Should I get a new car?
March 11, 2008 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Should I keep my Saturn that suddenly needs quite a few expensive repairs or get a new car?

I have a 2000 Saturn SL1 automatic. I've had few problems since I bought it used five years ago, but I also haven't taken the best care of it either. I have gotten the oil changed regularly but haven't had a good tune up in probably over a year. Maybe even two.

Suddenly, it has many issues. I just dropped $280 getting a variety of small things repaired. Then this last weekend, I had to replace the front brakes and they found a host of additional problems. The fuel pump needs to be replaced pretty badly, which will cost about $600 including some other work that needs to be done to clean some other area of the car out to make the fuel pump work better. Then the top engine mount is broken, a small oil leak is forming and a few other things that will cost another $500 - $600. Just FYI, I'm taking it to the dealer, which is probably a bit more expensive than other options but on the other hand, seems trustworthy.

I'm just about to make my last payment! I'd been looking forward to a time with no car payment, but now I'm wondering whether I should just buy a new car. (Looking at the Honda Fit.)

Any advice? Anyone who has a Saturn who can give me an idea of how well they do as they age? Is this just a fluke or will the car continue to be a money pit at this point?

Thanks much!
posted by jenfu to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total)
Every car's lifetime is different, but the repairs you've mentioned are certainly cheaper than a Honda Fit.
posted by unixrat at 5:55 AM on March 11, 2008

buy a new car. i have a 1998 sl2 and over the course of the last three months spent over a thousand dollars on various repairs to fix what ailed it, only to have my trusted mechanic show me an additional hairline crack that to replace would have been the value of the car. just walk away from the car, bite the bullet and go with something new. car payments suck, but not having a working vehicle sucks more.
posted by ms.jones at 5:55 AM on March 11, 2008

A new car will likely involve $300-$400 monthly payments for 5 years. What are the odds that the Saturn will cost you between $3600 and $4800 in any one year, let alone 4 or 5 in a row? About the most expensive repair on a car is rebuilding or replacing the auto transmission, and that for most vehicles is about $2000. Once a car is paid for driving it for as long as you possibly can is almost always the best financial decision. If you want a new car buy a new car, just don't fool yourself into thinking you did it because it's a smart financial decision.
posted by COD at 5:59 AM on March 11, 2008

I've got a 2002 SL standard 5-speed that I bought used from the dealer in August of '07, which is my second Saturn. I like it. That said, I just had to drop about $1600 in repairs on it that I didn't know were coming. I still think it's worthwhile, even though that was a pricey bill. I don't expect anymore big repair bills, but then who does? Shit happens. Even so, the thing is fun to drive (I don't like automatics) and comfortable. I have more than 4 years to go on my payments, which are pretty low. I'm going to keep it that long and longer if at all possible.

I drive my cars into the ground. I'll keep this thing as long as I can unless my financial situation changes for the better and I can afford the Porsche of my dreams. I'd advise you to make the repairs, try to stay more on top of maintenance, and keep the car as long as you can. A 2000 is pretty old, but if you can keep it for 2 more years without significant repairs and if you're good to it, I think you will be doing yourself a favor. You can save your pennies during that time for a bigger down payment, perhaps.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:02 AM on March 11, 2008

I have a 2001 Saturn sedan, with about 140,000 miles. It has aged well overall, with very little outside of regular maintenance needed for most of its life. Last summer an axle broke, and currently I am dealing with a leaking antifreeze issue. Other than that, it is hanging in there fine.

How many miles are on your car?

How much was your car payment? Assuming it was about $250, and you are looking at about $1,000 worth of repair you could just consider this four or five months more of car payments, then you will be clear. Keep in mind the car payments for a new car will likely be higher than what you were paying, plus your insurance will be higher, etc.

As honest as your dealer might seem, it never hurts to get a second opinion. I thought my dealer was honest too, but it turns out they are either less trustworthy than I believed, or less competent. Either way, I don't bring my car there anymore.
posted by mikepop at 6:06 AM on March 11, 2008

In my experience, a new car is never worth the money you pay. Within a couple of years it will have halved in value.

If you feel that your current car is starting to reach that point where you're just pouring money into it, look at buying something a little newer. Look for something that's been owned by someone boring and middle-aged, and that doesn't have too many miles on the clock. Get it thoroughly checked out by someone you trust - if you don't know a good mechanic (and it sounds like you don't), ask around - you must have a friend or relative who knows someone.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:07 AM on March 11, 2008

Absolutely don't buy a new car. The problems you mentioned--fuel pump replacement, new front brakes--are common, unavoidable issues for a car that age, and are irrelevant to your failure to replace the oil regularly.

