How to tell when it's time to junk a car

Friday, June 9, 2006

Dear Tom and Ray: Please define "driving a car into the ground." I realize I'm on the downside of my '93 Toyota 4Runner's lifetime. I crossed 200,000 miles a month ago but would like to keep it for at least a year more. But in the meantime, little things are starting to go wrong. My air conditioning hasn't worked in five years, and now the heat doesn't work unless it's on high. I had the rust taken out, but it's reappeared stronger than ever. The car is far from being dead, but I wonder if it's in my best interest to get these repairs done, or just sock that potential cash away for the new vehicle. The AC estimate alone was something like $1,300, and the vehicle's blue-book value was around $2,500. AC and heat are optional in my book, but at some point, something is going to give. At what point do I just leave it by the road and walk to the nearest Toyota dealer and buy another truck?


Tom: It's simple. A car has been driven into the ground when the amount of money it requires to be roadworthy exceeds the amount you're willing to spend. So either the car WON'T go, or it's not SAFE for it to go anymore, and you don't want to pay the minimum necessary to keep it on the road. Then you reluctantly take the plates off it, pay somebody to tow it away, and consider the car "driven into the ground."

Ray: And while you certainly sound like you're coming in for a landing, Linley, you're not on the ground yet.

Tom: It's easy to be confused near the end of a car's life, when multiple things start to go wrong. But you have to separate "safety" issues from "convenience" issues. And everything you mention is a convenience issue.

Ray: Right. If you don't mind driving without AC, who cares? That's your business. It hasn't worked for five years. So what? My brother hasn't worked for 10.

Tom: The heat only works on the high setting. If you don't mind switching between wearing a parka and driving in your underwear, why should anyone else care? None of these issues makes the car unsafe to drive. So you're under no obligation to fix them. If you'd rather save the money than have air conditioning, that's fine.

Ray: Now, if you had a bad wheel bearing, a hole in the floor that allowed leaking exhaust to enter the cabin or a leaky brake line, that would be a safety issue, and you'd have to fix it -- or junk the car.

Tom: So, I'd have your favorite mechanic give the car a good once-over. If he finds any safety-related problems, you can see what they'll cost to fix and then make your decision.

Ray: But as long as the car is safe to drive, you can just keep driving it and save your money. Then when the time comes, and you just don't want to put any more money into it, call my brother. He'll make you an offer.

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