By on March 30, 2011

Kiwi writes:

Howdy Sajeev. I’m looking to the general crowd of enthusiasts and experts here to give me some advice. I am most assuredly not a car expert myself.

We have three cars, two of which are a 2000 Toyota Camry (177k miles) and a 2000 Chevy Blazer (78k miles). The Camry is my daily car, and I drive 55 miles round trip to work five days a week (sometimes more as I have night school twice a week). The Blazer is my mother-in-law’s car, and she drives very little, mainly just to pick up my daughter from school a couple of times a week (less than 10 miles round trip), down to the local shops, etc. We are up in the PA/NJ area.

On the face of it, if we were ready to turn one of these in it’d be the Blazer, right? Except that little SUV feels like a total lemon. The door doesn’t fit right, we just had to replace the transmission (our fault, admittedly, because we held off replacing a bad gasket for too long – but now that’s a few thousand dollars invested in it), the gas gauge isn’t working properly, and now the main cabin electrics seem to be acting up. There’ve been other mechanical issues, but these are the most recent.

What my mom-in-law really wants is a Ford Explorer like she used to have. She loathes the Blazer (hand down from my wife when she got a new car a few years later). My wife and I think we could put out about $10k or $12k to go for a used Escape – Explorers at that price point seem to be getting a bit older and/or higher mileage (upwards of 100k).

So, dear experts, what is the recommended course of action? Bin the Blazer before it breaks blatantly and go for an Escape? Hold on to it until it goes really tragic? The Camry (knock on wood) has been very good to me so far, but I don’t know if it’s getting to a point where I can expect seriously expensive repairs. (The timing belt was just replaced again within the past 10k miles, but I was told the water pump was fine – it has been replaced in the past.) And realistically I do not have the skills/knowledge/tools/time to do any maintenance myself, on any of the cars. Remember the Blazer’s main function is to ferry my daughter around as needed. Thanks all!

Sajeev answers:

I google’d your Blazer to make sure it was “that one.” Oh boy. Don’t get me wrong; the first-gen Blazers were crude and cheerful. The later TrailBlazers are well sprung with a great I-6 motor, sporting an absolutely horrid interior. But those? Aside from use as a work rig, they are significantly worse in terms of design and dynamic performance: the original incarnation’s glovebox door doubling as an HVAC register personifies this design’s “asleep at the wheel” attitude.

If the mom-in-law doesn’t like it, also consider the piss-poor IIHS offset crash scores, even compared to the Firestone-fettled deathtrap Explorers of the same era. If you sell it to someone wanting a cheap truck for truck-ish use, everyone will be happy. But you’ll be lucky to get $3500 for it, even if gas prices trend downward. Is a newer Escape worth the extra $8-10 grand?

From a product standpoint, most definitely. The interior is far nicer, performance and economy are worlds apart and safety ratings seem better…ignoring the weight disadvantage of the little CUV. But from a financial standpoint? Going into (extra?) debt isn’t the brightest idea for most in this economy, but I’ll let you decide that on your own.

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52 Comments on “Piston Slap: That One!...”


  • avatar
    toxicroach

    Sounds like the best bet would be to drive the wheels off the Blazer.  When something big breaks, scrap it.  If she doesn’t use it very much you could easily get a couple of more years out of it as basic transport.

    • 0 avatar
      jaje

      Normally I say keep it and properly maintain it.  However the pre I6 Blazers are basket cases and suffer the same easy to rollover fate of the narrow track Explorers when you get over 45 mph.  I second getting an older used CR-V.  Quality, reliability will be substantially better as well as gas mileage and reduced rollover risks.  Now with that said…Does she really even need an SUV?  A small 4 door sedan will do wonders and get in the 30’s mpg.  A nice used Mazda 3, Civic, Corolla or Focus will do wonders and make driving enjoyable – yet safe (small car safety has come a long way).

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Or…tie the loose door shut with a rope like they used to in the old days, run it ’til it grenades, then give it to Murilee for the next LeMons!

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Get rid of the Blazer, forget the Escape and get a Honda CR-V. Your M-i-L will be happy, your wife will be happy and you’ll be very happy!

    • 0 avatar
      william442

      Zackman is correct. The Blazer will only get worse, and the CR V is loved by many.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      Another point to get a CR-V/RAV4 vs a Crapolla/Civic = once you get to a certain age CUVs become much easier to step into and out due to higher seat height.
      Another cheap and safe bet would be a Gen 1 Santa-Fe. With odd styling and smaller size they are not that popular and prices suffer.
      Oh, and you can save on fuel and gas costs by opting for a FWD rather than an AWD.

