By on June 25, 2012

Keith writes:

Hello Sajeev,

My conundrum is as follows: I am a graduate student with another 1.5 years left of school. I commute at least 200-300 miles a week living in rural Maine (so a car is a must for me). My ride for the last 4 years has been a 2002 Mazda Protege5 with manual transmission. Bought in August 2007 with 69,000 miles, now at 143,000 miles. The car has never outright let me down and I love the balance between fuel efficiency, utility of the hatch, and fun to driver factor. What I don’t love is that it keeps rusting away. I have had minor rust repairs performed in the past to get it to keep passing inspections – the rear wheel wells, the floor beneath the rear seats. The rust around the windshield became bad enough that it started to let a little rain water in (though me and a tube of silicone quickly “cured” that). This car is by no means cosmetically perfect anymore, but it still drives great and has been kept up mechanically. Again, grad student – I feel like I am supposed to have a beat up looking car.

This past August, while undergoing the yearly inspection by the trusted family mechanic, I received the news that the rear sub-frame of the car was now approaching a level of rust that would cause it to fail inspection. The mechanic’s thinking was to take a very close look at it this coming summer and judge if it has another year in it or if it has reached a point of structural concern. He told me to be prepared to look for another car, as replacing the rear sub-frame would be prohibitively expensive considering the overall poor condition of the car. The rocker panels are rusted pretty bad and would probably not go another year, and the strut towers are pretty rusty as well. I recognize that this isn’t an overall mint automobile with just a single issue, so throwing money at it isn’t sensible.

If the rest of the car were to be judged to last another two years and thus make the money and effort worth it, what would the replacement of the rear sub-frame cost? The one bonus that I haven’t mentioned (the thing that prevents me from feeling really anxious) is that my brother’s 1998 Chevy Cavalier coupe is available for free, he being away at college. The Cavalier has about 135,000 miles and keeps on chugging. I live at home and it has become the shared household vehicle in order to keep it from sitting. It has been pretty cheap to maintain and barely has any rust. And did I already mention it is free? Honestly, this is a question of heart vs. head. The Cavalier used to be mine. Once I obtained the Protege5, I never looked back.

Would it be pure foolishness to put any significant cash into the Protege5, especially since I have a much cheaper and less rusty option in the Cavalier? My stronger preference for the Mazda clouds my judgement.

Sajeev Answers:

We covered this before, and the answer has not changed. Look, you’re in grad school: your  prime earning years are coming shortly.  With any luck, your career means you’ll purchase a host of fun vehicles in the future. But right now make that future even brighter.  Ditch the 5, drive the Chevy. The Cavalier isn’t known as a chronic rust bucket like these particular Mazdas, and it is free.  Free is quite good.

Moment of Truth: when I was in grad school (i.e. the place where my TTAC career began) I had no idea where my career would take me.  And how much I’d make.  Not that I’m especially wealthy, but things kinda made sense about 5 years after getting my MBA. Your degree will take you far, and you’ll be happier with the money saved in lieu of buying a Cavalier replacement.  Who knows, maybe the extra savings and mundane machinery will land you the ideal lifestyle and loved one to go with it.  It’s amazing where that degree will take you, trust me on that.

So don’t let the cooler car cloud your judgement, says the MBA-clad TTAC veteran who drives a Ford Ranger. Believe that.

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.
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43 Comments on “Piston Slap: In God We Rust, Part II...”

  • avatar

    Agreed. It’s easy to get impatient when you’re in school for this long, but in this case patience really is a virtue. Take the Cavalier and consider yourself lucky to have had that as such a good option. It may not be as much fun, but life as a grad student can be great fun as it is. Make the most of it.

  • avatar

    Behind this functionally pitched problem and answer is a small elephant which I feel I must bring up. Although you did not give details; most humans at grad school are on the cusp of finding their mate; a much more important investment than a car. After Mcluhan, a car is an essential recruitment tool because of what it says about you. A car that says I do not care is ok (think auld jalopy Volvo estate), a high status males car is OK (think BMW); but you would want to be pretty amazing looking to pull of something as tragic as a Cavalier. Sell it, arrange for it to be stolen or torched- but Keith no one in your family will want you to be single for the rest of your life.

    • 0 avatar

      People like you are why I have a job. You drink that marketing kool-aid, boy! Drink it!

      I drive a Cavalier, and my ‘mate’ is perfect. I must be ‘amazing looking.’ Right.

      My mate is more offended by my ‘nice’ project car. Drive what you want. The right woman will find her way into your life in spite of idiotic advice like above.

      • 0 avatar

        “The right woman will find her way into your life in spite of idiotic advice like above.”

        Agreed. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that anyone who rejects you because of the car you drive may not be the right person for a lifetime relationship. Patience is a virtue in this case as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting advice. You really think true love comes when you drive a respectable car?

