By on August 26, 2013

Keith writes:

Hey Sajeev,

Longtime lurker on TTAC that’s coming out of the woodwork. Love your columns and thanks for your time. I’ve got a 99 Civic with 199000 km (124000 miles) that needs new rear trailing arm bushings on both sides. I’m looking at about $500 to get them replaced.

Now here’s the rub. I can afford the repair but I can also afford to buy a new car too. But I really like my car. It’s cheap, cheerful, fun to drive and utterly reliable. Even the bushings, from what I gather, were close to the end of their useful life. I’m sure the awful Toronto roads didn’t help though. It has been religiously maintained according Honda’s maintenance schedule and the brakes were done within last year. The other thing you and fellow TTAC readers should know is that there’s a crack in catalytic converter and the fuel & brake lines are rusted & corroded. They are areas of concern but have been so for several years now. I’m not too worried about them but when one of them does go, that’s the absolute end of the car for me.

If I buy, I’m looking at a 2013 Mazda3 hatchback (Yes, I don’t mind the big goofy smile). I know they’re great cars for the money and well within my budget, especially considering dealers ought to blowing them out with the 3rd gen coming to their lots in the next few months.

Is the Civic worth keeping or am I just being a sentimental fool?

Sajeev answers:

I don’t see why a bad catalytic convertor is “the absolute end of the car” for you. The replacement (and installation at a local muffler shop) is a fraction of the cost of a new Mazda’s monthly payment. Ditto brake/fuel lines.  Old cars get old, especially on brutally rough urban streets and salty-cold weather. That’s life.

It is the classic quandary…do you own the car, or does the car own you?

At what point do you go from a warranty-laden, Ain’t Got a Care in the World motoring attitude to…ZOMG WHAT’S BREAKING NEXT AND AM I GETTING HOSED ON THE FIX?  I’ve made quite the name for myself being the latter of that statement, but I understand the frustration.  And the tiring weekends when you could be doing something else.  Anything else: it is, on occasion, a colossal resource hog in one’s life.

Would I have it any other way?  Hell no, but I also have a new(ish) truck with a decent warranty that happily gets me to work.  Taking the Civic’s sentimentality out of the equation (i.e. have you looked at the new Civic?), can you live with one car of moderate reliability? I’d sell when the Ontario winters finally put holes in the Civic’s floorboards, but that’s by no means the right answer.

Off to you, Best and Brightest.

And by the way, I’m running low on the Piston Slap reserves of user-submitted questions, so read what’s below and help the TTAC community out.

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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36 Comments on “Piston Slap: When Does The Car Own…You?...”

  • avatar

    I owned a Civic of that generation for a while that spent odometer-broken-thousand-miles in rust-prone upstate NY. Eventually the brake lines sprung a leak from the rust, but because I was flat broke at the time, I spliced a new segment of brake line into the middle with a flare tool. This isn’t particularly safe and I don’t generally recommend this if you can afford anything else.

    Replacing the brake (and fuel) lines entirely requires removal of the front subframe, which is an arduous task that wasn’t really feasible in the cramped garage I was renting at the time.

    • 0 avatar

      Ouch. Subframe drop makes it a little less worthwhile to keep on the road. Depends on the labor rate for that work.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a Honda Accord that also suffered corrosion isues. The stuff they spray on the roads these days in the northern climates is very harsh – to just about everything on the car. Heck, it will even eat away your garage floor concrete when the slush melts off the wheel wells.

      I’m not so sure that looking at a Mazda is the best route to go – they seem to be pretty bad with the corrosion problem. Toronto is probably worse than where I live too.

    • 0 avatar

      Thinking of all the dumb requirements that governments place on automakers, one rule that I could actually support would be mandating brake lines be made of stainless steel.

      How much extra would that really costs the automakers? Less than $30 more per vehicle?

      • 0 avatar

        The galvanized lines of today seem to hold up well with brake fluid changes. It’s when the fluid turns into an acid from the moisture it absorbs that it starts eating the lines from the inside out.

      • 0 avatar

        Copper nickel alloy is the way to go. Stainless steel tends to be brittle. The Europeans have been using it for many years, and the brake lines stay fine even here in Maine. It IS expensive stuff, but I agree that its use should be mandated on safety grounds.