    • 0 avatar
      mnm4ever

      Only problem with that plan is used CRVs are crazy expensive, no bargain to be found there, ditto for the RAV4.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Drive the Blazer until it dies in a spectacular cloud of smoke. Other than safety issues (lights, tires, etc) and basic fluids, Don’t fix anything on it ever again.  Broken GM vehicles respond quite well to spiteful neglect.  Considering how few miles it gets driven, it might last a lot longer than you think.
     
    Save up the money for a replacement in the meantime.
     
    Buy the new(er) vehicle when you either have enough saved up or the primary Blazer driver goes nuts.

    • 0 avatar
      NN

      Sage advice here.  I had a 98′ Blazer like this one, though a ZR2 5-speed.  Gas gauge went out, power seat only worked sometimes, CE light on and off, Airbag light on and off, etc…I ignored all of the above, because it started and ran every day and drove for years.  If you refuse to fix anything save for changing fluids and fixing anything that keeps it from going and stopping, you’ll realize it keeps going.
      In the end, I owned it for seven years…bought it cheap, sold it cheap, and had a very, very low-cost of ownership over those seven years, and some fun times off-roading as well.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    My Mazda Tribute / Ford Escape cousin has as I knock on wood been trouble free – but it is a 4 cylinder and manual transmission.  You all will probably be looking at a V6, which eventually cook the alternator and an auto transmission, that doesn’t have a stellar reputation past the 90K mark.
     
    If you go for the Escape with an automatic, shoot for an 07 with a 4 cylinder.  Underpowered for sure, but the trans-axle will last longer.
     
    The Honda CR-V will cost a few thousand more than comparable Ford Escape, but may be well worth it in reliability and refinement.

  • avatar
    oboylepr

    The legendary GM quality and reliability strikes again. Get rid of it and replace it with another 2000 Camry!

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      Great idea…..You can pick up an “as is” special, 2000 Camry for about $1500 around here. Throw in another $2000 for a safety and E test. You might get two years or so,before rust kills it. The good news…the scrap yard will give you $400 back [something about big demand for parts] …..total cost $3100. for two years driving.

      Or….keep the Blazer, spend what you have to. Drive it till it drops, three or four years maybe? $200 for scrap? total cost…..$2000? for three or four years driving.

      Note….Make sure you get lots of lube to the upper ball joints. Once a week spray the crap out of the door hinges with silcone grease.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Funny, most folks I know with a 2000 on up Blazer seem to have had pretty good luck with them along with tere S-10 truck brothers. The tranny has already been re-done so if done right should last quite a while longer. The 4.3 is known to go well over 300K with good service. The gas guage shouldn’t be hard to rectify with a loose ground or faulty sender the culprit and easy enough fix. Most Explorers of this same time period seem about the same- occasional tranny failure, electrical problem, window regulators, wheel bearings etc so I fail to see how one is vastly superior to the other talking to hundreds of owners with these type of SUV’s. The main thing is prefference. Some folks hate Fords and love Chevys and vice versa. I would drive the Blazer a while longer and watch out for a nice cleaner lower mile 2008 on up Explorer when they redesigned them and spiffed up the interiors. The newer gen Trailblazer from 2002 on up is good too but look for 2006 on up interiors in LT trim as they were spiffed up a bit. The 4200 Atlas L6 is one sweet engine in those.

  • avatar
    YYYYguy

    Ooh, stay the heck away from an older Explorer…unless you want to repeat that transmission replacement when it grenades itself at 90k miles.   I’ve had one, my in-laws had one, and a friend had one that all expired around the same mileage.

