By on November 27, 2013

TTAC Commentator 28-Cars-Later writes:

Sajeev,

I’ve got a small conundrum for Piston Slap.  Winter is fast approaching and for those of us in the mid-Atlantic states this is a serious affair. My winter beater has been my trusty (but not rusty) ’98 Saturn SL/auto/164K, which in the spring started showing its age and developed transmission issues after seven years (and roughly 80K) of ownership. I’ve let her sit most of the summer save starting her up and driving her around the parking lot every 7-12 days but I’ve been trying to put off the inevitable investment of Bennie bucks. This evening I was offered an ’00 Subaru Outback/auto/186K to replace it for $2500 inc four new cheap tires and inspection.

The prospects of an actual [built in Japan] Japanese wagon are intriguing, the Subaru is 7/10 in terms of condition with some dings and several rust spots, it had no issue starting up and is throwing no codes. The catch is I have zero documentation on the car (was a recent trade) and personally I am leery of all AWD systems regardless of make and model, especially without documentation/receipts. Panning over the engine bay I noticed a newer alternator and a battery stickered 3/12 (with old acid all over the cradle) so somebody (sort of) attempted to take care of the car. Oil was a down 1/4 a quart, coolant was dirty but not caked on or anything, but the kicker was the trans fluid is getting to be brown. I figure whomever recently owned this attempted to take care of it to some degree, but neglected all of the fluid changes, which leads to me to suspect none of the Subie specific maint (diff fluid, sensors, etc) has been done either by this owner (and who knows about the head gaskets). I have two days to make up my mind on the Subie before he sends it to auction.

(NOTE: because of my time delay in publishing, this car is already bought or auctioned off – SM)

So I figure my choices are as such:

  1. Spend $1200-1400 to install a used transmission in my Saturn and risk more expensive stuff breaking down the line.
  2. Spend $2500 and buy the Subaru, which for my purposes will probably get me through at least this winter without fireworks, but risk later expensive Subie specific repairs, or total loss if something big breaks.
  3. Not spend any money, junk my Saturn, and just drive one of my other two cars in the winter that I currently baby to some degree.

Sajeev answers:

Well…I guess it kinda depends on your other two vehicles.

#2 is not a sure thing: with zero service history and tired fluids, expecting this Subaru to work all winter is a rather huge leap of faith.  Perhaps if it was something more robust (truck) with less unique parts that are painfully hard to reach, perhaps if it wasn’t a vehicle known for its fragility (bad head gaskets) especially when neglected/abused…

Install a junkyard transmission in the Saturn, coming from a yard that offers a warranty.  Or research to see if a local shop rebuilds these units with quality parts and labor (not always easy to find) for a fair price.  Why?  Because it’s almost always easier to keep the problems you know, not the gigantic rolling question mark that could be even more of a horrid money pit.

 

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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64 Comments on “Piston Slap: Bennie Bucks on the Winter Beater?...”


  • avatar

    You could replace the transmission TWICE for the initial outlay for the subie. This is a no-brainer, fix what you have.

    Also, the cheap tires? Red flag as per Steven Lang, if it’s got cheap tires, you’ve already seen how the previous owner neglected the brown fluids and such. They probably only replaced the alternator because it needed to run to be traded in!

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I came to a similar conclusion and fixed what I had. Now I think I’m going to keep this car going until the undercarriage rots out or until the frame becomes damaged.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    28 cars later is that you?

    I would avoid the Subaru like the plague, this one sounds like a pretty typical case in terms of mediocre maintenance and presence of rust. My guess is that within 3 months of buying it it will need one or more of the following: head gasket, CV boots, wheel bearings, emissions related sensors. Dump the Saturn, use the scrap/craigslist money to buy some snow tires for your grand prix (assuming this is 28 cars and not someone else), and a gallon of fluid film and a spray bottle. heat fluid film, put in bottle, spray car underside liberally.

