Dear Car Talk:
In 1996, I bought a brand-new Toyota Tercel as a wedding present for our daughter and new son-in-law. This car has been amazing! Over 223,000 miles with NO mechanical problems or rust. Still drives like new. So, with our granddaughter now turning 16, as a "birthday gift" to the family, I put it into the shop to go over everything so that this 20-year-old car would continue to be reliable transportation for them, and be a good vehicle for a new driver to learn on (four-speed manual).
Amazingly, everything was still original, but not surprisingly, it needed some work. It needed a new radiator, a catalytic converter, a timing belt and a bunch of rubber items, etc. I even put in a new radio, as cassettes are not so popular now. One thing it did NOT need was a clutch! The original clutch showed little wear. I find that pretty unbelievable. Of course, now that my granddaughter has been learning how to drive it, that may have changed. I had no problem putting in the $2,000 to keep this gem on the road!
But ... not long after this work was completed, it started using oil -- big time: More than a quart every 500 miles. Ugh ... I think the engine's shot (I suspect my granddaughter continued driving it after the oil light came on). So, now we're looking at a remanufactured engine or a rebuild. I'm guessing another $2,000. Ugh ... While this car was, in my opinion, worth $2,000 to keep on the road, I'm not sure about $4,000. However, since the first $2,000 is already sunk, I think I'm committed to it. What are your thoughts?
Gordon You sound like a wonderful grandpa, Gordon, but I think it's time to abandon ship. It's not that the car couldn't continue to run well with a rebuilt engine; it's that it's not a very safe car, especially for a new, young driver.
It's small, it's lightweight and it won't fare well if it's hit by a Chevy Tahoe, or even a Chevy Malibu. It has basic driver and passenger air bags, but even anti-lock brakes were optional. And if you got the four-speed manual transmission, you probably got the El Cheapo edition without ABS.
Cars built more recently are so much safer. They have stronger structural protection for the passenger compartment, and they have side, knee and head air bags. They have electronic stability control to prevent skids and rollovers. Newer cars are making this Tercel look more and more like a safety antique every day. And we know that, statistically, young drivers have more accidents than the rest of us. That's a fact.
I know you're invested in the Tercel, in more ways than one, Gordon. But if it were my daughter or granddaughter, I'd want her making her early-driver mistakes in something more substantial and better-equipped.
So you have a couple of options. One is to let her take her chances, and just add oil regularly. You can buy about 500-600 quarts of oil for that $2,000 you'd put into a used engine -- and that's if you buy them one at a time. If you go for the 55-gallon drum in your living room, you can get 2,000 quarts for $2,000! In any case, that's a lot of miles -- and, more importantly, you can invest in the Tercel 500 miles at a time -- until you can get your granddaughter an upgrade. Or, you could always fix and drive the Tercel yourself, Gordon, since you're a much more experienced driver. Then you can give her your 2015 Lexus!
But I think the best thing to do is to keep the Tercel, as is, as a backup car, and look for something safer for your granddaughter to drive every day. For instance, for somewhere in the $4,000-$6,000 range, you could get her something like a 1998-2000 Volvo S70. That has front and side-impact air bags, ABS, traction control and a very good crash-test record.
It'll cost you a fortune in repairs compared to what this Tercel cost over its first 20 years, but hopefully your granddaughter has already learned the lesson about what happens when you drive with the oil light on. Best of luck, Gordon.