    • 0 avatar
      FuzzyPlushroom

      My friend’s ’96 made it to the mid 100,000s before the transmission grenaded (that’s the best word for it) on the interstate. I guess he came out of it well.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Well, the problem with the “drive it until it blows up” theory is that, after it blows up, it’s worth only what a salvage yard will pay for it — a few $100 net of towing expenses.  Unless, of course, you want to spend the dough to make it operable again. ;-)  Right now, it’s worth $3500, Sajeev says .  . . and whether he’s optimistic or pessimistic about that number, it’s certainly worth lots more than it will be if it blows up.  So, the way I see it, every day that your M-I-L drives it, somebody’s risking $3k.  There are two ways out of that box.  Way #1, you’ve already discussed: sell it.  Way #2, is keep fixing it.  So, the question really comes down to how likely is a big repair going to be needed during the time you want to continue to use it?  The car is low miles, but it’s 11 years old, so lots of age-related things are at risk: anything made of rubber and anything subject to corrosion (since you live in the Salt Belt).
    At the price, I would tend to prefer a CRV as a replacement over an Escape or an “Exploder.”  I’ve driven the Trailblazer and it’s a tank of a vehicle and a real gas-sucker (although mileage appears not to be a factor since you don’t drive it much).
    I propose a radical concept:  How about replacing the Chevy with . . . a car?!!  For your target price of $11K, I think you could probably get a not too heavily used small Honda or Toyota product that would be comfortable, reliable, safe and not thirsty.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    My recomendation for the MIL is either a well cared for first generation Escape with a 4cyl and selectable 4wd or a bargin basement Pontiac Torrent with 3400V6 and AWD.  Heck the Escape is about the same size inside as the first Explorers were. 

  • avatar
    MrFixit1599

    Well, my MIL also has a 2000 Blazer that she loves, has around 65k on it, and it has had a never ending string of electrical issues.  I don’t trust it as far as I could throw it.  On the other side, for work, we have 4 Escapes.  1 of them is 2005 V6 AWD, that the AWD seems to randomly decide not to work, and has around 120K on it. Another of them is a 2006 Hybrid with AWD, that again doesn’t like to stay working. I believe all Hybrids come with a CVT.  The AWD one has around 190k on it.  The last 2 are 2005/6 FWD Hybrids.  The one I drive has 170k on it, the other one has around 140k.  All 3 hybrids had to have one of the coolant pumps replaced right around 100k.  I believe the Hybrid’s have 3 different coolant pumps, one for the Engine, one for the CVT, and one for the Battery pack.  I believe it was the battery pack coolant pump that failed on all 3 Hybrids, but I’m not positive.  Other than the coolant pump and AWD issues, and over half a million miles, these vehicles have been remarkably reliable considering they way they are treated. 

  • avatar
    MrKiwi

    Questioner here. Thanks all for the comments so far. I made a mistake in my e-mail to Sajeev – I meant to say in the third paragraph “On the face of it, if we were ready to turn one of these in it’d be the Camry, right?” based on the much higher mileage. But so far everyone seems to be in agreement that the Blazer is the trouble spot (with which I agree).

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Keep up with the fluid changes and the Camry should run for years.  I’d consider another mechanic though, I can’t see the wisdom of leaving the water pump while replacing the timing belt.  Unless he really enjoys working on your engine, and taking your checks.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Dump the Blazer ASAP. Sell it privately as-is, before the CPFI on that 4.3 goes out or the Dexcool turns to jello. If there’s one thing GM screwed up it’s the reliability of the rough-but-reliable-in-TBI-trim 4.3 sawed off small block.
     
    If it’s for your M-I-L, I’d do as above and replace it with a car.

  • avatar
    turbobrick

    My mother-in-law had two CRV’s and she was very happy with both of them. That seems to be a very popular vehicle in that demographic. It’s basically a jacked up Honda Civic, which is not a bad thing at all in this case.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    Toyota Highlander, you should be able to find a decent 2004 or 2005 for that kind of money.
    We had one for 7 years absolutely nothing went wrong with it and once we replaced the original Bridgestone rubber it was great in the snow.
    They hold their value too and maintenance is just like that Camry.

  • avatar
    jmo

    , also consider the piss-poor IIHS offset crash scores,

    It is rated “severe or fatal injury certain” so if you don’t like you MIL then it’s totally a keeper.

    • 0 avatar

      Well that’s not entirely false.

    • 0 avatar
      MrWhopee

      Except he says she used it to pick up his daughter from school… :(
       
      So I guess for his daughter’s sake if not the mother in-law’s, he should dump the rolling hazard/ticking time bomb ASAP. The few thousands he “saves” by driving it to the ground as some advised (might be the best thing to do financially) will seem to mean so little when something unthinkable happened…

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    Not that I am highly recommending an Explorer, but in my experience they are generally available very cheap used, $10-12k should get you a pretty nice one with low miles.  If she likes them, I would rather not hear her complain by buying her something she doesnt like.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      That is the ticket.  Used Explorers are cheap.  Get a good, low-ish mileage example and your done.  The transmission issues are as overblown as the Honda ones are (well, maybe not quite as much)…you can get plenty of life out of an Explorer…

  • avatar
    mikey

    Read “NN” comment and take Sajeev’s advice. I own a 2003 Jimmy and will agree,its a little crude,and they do have some issues.

