When do you put money into a high-mileage car?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2004

Dear Tom and Ray:

When do you put money into a high-mileage car? I have a 1991 Toyota Previa that has 401,000 miles. The car is still in fairly good shape, provided you don't need an air conditioner or working front struts. My question is, how do you decide whether to put repair dollars into an older, high-mileage vehicle? I am considering replacing the front struts and then giving the car to my daughter, who is about to start driving. I figure if I don't fix the air conditioner, it will reduce her desire to drive so much, at least during the Mississippi summers. -- Bill

RAY: Well, Bill, my standard answer for when you should stop putting money into a car is: When you fall out of love with it. Because that's when you stop taking good care of it and subconsciously let it turn into a junk box.

TOM: And my standard answer is: When your feet go through the floorboards and the buzzards start circling.

RAY: Economically speaking, you're almost always better off fixing an old car than buying a new one. Think about it. If the car is otherwise in good shape, even if you spend $5,000 on a new engine and transmission, that's still a lot less than $20,000 for a new car, right?

TOM: So, if your need is simply for basic transportation, and your ego doesn't care, then fix the old heap and keep driving it.

RAY: But when a car has this many miles on it -- or even a quarter of this many miles, Bill -- the key issue becomes, is it safe? So, before you give it to your daughter -- or even drive it yourself -- take it to a mechanic and have him check it out as if you were going to buy it now, as a used car. (By the way, we have a pamphlet that includes the full checklist of things a mechanic should evaluate on a used car. To get a copy, send $4.50 -- check or money order -- to Used Car, P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.)

TOM: You want to know everything that's wrong with it. For instance, make sure the frame isn't rusted out. Make sure the steering components are solid, and that the parts that hold the wheels on are not worn out.

RAY: If it passes the basic safety test, and the engine and transmission are OK, then you can feel free to dump some money into it and give it to your daughter.

TOM: By the way, the front struts ARE safety items. They're not just for comfort. They're crucial to the car's handling and braking. So you're absolutely right to replace them.

RAY: And you're also right to forget about the air conditioner. Teenagers don't need air conditioning. In fact, it's good for them to suffer a little in an old heap. That way, they'll have something to aspire to when they get older. Like my brother's '87 Dodge Colt Vista!

Get the Car Talk Newsletter