Piston Slap: The Minima-Maxima and The Circle of Life

piston slap the minima maxima and the circle of life

Fred B. writes:


You recent article about racks prompted me to write. I am the proud owner of a 1996 Nissan Maxima. I’ve had it since about 30k miles. Over the course of its 209k mile life it has garnered additional accouterments along with its original generous kit. Specifically, the paint has gracelessly aged in the Texas sun to a rosy multi-hued patina that varies from nearly bare steel on some of the flat parts to the original red on the sheltered parts. The car hasn’t lived in Texas all of its life. Its formative years were spent in Indiana, where the salt festooned winter streets customized the underside. In fact, it used to make such a racket that I removed the heat shields from the exhaust system.

The interior has also received the gentle blessings of years of use. The leather rear headrests are cracked, and just recently the driver’s side seat has ripped. The ebrake boot is shredded, although that is more a function of a poor design, every model of this vintage I have ever seen has a shredded boot. Otherwise, this car seems to have been built out of lifetime parts. (I did swap out the stereo, another problem with these models, and I simply stopped changing oxygen sensors after I spent my thousandth dollar doing so. That was more than ten years ago. Otherwise, original transmission, engine, pretty much everything. New belts and other consumables at 100k, regular synthetic oil, probably need to replace the transmission fluid.)

To the point, I no longer take the car out of town. I pretty much drive it back and forth to work and take two of my children several days a week for a low speed commute and to soccer practice in a medium sized town. The steering rack is leaking fluid. It has been leaking fluid for two years. I top it off every once in a while, and it doesn’t give me a problem. However, the fluid is apparently dripping onto the front control arm bushings, causing them to deteriorate. My mechanic says that they will eventually go, but that watchful waiting is ok, and that it is not worth replacing just the bushings because I would have to replace the entire arms and the new bushings would simply be destroyed by the leaking rack.

He is quoting me $1500 for the rack and $700 for the control arm job. Here’s my question: At what point do I give up on this sun-mellowed beast? I don’t think it is worth north of $2k for the repairs. It is still pretty sprightly, comfortable to drive and gets me around. I can afford another car, but I need five seats and the nothing about the possibilities (other than last chance at a Panther) leap out at me (I am half waiting for the G8 GTs or the 2010 Maximas fall below $20k, but that is at least a year away in my estimation.). We have a minivan for trips and schlepping the whole family around. I thought that something like the transmission would give out and make my decision (relatively) easy. I doubt that the bushings couldn’t just be replaced, but I am not sure how much risk I am taking by simply waiting for them to fail. If the transmission or engine isn’t going to fail, it means that the car will fail when the bushings go, and I’m not sure I want to be there when that happens.

So, what are your thoughts on doing something with the front end like what you did on your Lincoln vs. just waiting for it to fail? Also, I haven’t shopped the front end job, but do those prices seem ballpark reasonable?

Sajeev answers:

Since you mentioned it, I don’t hesitate to fix (just about) anything on my rust free, 170,000 mile Mark VIII. The black leather interior is original, smells kinda luxurious and still gets compliments from random people. With modifications to its air sprung chassis and 330hp on tap, it drives better than most new cars. If I keep my wits about me, I can hyper-mile it to 32 MPG, even on E10 gas. And I drive it anywhere I want, usually with a grin on my face. Mess with a good thing?

No way. I don’t want another daily driver, much less the associated monthly payment of a newer luxury coupe of this caliber. It’s worth every penny for a Mark VIII in this condition, with an owner so motivated to make it happen. But I am the exception, not the rule. I don’t expect anyone to be even remotely like me.

And for your ride, I’m not feelin’ it. There’s not enough Maxima love in your letter, and this Nissan needs a lot of work. Suspension work is expensive, but worth it. Interior stuff for cars with no aftermarket restoration support is fiddly and pricey, you’d need a clean parts car (or some luck and a 50% off sale at a junkyard) to do this in a reasonable budget. So this is a car you run into the ground, sell it to the junkyard and start all over again. That is, after all, the circle of automotive life.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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2 of 18 comments
  • Otter Otter on Jun 09, 2011

    If you can't stop the leak, per DIYer, perhaps you can just...redirect it with some shielding to keep it off of the LCA bushings. The leak itself doesn't seem to be an issue, and you can probably get a good while longer out of the current bushings. The bushings aren't going to fail catastrophically or anything. Eventually you'll end up with poor alignment and an even looser-feeling front end.

  • Segar925 Segar925 on Jun 10, 2011

    Your situation is similar to what I went thru with the Sterling 827 I owned for almost 19 years. I agree with Otter, try the fluid with seal conditioner, it might help. Eventually you get to a point where no matter how attached you are to a vehicle it doesn't make sense to keep throwing money at it. Band-aids are cheap and expensive repairs more than 2-3 hundred bucks are hard to justify on a $2K vehicle. BTW I own a 99 Maxima with 134K that I hope to keep for at least another 8 years. My 99 Maxima has required the least maintenance of any vehicle I've owned in almost 40 years. Good Luck!

  • 285exp I am quite sure that it is a complete coincidence that they have announced a $7k price increase the same week that the current administration has passed legislation extending the $7k tax credit that was set to expire. Yep, not at all related.
  • Syke Is it possible to switch the pure EV drive on and off? Given the wonderful throttle response of an EV, I could see the desirability of this for a serious off-roader. Run straight ICE to get to your off-roading site, switch over the EV drive during the off-road section, then back to ICE for the road trip back home.
  • ToolGuy Historical Perspective Moment:• First-gen Bronco debuted in MY1966• OJ Simpson Bronco chase was in 1994• 1966 to 1994 = 28 years• 1994 to now = 28 yearsFeel old yet?
  • Ronnie Schreiber From where is all that electricity needed to power an EV transportation system going to come? Ironically, the only EV evangelist that I know of who even mentions the fragile nature of our electrical grid is Elon Musk. None of the politicians pushing EVs go anywhere near it, well, unless they are advocating for unreliable renewables like wind and solar.
  • FreedMike I just don’t see the market here - I think about 1.2% of Jeep drivers are going to be sold on the fuel cost savings here. And the fuel cost savings are pretty minimal, per the EPA: https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/PowerSearch.do?action=noform&path=1&year1=2022&year2=2022&make=Jeep&baseModel=Wrangler&srchtyp=ymm&pageno=1&rowLimit=50Annual fuel costs for this vehicle are $2200 and $2750 for the equivalent base turbo-four model. I don’t get it.