, which would all have to be replaced on the cylinder bank with the blown gasket, aren't that expensive. But, unfortunately, head gaskets, in my experience, don't usually just blow. They fail as a result of something else going badly wrong, and remaining unattended. Perhaps you had a minor coolant leak, or a bad radiator cap, and your coolant level dropped without you noticing. If the engine overheated substantially, you could have significant internal damage beyond something as simple as a head gasket, such that a complete engine swap would be your best economic repair. Unfortunately, if you can buy a junkyard engine, and get it swapped in for $1500, on a commercial basis, I'd think you got a pretty fair price, and it could be much more.

In "poor" condition (i.e. with major mechanical problems), you're not going to find an online value that is reliable. The car is worth, in trade, whatever somebody has to tell you, to get you to sign a contract on another car, and your existing loan value will be rolled into the new car contract, meaning you'll be "underwater" the whole time you own the next car, too, unless you can afford very steep payments on a 2 or 3 year loan.

On the numbers, you should probably have the car repaired. If you don't think the vehicle is trustworthy thereafter, or if you're just tired of it, sell or trade it in as good a running condition as you can, thereafter.
posted by paulsc at 10:53 AM on July 19, 2007

Incidentally, the cost of changing a head gasket is about 10% materials and 90% labor. I changed out a gasket myself once. It was under $200 worth of parts, but two days of unpleasant work, and needed specialized tools. If more rebuilding/replacing is needed beyond just the head gasket, that number skews to about 25/75, but still you're mostly paying for labor.

Firstly, I nth the advice is to invest in a late 90's or early aughts Honda Civic/Accord or Toyota Corolla/Camry. Get something that's going to last long enough for you to pay it off, then once it's paid off start putting the same amount you were paying monthly into a money market account, so that next time you'll be paying cash for your car instead-- you'll get a better deal, and this time, you'll be the one earning the compound interest instead of the bank. If you are absolutely, totally stuck with no way to afford anything but an utter junker, I've had good luck with late 80's early 90's Mopar K cars and the like (Dodge/Plymouth Omni/Horizon/Shadow/Charger/Reliant/Spirit/etc), look like junk but relatively easy to fix and parts are abundant because Chrysler put that 2.2/2.5L engine into just about everything.

Having said that, if you still want to fix the junker, you might do better on repair cost if you replace the whole engine. Junkyard pulls can often be found for under $500, and rebuilt for under $1000. If anything more than the head gasket needs repair or replacement, you're likely better off from a cost perspective to replace the whole engine. A reputable mechanic would offer you that as an option as well, despite the fact that it doesn't give the garage nearly as much billable time.
posted by leapfrog at 10:59 AM on July 19, 2007

nthing get out from under this however possible and buy a late 90's, early 00's Civic/Accord or Corolla/Camry. While these cars are generally bulletproof, it might be worth the $50 inspection you can get at a local dealer if you are buying it from an independant person.

In general terms, those cars will run and run and run forever as long as you keep oil, gasoline, and coolant in them.

Alternatively, if one of your local dealers is having a push/pull/drag sale, you could probably get out from under your old car note, and get a very economical car, albeit at not much of a discount from sticker (that's where your trade value comes from). Think Kia or Hyundai. Those won't last 15 years and still work like new like Honda or Toyota, but they'll be dependable vehicles for the next 5-7 WITHOUT massive repair bills.

Good luck to you.
posted by Ynoxas at 1:35 PM on July 19, 2007

Have you tried to sell the car? Trying to sell it doesn't mean you have to sell it. We had an old car with unresolved issues that we figured we could trade-in for $1,000 if the salesman was hungry. We knew we could get more in a private-party sale, but it seemed dishonest to sell someone our problem like that. We took the car in for estimates to a few mechanics, to see how much it would cost to get the car in a condition where we wouldn't feel bad selling it to someone. The owner of the second shop offered to buy it for $2,200 cash. We thought it over, and sold it to him a week later. Everyone was happy. We could have come out a bit more ahead by fixing it and selling it private-party, but we were spared a lot of hassle, and it was worth it.
posted by Mozzie at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2007

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