Hammer Time: Avanti's Inferno

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time avantis inferno

“What should I buy?” Well these days it really doesn’t matter as much as you would think. The marketplace is absolutely riddled with 300+ late models to choose from and most of them are perfectly fine daily drivers. A Toyota? A Buick? A Mitsubishi? For most folks it really doesn’t matter. I’m not kidding. Their footwear is going to have a bigger impact on their quality of life than the car they drive.

But even today’s automotive world has a few cars that will cost more money to maintain per capita than our national debt. I’m not kidding there either. Bad engines. Clunky transmissions. Electric Gremlins worthy of a Steven Spielberg Sequel. Not to mention safety recalls that could even make a Chinese bureaucrat nervous. So without further lawsuits or potential censorship issues from aspiring TTAC sponsors, here they are…

Chrysler 2.7’s: Whenever anyone sees a midsized Chrysler at the auctions, the first thing they do is open the hood. If there’s a 2.7L engine in there, they quickly slam it and walk away. Either that or adjust their bid downwards by about $2000. This engine represents the absolute worst of modern engine durability. Oil sludge? Check. Chain Tensioner Failures? Check. Rebuilds which typically cost $1500+ for dealers? (Times two for the public) Check and check. There’s a rumor that Chrysler upgraded the engine around 2004 or 2005. I’ve yet to see that evidence. But I have seen a 2002 Chrysler Concorde maintained by the Salvation Army since Day One blow up three months after I sold it. Oil changes every 3k. A car that comes with more crucifixes per foot than the Vatican. It doesn’t matter. Avoid it.

Suzuki Forenza: It says a lot these days when nearly half your customers already hate your vehicle within a few years of owning it. There are three things that kill these models. Build quality, fuel economy, and electronics. The last of which has netted a healthy surplus of these vehicles at the dealer auctions. Last year we had a 2006 Forenza with only about 45,000 miles sell for $3500. Cheap? A little bit. But it was as erratic as Zell Miller on a sugar high.

Ford Contour: This car had so many unique issues on it that they should have released a TSB edition. Ford’s first attempt at building a world-class car was mostly a failure in the United States while a reasonable success in Europe. Why? Decontenting with a big capital D. Ford took a reasonably well-made vehicle across the pond and put in absolute bottom of the line quality standards when it came to the US version. It’s rare to see these vehicles sell for more than $1500 at the auctions. Even during tax season. A high end SVT may be great for an enthusiast, but the rest of the line is typically a headache on wheels.

Ford Focus (2000 – 2003): I have a friend of mine who is a top ten buyer at two different dealer auctions. He’s been doing it for nearly 30 years now. The number one piece of advice he told me was to never, and I mean never, buy a Ford Focus from these model years. The 2000 models had more recalls than any vehicle since the early-80’s. Ten safety recalls. That’s right, ten. I’ve also yet to see one from this time period that didn’t have rattles at idle. I will say one good thing. There was one 2000 model that actually had 393k on the odometer. Quite an accomplishment, but I’m sure the owner was halfway to deafness with all the noise that came in the cabin. He also used a bungee cord to help shift it which was probably more expensive than the Ford sourced stick itself.

Kia: The Kia what? Everything. Maybe some of their higher end models from 2006 onwards would be worth considering. But no. I’m not going to endorse what I believe is the biggest myth in our business. That is, “Kia builds good cars because Hyundai owns them.” Sorry to spoil the short-term media derived pixie dust in our industry, but Kias have generally been absolutely piss-poor vehicles up until these last couple of years.

They have been so bad… (how bad are they!) that I even created a ‘ Kia Index‘ to symbolize brands that are inevitably traded in with low miles due to mechanical issues. Contrary to the Chrysler hate fest, Sephias, Rios, Sedonas, and Optimas really do represent the absolute bottom of the barrel of the used car world after the five year old mark. I seldom see a pre-2006 model at the auctions that doesn’t have a major issue. Any exceptions? The current generation Sedona minivan is decent and the Spectra had a few good moments late in it’s life. Otherwise I would consider a higher quality anything as an alternative.