      I give up, I’m taking the bus from now on.

      • 0 avatar

        The night I met my now-wife (blind date) I drove her to her car in the parking garage. I knew she had just bought something recently because somehow it had come up in conversation but I didn’t pry as I knew car talk would probably scare her off (little did she know what she was getting into). When she pointed out her grey Camry, I asked her if that was her mother’s car. I couldn’t comprehend why a cute, single 26 year old girl would buy such a big, boring car for herself.

        That being said, the car is still in our family with 149k miles on it, as the extra car. So it was a wise choice. She’s smarter than I thought, hence I put a ring on it.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        Him let see, I’m getting married in a month and when I met my mate (in 2008) I was driving a rotation of a 2004 F150, 1997 Ford Escort station wagon, and a 2008 Roketa Scooter. Gosh I’m glad I had such cool transportation options. (rolls eyes)

    • 0 avatar

      All I have to say is when/if you find someone who chooses you for what you drive, is that you obviously deserve each other.

    • 0 avatar

      Or you can do what I did – finish grad school, get a decent job, marry rich, and have her father buy you a new BMW.

    • 0 avatar

      My perfect mate met me when I was driving a 9-year-old rusty Pinto in college. It took us on our honeymoon 25 years ago.

      She wouldn’t even have looked at me if I was flaunting a BMW.

      My old Pinto didn’t say “I don’t care”; it said I have other more important things to focus on.

      Do you really want a mate who only marries you ‘for richer’, and not ‘for poorer’? Good luck with that.

    • 0 avatar

      So, wait, a Cavalier will make you a social paraiah, but a rusted out wagon isn’t a problem?

      Of course, when I met my fiancee, I had nothing but a bicycle. By the time we started dating 8 years later, I was driving a rusty old Cavalier (which she’s mentioned missing since we took it on our first date). Even now, I’m driving her older Hyundai Accent, since we’re trying to save up for the various big important expenses, instead of something like a car payment.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      invara, I think you have the car status thing backwards. One of the benefits of a high-status car is the opportunity to “test drive” a larger number of attractive shallow women, replacing women and cars frequently. Any average car in good (not rusty and/or dented) condition will do if the goal is marriage to a good woman.

    • 0 avatar

      No, you don’t need a BMW to land the ideal mate.

      He’s in grad school, so he probably has the conversational skills to land a worthwhile lady. Some people become more attractive when they speak, some people become less attractive. The chances are Thad he’d prefer a similarly educated and conversational lady who becomes more attractive when she speaks, so all he has to do is have the courage to start a conversation with the right person at the right time.

      I was driving a best up old Ranger for years before and years after I met my wife. I only got rid of it because it’s a lousy kid hauler.

      Also, NOT owning a luxury car communicates important things about me that I value. It communicates that I’m handy/practical and that I value my family more than my “image”. I’d respect me less if I drove a German money pit, and these cars are also a kind of shibboleth that says “he ain’t from around here” in both the college town where I live, and in the poor rural community where I grew up.

    • 0 avatar

      My fiancee, whom I’m marrying in a month, was nearly scared off by my “nice” car (a G8 GXP, with the showy stock wheels) when I gave her a ride home after one of our first dates. She was skeptical until she figured out that I was a gearhead rather than a status seeker. If I had driven a ’98 Cavalier there would have been no problem.

  • avatar

    You mean the four years older Domestic is not rusting like the Japanese car? Say it isn’t so!

    If both cars are driven daily may that be a lesson in buying other than Domestic in heavy road salted winter areas.

    • 0 avatar

      I see an awful lot of rusty domestic GMT800s in this part of the midwest and they’re no older than this fellow’s Mazda.

      • 0 avatar

        Do you see any Toyota Tundras from that era? No because their all rusted away or have bought back from Toyota. I did see a Tundra the other day with brand new frame or freshly painted.

      • 0 avatar

        Do a simple google search and watch all the literally new Ford F-series complaints with pictures showing massive rust at the wheel wells, bumpers, and door sills.

        The Ford trucks are interesting, because it would appear that Ford went with a layered/sandwich type metal construction around the wheel wells.

        Rust Through in 5 years – Page 5 – Ford Truck Enthusiasts Forums

        Warranty for rust? – Ford Truck Enthusiasts Forums

        THE Notorious Bed/Wheel Well Rust discussion w PICS – Ford Truck Enthusiasts Forums

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t get too excited, those first gen Cavys rot out their rocker panels pretty quick by the rear wheel. Mazda proteges (and subsequent 3s and 6s) are notorious rustbuckets. A 1998-2002 Corolla or even a late 90s Civic is just as acceptably rust resistant as your vaunted Cavalier.

      • 0 avatar


        His Cavy isn’t a first gen, it’s a ’98, far from a first gen so it may well be more rust resistant than many cars for salted country.