        Ultimately it comes down to rust for me. As long as the car is generally reliable, cosmetically OK, and meets your needs, why replace it unless you are simply bored with it?

  • avatar

    If it was me, I’d jump for the Mazda.

    I’d also shop around to see if I could find someone to do the trailing arm bushings for less than $500cdn. If you can get a good price to fix it, it’ll help with third-party resale. Or, if you can get a stupid trade-in number, dump it on the dealer.

    Sentimentality aside, if you can afford to replace a 15-year-old Civic with rust issues with a brand new car, do it.

    I’m with Sajeev that the catalytic converter isn’t a big deal, but the brake and fuel lines are. If you can’t do that job yourself, and you don’t have a good mechanic who can do it for short money, you don’t want to take on that cost. Get a fresh new car, with better safety and durability, and start at the top of another 15 year car life cycle.

    • 0 avatar

      Second the comment on $500 Canadian being too much, maybe way too much depending on exactly what has to be done.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed,jrhmobile. I understand what sentimentality can do when it comes to keeping a car. The two we have for that sake (fairly clean ’87 Ranger with less than 100k miles, and my 467k mile Echo) aren’t in the process of rusting away like that Civic. Then there’s the call of a far newer car that meets or exceeds the fuel economy and performance of that Civic. I’m a fan of light and simple, but the Mazda would hold its own.

      If the Civic-wielding lurker is put off by the cat and lines, then the sentimentality isn’t as high as everyone is considering. When my Echo needed a new tranny and cat, I could have had a new car… could have had.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree…the OP does not seem to be that sentimental about the car. If the OP can’t check himself, I’d suggest bring the car in for an inspection. Being a Honda of that vintage, the engine and trans are likely fine. A/C probably is not. Have the pro wrench give you a list of items that need attention. Armed with the costs for that work, decide if it is worth it to you. I had all the brake lines changed on a Buick for a little over $400 so a Civic should not be much different. If the body is free of rust holes and the repairs are around $2K it might be worth it to keep the car for another few years.

  • avatar

    You need to do some strategic planning. Get estimates for what your car needs now and what it is likely to need in the next few years. In addition to the catalytic converter and rusty brake and fuel lines, ask about stuff like timing belt, struts, CV joints, tires and clutch or auto transmission. Find out what your payments, insurance and taxes will be on a new Mazda. When keeping the old car going costs as much per month as a new one, it’s time to switch.

  • avatar
    The Heisenberg Cartel

    Depends on how long you want to keep it for. If you plan to keep it for, say, the next 3 years, then replacing everything that needs replacing will be a cheaper proposition than a new car or even a newer used car, every single time, unless you’re replacing the entire engine or something. But since you have the money for a new car, it also depends on how much of a pain in the ass it becomes.

    Source: I bought a 1999 BMW 323i with 268,000 miles, and have made up a giant list of what I’m going to replace on it (whether it actively needs it or not), and even so I’m still saving a shit ton of money over buying a newer BMW, or even a newer anything else.

    ^plus, it depends how much work you can do yourself. My first replacements, the belts and the water pump, cost me less than 150 dollars. Having someone else do it would have set me back over 500.

  • avatar

    If you wanted a new car I’d suggest to just buy another Civic like yours, not a ’13 but another ’99 if you can get one that hasn’t been riced. You’re familiar with the ins and outs and you’ll enjoy the familiarity.

    If the roads of Toronto took a toll on your Civic a new Mazda 3 won’t fair any better, they often have bad rust issues and utilize a “sporty” (back aching) suspension, and I’m sure that parts of the trim will migrate away.

    • 0 avatar

      Where in Toronto is he going to find another 15-year-old Civic that does not have rust issues, that has less than 124k miles on it(he is at under 10k miles per year on this car, which is significantly below average), and has NOT been riced (in Toronto – really?)?

      Oh, so he’s going to go to the sunbelt to look? So he’s going to start flying around the country spending on airfare looking for a $2k car?

      I could see if your ’02 NSX gets totaled and you have an insurance check, that you would look all over the nation trying to find a replacement for your baby…but to replace a rusty 1999 Civic with another 1999 Civic?

  • avatar

    I come to this discussion as someone who hasn’t made a car payment in 30 Years.

