Piston Slap: The Two-Sided Ethical Dilemma

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta


Bill writes:

Hello TTAC crew!

My Mom is in need of a new car. The problem is her trade in: It is a 2002 PT Cruiser with a serious overheating problem ($1700+ quote at two reputable repair places) Now here is the problem. Do I keep my dang mouth shut when we go to the dealership and do the deal? I have a spare car that she is driving until it cools off and the overheating problem will not be noticeable at trade in.

I would never sell the car to a guy off the street without disclosing a major problem. Even to a car dealership I think I feel guilty in not disclosing it. We are not going to be financing, and will be paying cash for the car. So it is not like they can unwind the deal if they discover the problem.


Having ethical dilemma about screwing over a car dealership who exist solely to try and take as much money as they can from you in every conceivable way is weird.

Bonus question. These are the three cars we are considering Hyundai Elantra Touring, VW Jetta Wagon and Ford Focus Wagon. Any recommendations of the three or reasons to avoid them?

Thanks in advance for any help!

Sajeev Answers:

Fair disclosure: my full-time job is in the automotive retail business, so I have my own ethical dilemma. And don’t ask what an autojourno makes, it’s precisely why I work there. With the Jeff Glucker incident fresh on my mind, I’ve decided to publish this query and throw myself at the mercy of the B&B.

I hope I made the right choice. Well…here goes:

Ahem, not all car dealerships are alike. Sure, they all wanna make a buck, but if the mainline dealers inspect a vehicle and deem it not worthy to sell, it heads straight to the auction…so some other chump can deal with the problems. This is one reason why the Buy-Here-Pay-Here lots have the reputation that they often (not always) deserve. You could easily trade in your ride to the big name dealerships, they will see the problem and dump it.

What I’m trying to say is, the dealer may be a little pissed that you traded in a lemon, but they won’t pass their karma on to their used car customers. That’s just bad business, in the long-term. Odds are their trade-in value is about what they’ll get at the auctions anyway, so even if your PT isn’t as promised, the loss will be minimal. Maybe even in the hundreds, as a PT Cruiser isn’t a late-model AMG Benz that’s been abused and almost ready for a $20,000 repair bill once the “extra life” additives wear out and its new owner gets a shocking surprise.

Then again, the converse is that you should be ashamed for not disclosing a problem you know. That’s just basic karma, and it’s something I usually believe in.

Honestly, I’ve stressed over your question for weeks, and I still don’t know what the heck to tell you. I’m sorry.

Off to you, Best and Brightest.

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

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Mopar4wd Mopar4wd on Oct 17, 2011

    A long time ago (12 years ago) I worked for a large car dealer (selling at least 6 different brands) as a trade in refurb mechanic Basically clean cars with less then 75 k and less then 8 years old came to me to check out and make a list of required repairs. I used to check the slips for what we paid on most of them as I could buy them for $250 over what we paid. As I mentioned cars over mileage and over age were simply shipped to auction no inspection done and the deals were structured to account for this. In the case above this dealer would have simply offered $1000 for the trade in or added in more wiggle room to the financing/ price to get the same $1000 effect for the car. At the time our salesman wouldn't even walk out side and look at the car they would simply look out the window confirm the make and model and offer as little as possible. If I came across a car that needed more then basic items I would bring my list to the manager who would usually say stop work and the car would be sent to auction with my write up quietly slipped in the trash.

  • N8love N8love on Nov 16, 2011

    Skipped down some, so idk if anyone said this, but surely you can find someone online who needs the pt for parts or has an irrational love for them or something. Trade in value is so ridiculously low at every used car dealer i've ever been to that it seems like someone would pay you more *knowing full well about the problem* than a dealer would who didn't. People rear end other cars all the time, and a lot of them are willing to buy a car with a good body and drop their engine in them, which would be much cheaper than a new car if they have the tools or the right "driveway mechanic" buddy. It seems like everyone above agreed that the pt would go to auction, which means the dealer isn't paying more than that for a working car of the same year/model. Doesn't that imply that we're talking about 1k or less? You obviously have the cash for the new car before the sale of the cruiser, so you could probably afford to part it out to recoup your losses rather than get taken just so you don't have to look at it anymore.

  • Dave M. IMO this was the last of the solidly built MBs. Yes, they had the environmentally friendly disintegrating wiring harness, but besides that the mechanicals are pretty solid. I just bought my "forever" car (last new daily driver that'll ease me into retirement), but a 2015-16 E Class sedan is on my bucket list for future purchase. Beautiful design....
  • Rochester After years of self-driving being in the news, I still don't understand the psychology behind it. Not only don't I want this, but I find the idea absurd.
  • Douglas This timeframe of Mercedes has the self-disintegrating engine wiring harness. Not just the W124, but all of them from the early 90's. Only way to properly fix it is to replace it, which I understand to be difficult to find a new one/do it/pay for. Maybe others have actual experience with doing so and can give better hope. On top of that, it's a NH car with "a little bit of rust", which means to about anyone else in the USA it is probably the rustiest W124 they have ever seen. This is probably a $3000 car on a good day.
  • Formula m How many Hyundai and Kia’s do not have the original engine block it left the factory with 10yrs prior?
  • 1995 SC I will say that year 29 has been a little spendy on my car (Motor Mounts, Injectors and a Supercharger Service since it had to come off for the injectors, ABS Pump and the tool to cycle the valves to bleed the system, Front Calipers, rear pinion seal, transmission service with a new pan that has a drain, a gaggle of capacitors to fix the ride control module and a replacement amplifier for the stereo. Still needs an exhaust manifold gasket. The front end got serviced in year 28. On the plus side blank cassettes are increasingly easy to find so I have a solid collection of 90 minute playlists.
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