Piston Slap: Bennie Bucks on the Winter Beater?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

TTAC Commentator 28-Cars-Later writes:

Sajeev,

I’ve got a small conundrum for Piston Slap. Winter is fast approaching and for those of us in the mid-Atlantic states this is a serious affair. My winter beater has been my trusty (but not rusty) ’98 Saturn SL/auto/164K, which in the spring started showing its age and developed transmission issues after seven years (and roughly 80K) of ownership. I’ve let her sit most of the summer save starting her up and driving her around the parking lot every 7-12 days but I’ve been trying to put off the inevitable investment of Bennie bucks. This evening I was offered an ’00 Subaru Outback/auto/186K to replace it for $2500 inc four new cheap tires and inspection.

The prospects of an actual [built in Japan] Japanese wagon are intriguing, the Subaru is 7/10 in terms of condition with some dings and several rust spots, it had no issue starting up and is throwing no codes. The catch is I have zero documentation on the car (was a recent trade) and personally I am leery of all AWD systems regardless of make and model, especially without documentation/receipts. Panning over the engine bay I noticed a newer alternator and a battery stickered 3/12 (with old acid all over the cradle) so somebody (sort of) attempted to take care of the car. Oil was a down 1/4 a quart, coolant was dirty but not caked on or anything, but the kicker was the trans fluid is getting to be brown. I figure whomever recently owned this attempted to take care of it to some degree, but neglected all of the fluid changes, which leads to me to suspect none of the Subie specific maint (diff fluid, sensors, etc) has been done either by this owner (and who knows about the head gaskets). I have two days to make up my mind on the Subie before he sends it to auction.

(NOTE: because of my time delay in publishing, this car is already bought or auctioned off – SM)

So I figure my choices are as such:

  1. Spend $1200-1400 to install a used transmission in my Saturn and risk more expensive stuff breaking down the line.
  2. Spend $2500 and buy the Subaru, which for my purposes will probably get me through at least this winter without fireworks, but risk later expensive Subie specific repairs, or total loss if something big breaks.
  3. Not spend any money, junk my Saturn, and just drive one of my other two cars in the winter that I currently baby to some degree.

Sajeev answers:

Well…I guess it kinda depends on your other two vehicles.

#2 is not a sure thing: with zero service history and tired fluids, expecting this Subaru to work all winter is a rather huge leap of faith. Perhaps if it was something more robust (truck) with less unique parts that are painfully hard to reach, perhaps if it wasn’t a vehicle known for its fragility (bad head gaskets) especially when neglected/abused…

Install a junkyard transmission in the Saturn, coming from a yard that offers a warranty. Or research to see if a local shop rebuilds these units with quality parts and labor (not always easy to find) for a fair price. Why? Because it’s almost always easier to keep the problems you know, not the gigantic rolling question mark that could be even more of a horrid money pit.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.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.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Bill mcgee Bill mcgee on Nov 28, 2013

    All this Saturn talk makes me nostalgic for my old '94 Saturn wagon , with the SOHC and a 5-speed . Bought it used with 60k miles , had somewhere north of 300k miles 5 years later when it was rear-ended and totalled . Bit of a rattletrap and absolutely awful front seats . Pretty reliable though and it used no oil between oil changes and never needed a head gasket either .

  • Burgersandbeer Burgersandbeer on Nov 28, 2013

    I think you should sell the Saturn and put winter tires on the Grand Prix. Unless your nice car is something that makes no sense in winter (think S2000), just drive the thing and enjoy it. Why spend time in the Saturn just to forestall the inevitable with the Grand Prix? I can see owning multiple cars when they each serve a different purpose (pickup truck, roadster, commuter sedan, etc), but I don't get having a "winter beater" when it is so similar to the other cars in the stable.

    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Nov 28, 2013

      I have a similar mindset where each car has its purpose, I'm just, for lack of a better word, funny with the GP. Sure I know its just a disposable W body but its special to me, its like the big brother to my Grand Am which was the first really "nice" car I ever had (and there's some other stuff). Years from now when Pontiac is gone from the driving conscious I'd like to drive it by the jacked up 2-cyl station wagons and show them what a nice car looks like. The Pontiac has also been paid off since last Nov and it would be nice to coast on no payments for awhile. My plans were to keep it and my Volvo for many years to come, one as the sunday car and the other as the "nice" practical sedan as I'd eventually like to get something non-sedan. My Saturn was a mere holdover from an impromptu solution and although I'd like to keep it on the road, I don't hold a serious attachment to it.

  • SCE to AUX I've always said that consumer/business pressures will reign in government decrees, as they have in the past in places like California. That state has moved the goalposts many times for "ZEV" mandates.But the problem is the depth of politicization of the EPA. Mfrs need continuity and long-term commitment to requirements, not living on a 4-year political cycle of who's in the White House and Congress. Your President - whomever that is - isn't going to be around forever.
  • Dukeisduke The administration is slowly dribbling out details of the change - it's like they don't want to piss off environmentalists, the auto manufacturers, or the UAW. John McElroy covered this very well in today's installment of Autoline Daily: AD #3751 - 2024 U.S. EV Sales Could Grow 43%; China Price War Spreads To ICE; U.S Vehicles Biggest Ever, Also Lowest CO2 - AutolineAlso, even though vehicles in the US have gotten larger, heavier, and more powerful (thanks to the shift away from sedans to trucks and SUVs), according to a year-end report by the EPA, in 2023, average fuel economy was at its highest ever, and CO2 emissions of new vehicles were at their lowest ever ( The 2023 EPA Automotive Trends Report: Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Fuel Economy, and Technology since 1975, Executive Summary (EPA-420-S-23-002, December 2023 ).
  • Golden2husky How about real names instead of alphabet/numeric soup?
  • Tassos THANKS BIDEN. NOW BRING BACK LED PIPES, INDOOR SMOKING, ASBESTOS, AND THAT OTHER THING THOSE SOUTHERN LOSER STATES FOUGHT FOR.
  • Alan I think its the far left that want to ban fossil fuel powered vehicles. The left can mean many things. So don't place all into the "Left" if they don't believe in your right wing agenda.If one looks at a breakdown of political beliefs you'll find approximately 20% are dedicated wackos on the right, sort of Trumpian types. The same occurs on the left 20% are wackos, I call them Green types.This leaves the middle 60% shaking their heads at the nonsense, BS, misinformation, lies, etc that is spruiked by the extremes of both sides of politics.Australia is lucky in some respects as we have multiple political parties. The Labour Party (Dem equiv) don't have the extreme left as they migrate to the Greens. The Liberal Party (GOP equiv) don't have such luxury and has been infiltrated by right wing knobs.So, you'll find many Dems might have more conservative views than those that are GOP and vice versa.Stop with this nonsense.I don't envisage a ban on fossil fuel powered vehicles in Connecticut as this will not fit in with the economic development of the State. There will be changes of course.This is nothing but a piece of red meat.
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