    There you go! The w bodies have pretty decent rust proofing to begin with, and given that you’re in the mid atlantic, your winters and corresponding road salt application can’t be THAT bad. A heavy-ish FWD sedan with snow tires is a force to be reckoned with in the winter.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      That sounds like my experience with a Subaru.

      Sad thing was those issues started developing around 25k miles and 3 years (2007 Outback 2.5i 5MT). Luckily i had gotten an extended warranty as part of the deal. At 70k miles, I sold it. Good riddance to that blue oval brand.

      Now, it was a beast in snow and mud, with Geolanders and a well built AWD system.

      • 0 avatar
        vt8919

        I have a 2001 Outback Wagon 5-speed and have experienced every issue EXCEPT a head gasket, and it has 164K miles on it. I’ve replaced countless CV boots, a couple CV joints, wheel bearings and oxygen/knock sensors (in fact it needs a new knock sensor right now) And of course it has rust over the back wheels. I’ll drive it until the wheels fall off though. It’s my baby.

        Edit: I bought the car with 103K so the head gasket was more than likely replaced by the last owners.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Ah sir, it is. Subaru is very popular around here and people will drive them as long as possible because of the climate and terrain, but I shared your concerns on Subbie specific stuff.

      Fluid film? I’m going to have to look into this.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Oh yes, fluid film. It’s a lanolin based product that penetrates into already rusty areas, creeps into every little nook and cranny, and repels water like no other. $40 gets you a gallon of it that will last you over a decade with a fleet of cars. Heating and mixing it thins it out enough to use in any number of sprayers. As it cools and dries, it forms a waxy film.

        I used to do rubberized undercoating before realizing it sometimes did more harm than good, briefly dabbled in used motor oil thinned with kerosene (very smelly and drips for a week or so), before settling on fluid film.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Thanks for the info, I think this stuff will be going on all of the cars in the future.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            I’m actually driving my untreated super-cherry 4runner out to my parents’ place tonight for thanksgiving (through salty slush, yuck!), I left my gallon of Fluid Film at their place for my dad to use as part of the winterization routine (thick coat of Nufinish wax, snow tires, check all fluids). I want to apply it ASAP, particularly to the backside of the front and rear bumpers, notoriously rust-vulnerable spots on these trucks.

            I’ve brushed it on in the past straight from the can, but heating and spraying is much better.
            linkhttp://www.tacomaworld.com/forum/technical-chat/229505-application-fluid-film.html

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    At this age and mileage, both cars are essentially the same. You know the Saturn’s history but not the Subaru’s. You know the Saturn has a transmission problem and you suspect the Subaru does, too. Because the future is beyond predicting, you risk expensive failures with either one.

    I agree with Sajeev and SexCpotatoes. The devil you know is a safer bet than the one you don’t. Fixing the Saturn’s transmission problem isn’t hugely expensive. I just spent $1,200 replacing suspension parts on our ’98 Subaru with 235k miles knowing it is close to needing a new clutch. Doing so made sense because the car will serve as a winter beater for a few more years and is cheap to license and insure.

  • avatar
    bertolini

    Disclaimer: I heart Saturn S-series in ways that make my GF question my sanity…..

    With that out of the way, seriously fix the Saturn. Unlike any Subaru (except maybe a pre-Legacy EA series engine) Saturns are stupid easy to repair. With the forum at Saturnalia at my side I now can R&R a 5sp/auto tranny in 6 hours in my yard, car on jack stands. The tranny may not even have to be replaced. What is the exact issue(s)? Sensors, torque nuts, regular fluid/filter changes (the auto filter on these things is a freakin spin-on canister type like the oil filter) all affect these auto trannys. Also you can find used trannys from RELIABLE sources for these cars for roughly $150 shipped all day and as I said R&R is a cake walk for the S cars. Worst case senario, buy used tranny, get local HS/tech college to install, roll deep all winter. These cars are unstoppable with snow tires here in Appalachia.

