Dear Tom and Ray:
My wife and I own a 1996 Ford Explorer with 101,000 miles on it. We found out yesterday that the freeze plugs are corroded, on both sides and the back side of the block. We do not know if there is corrosion throughout. It was like the doctor telling us that our child has a disease. We love the car -- we've even named him Elvis. Elvis has been a wonderful car. My wife lived in Northern California and took him skiing a few times. That's where we think the possible salt exposure and corrosion source were. Our question: Is it worth the more than $1,000 to fix this car, or should we send Elvis off to the big Graceland in the sky, selling him to someone else? We've added stop leak to the coolant system, and we will make that known to whomever we sell him to. It is the first car my wife ever owned on her own, and there is some sentimentality there. We have one child and another on the way; we definitely need a working, reliable car. If we do move on from Elvis, we are looking at a Honda Pilot. Should we look to the Pilot, or back to Elvis? Thank you. -- Kris
TOM: A few trips to the ski slopes didn't cause this problem, Kris. This was caused by owner negligence.
RAY: Your coolant has rust inhibitors in it. Well, YOURS doesn't. But most coolant does. The rust inhibitors wear out after a while. That's why your owner's manual tells you to flush the cooling system and add new coolant every 80,000 miles. That's probably not frequently enough, in my opinion. I'd recommend doing it every three years or 60,000 miles -- given the cost of the consequences.
TOM: If you don't have good rust inhibitors, rust will attack the weakest link in the engine block. That's the freeze plugs -- which are designed to give way if the engine freezes, preventing your block from cracking. If you're lucky. The freeze plugs are made of very thin metal. And if they rust, they leak.
RAY: To replace the freeze plugs, you have to remove the engine. That's why the bill is $1,000.
TOM: So what do you do? Well, if you really love the car, Kris -- and you're not just saying that to mollify your wife while you make a grab for a new Honda Pilot -- then you need to get a little more information.
RAY: Right. $1,000 is a lot of money, but not as much as a new Honda Pilot. That's $30,000. So, what you want to know is: If you dump $1,000 into Elvis, will it still be a reliable car? Or will you have thrown away $1,000 that you could have used to pay the sales tax on your new Pilot?
TOM: While you can't answer that question with absolute certainty, your mechanic can make a very educated guess. The place to start is with a compression test and an oil-pressure test.
RAY: Those two tests will tell you if there are serious problems with the engine. If there are, then it might be time to dump Elvis and get a new car. But if the engine -- and the other major components -- are otherwise sound, then for $1,000 you might get another year or two ... or even three out of the Explorer.
TOM: Will there be other niggling problems? Certainly. The car has 100,000 miles on it. But even after you replace the tires, the master cylinder, the lift-gate pistons and the fuzzy dice, it's still not going to come close to costing you what new-car payments would.
RAY: So, get more information first. And if the compression and oil pressure are good, we may yet have some more Elvis sightings.