    Forget, and ignore the hysteria. Spend what you have to on the Blazer and stay out of debt.

  • avatar
    tiredoldmechanic

    If you’ve already done the trans, I’d keep the blazer awhile yet. I’ve never heard of dexcool taking out a 4.3 and I’ve run through a couple hundred 4.3 powered GM trucks in my job as a fleet manager. Change it out for fresh coolant if you’re worried about it. For the type of use and amount of driving your Mother in law does this unit should last a long time. Any body shop should be able to fix the door for a reasonable amount. Gas gauge? Very common. Use the trip odometer and fill up every 150 miles or so. I’d give different advice if you were looking at a longer commute or your job relied on this vehicle. Get what value you can out of it and save up for it’s replacement. Used Exploders or Escapes at the price point you are talking about are a crap shoot. At least you know what is going on with the Blazer. Good Luck whatever you decide.

  • avatar
    Trend-Shifter

    Is this a 4.3 V6 Blazer?   If so, these should run to very high mileage with no major problems. The drivetrains were bullet proof.   I don’t understand the Blazer hate.   

    Myself, I would sell the high mileage Camry as we go into this this future new car shortage due to the Japan quake.  Get the overpriced used car money BEFORE it becomes a money pit.

    Your MIL will not be happy with the Blazer.   So first see if the door can be fixed.    If OK, take it for yourself.    The extra cost of gas is made up by not having a car payment or having major repairs.     It should last to 177,00 miles with regular fluid changes.   Rinse & repeat!

    Get your MIL what she wants otherwise she will not be content.  

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    “Firestone-fettled ” Ooer. I can see why the standards of workmanship in the USA have problems. Using a tire to remove mold marks or sand from a casting seems like a curious approach, we generally used to use bastard files or grinders in the UK.

  • avatar
    Diesel Fuel Only

    Two mentions on this board, at least, about the failed fuel gauge.  My godmother has the same vehicle and its fuel gauge crapped out about two years ago.
     
    Try changing a rear tail light on these things.  Three cheers for making serviceability an afterthought.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Really? Changing a tail light on a Blazer? Ten minute job….tops.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    For $10-12K, you could look at Saturn Vue. FWD with Ecotec, good to go. Good on gas, right size, easy in, easy out.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Good CHEAP replacement ? Pontiac Aztek. I got mine in great shape dirt cheap. Ugly ? Your opinion. I don’t care. That’s why they are cheap. The dealer was scared it would sit on his lot forever. I drove away happy.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Everyone may laugh all they want about the Pontiac Aztec – they are going to be collectable very soon, as the design is so polarizing, many will desire one just because you can’t mistake it for anything else on the road. Much like my 2004 Impala – nothing else like it, that’s why so many owners personalize theirs, just like me. Aztec vs. Rendezvous. Either one, in my book, especially the last years of the Aztec, as the cladding is almost tastefully done. O.K., everyone, the beatings may begin!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      My Grandmother owns one, one build during the last year of production that she picked up dirt cheap and just barely used.  It’s electric/mustard/neon/saftey yellow with a leather interior and the sport package.  She loves it and it’s Steve Lang’s dream – an old lady owned, unloved styling-wise car that has had all of the repair work done at the dealer with genuine GM parts.  I’ll be seeing my Grandmother this summer and I’m trying to think of a way to wrangle borrowing the Aztek for a day, everyone knows how ugly it is, but I don’t know how it drives. 

      My father has used the Aztek a few times to run my Grandmother (his MIL) to the doctor a few times and he’s told me privately; “Its not half bad to drive.”  Although he’s sort of judging this against his current vehicle… wait for it… one of the last S10 based Chevy Blazers. 

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      “I’m trying to think of a way to wrangle borrowing the Aztek for a day”

      Ha! I’ll keep an eye out if you come down Cincinnati way! There are a few yellow ones in the area, along with a very nice red one down around the corner from my house.

    • 0 avatar
      Jellodyne

      Remember, when you’re the one inside the Aztek, you’re the one not looking at an eyesore!