    Go for it. Read up on the forum and keep another S-series going strong.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I ended up keeping it, I think I’ll just keep changing out parts in it as it ages. Its funny how good of shape its in overall, my Grand Prix at 76K I think is going to need shocks and the Saturn is still on factory everything and it takes bumps so much better than my Volvo and Pontiac.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        I used to own an ’02 Saturn Vue with the Opel drivetrain and put over 120,000 miles on it before selling it to my father-in-law. He loves it now, but has to finally replace the clutch plates in the transaxle and can’t find the data on which set he needs. But that’s a different issue. He drove the thing for two years after buying it and couldn’t believe the gas mileage he was getting–more than double any of his previous cars. Once he gets the clutch plates replaced, he’ll probably drive it ’til it dies the Big Death. Cosmetically, it still looks almost as good as brand-new.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the Subie needs a timing belt RIGHT NOW as they tend to break @ less than 80K without warning and bend the valves and worse….

    Plus , your Saturn isn’t rusty , rust comes from the inside out so if you see any it’s _always_ worse than you think .

    That being said , I’d prolly buy the Subie and dump too much $ into new timing belt and good tires plus major servicing , my Son went over to Subaru Wagons a few years ago and they’re amazingly good , sturdy cars *if* you’re right on top of the Mtce.

    FWIW , the stupid rich kiddies are making my Son good $ by running the WRX’s hard then junking them when (not if) the timing belt snaps ruining the engine ~ he buys them broken and filthy dirt cheap , rebuilds the engine then spends a week cleaning and detailing them & re sells ready to go for very good $ indeed and undercuts the car lots by a wide margin .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    One, don’t run your good cars in the winter salt, unless economics forces you to do so. You have a known car that will need a transmission. Compare that to a car that has more miles and burnt trans fluid. So that car will need a transmission in the near future as well. Not to mention the known weak spots of that particular Subaru for which there are zero service records. Don’t drink jimmyy’s “The Japanese Force will Make All Well” koolaid. You may not want to keep the Saturn, but you certainly don’t want this Subaru. Let some other schmuck who thinks it will last forever because its Japanese buy it. All of the good Subaru has put into it has been expended by neglect and use. RUN

  • avatar
    Stugots

    I had a fleet of four of these Saturns as the kids started driving. Just sold the last one recently. These are wonderful, bullet proof and cheap to fix cars. My suggestion is find a used transmission — Craigslist is a great source and people are constantly parting these cars out. You should be able to get it back on the road for under $500 if you turn the wrenches. Only thing to be aware of at your mileage level is timing chain tensioner, a cheap part but with catastrophic results if it breaks. Also, these are known to consume oil, if you are careful to not run it out of oil it will last forever. 250K mileage is not unusual. KEEP THE SATURN!!

    • 0 avatar
      Sloomis

      Yes indeed. We had the trans rebuilt on our ’95 SL2 at 120k and it was the best $1500 I ever spent. Got another 80,000 miles out of it before we sold it at 200,000. Still ran like a top, never broke down and never left us stranded. It did go though oil like nobody’s business, though.

      That being said, an old Saturn is absolutely the last thing I would choose as a winter car. It was by far and away one of the worst cars I’ve ever owned for driving in snow – even after a dusting if you tapped the brakes the thing would break free of the road and just float serenely away down a path of it’s own choosing. You had to plan any stops well in advance.

  • avatar
    PenguinBoy

    Last year I sold a 2002 Subaru Legacy Wagon which had been bought new and well maintained, and bought a 2002 Saturn SC2 from the original owner (my Wife’s friend) as a first car for our teenage daughter.

    Unless you need the AWD capabilities of the Subaru, I would suggest fixing the Saturn – they are much simpler cars, which are cheaper and easier to fix. One of the most important features of a good beater is being cheap and easy to fix! The Saturn will also be easier on fuel, but that probably isn’t a big deal for a Winter beater that’s only driven a few miles each season.

    Both my old Subaru and my daughter’s Saturn have manual transmissions – I don’t know if that changes the equation at all.