    When it comes to down payments depreciation, taxes and insurance, a new car is a horrible investment. A 124k car is just beginning it’s useful life (I bought my current Jeep at 128k). Debt is a really ugly thing month after month like clockwork. Repairs happen sporadically, and with judgment can be spread out somewhat.

    If you like your car, keep it to 250k or longer. (At 250 k I spent 2500 on a reman engine and set the clock to zero. What could I have bought for 2500?)

    • 0 avatar

      Normally, I would agree with you. We have a 15-year-old Subaru that is approaching 250k miles. Even though it will require some fairly expensive work in the near future, the car is basically sound. Therefore, we have no plans to replace it.

      Keith’s situation may be different. His reference to corroded brake and fuel lines makes me wonder about rust. Are critical structures like suspension pickup points rusty to the point of failure? If so, repairing his old car will cost more than buying a new one.

      Slightly used can be a better bargain than brand new. However, that depends on depreciation rates. Hondas and Toyotas hold their value so well that one might was well buy new. Hyundai has improved so much that it is worth considering.

    • 0 avatar

      I very much agree with your line of thinking but I wonder how many models are worth rebuilding. Seems to me between the design of some cars and the placement of some features, the vast majority of auto models are meant to have a finite service life and be disposed.

    • 0 avatar

      “A 124k car is just beginning it’s useful life”

      Only if you earn so little your time is essentially of no value.

      • 0 avatar

        It depends on your taste in cars. If corrosion were not an issue, a Honda or Toyota with 124K miles would generally require less down time and impositions than a 2012 Audi A6 with 1,000 miles. Ask me how I know. If you put 25K miles a year on a car, then the quality car with 124K is going to save you more time than a gadget laden new car.

      • 0 avatar

        Some of us enjoy working on our vehicles.

  • avatar

    I’m in a similar situation, though I’m on the west coast, so rust isn’t much of an issue. My car is a 93 Civic with 360000 km (~220000 mi). Brake and fuel lines are fine, but the trailing arm bushings are torn.

    How much should it cost to get them replaced? I would do it myself, but I don’t have the tools. The car is also losing coolant slowly, but I think it’s just a leak in the heater core.

  • avatar

    While it almost always cheaper to keep/fix an old car, you also have to take into consideration time lost and inconvenience of a car that needs multiple (over time) repairs.

    I also own a well used car – 2003 Toyota Matrix ~ 150k miles. Outside it is hideous but mechanically it is pretty sound. But it is a second car and not the primary form of transportation. If it breaks, it does not necessarily mean lost time from work or other responsibilities.

    Also, keeping an old car alive often depends how adept you are with a wrench. While I consider myself reasonably apt at working on and fixing things, car repairs almost always leave me baffled/frustrated. I would rather have a professional do it, which means more expense is involved in the decision.

  • avatar

    I’m known for trying to wring the last bit of life out of anything I drive. I also have a place to wrench, most of the tools and the ability.

    What I have least of is time.

    That said, if the repairs are doable and the rest of the car is sound, yes, it’s a bit of a gamble throwing some money once in awhile at a car, but it you really like it and you’re maintaining it well, it’s still cheaper than a new car payment.

    I just threw a set of struts & springs into my ’01 Avalon at 182K, did the work myself over a couple of short afternoons and put 500 bucks in my pocket for not paying someone else to do it.

    the car is worth it because of its build quality.

    Once other systems start failing and you get multiple problems resulting in repair/refurb costs exceeding the street value of the vehicle, it’s time to pull the plug.

  • avatar

    Its funny because when I think 99 Civic, I immediately imagine a ’99 Civic Si coupe in mint condition that some has babied it’s entire life and how you can’t buy one like that anymore and with only 124k miles he should keep it and fix it and hold onto it forever. Then I realize he is probably talking about a Civic like the hundreds I see around here, not an Si, not so pretty anymore, not so mint, living through 14 yrs of winter and salt and grime, etc, and the brake and fuel lines do sound like a PITA to fix (I never knew they would corrode!). Yeah, he probably should just trade it in or sell it now while it still has relatively low miles and get a new car. Not sure I would go for a Mazda in Toronto with all the things I read here about rust issues on them. I would go for a new Honda Civic; the new Si is surprisingly nice. And then he can baby it and keep it forever!

  • avatar

    The cheapest car is almost always the car you already own.