Volkswagen: There are good Volkswagens. They just happen to be mostly owned by enthusiasts. The rest of them fall anywhere from ‘pick and choose’ to ‘chronic nigglers’. I will give a good mention to the TDI engines. But you really need to either have the mind of an engineer or be a registered member of the TDI club to get the most out of them. GTI’s are fine from my experience.

Otherwise any VW with the 1.8T engine or the too slow 2.5L VW represents god awful long-term value for the non-enthusiast. Oil sludge and crappy turbo durability for the 1.8. Plastic parts for VW interiors that are cheap and disposable, and the 2.5L is a boring and coarse engine with mediocre fuel economy. Sorry folks, but the low mileage trade-in index for VW’s is among the worst I see for any automaker. There’s a reason for it.

Jaguar X-Type (2001 – 2002): I happen to love almost everything that Jaguar sells. But not this car. The 2.5L version is pretty much a combination of the worst aspects of a Contour with the four figured maintenance costs of a Jaguar. The 2005 model year update yielded enough engineering improvements to make it a possibility. But I’m still waiting to see how those cars make out once they reach the 80k to 100k levels. For now I would only consider one of these models if it were a 3.0L, six-speed, wagon… none of which sold in the United States.

Saab: A Saabaru 9-2X or a 9-7 are possibilities. But why bother? The badged alternatives are generally cheaper to buy and better for their core clientele. The 9-3 and 9-5 are actually quite competitive as wagons. But oil sludge issues, high parts costs, and GM’s cost cutting make them hard for me to recommend to folks who aren’t gearheads. If you buy one as a long-term keeper car make sure you keep track of junkyard parts and either DIY or get yourself a really good mechanic.

Northstar engines: GM has this wonderful engine that can be raced like a demon and loves an Italian tune-up. So what do they do? They hand it off to a borderline comatose clientele in models whose exteriors can out-square a Volvo. Add a dash of Roger Smith ‘save a nickel’ seasoning by using low-quality steel headbolts on an all aluminum engine. What you end up with are blow head gaskets that typically take over 20 hours of labor to rebuild. Even Cadillac dealers now resort to non-GM parts for this engine. Cliff Notes version: Avoid Cadillacs with versions of this engine.

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5 of 64 comments
  • Nrd515 Nrd515 on Mar 09, 2010