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      Well if this confession doesn’t brand me as a GM fanboi, I guess nothing else will… My wife fell in love with the Aztek at a car show in 2001, a month later we had traded off my old Dakota for a steel blue 2SC (well loaded). These cars had the Chinese built crapshoot 3.4 V6 and chronic problems with A/C condensers and the air suspension. Ours also had an early build issue with the body control module, once diagnosed, easily remedied.  My wife then found out about the Rally Package that came out in 04, she had to have that. We leased a similarly equipped 2SC Aztek Rally in Fusion Orange. For the first year, this car was great. Then in the second year, I went through a laundry list of stuff that went wrong, from head and intake gaskets, wheel bearings, A/C condensers, air suspension issues, plugged sunroof drains and I forget what else. I learned the value of the factory warranty during that time. My dealer was pretty decent too. But when the early lease deals were out, we went with a Chevy Malibu Maxx, which only ever had minor issues.
       
      That said, the Aztek is a great package, a lot of car for it’s footprint. If you could find one that has a complete service history (and aftermarket head and intake gaskets installed) no air suspension and working sunroof drains, it wouldn’t be too bad of a car. A better deal would be the Buick Rendezvous Ultra models, they came with the 3.6 HF V6 and a more conventional van shape than the Azzy. IMO the Buicks were using better materials, and seem to hold up better also.
       
      But to be honest, I’d buy a previous generation (boxy) Saturn Vue with Ecotec over both of those cars. Much better vehicle overall. But if the M-I-L wants an Explorer, get her what she wants.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Zackman: much to most people’s surprise the Aztek had some of the highest satisfaction ratings of any vehicle. They weren’t bad to drive at all, no worse than the contemporary Montana minvans of the time. While we had ours, we were in a little club of sorts, all the Aztek owner’s would talk to one another. Kind of like VW Bug or MINI owners when the cars were first new. It was one of the most often-personalized cars, at least that someone over 18 would personalize.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      @Geo: I agree with you. My wife and I happened by a local Buick/Pontiac/GMC lot back in 2001 looking for a replacement for our 1999 Dodge Stratus and came upon an Aztek. We had never seen anything quite like it. This one was decked out complete with the removable beer – ahem – drink cooler and had the tent set-up. We were impressed enough to look into it further. We were somewhat disappointed that the cooler and tent were options, but impressed just the same. So, I guess I’m a closet fan of the Aztek, but I liked Gremlins (owned one), Pacers and any other oddball cars that were just a bit different.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Zackman, I too am a fan of offbeat cars. Must have something to do with the creative mind, I suppose. We bought the cooler for our 2001 Aztek, and kept it after we traded the car back. It seems to fit in well wit the decor in my Sunfire and works great!

  • avatar
    CapVandal

    OK…..
     
    MIL likes Fords, right?
    She drives 40 miles per week or less?
    Forget the smaller stuff.
    Get a second generation Expedition or some other large ass, truck based SUV.  At 12mpg and a 26 gal tank, that’s a fill up every two months.
    The Expedition does well in crash tests, as well as passes the common sense, smell test for being a tank like vehicle.
    That’s assuming the MIL likes the idea.
    Yea the 04’s under 100k would be a little more money, but the value equation here is to avoid paying extra for good milage in a vehicle that will be driven 2000 mi/year.
    But only if MIL likes it.
    Maybe she would like a Lexus LS 400 instead.
    Or maybe I’m just craving a V8.
     
     
     
     
     

  • avatar
    tedward

    I’m not sure just how set she is on SUV’s (sounds like she’s in love with the idea), but you’d be able to choose between some really economical and reliable vehicles if you could talk her down to cars. For the same money you’d be able to shop vehicles with far better passive safety most importantly (your daughter!). As for active safety, I think that, older drivers especially, are far better drivers when not perched high off the ground and insulated from all sensation of relative speed, not to mention the roll-over on side impact tendencies of older SUV’s (sliding into a guardrail for instance).
     
    There are plenty of awd and fwd cars out there, and you already have an “expensive to own” vehicle, so you could probably get something spec’d relatively well and still have the same cost of ownership.

  • avatar
    colin42

    Simple sell both buy the MIL an SUV – don’t worry about the mpg, look for an unloved model – Mitusbishi Endeavor?

    Then lease something for yourself – Hyundai Elanta ($1500 down + $169 /month). Swap cars a couple of times a month to balance the milage on the lease (12000 per year)

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