The Deeper Dive: When Is It Time To Junk Your Car?

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

About a third of the questions I get from readers center around one issue: euthanasia in the car world, or what I like to call “automotive decrapitation”.

In other words, when is it the right time to recycle an old car and transform it into a cheap Chinese washer and dryer?

The logical answer I give these folks is shockingly simple. You should get rid of a car when it’s worth more dead than alive.

When a car costs more to repair than replace with another one just like it in better condition, it’s time to put it on Craigslist and pray for a real customer – one that hopefully isn’t some hideous combination of scam and spam.

Once I tell a non-enthusiast this, the conversation too often changes direction and they usually blurt out something along the lines of, “Oh! Well…let me tell you about this problem that my mechanic can’t figure out,” as if I have some paranormal E.T.-like power to figure out which of the 10,000+ parts of a given car are going wonky at a given moment. After a few minutes of whistling old Bruce Springsteen tunes inside my head, I start to feel like Tony Soprano when one of his drugged up underlings starts spouting off on how he should run his business.

“Look. I do this for a living and let me tell you, your car is not special. Really. Toyota produced over 400,000 of them that year and they were all boring as hell. Go get a Miata and live a little bit!”

Of course, I only say this to the people who can withstand a Jersey verbal barrage without going psycho, which in Georgia means absolutely nobody at all. So my response is usually a tame version of this.

“Oh. Um… well…. let me ask you, why do you want to keep the son-of-a-bitch?”

Weddings. Family life. The trouble-free miles of times past. Nobody really mentions those things. Most folks don’t want to keep a car because they loved it not too long ago.

Instead it’s usually because they’re either too financially strapped, too cheap to ‘invest’ in the maintenance the car needs, or too bored with their present life not to turn a simple decision about a crappy car into a rolling rendition of Hamlet.

The car buying public is not logical. If they were, you wouldn’t see the common citizen finance over $30,000 on a new car that makes the daily commute only 6 percent less miserable than the old car. You also wouldn’t see a MINI with an automatic.

So let me offer the five best answers to the question, “When is it the right time to get rid of your car?”

  1. When you can no longer refer to it as a “shitbox” in a loving manner.
  2. When you decide to become an owner that deserves the last name Kevorkian.
  3. When you visit the repair shop so often that you start up old conversations with the owner right where they left off.
  4. When any interest in your car immediately conjures up the words, “Please! God! Thank you!”;

    and finally,
  5. When you have enough resources to pay cash, and some foolish entity is willing to heavily subsidize your purchase with cash back, rebates, incentives, tax credits, and 0% financing. Then you tell a friend or family member about the car, and they sell you their old one at a steal of a price.

Feel free to share any advice, especially bad pearls of wisdom you have come across in your travels. In my experiences, most old beaters deserve better than their owners, but some broken down claptraps truly need to have their old Kia recycled into a higher quality Kenmore. Feel free to share those as well.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

More by Steven Lang

Join the conversation
2 of 135 comments
  • RyanB RyanB on Jun 06, 2015

    I'm in this dilemma right now. Good news: just finished my MBA, got a high-powered MBA job, and we're about to finish building a new home. Bad news: I also have nearly $50k in student loans to go with my new gold-plated degree, and two vehicles that are close to being worn out ('06 Civic with nearly 200k miles, '00 4Runner with around 130k). Thanks to my upgraded salary, I should be able to knock out that debt in fairly short order, but I had hoped to limp the two vehicles along until I pay off said debt (probably right around the end of the year), and then replace 'em both. Then after a really hard rain storm a few weeks ago, I got behind the wheel of my Civic to discover that the interior had developed some type of leak. The inside smells sour and nasty. Spoke to a mechanic friend. Said it would easily cost $1800, and probably more, to fully fix the problem: find the leak, eliminate it, tear out and replace any damaged carpet/pad, etc. Blech. Thing is, it runs like a top: it certainly makes more road noise than it used to, and a lot of those miles are in-city freeway miles, so it's dinged up here and there. But overall, it's still very sound mechanically, and I've cared for it meticulously. But dropping $2k on a car that I'm planning to sell within six months and, on its best day, might fetch $4k?

  • CincyDavid CincyDavid on Jun 08, 2015

    I have recently jumped back into driving older cars...leasing 3 new cars seemed like a good idea until the kids could not be made to understand that 12,000 miles a year means 12,000 miles a year. So, I bought a 97 Volvo V90 wagon, 190,000 miles, for less than $2000. Solid as a rock, rust free, clean leather interior, shiny paint. I have tinkered with it, fixed everything but the sunroof. Just spent $1300 for timing belt, water pump, idlers, etc, coolant flush, new radiator hoses. This old tank should run another 70k, for sure, at which point I will assess whether another timing belt is justifiable. That will be 3 years or more down the road. I could justify another $1000-1500 repair this year, beyond that who knows? Insurance is cheap, sales tax was cheap, and people ooh and aah at the damn thing for some reason.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.