    That said, if you do need or want the AWD capability the Subaru is tough to beat – we replaced the Legacy Wagon with a 2013 Forester Touring (manual transmission again), largely on the capability of their AWD system. But between the rust and the unknown maintenance history, if you want AWD you might be better off looking for another Subaru – preferably one with a full service history that’s had the head gaskets done.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I would welcome a manual SL2 into my fold but I’ve only ever seen one 96-02 manual in person. From what I read the weak point on the entire SL series is the auto transmission.

      • 0 avatar
        PenguinBoy

        I considered the manual transmission a bit of a bonus – not only does my daughter knows how to drive a manual (which is becoming a lost art, I think), it also makes it less likely that her friends will drive her car.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Assume you actually have an SL1 because you have the automatic. Had two (but no real winters to put them through) and they were pretty unbreakable. Stepdaughter had one she kept wrecking and it kept surviving. They are a good car and Saturn put out pretty good product that was dependable and economical till 2002 when they all just seemed to become Opels overnight.

    Mine just kept going and I have the same weakness for the pre2002 Saturns as Bertolini. Therefore, there is some bias here. Keep the Saturn.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    If there’s one thing about TTAC that is a strange eccentricity besides the imaginary pent-up demand for a modern Panther, it’s this site’s dislike of Subarus.

    My wife and I owned two Outbacks and they were great cars. In 67k miles with my 1998 I needed 1 CV joint and new radiator hoses. Never had any issues with wheel bearings. The head gasket blew at 140k on the previous owner but it was $1500 and didn’t wreck the engine; and I bought the car shortly afterwards with the updated head gasket which never gave me any problems. Sold the car at 214k. Original clutch went over 120k miles, I never had to do a clutch on it.

    I regret selling mine as I moved to a RWD BMW, which definitely isn’t the snow car my 5-speed Outback was.

    • 0 avatar
      morbo

      Wait, you ONLY put 67k miles on a car, it needed hoses, head gasket, and a CV joint, and that’s acceptable? That right there confirms my bias against Subaru’s. I burn 30k – 40k annually on my cars. I would be livid if I was making repairs at that rate.

      Granted that’s why i tend to buy beefier vehicles (Rangers, LXs, Panthers, etc.). Lower burn rates for mileage probably make it more acceptable I suppose.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        Considering I bought the car with 147k and drove it until 214k, yeah. I can’t imagine that a Ford or Chrysler product with similar mileage wouldn’t have similar issues.

        At the time I was putting 15-20k miles per year on the car, which I paid cash for shortly after graduating from college and getting a decent job. It was much cheaper than leasing a new A4 like many of my peers were doing.

        • 0 avatar
          morbo

          Fair enough. I’m just used to cars making it to 200K with just fluids, filters, plugs, and tires. Not saying most FWDers are capable of that (again, I buy ancient engineered rear wheel drive cars for longevity). My one FWDer Mitsu barely amde 120k without needing god awful expensive maintenance and I was not a happy camper.

          • 0 avatar
            Sam P

            If I drove 30k miles per year and never had to go over mountain passes, a V6 RWD LX car might be a good choice. I like the 2012 refresh models with the Pentastar.

            The WSDOT loves to throw the following warning up on Snoqualmie Pass on I-90: “Chains Required – Except All Wheel Drive”. Being able to blast through the white stuff while all the 2wd cars were chaining up was great fun in the Subaru.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Modern-era Subarus (early ’90s onward) are basically Japanese Audis, with all the good and bad that implies.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        Which Subarus have you owned?

        I’ve had 1998 and 2000 Outbacks in my garage. Friends and family have owned Outbacks ranging from 2001-2011 along with a Forester or a Tribeca.

      • 0 avatar
        rdchappell

        This is a hyperbolic statement if I ever saw one. Even with the head gasket issue Subarus are a LOT more reliable than an old Audi, and the repairs are still simpler and cheaper.

        • 0 avatar
          Sam P

          To cite just one example, Subarus don’t have the carbon buildup problem of the VW/Audi FSI engines, which have dealt with this issue since 2006.

          http://www.audizine.com/forum/showthread.php/336352-Audi-FSI-Engine-Carbon-Build-up-Megathread

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I was about to say, all the issues people have with them sound like MORE than went wrong with my 01 A8.

