Stories Told

When do you give up on your car?

Ford Toyota

I’ve had a run of bad luck with my two little cars this year. The Ford Focus has seen my mechanic three times. In February, the power-steering pump failed. In March, a check-engine light led to replacing the thermostat and its housing. And then in April, the alternator died – in 65 mph Interstate traffic at 9:30 at night. I limped along at 25 mph on the shoulder and managed to get off the highway before the car shut down entirely. On top of that, my high-mileage Toyota Matrix needed a new axle half shaft and brakes all around. I’ve now invested $2,400 into keeping my two cars going this year. A lot of that cost is labor, as both cars cram the engine and all accessories into tiny spaces, necessitating removing lots of stuff to get at the dead part. Replacing the Focus’s alternator involved lifting the engine partway out of the car!

Repairs are part of the territory when you buy cars that are 6 to 8 years old and then drive ‘em into the ground, like I do. But my opinion about a car changes dramatically when it leaves me stranded. The car has breached a basic trust, and I think seriously about replacing it.

I came really close to putting a For Sale sign in the Focus’s window. But given all the other things competing for my dollars this year and my severe car-payment allergy, I’ve decided to stick with my two old cars. For now. If they don’t act up any more.

How much nonsense do you put up with from your car before you give up and replace it?

I also posted a version of this at Curbside Classic, a site about old cars and their stories. Check it out!

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30 thoughts on “When do you give up on your car?

  1. bwc1976 says:

    I loved my 1998 Saturn which I bought in 2004. It was the first (and only) car I ever bought with less than 100,000 miles on it, and had the smoothest most forgiving clutch and torquiest engine of any stick-shift car I’ve ever owned. Later that year it got a small coolant leak, but I learned to live with it and always keep extra antifreeze in the trunk. But starting in late 2009 problems started piling up faster than I could afford to fix them, and in spring 2010 I was starting a job with the U.S. Census which required a lot of driving around unfamiliar neighborhoods and I could no longer accept a car whose driver door window wouldn’t roll up and that leaked coolant like a sieve.

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    • I love driving stick-shift cars. My first 2003 Matrix had the five speed and I miss that.

      When you have to keep spare fluids in the trunk, it’s definitely a sign that your car is on its way out.

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  2. Lone Primate says:

    My friend P-Doug just traded in his car of 16 years. Guy turning left cut him off, and slamming on the brakes he baked them and broke his engine mount. The $3500 it was going to cost to fix it was beyond the pale, so he finally said good-bye and bought another car for the decades. :)

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      • Lone Primate says:

        So I’m told. :) He was ready to spend two grand fixing the brakes but when they told him he broke the engine mount, the difference was too great. As it is, they gave him $500 and cubed the thing. But sixteen years, wow. When I was a kid, Dad used to trade cars in every three years (as a young man, he was an Olds man). The conventional wisdom back then was that was about as long as you had before they started giving you trouble. And I remember us having a fair amount of trouble with cars back then even within the three-year “grace” period. Japanese competition really changed the game. You, for example, seem confident in buying used cars now with the expectation of getting your money’s worth. It’s nice we’ve come that far. :)

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        • Yeah, a decent entry-level car should give you no less than 150,000 miles of service with no major repairs. That statement would have blown anyone’s mind in 1980.

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  3. I usually figure that I can pay for a lot of repairs compared to what car payments would cost me. Still when the car gets to where it breaks down at inconvenient times and places I get to thinking it might be time for another one. The last time I had a breaking point was when my car had trouble a couple of times within a month while I was in rush hour traffic in Chicago.