    I would wager just the sales tax on an average new car would pay well over 5 years of “out of pocket” repairs for the average consumer with a car that’s no longer under warranty. And that’s not even touching the much bigger issue of depreciation.

    It seems it’s just human nature to always over exaggerate repair bills vs initial cost of ownership.

    There are some cars that truly are money pits after a certain point (like many flagship European cars) but when you actually add up repair cost vs depreciation of new, it’s not even close.

    It’s actually hard for me to move on from one car to the next because in my head, I know it’s all about me wanting something different rather than me making a smart financial decision.

  • avatar

    Look, normally I would go with any advice that would keep someone out of debt, but not today. You like the Mazda3? Go get it, because Mazda Canada is offering 84 mos @ 0% financing. Go, now! That is probably the best new car deal on the planet

  • avatar

    I would get rid of the old Honda. 15 years is great on a northern car. If you can get 10 years out of a daily driver in the north, that’s great. I’ve lived through many Cleveland winters. Most cars are covered with salt from November through March. Even if a northern car’s engine and transmission are running well after 15 years, the sheet metal and brake lines will be flaking away. The new car will be worth if from from the safety standpoint alone.

  • avatar

    My parents recently faced the same problem. Keep fixing a 2001 sentra with 198,000kms on it, or buy a new car. They elected to buy a new car and are now happily enjoying a car that has substantially more features.

    Take into perspective the following.

    1) new cars are probably safer as you get more standard safety items.
    2) a lot more gadgets and “stuff” are standard now
    3) the experience of driving a new car vs the same old pos you’ve had for a while now.

    I personally would not sink good money into a bad car. Go for the Mazda 3

  • avatar

    OP here…thanks for all the input everyone.

    I got sentimental and had the bushings replaced. I’m know I’m taking a bit of a gamble but I’m fairly confident I can get 2 or 3 more winters out of it. Every mechanic that’s seen my car in the past 2 years hasn’t found anything major besides the existing issues.
    This is the the most I’ve ever spent on one repair so I’m willing to keep her running for the foreseeable future.

    Again, being sentimental, they don’t make cars like this anymore. Excellent build quality, great visibility, light and fun to drive. I’ve driven a few newer cars and really didn’t like the disconnected feel of the steering and gas pedal. Sure, it’s a plain vanilla sedan with somewhat wheezy 4 spd auto but it still feels better to drive than most newer cars I’ve driven.

    As for the bushing replacement itself, I did a good bit of research and got quite a few quotes. $500 all in was below average but not the cheapest I found. Replacing them is a real PITA and is very labour intensive. Basically, they have to take the tires off, disassemble the brakes, remove the trailing/control arm, bang out the old bushing, bang the the new ones in and put it all back together. Throw a rear alignment in and you’ve got 3 hours labour (1.5 on each side).

  • avatar

    I’m in the same situation on the west coast, with a 19 year old car. golden2husky suggested an inspection. I’d go for a trusty mechanic’s estimate of what’s coming up over the next couple years, itemized for parts and labor hours. Then check the parts availability and prices, and labor rate range in your area. I did that, and I’m shopping for a late model used car to avoid depreciation, and paying cash.

  • avatar

    A Civic “owning” you, that’s a good one.
    This is small potatoes
    Long story short..
    One of my brothers has spent the last three years fixing up a huge Trimaran bouncing around Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
    He has spent every dollar he saved, and could beg, borrow or steal.
    Foreclosure on his house is looming..
    Just to be clear we are not talking about a small ranch in Toledo, OH
    This would be a large home, beautiful grounds, ocean view, one block to the beach in Hawaii
    That my friends is when the car/boat owns YOU

  • avatar

    OP again.

    I don’t want anyone thinking your advice wasn’t welcome or appreciated. I had the repair done because I felt the car was getting unsafe to drive because the rear end has been sliding out for a couple weeks now. I just couldn’t wait any longer.

    That said, in a month or so I’m due for an oil change. I’ll have the shop check everything out and make a list of upcoming repairs. Then I can make an informed choice.

    Thanks again everyone!

  • avatar

    Normally I’d say keep the car because 124k on a 99 civic would be nothing and can easily go to 240k if maintained right, like my 97 Integra

    in the south

    But since you live up in the salted area, and is starting to have corrosion issue, I’d say just buy a new / newer car and call it a day unless you can work on things at your own time.

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