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      The hate for VWs on this site is an order or magnitude higher than for Subies. This is confirmed by friends and co-workers who buy VWs and keep them more than 50K miles.
      That being said, a co-worker had an Outback that he took to 200K before he sold it. The car looked great – no rust or dings, but otherwise was a nightmare. He spent a ton of money on all of the typical Subie failures (head gasket, tranny, CV joints etc) before he gave up and traded it.

  • avatar
    morbo

    You live here in the salt dome (presumably DC to NYC), where we believe salted roads are a right. Suburu’s, Mazda’s and anything exotic gets eaten alive by our god given right to drive in snow with all season tires.

    Ride the Saturn unto death; fixing anything cheap (say sub $250), and junk it for anything expensive. Buy a beater early 2000′s Saturn/Taurus/W-body/whatever, rinse, cycle, repeat.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Ride the Saturn unto death; fixing anything cheap (say sub $250), and junk it for anything expensive. Buy a beater early 2000′s Saturn/Taurus/W-body/whatever, rinse, cycle, repeat.

      Yes this. As Mehta said the Subaru is a little to exotic to be a beater. If the Saturn becomes unfixable it should be replaced with something basic like a W-body.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        “The Subaru is a little to exotic to be a beater.”

        Not to anyone who lives in Colorado or the Pacific Northwest.

        • 0 avatar
          mikeg216

          That’s because the roads where you live aren’t coated with calcium chloride, rock salt and a brine and sugar beet juice from October till April

          • 0 avatar
            burgersandbeer

            Subarus are also popular in New England, and there is plenty of salt there.

          • 0 avatar
            Sam P

            “the roads where you live aren’t coated with calcium chloride”

            Ah, but they are.

            http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Regions/Eastern/Winter/

            “Liquid anti-Icer chemical application. In the Eastern Region either magnesium chloride, calcium chloride or salt brine.”

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Pittsburgh so yes its in the salt dome. I usually go the beater route but its surprising how hard its been the past three years to find a decent Saturn/DN101 Taurus/W-body for decent money.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    Hey 28:

    Same reason I keep on fixing the bits (a trans isn’t minor, I know) on my Alero that keep breaking due to sheer age and mileage, (2002, 290,000 kms). I know the rest of the cars service history, whats been done, what hasn’t, what is likely to break, what isn’t. It really lends piece of mind and I trust the car absolutely.

    • 0 avatar
      PonchoIndian

      If you decide to get the Saturn fixed (which I think you should) have it checked out by someone who really knows these cars. 99% of the transmission problems on the S-series was the plastic valve body warping from heat and time. I’ll bet you can get away with having the valve body replaced and have it back on the road for under $500.00.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        It was diagnosed as a pressure pump, but this diagnosis did not come from a trans shop. My brother has an 02 exhibiting similar whining/shifting symptoms, I’ll pass that tidbit on about the valve body to him (his has 90K).

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      The dad of the girl I’m dating now is an atypical GM guy. He has a beater Alero coupe (and a very nice restored 68 Camaro), wife an Aztec, she drives a Blazer coupe. From what I was told the Alero is being driven into the ground because its trusted.

      • 0 avatar
        bball40dtw

        All the Aleros left are being driven into the ground. My sister has once, and those are her intentions as well. They make a pretty darn good beater. She does push her hazard button into the dashboard a few times a years though.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          AFAIK this guy doesn’t drive much adding to the sensibility, he works two miles from where they live. Craigslist is littered with Aleros in these parts so I’d say most people don’t understand what they have (or can’t afford to properly maintain a car).

  • avatar

    Fix the Saturn.