        That doesn’t mean it won’t rust, just that it won’t do it nearly as quickly as say his P5.

        I have a P5 myself, though I live where rust isn’t an issue so mine is still rust free as Mazdas go.

      • 0 avatar

        My mistake, I suppose the 1995-2000(?) Would be the third gen. My comment still stands, the rear rocker panels on those cars are totally gone on Central NY cars. First gen Focuses suffer the same malady, I went to test drive an 05 Focus with 80k miles on it a week ago but then saw the rockers.. totally shot.

    • 0 avatar

      The domestics certainly aren’t immune from rust in these parts especially the Chevy trucks. EVERY car will eventually rust around here especially if it isn’t taken care of.

  • avatar

    Sajeev is spot on. Do a cost estimate to understand what it would cost to keep the Protege running and it most likely will be clear to you that it isn’t worth it, especially because you probably can get some cash for the car even in its current state. You know better than anyone else what it would take to keep it running safely.

    Save that cash for whatever your post-grad school plans include – start a business, move to a new city, invest in a new wardrobe. Deferred gratification is the single most important trait Americans have abandoned.

    • 0 avatar


      I eventually parted with a 15-year-old car because of rust. You can only barely keep up with the worst of it, and since rust never sleeps, it eventually wins.

      After the frame, it will be things like brake lines and fuel lines rusting through – yuk.

  • avatar

    You live in Maine where cars are a disposable commodity after 8 years, (thank-you Maine DOT for not knowing how to build a road that can last more than 1 winter and for throwing down the most cancerous chemicals known to car-dom!) Between the state inspection mafia who love to shake you down on a yearly basis, the rediculous price of registration, taxes, and titlement from your lovely Baldacci/LePage administration, and the ridiculous price of used vehicles, I suggest taking the cavalier, hoping it lasts long enough to get you through school, moving away from that god forsaken wasteland, and buying a car that’s worthwhile.

    After a car has spent 1 winter in Maine, it’s no longer worth buying if you plan to keep it long term.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, so lemme get this straight…

      These “inspections” are necessary in Maine because of the winters and rust? Then why do we get by without them in Minnesnowta?

      Every time I read about these inspections it sounds like a scam. There are zero news reports in MN about unsafe vehicles. Nobody cares. I suspect it’s not even an issue.

      • 0 avatar

        Depends on the price of the inspection and what they check. I used to bemoan the yearly inspections in Texas until I had a consulting gig in Oklahoma. I’ll never claim the process is perfect but there were some rust buckets that clearly had no place being on the road and yet were there sharing interstate space with me.


        I had a friend in New York telling me about some of the things that were flagged in his inspection and it did sound like nothing short of a scam. That said, the concept of vehicle inspections isn’t bad, it’s how some states use them that is the problem.

      • 0 avatar

        Same here in NE Illinois. No inspections, lots of salt on the roads. Actually cars today do not rust compared to the past. I have kept my last two cars bought new for 10 and 12 yrs. with only signs of rust beginning. Yes I know it will come fast after that.

    • 0 avatar

      In 2004, I had a 1988 Accord which had survived 16 years with some neglect in the Pacific Northwest. It had almost no rust. Then my then-gf moved to New Hampshire for a job, took the car, and spent the next two winters there. By 2007 the car was a complete rustbucket, with the rear wheelwells rusting through, severe rust on the rocker panels and front fenders, and rust on the trunklid. New England is absolutely lethal for cars.

  • avatar

    The questioner seems like a smart guy, in the process of getting a big degree, he knows the right thing to do in this case.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    Having spent 5 years as an apprentice on $35 a fortnight pay ,I fully understand the need for wheels and the feeling that there is no way to pay for even the cheapest old bomb to get around in. I would drive the mazda until it finally fell in half. Modern cars will withstand a lot of corrosion before that happens and if you are grad student,you should be able to learn how to a spot of welding? it’s easy once you know the basics . A few patches on the worst bits will hold the car together for the next year and half.
    Mechanically,the mazda should last that long too.
    A few years ago I bought a Mercedes W123 230, carbed model. It had 200,000 on it and 18 months later I had added a further 75,000.
    it never missed a beat and i only sold it because my dad had slammed into the back of cab breaking the headlight and i couldn’t be bothered fixing it. my point being is, take advantage of what you have ,not pine for what you think you need .

  • avatar

    A ’98 Cavalier with 135k and it’s still running along?

    I’ve known many Cavalier owners that cover a broad range of that model’s life. Most have been terrible. If the ’98 is still functioning it might just be that rare gem. Plus it’s free. Put aside a little money that you’re not using for a car payment for potential repairs and be aggressive about maintenance and you’ll probably still come out ahead.

    This coming from someone who absolutely hates those cars. If it were me, I’d still take the Cavalier. Once I went off to college there were no free cars for me to take. With all the other costs of college, there really is no reason to take on more financial burden if it can be avoided.