    An older guy I worked with had to buy a new car when his grandaughter wrapped his Chevy S10 Blazer around a telephone pole while drunk. He and I had almost identical 88 Blazers and they were about as trouble free as a vehicle comes. So instead of buying another one, he goes out and buys a brand new 95 Contour. He paid cash for it, and it was his first new car in like 20 years. It was ok, for a while, then the fun began. One morning, we were leaving work, and the battery was dead. Really dead. It wasn't even a year old yet. I jumped him and he got it started and he took off for home. I was BS'ing with our boss when the boss's cell rang, it was him, it died a couple miles down the road, on a bridge, and was wondering if the boss could get some guy they knew with a tow truck to take it to the dealer. He finally got it there a couple hours later, and in a couple of days, he got it back. Some wiring had pinched in the dash, and the fan was stuck on, and that's what killed the battery. That doesn't make sense, why would a stuck fan make it die while running? That was the first of many probable lies told to him by the dealer, and not the worst one by any means. A couple days later, he calls me and says, "Can you pick me up? My car died and even with a jump it won't start!". So I pick him up. We had some time, and he lets me sit in it, and I said,"Don't you smell that burnt plastic?" He can't smell it, but it's there. He gets it back about 5 days later, and it's supposedly fixed. It goes along for a couple weeks, and this time, he has no problem smelling the smoke that was coming out of the vents when he tried to start it to leave work! The dealer tows it off, and I take him home again. He was beginning to have bad feelings about it by this point, but he said the dealer will get it fixed eventually. Well, the electrical fun did get fixed, so it was time for the transmission to fail. As it did most of the time, it would do this stuff after sitting all night. He got into the car to leave, and as soon as it started up, it sounded almost exactly like my 71 Cutlass did after it got wrecked and the trans case was broken in half, just not as loud as it was. Kind of like a helicopter's turbine. We heard it, and saw him slowly get out, and shake his head. Off it went for a while, for a new tranny, and he got brand new one for a loaner. When it came back, his wife began following him to work in her car, in case of another catastrophe. One night, she drove the Contour to work, and he came in her car from someplace else. The next morning, he gets in and it starts (YAY!), but, his wife had put the seat back all the way, to where a normal person would want it, but he was a "close driver", and totally freaked out that he might have a foot between his chest and the steering wheel! He sits there and is obviously trying to move the seat, and it's not budging. My boss and I go out there and ask him what's wrong, and he's on the verge of panic, "I can't get the seat to move! I can't drive it like this all the way home! (15 minutes!)". We just laughed. He called his wife, and she told him to just "suck it up and drive it like a normal person!", and finally, after he spent 20 more minutes screwing with the seat, he drove off. He showed up that night in his partially restored (Why?) CHEVY LUV pickup! The bed was as rusty as any Toyota bed I've ever seen, with several holes large enough to put your arm through, but the cab was in good shape, and primered up, ready for paint. I asked him if the Contour died again, he said, "No, the dealer had to order the parts to fix the seat, and I can't drive a car with the seat back that far!!". That cracked me up and he called me a " One of those far away drivers". Next it was engine fun. He had what the dealer thought was a head gasket (I think it had the 4 in it) start to seep coolant, and off it went for another stay at the dealer. Ohh, bad news, it needed a short block, it was cracked! He drove a Taurus loaner and did nothing but complain about it. I started asking him about doing a lemon law on it, and he got very angry for me even mentioning it. Then later on, he tells me his wife has been nagging him to lemon it for months. He got it back in a week or so, and it behaved for almost a month. He was down near Columbus in it, and it made a terrible noise and started shaking while at freeway speed. He called his wife, and she went ballistic, telling him she never wanted to see the Contour again, and if he brought it home, she would burn it down to the ground. I never heard what exactly was making the noise and shaking. Finally, that pushed him to want to get it replaced and Ford, surprisingly, agreed. Now, what does he do? Does he get something else? No, he gets another, slightly fancier, Contour. This one went for about 18 months, but in almost the exact same place near Columbus as the last one died at, it blew the transmission. That started another whole series of failures and him getting stranded, usually out in the boonies. We had a lot of fun every night, asking him "Hey, what did it do today?" His wife refused to ride in it, period, and finally, he went back to the dealer, and one day he showed up in a purple Ranger. He's still driving it, with about 2" of space between his chest and the steering wheel.

    • See 2 previous
    • Bill Safreed Bill Safreed on Jun 18, 2010

      Alex, sounds like my in-laws who bought a Chevy 2500HD 6.0 Crew Cab from a "union friend" sales lady of the FIL at a stealership on the other side of Columbus. Bragged they got a great deal, they even told him it had the Allison tranny in it. They towed a big 5th wheel trailer with it. They give the truck to their daughter (my wife) this year after the FIL had a stroke and it was getting too much for the 75 y.o. MIL. When I get the title I notice they actually paid MSRP (almost $35,000) for it! Their payment was a little over $600 a month and they still owed almost a third of the purchase price after 5 years of payments! After doing some research I also found the Allison automatic came on the diesel engine only. They sure saw them coming, some "friend". The MIL also had a Northstar Caddy that she had to have TWO engine blocks put into it because the original cracked, and the replacement cracked after short time. After that replacement she parked it and sold it without driving it another mile. Luckily a former neighbor is a mechanic and did the work for her.

  • Accs Accs on Mar 11, 2010

    Mr Lang, Another great piece. Can ya give a list of positive cars to go for... P.S Whats the feelings about Focus of 03+? And are 00 Accords with 240k still valuable?

  • FifaCup Loving both Interior and exterior designs.
  • FifaCup This is not good for the auto industry
  • Jeff S This would be a good commuter vehicle especially for those working in a large metropolitan area. The only thing is that by the time you put airbags, backup cameras, and a few of the other required safety features this car would no longer be simple and the price would be not much cheaper than a subcompact. I like the idea but I doubt a car like this would get marketed in anyplace besides Europe and the 3rd World.
  • ScarecrowRepair That's what I came to say!
  • Inside Looking Out " the plastic reinforced with cotton waste used on select garbage vehicles assembled by the Soviet Union. "Wrong. The car you are talking about was the product German engineering, East German. It's name was Trabant.