Even if you do care for the car more consistently in the future--which you should, now that it's reaching middle age--you'll encounter these niggling issues down the road. Stick with the vehicle, and set aside $1000 each year for minor repair problems. (On good years, you'll use much less than this amount).
posted by Gordion Knott at 6:10 AM on March 11, 2008

I has a 1997 Saturn SL1 that I drove from May of 2000 until February of this year. I put over 235,000 miles on. I beat on that car a lot through college and it never let me down. Judging on what I've seen elsewhere on the web, those cars last a while. It may be worth your time putting a few more years on the car. I imagine that the money you'll drop this month is going to be cheaper per month over a year's time than buying a new car will be.

In closing, I also second the people that suggest getting a used car. They really are a better value for your money. I just replaced my Saturn mentioned above with a 2006 4-Cyl Saturn Vue. If you get one that
posted by chitchcock at 6:17 AM on March 11, 2008

Go somewhere else besides the dealer. If they're charging you to "clean out the area to make the fuel pump work better", it's blinker fluid. That said: it's a bitch to get drop the fuel tank and replace the fuel pump - but that's part of the book rate (the standard # of hours they charge you for a particular repair). Also, the fuel pump either works or doesn't - it's not a "wear" item like the brakes, and my experience with Saturns is to change the fuel *filter* ($100 + 1/2 hour) fixes a lot of fuel issues.

Dealerships don't make their nut on new cars. They make it on warrantees, and people who will only go to the dealership for repairs, so they can pay 120/hour for mechanics that couldn't hack it at 90/hr private repair places.
posted by notsnot at 6:39 AM on March 11, 2008

Thanks everyone for your help!

I'll get my car fixed and hope for the best. I do have a recommendation for another repair place so I may take it there.

And, yeah, I know getting a new car is kind of dumb, but I've never had one before and, well, it would be kind of nice.
posted by jenfu at 7:05 AM on March 11, 2008

There are many reasons to buy a new car (safety, reliability, keeping up with the Jonses, etc) but saving money is not one of them. It is guaranteed to be cheaper to keep your current car (especially if you find a decent mechanic who will only fix what needs to be fixed; CarTalk has mechanic recommendations, or ask around with people you know), so don't try to justify the new car on "but these repairs are expensive!" grounds.

That said, the Honda Fit is almost guaranteed to be a better car than your Saturn, and will probably have fewer problems at the same age. But you will pay for that -- another four or five years of car payments that you could have used to go on vacation or save for your retirement or to buy a new computer every couple of months or whatever makes you happy.
posted by Forktine at 7:08 AM on March 11, 2008

I'm still driving a '95 Saturn SL1, 210k+ miles... and no immediate plans to stop. It needs a repair every 4-6 months now and needs to be oil-level nursed a bit, but it is still easily worth it. I've gone as far as to replace the heads to milk it even longer, and have seriously considered getting a rebuilt engine for it just to milk it for a few more years, so I am firmly in the "milk it until it explodes" camp.

The financials are just too good: no car payment, and super-cheap insurance because there's no reason to carry anything beyond the legally-required state minimum. You end up saving way more than enough money to handle the repairs versus newer vehicle payments and full coverage -- that's why the conventional wisdom is that it's almost always cheaper to repair a car than replace it.

I've become so addicted to the savings at this point that I don't think I'll replace mine until it becomes completely unreliable or unrepairable -- no sign of either yet.
posted by Pufferish at 7:58 AM on March 11, 2008

This question is impossible to answer until you tell us how many miles are on that car.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:24 AM on March 11, 2008

Same here -- I just sold my 98 SL2 in July with over 140,000 miles on it. Never had any serious problems and I could probably have driven it a few more years.
posted by drinkcoffee at 8:32 AM on March 11, 2008

Definitely get a second opinion on what it needs to have fixed. As notsnot says, either the fuel pump works or it doesn't. However, if the fuel pump has suddenly become noisy, that's your warning that it's getting ready to not work anymore. (By the way, the top engine mount on that car is laughably easy to replace.)

