What do we do with our broken car?
July 30, 2008 7:16 AM   Subscribe

What do I do with our broken car? (Long explanation) We have a 2001 S40 Turbo. Despite following the standard maintenance schedule and ensuring oil/water, etc is always good, it's been a pain in then neck since we bought it in 2003. I think I've put more into it for repairs than I paid for it. The last 18 months it's had a problem with the temp gauge spiking and then dropping down to normal. We've had it in a half a dozen times and each time the mechanics replace the themostat and the heat sensor. That fixes it for a while and then 3 months later, boom ... it happens again. No one has ever found the problem, until now.

I was driving the other day and it redlined on temp so I pulled over. To my horror when I popped the hood it was spewing oil out of the dipstick.

Anyway, our mechanic says the radiator had a tiny crack in it and to fix it the cost was 500. He said he had to do that to drive it and find out what was wrong. He did that and now says the main problem is a blown head gasket. Now it's not even drivable. To fix the gasket problem and do the associated valve job will be $2600. He said it's possible he'll find other things once he opens up the head, so it could be more. The blue book on the car is only 4000-4600. Is it worth it to fix it or do we trash it? A new engine is 4000, which I wouldn't be interested in paying since thats the value of the car.

1) Did I get screwed by the mechanic on the radiator fix?
2) What the heck do I do with the car? Do we trash it, junk it? Can we get insurance to total it?

We've never been in a place like this so we're making choices blindly. Help!
posted by damiano99 to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Although I don't have an answer for you, I am in the exact same situation with a Volvo 960!

Fixing cars is difficult and Volvo is notoriously difficult to work on, even post Ford purchase. That's why you have guys that specialize in them and why Volvo drivers are picky about where they take them. I've owned two, soon three. So I wouldn't vote for getting screwed by your mechanic. The amount he made off of the radiator crack fix pales in comparison to the amount he'll make to fix the head gasket. From a purely economic standpoint, he stands to loose your trust and your business by screwing you initially and telling you later that the gasket would have to be replaced. Why not just be upfront about it and get the $4,600 without risking your ire?
I think it was an honest mistake on the mechanic's part or just going through the motions, doing a quick fix for cheap and hoping it would hold knowing that the the alternative would be more than the car is worth.

Good luck! I look forward to the discussion.
posted by willie11 at 7:30 AM on July 30, 2008

Unless he replaced the radiator $500.00 is a bit expensive for a "test drive". You can fix a small radiator leak with some $2.00 stuff from the autoparts store. Granted it is a temporary fix, but should have been good enough for the test drive. As far as replacing the head gasket, I would probably pass on it since the head could be warped, or even the block could be warped. A new gasket would not fix it.
posted by Gungho at 8:27 AM on July 30, 2008

The radiator problem and the head gasket problem may have been related. The leaking radiator caused overheating which then caused the head to warp and the gasket to fail. Assuming the car is to be fixed, the radiator needed to be replaced regardless. I don't think your mechanic is being unfair. You could argue that he should have done a test drive before fixing the radiator, but that is only true in hindsight. The radiator was the first obvious problem that needed to be fixed.

You might call around to get other estimates for a valve job. $2600 seems a little high, but considering it's a Volvo, not that outrageously high.

If the car is in otherwise good condition, repairing it is generally cheaper than replacing it. $2600 won't buy you anywhere near as good a car as the one you have now. Forget the blue book value. The question you should ask is what it would really cost you to replace this car. Generally it is more than blue book.

It shouldn't cost too much to pull the head so he can inspect for damage to the cylinders before deciding whether it is worth proceeding with a valve job.
posted by JackFlash at 8:33 AM on July 30, 2008

Volvo's are one of those makes where the mechanic does matter, a lot. I've owned 8 Volvo's over the years and run al of them up to 2-300k miles but the only reason I was able to do that was because of my mechanic who only works on Volvo's.

I'd start off by searching out a highly recommended Volvo specialist in your area and get a second opinion from them before you make a decision about your next course of action. That will give you some more data from a different source to work from.
posted by iamabot at 8:43 AM on July 30, 2008

1 - Yes, I think that you got screwed by your mechanic in general. And, if you paid $500 for the latest "repair," then you got screwed on that as well.

2 - Take it somewhere else, preferably to a Volvo specialist (in my area there are many) or maybe even the dealer. Give them the whole history and get a free estimate. Junking it seems like a waste unless the problems really turn out to be more than a head gasket. Also, $2600 sounds high for a head gasket. As for getting insurance to "total it," it is unlikely that your insurance covers this at all. Why would it? Do you have some kind of extended warranty? If not, you are probably out of pocket on this.

Your mechanic sounds to me like he sucks. He replaced the thermostat and the heat sensor six and never found that the real problem was something different? Could this inattention have actually caused the blown head gasket? I would not go back to this guy at all, and I would consider charging back what you have already paid to him.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 8:45 AM on July 30, 2008

Replacing peripheral cooling system parts is a common prelude to a blown head gasket diagnosis. I don't think your mechanic screwed you. If I were you, I'd get out from under this car -- sell the body for $1,000.

Coolant mixing with oil does no favors to the rest of your engine, and even after a head/valve job, you may still have problems with oil consumption and bearing failures.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:18 AM on July 30, 2008

Replacing peripheral cooling system parts is a common prelude to a blown head gasket diagnosis.