    I’ve found that the solenoids get flaky with age and use, and are a cheap/easy fix if its not slipping but just shifting erratically or skipping gears. Or at least on the Ex’s 98 SL1. That damn car has 220,000 miles on it and she still drives the piss out of it after 120,000 miles of her driving on it. Drinks oil like a fish though, like almost every other Saturn S car on the road, and makes the oil consumption of my 1977 Chevy seem tame (a quart every 100 miles for the SL, and a quart every 1000 miles for the Chevy)

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    Subarus are amazing…but they burn oil, and blow headgaskets.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Thanks Sajeev for printing my request and thanks for all of the comments guys.

    I ended up putting a junkyard transmission in my Saturn, also losing the aftermarket alum wheels and putting new brakes/rotors on it. Chuck sold the Subbie for $2700 to somebody for their daughter (the very next day), IIRC.

    • 0 avatar
      prndlol

      The Saturn wonky transmission fix is a relatively easy one. Turns out the car required regular trans fluid and spin-on filter swaps, or else the wear causes ‘reverse slam’ and eventual slipping in forward gears. I pulled a valve body from a 50000 km wreck and installed it in my Saturn’s transmission in less than an hour- it’s a pretty simple job because the valve body is located on top of the transmission. Rebuilt valve bodies cost about $150 and lots are listed on eBay.

      I’ve just replaced my Saturn with a Ford Fusion and I’ve now listed it on Kijiji here in Toronto. Not sure how much I’ll miss that little rattle box L0L

  • avatar
    Thatkat09

    Keep the Saturn.
    Like others have said, the devil you know is better than the one you dont. Besides, the S-Series are great cars. Ive had two in my family, a 2000 Sl2 and a 2002 SC2 and they’ve been an absolute dream to own. If you replace the transmission in your SL, im sure it has plenty of years left.

  • avatar
    Joe K

    As much as I love Subarus, I am voting with put another transmission in the Saturn. If it has served well all these years as a winter beater and the engine is in good shape, replace the transmission.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    As a personal opinion, even before looking at anyone else’s comments, I think it’s a bad deal. I’m not saying the Subie itself is bad, but based on your quick description you’d have to put nearly $800 more on it just to put some decent tires under it and quite honestly you don’t know how reliable that Subie will be until you’ve driven it a while.

    Meanwhile, you already know what’s wrong with the Saturn and the fix there is likely less than just the up front cost of the Subie plus tires.

  • avatar
    alwayssmilin

    For 2500$ I could find a much nicer winter beater with lots less miles!! I live in the northeast also and I would never take that deal!!

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      He recently showed me an incredibly clean 98 Volvo V70 AWD but it had similar high mileage and he wanted 4K. If I were into AWD I may have bit but I’m just not.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    All this Saturn talk makes me nostalgic for my old ’94 Saturn wagon , with the SOHC and a 5-speed . Bought it used with 60k miles , had somewhere north of 300k miles 5 years later when it was rear-ended and totalled . Bit of a rattletrap and absolutely awful front seats . Pretty reliable though and it used no oil between oil changes and never needed a head gasket either .

  • avatar
    burgersandbeer

    I think you should sell the Saturn and put winter tires on the Grand Prix. Unless your nice car is something that makes no sense in winter (think S2000), just drive the thing and enjoy it. Why spend time in the Saturn just to forestall the inevitable with the Grand Prix?

    I can see owning multiple cars when they each serve a different purpose (pickup truck, roadster, commuter sedan, etc), but I don’t get having a “winter beater” when it is so similar to the other cars in the stable.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I have a similar mindset where each car has its purpose, I’m just, for lack of a better word, funny with the GP. Sure I know its just a disposable W body but its special to me, its like the big brother to my Grand Am which was the first really “nice” car I ever had (and there’s some other stuff). Years from now when Pontiac is gone from the driving conscious I’d like to drive it by the jacked up 2-cyl station wagons and show them what a nice car looks like. The Pontiac has also been paid off since last Nov and it would be nice to coast on no payments for awhile. My plans were to keep it and my Volvo for many years to come, one as the sunday car and the other as the “nice” practical sedan as I’d eventually like to get something non-sedan. My Saturn was a mere holdover from an impromptu solution and although I’d like to keep it on the road, I don’t hold a serious attachment to it.


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