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    • Lone Primate says:

      I don’t like having a rolling car payment but I’m more inclined to spend a little more knowing (or at least, feeling justified in the idea that) the car’s going to be reliable and not strand me someplace. I had my Dad’s hand-me-down Cutlass Supreme for four years and it cost me eight thousand dollars to keep it on the road over that time. I probably saved money on car payments, but it seemed like I was never through getting it fixed. I got a new Kia Specta after that an in five years it never gave me a moment’s trouble (aside from being rear-ended six months into the lease). I’ve had a second Spectra for five years and the only problem with it (so far) has been a chip in the ignition system failing to recognize the one in the key and refusing to start the car… which was under warrantee. I guess what I mean is I’m willing to pay a premium not to be inconvenienced. :)

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  4. KeithM says:

    I think we all fall into the trap of “I’ll fix this, and then everything will be fine, and it’ll go for four more years.” I’m struggling with the same question. I have a 2003 Jaguar that’s been pretty reliable over the years, but since December has cost me about $5000 in repairs–and a new mysterious noise just started a week ago. Do I put more money into it, hoping that this is the last of the problems? Or do I trade it in? Decisions, decisions.

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    • Yup, that’s exactly it. I’ve decided with the Focus that one more repair >= $300 this year will spell its demise, at least as a resident of my driveway.

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  5. Walter Czyz says:

    Keep the cars! Sure, you’ll replace a few more parts down the road , no pun intended, but you’ll still be ahead as far as cost vs payments. You’ll also have two cars which you know the history of. I’ve always wondered why most people have to get a new car, simply because a friend or neighbor did. It’s my Polish grandmothers upbringing I guess…..

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    • It was when the Focus stranded me that I started to lose confidence in it. That was the real key. I took it on a longish trip over the weekend into central Illinois, and it behaved very well, so that does help restore my confidence a little.

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  6. bodegabayf2 says:

    I drive a nine year old car right now with 75,000 miles on it. While I appreciate and would love to own a brand new car, I have better things to do with the money.

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    • Word. I’m not all that hot on brand-new cars, but I wouldn’t mind one that’s a lot newer. But like you, I’d rather sink the money into other things.

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  7. Honestly, we’ve rarely “given up” on a car. Either our cars were totaled in an accident (two – and both were my husband’s cars while on the job – he does home health) or traded in due to a major life change.

    The first trade-in was when I completed my doctorate and got my first “big girl” job. I rewarded myself with a new car because we were moving all of our crap and our two precious kitties and I needed a reliable car to make the trip, and because I was teaching in the summers at one of our extended campuses and was driving the interstate nearly every day for about an hour each way. Our second trade-in was when we were preparing for the arrival of our daughter and needed a “Mommy car” to safely transport a newborn (and to make it easier on me as I got into the late stages of pregnancy).

    I like the freedom that comes from not having a car payment, but when it comes to my daughter, it’s all about safety and storage capacity. I am seriously considering trading in my Scion in two years for a Chevy Equinox or similar vehicle because the Scion just doesn’t have enough storage/hauling space. Whether it’s groceries, home improvement stuff, luggage for trips, or even large toys, it’s a challenge fitting stuff in the trunk of the Scion. But for leg room and comfort, as well as reliability, I think it’s a great car. The last several cars we’ve bought have been used in order to minimize the monthly car payment since we are stashing cash for college for the kiddo (and, God help me, I’m going to start a wedding fund soon – I do not even want to think about it but it seems the smartest way to prepare for “the big day” that may come).

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    • If I could rewind the clock 15 years I would have fought 5x as hard to convince the now-ex to start college funds. But now I’m in a place, after getting out of the debt incurred because of the divorce, where I’m unable to save enough in time for my older son to go off to college. So I’m just living frugally, trying to avoid debt, and hoping for the best. One of the ways I’m living frugally is in driving paid-for cars.

      I love my Matrix, by the way, for storage and hauling. The wayback is capacious, and when you fold down the rear seats it becomes absolutely cavernous.

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      • Who makes the Matrix? One little snag though, is that I can’t fold down the rear seats because that’s where my child’s booster seat is. And I RARELY, if ever, drive without my child in the car since I’m the primary caregiver for her – unless I’m going from her school to my office or vice versa.