Maybe, but they replaced the thermostat and heat sensor 6 times. I think that 's a little thick - after 2 times I would think that they'd start looking for other causes. I think they are more guilty of not spending the time to look at other reasons for your overheating problem - the radiator is an obvious place to look, even for a non-mechanic like myself. If it were me, I would be incredibly pissed that it went so far that you blew a gasket. Can you negotiate with them for a discount on the work? I think they were pretty lame, all in all.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:34 AM on July 30, 2008

I don't own a Volvo and I'm not a professional mechanic, but I do know a few things about turbo motors -- as a hobbyist and as the owner/administrator of a web site devoted to a particular Toyota turbo motor. So here are a few thoughts:

1. Head gasket failure is much more common on turbo motors. The in-cylinder pressures are greater, and the motor in general is subject to considerably more heat and stress. This is widely known and thus should be on the short list of things to look for when a turbo motor is brought into the shop with any sort of cooling system problem.

2. Coolant leakage can be determined with a very simple pressure tester that any shop worth its grease guns owns. It takes 15 minutes to test a cooling system, and 10 minutes of that is waiting to see if the system leaks down after it's been pressurized.

3. It is equally easy to check for exhaust gases in the cooling system (a sure sign of head gasket failure and/or a cracked block or head). NAPA sells a kit for $50 that can be used without any special tools.

In light of the above, and how common a problem this is, I don't think the mechanic did a very thorough job of researching the problem(s) before charging you for parts. Bad mechanic! Take the vehicle somewhere else next time.
posted by mosk at 10:00 AM on July 30, 2008

A quick note about ditching the car vs repairing it: try not to think about "why should I put this much in, the car's not worth that much" and instead think about how much it is worth to you.

If you ditch the car, you'll be getting very little for it since it's broken, and you'll have to replace it. Is it more expensive to fix it than it is to sell and replace it? If so, then ditch -- but if not (which is likely) then you'll need to decide if fixing it will give you a reliable car again, or a car that will continue to have problems and cost you more.

Given the past history, and the fact that blown head gaskets often lead to other issues down the road, odds are you won't end up with a trouble-free car. On the other hand, you had a bad mechanic, and perhaps with a good one your repair costs will go down significantly, and your reliability will go up. Hard to say. I had a VW Jetta I couldn't afford to keep running, but tried one more mechanic on a whim who was a hard-core German car guy, and he fixed (for $20!) something that had stymied other mechanics for over a year, and I kept the car for a few years more -- but what are the odds of that happening?

Ultimately there's a cost to the effort and the uncertainty, too, so be sure to factor that into your decision of which solution will be more valuable.
posted by davejay at 1:16 PM on July 30, 2008

Wait, wait, the same mechanic replaced the temp sensor and thermostat six times!. I'm not at all surprised you need a head gasket now, because here's what I think happened...

There was something wrong with your cooling system all along. Perhaps the small crack was there all along and they never did a pressure test. Perhaps it was very small and halfway up the radiator, causing you to slowly lose coolant (and cooling ability) until your next overheating episode and subsequent thermostat/temp sensor job after which the coolant was refilled to the top after the work was done. Perhaps it was something else, and your latest overheating episode just over pressurized the system and caused a small crack at a stress point. But whatever the underlying problem was, your mechanic SUCKS because he didn't realize that you don't replace a thermostat six times in a row! Something else was clearly wrong! Ever heard that joking definition of insanity as doing the same thing expecting a different result? That is your mechanic.

Because of his incompetence, you've overheated 7 times now, ultimately leading to a blown head gasket. Now he's charged you $500 to replace a radiator for a test drive when he could have done a temporary epoxy job to take it for a spin. He's also caused you to need a headgasket job by not finding the underlying problem. And who knows, your head could be warped also by now, meaning an even more expensive job than the $2600 quoted.

In short, I think you should dump this mechanic like a crazy ex and run for the hills. You can decide on your own whether risking the chance that you need more than a new headgasket is worth attempting the gasket job, but you should find a new mechanic ASAP.

Finally, if you are tight on money, you should realize that replacing the engine for $4000 is almost certainly cheaper than buying another car, especially a new one.
posted by no1hatchling at 4:03 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's now occured to me that your headgasket may have been on it's way out all along. Still, your mechanic should have done a hydrocarbon test of your coolant long before replacing the thermostat or temp gauge multiple multiple times. I don't think he's very good.
posted by no1hatchling at 4:09 PM on July 30, 2008

That pressure spike and then normal scenario is indicative of air in the cooling system. The thermostat opens when it is in contact with hot water- it's just a mechanical device that reacts to heat. If there is an air bubble, it won't conduct the heat well enough to get the thermostat open in time. So the gauge reads (correctly) HOT!!! but the thermostat doesn't "know" how hot it is until it gets really hot.

Now, where does the air come from, and why does fixing it solve the problem for a while? Leaky head gasket. Every operation cycle, it leaks a small amount of air into the cooling system. A tiny bubble here and there. After a few weeks, this develops into a pocket large enough to cause that temp cycle problem. When the mechanic "fixed" the problem, he had to drain and refill the cooling system and purge the air.

What to do now?

That's an expensive job. If the motor is in that bad of shape, consider replacing the whole motor. Because you can't know what other damage might have been caused. And it might be cheaper in the long run.
posted by gjc at 5:16 PM on July 30, 2008

I've owned Volvos and I am a mechanic. The blown head gasket being fixed will temporarily solve your problem, giving you a car to drive while you look for it's replacement. If, on the other hand, all of the other systems in this vehicle are good, I would strongly recommend that you go to a local Volvo Specialist and have them insert a used motor from a car whose body is not longer viable. The Volvo engine, even with Ford being their parent, is a wonderfully rebuildable product until it's been soaked in water. From that point its virtues become inconsistent. If it were my car a different engine, not necessarily new, put in place by a competent specialist, would be my first option.
posted by ptm at 5:15 AM on July 31, 2008

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