My conundrum is as follows: I am a graduate student with another 1.5 years left of school. I commute at least 200-300 miles a week living in rural Maine (so a car is a must for me). My ride for the last 4 years has been a 2002 Mazda Protege5 with manual transmission. Bought in August 2007 with 69,000 miles, now at 143,000 miles. The car has never outright let me down and I love the balance between fuel efficiency, utility of the hatch, and fun to driver factor. What I don’t love is that it keeps rusting away. I have had minor rust repairs performed in the past to get it to keep passing inspections – the rear wheel wells, the floor beneath the rear seats. The rust around the windshield became bad enough that it started to let a little rain water in (though me and a tube of silicone quickly “cured” that). This car is by no means cosmetically perfect anymore, but it still drives great and has been kept up mechanically. Again, grad student – I feel like I am supposed to have a beat up looking car.
This past August, while undergoing the yearly inspection by the trusted family mechanic, I received the news that the rear sub-frame of the car was now approaching a level of rust that would cause it to fail inspection. The mechanic’s thinking was to take a very close look at it this coming summer and judge if it has another year in it or if it has reached a point of structural concern. He told me to be prepared to look for another car, as replacing the rear sub-frame would be prohibitively expensive considering the overall poor condition of the car. The rocker panels are rusted pretty bad and would probably not go another year, and the strut towers are pretty rusty as well. I recognize that this isn’t an overall mint automobile with just a single issue, so throwing money at it isn’t sensible.
If the rest of the car were to be judged to last another two years and thus make the money and effort worth it, what would the replacement of the rear sub-frame cost? The one bonus that I haven’t mentioned (the thing that prevents me from feeling really anxious) is that my brother’s 1998 Chevy Cavalier coupe is available for free, he being away at college. The Cavalier has about 135,000 miles and keeps on chugging. I live at home and it has become the shared household vehicle in order to keep it from sitting. It has been pretty cheap to maintain and barely has any rust. And did I already mention it is free? Honestly, this is a question of heart vs. head. The Cavalier used to be mine. Once I obtained the Protege5, I never looked back.
Would it be pure foolishness to put any significant cash into the Protege5, especially since I have a much cheaper and less rusty option in the Cavalier? My stronger preference for the Mazda clouds my judgement.
We covered this before, and the answer has not changed. Look, you’re in grad school: your prime earning years are coming shortly. With any luck, your career means you’ll purchase a host of fun vehicles in the future. But right now make that future even brighter. Ditch the 5, drive the Chevy. The Cavalier isn’t known as a chronic rust bucket like these particular Mazdas, and it is free. Free is quite good.
Moment of Truth: when I was in grad school (i.e. the place where my TTAC career began) I had no idea where my career would take me. And how much I’d make. Not that I’m especially wealthy, but things kinda made sense about 5 years after getting my MBA. Your degree will take you far, and you’ll be happier with the money saved in lieu of buying a Cavalier replacement. Who knows, maybe the extra savings and mundane machinery will land you the ideal lifestyle and loved one to go with it. It’s amazing where that degree will take you, trust me on that.
So don’t let the cooler car cloud your judgement, says the MBA-clad TTAC veteran who drives a Ford Ranger. Believe that.