        My sister is also having difficulty convincing her spouse of the value of a college fund. If we had kids right after marriage, we probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to start one – one of the few benefits of being… “challenged reproducers.” Hopefully, your child’s scholastic achievements plus your demonstration of financial need will make him eligible for a lot of aid in the form of grants or scholarships. Worst case scenario is that he would take out student loans and maybe by the time he graduates, you could help him pay them back or he would get a job that would allow him to bear the loan burden himself.

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        • Toyota makes the Matrix. I’ve owned two; I’d own a third. The car really works for me. But you’re right, only two rows of seats would be a problem for you.

          See my earlier post about the cost of college — I’m not sure my sons will qualify for anywhere near as much need-based aid as I did. But we’ll have to let the FAFSA people sort that all out.

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  8. Steve Miller says:

    The only vehicle I’ve given up on was a Chevy Colorado I’d bought new. Three months before the warranty expired, I replaced the heater blower; two months before the warranty, I replaced the heater blower; one month before the warranty expired, I replaced the heater blower switch. (Hah! I betcha thought you knew where I was going…)

    Where I was going was to my Toyota dealer, replacing the bright yellow Chevy — which I really liked for many reasons beyond its color — with a bright red V-6 FWD Tacoma. Toyotas had been reliable for me before; this truck has been reliable too, though Tacomas suffer from a rougher ride than one would expect.

    The Chevy was the only American vehicle I’ve owned. I guess the used SAAB i bought this winter as a beater sorta counts, since GM owned SAAB when this wagon was built. I had hoped to find a 900-series — the last true SAAB (other than the 9000) — but this car offers plenty of covered hauling capability. Plus it’s fun to drive but I have little enough invested that I can walk away should a big repair present itself.

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    • I owned a Chevy once. It was my first new car. Drove it 8 years and 150,000 miles. It needed some repairs but none were terribly expensive. I got a good one.

      I really like the look and size of the Colorado. If I were in the market for a small truck I’d consider one.

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  9. jon campo says:

    I have to say I would get rid of the Focus. I bought one new in 2004, in fact the only new car I ever bought, and had so much trouble with it I was almost able to return it under Connecticut’s lemon law, but missed the number of days in the shop by one. I still have it in fact, but it continues to be such a hassle that I seldom drive it. (single, no kids, bike to work) An awful car. On the plus side, I really got into cycling while the car was in the shop, and became obsessed. Aside from using my old film cameras, the bikes are a wonderful hobby, and keep me off any medication. I love your blog and really enjoy the pictures. Good luck with the cars.

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    • Goodness do I miss riding. I enjoy my two vintage Schwinns, a 1973 Collegiate 5-speed and a 1982 Collegiate 3-speed. But I ended up living in a part of town that is anything but bike friendly, and so I just don’t seem to make it onto my bikes very much anymore.

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  10. TinyTim says:

    I have a 12 year old Jaguar and I love it. People think it’s almost new and to this day people compliment me on it. However it needs around $1,200 of work – much of that just general maintenance stuff and stuff that can go wrong with a newer car. However, the sills of the car are also rusty which is not really worth fixing (too costly) and casts serious doubt over whether I should continue to pour money into the car.

    The problem is I don’t do car payments – if I had tens of thousands of dollars to spare I wouldn’t spend it on a car, so why would I do the same over a period of 3-5 years? I know at the end you can give the car back without paying off the full amount and start the process over again, but talk about being trapped in debt forever.

    And an even bigger problem is that I love my car, and after searching around there is NOTHING within my budget that I like more (if at all). If there was something else I was excited about it might be a different story, but now I’m faced with the prospect of swapping a car I love for a car I don’t particularly like. But the alternative is to spend money on something which might not have a lot of life left.

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    • I’m allergic to car payments, too. That’s why I asked this question in the first place — at what point does the cost of maintenance create the need to replace the car? So far, I’ve stuck with my two small hatchbacks.

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