  • avatar

    The Protege5 is a well known rust bucket. Not sure why the Mazda e-coat fails so often. Sounds like it is very unsafe and un-reparable. Part it out.

  • avatar

    Having submitted the original question to Piston Slap, I will chime in with the current state of things. The car has continued its downward slide since I sent Sajeev my question in February.

    Since sending my question, the horn has stopped “honking” and started to make a strangled, rasp instead. It sounds like I am driving a Model T around. It amuses the hell out of me, but probably isn’t making the car any safer.

    The passenger side front foot well carpeting keep getting soaked when it is raining. Either water working its way in through the floor boards while driving or a leak under the windshield in a spot I can’t actually see an active drip? Will check if it is wet when it has only been parked and not driven, not that it really makes a difference at this point!

    The muffler has corroded, a problem I was previously unaware of, has broken the header where it meets the flex pipe. This just happened over the weekend while camping. VERY loud now. And the CO2 asphyxiation concern has made me very paranoid of getting stuck in traffic. I still need to drive the thing for another month and a half (when the sticker is up), and will have to get this fixed well enough to feel that I am not endangering myself or others when driving the car.

    So, yeah, time to ditch my P5 and embrace the Cavalier. It will be a relatively temporary relationship, and one that I am grateful to even have as an option. Thanks for all the input!

    P.S. I am not overly concerned about the Cavalier being a chick-repellent. In my neck of the woods of Maine, there are plenty of beaters on the road. I will fit right in.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Corroded wire, windshield seal or stuffed up drain, new muffler.

      These aren’t major issues. Take the car to an independent shop that has been around a long time, and does mufflers. Be concise about the issues (not mentioning that you plan on selling it), and get an estimate.

      If the wheel bearings haven’t even worn out yet, I don’t envision this vehicle being near the rustbucket that you’re making it out to be.

      • 0 avatar

        Wheel bearings were replaced about 2 years ago. I agree, if not for the rust, the additional issues are all very fixable. Just part of the routine for a car that is a few hundred miles shy of 150,000 now.

        And having finally gotten the mentioned inspection by the family mechanic, seeing the car up on the lift was pretty shocking. A finger poke to the rear bumper opened up a hole about the size of a fist. Having seen this, it is pretty clear that driving the car is a more a safety concern than I had even realized.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        Wow! Well, you’re definitely doing the right thing then.

        Good luck.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    When one is a student, one is receiving both an university education and a life education.
    Speaking of the latter, is that sometimes one must make short term sacrifices to achieve future goals. I’m glad that you have made the decision with respect to the Cavalier, and believe me, someday you’ll actually remeber it with fondness.

    I graduated 34 years ago and in those days I drove a 1969 VW Beetle. Every single outsdide surface, including the top, had at one point of time met another object which had caused permanent bruises. However, the engine was ultra-simple, I could fix it myself with simple tools, and being both very light and a manual transmission, I could push it myself and start it whenever the start motor would not work -a frequent event-.

    I met my wife while driving that car, and although she complained about the noise and smell, we are still married after 32 years. We still remember adventures we had in the car.

  • avatar

    Ditch the Mazda. Drive the Cavalier – the utter crappyness of the latter will motivate you daily in your studies.

    The Cavalier/Sunfire you mention is without doubt the worst POS I’ve EVER had the dis-pleasure to drive, but they do work and are cheap to fix.

    Also, don’t worry about finding a mate – assuming you are getting a useful graduate degree, you have lots of time, and as a dude, the clock doesn’t start tickin’ until your 50s.

  • avatar

    When my wife and I first started dating, I didn’t even have a car. She would pick me up in her car and we’d go from there.

    Edit: Apologies, but I thought I posted this as a reply to the above comment about wives and such, and have no idea how it ended up here (user error, most likely).

  • avatar

    Ugh, as an owner of a Protege5 I sympathize. To be honest, in Winnipeg we don’t get the same winter as Maine (I lived in Nova Scotia) Our dry winters are actually ok for cars to handle. However, Winnipeg went through its warmest winter and every freind who saw my car after this last winter could not believe the shape of my car. Rust everywhere….

    Me and my gf and dad just laugh because you could see it happen to every other Protege in the city too. The scary thing is its getting up the strut tower a little so I’m taking it to a bodyshop soon to get the car sellable.

    I have already bought another car that will replace my Protege5 once I sell it in a few months.

  • avatar

    Hmm, too bad the student didn’t take a looksie under the car when he first started driving it, discovered the rust, sanded the metal and sprayed the crap out of it with moisture-resist primer in the form of spray cans. Put on like 10 or 20 layers.
    When you see rust, take care of it, especially under the car!
    Being a 2002, that is a really young car to have rust, and rust that bad.

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