This is somewhere where having a good mechanic comes in handy. Finding one you can trust and that does good work can be tough. Which is why you want to do it ahead of time. Dealerships are very impersonal, and it's pretty hard to build a relationship with their shop or mechanics. An independent mechanic that you've established a business relationship with will be much more likely to deal straight with you, and to work with you to find the right solution for the current situation. Not to mention that if the car dies on the road and you have to have it towed in, you're going to feel better having it taken to someone you know rather than throwing yourself at the mercy of the dealership.
posted by azpenguin at 8:38 AM on March 11, 2008


For what it's worth, I'm in the market for a new car. I've been looking at all kinds of options, including Saturns. And I've been soliciting input from everyone I know.

Now, it's all anecdotal, but I'm hearing nothing but "RUN AWAY!" about Saturn. Specifically one person said that from month #6, it was a neverending parade of $200 repair here, $300 quick fix there... and in the end the repairs cost a lot of cash.

Also, I just finished watching Who Killed The Electric Car and I'm feeling less than charitable towards GM.
posted by ImJustRick at 9:49 AM on March 11, 2008

For years, I drove a 1992 Saturn, and I loved that car. By the time I sold it (to a relative) it had something like 165K on it, and it was still going. I bought my current car--another Saturn--in 2003 and haven't had any problems with it. My aunt, who bought my old car, is still driving that, too, and it's humming along just fine.

I have to say that despite the age of my first Saturn, I never felt like I was throwing tons of money at it. I was young and fairly abusive to the poor car (cross country--and back!--without so much as an oil change) and I think that the most expensive thing that I ever had to do was replace the break pads. My aunt has reported that she's not had to do much to it, either. My current car isn't old enough that I've had to replace anything yet, just regular tune-ups and oil changes.

Get someone else to look at the car--not the dealership, but a reputable local mechanic. What you're experiencing sounds like a fluke to me.
posted by meghanmiller at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2008

I'm still driving my 98 Saturn wagon with 160,000 miles on it and in the 10 years I've owned it, it's only ever needed one big repair: a new clutch 2 years ago. I love my Saturn; it's still running great; I would estimate that over these 10 years I've probably spent <$2000 on repairs, maintenance and everything. Also, OP, the dealer said my Saturn needed a new engine mount - I waited like 3 years to get it done and nothing terrible or even slightly worrying happened. So don't sweat that one.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:00 AM on March 11, 2008

My car has 108,000 miles on it.

I'm going to take it to a mechanic a friend recommended, but honestly I'm not good at "building relationships" with mechanics. I feel nervous the whole time I'm in a car shop and am not very chatty.
posted by jenfu at 10:14 AM on March 11, 2008


- find an excellent non-dealership garage
- use them for all scheduled maintenance (30k, 60k, oil changes)
- consider a used Honda or Toyota as your next car

Longer advice about repair costs and how to think about them follows.

Separate the scheduled, normal wear-out stuff (brake pads) from the surprise stuff (fuel pump).

The former stuff is going to happen at about the same rare with any car, the latter happens more often, more unpredictably, and more expensively on some models and makes than others. This latter class of problems is the variable.

Of your $10k over 10 years, how much of it was on "surprise! that's not supposed to wear out" stuff? $2000? $1000? That's the true above-and-beyond cost for this car.

Second, were you using a dealership for the repairs? Smack yourself in the forehead now. An excellent independent mechanic should cost 1/3 - 1/2 what the dealer charges.

If the surprise repair expenses are especially high (say, over $2000 in the past three years), then consider getting a used single-owner 100k+ Honda or Toyota for around $5k. They're great, well engineered cars, and they rarely fail in surprising ways. My early 90s Honda was going strong at 200k miles until I totaled it, and IIRC there was only one surprise repair its entire life ($300 at most).
posted by zippy at 10:34 AM on March 11, 2008

I've owned six Saturns (well, I like 'em!) My experience is that they run virtually maintenance-free for about 120,000 to 150,000 miles, and then they fall apart. We have always gotten either a GREAT trade-in (from the Saturn dealer) or sold them above blue book, so I'd say get a new car.
posted by nax at 1:00 PM on March 11, 2008

I'd have to disagree with the comments about the monthly payment being an issue. The issue is depreciation on the old versus new. The new car will depreciate more than the old one. Your cost for the car doesn't go from your $250/month payment to zero once you pay it off. I realize that the monthly payment affects cash flow but it should be irrelevant for this analysis. I agree with the other posters about balancing maintenance's just tough to predict when the big one is coming.

I also challenge you to start saving your monthly payments and pay for the next one in cash!
posted by rholly at 4:13 PM on March 11, 2008

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