1990 Geo Prizm -- repair it or let it go?

I’d like to know if it’s worth my money to get a rebuilt transmission put into my otherwise apparently sound 1990 Geo Prizm (which I love).

The new-to-the-car transmission would run about $1500, which is twice the Kelley Blue Book value of the car, but I hear Prizms of that year have Corolla engines, which can last awhile…and my car just hit 130K, with 60K in the last three years (and almost all highway).

I’ve heard from reliable sources on both sides, but what’s beginning to sway me toward getting the work done is the price tag compared to the price of getting a “new” used car – one I don’t know the maintenance history for, unlike with my own hatchback.

If the car is in really good shape otherwise, and there aren’t any other problems coming up (have your mechanic check suspension parts) then i’d go for it. It’s the reason i’ve kept my '89 Accord running, i know it’s service history and it’s excellent to drive.

I tend to agree. It’s always better to keep a vehicle that you have a history with and since you love it that makes it a very sensible decision.

…and you probably get great gas mileage.

Out of curiosity, how do you know that your transmission is done?

I too agree that if the rest of the car is in good shape it’s definitely worth the money.

Where else would you get a car that you love with a known history that’s in good shape for a mere $1500?

Another vote for keeping the car. Aren’t these Prism’s actually Corollas anyway, except for some trim pieces?

Our 94 Prizm is still on the road at 225K miles. Engine is great. No oil consumption at all. Manual transmission continues to work well. Hopefully yours can match this experience. Rebuild the trans if body and interior are still in good shape.


Well (and this story should show why I love this car), I was driving across the border into my state on the highway, and the accelerator began to resist and not catch a bit – something I noticed right away because I drive the car all the time, but it only lasted a few seconds. There followed a few “bad” sounds – a bit of growling and maybe faint knocking. I pulled over and stopped the car, and the person travelling with me in a separate car had me rev the engine a bit while he looked at the moving parts (from a safe distance). Nothing appeared to be wrong, and all on my end seemed fine, so we started to pull out again.

But then the sounds multiplied and the accelerator clearly wasn’t catching right. I thought for a second that it might be the terrain on the side of the highway (like rumble strips), but after that denial wore off there was nothing to be done but call for a tow. The great thing about my car, which I’ve been driving between states at least once a week for the academic year (300 mi/week, average), is that it stopped just inside the border of my state, where AAA could pick me up and tow me to the garage I chose – and it was the last trip I needed to make before the summer.

I had it taken to a Midas (which I don’t usually trust, but my friend has a long-term relationship with the manager there, and he brought it in with me), and I’m pretty sure they didn’t even put it up on the lift to check it out before saying it was definitely the transmission. The sounds it’s making are loud and various, so I tend to believe them.

At any rate, SOMEthing’s definitely broken. The mechanic said if I went ahead with the repair, he’d check the whole engine for signs of future big-ticket repairs, which sounds like a pretty good idea. If he doesn’t find anything terrible, I’ll also have him replace the timing belt at the same time, which has about 90K miles on it now.

And yeah – I get between 26 and 34 mpg.

Thanks. I’ll ask in specific about the suspension.

Last time I was at the same Midas my car is at now, the manager said I had broken front struts which needed to be fixed. I asked my regular mechanic, and he said they were soft but not broken – that it might be nice to have a smoother ride, but that the ones I have are fine, so I left the struts in. I suspect that will come up again in this inspection. I’m not sure how seriously to take the diagnosis with conflicting views on what needs to be done, suspension-wise.

I guess your friend knows and trusts the guy and everything - but, all due respect you’re talking to a corporate chain that specializes in brakes and exhaust systems.

I just have to say that I might let a Midas shop do something on my exhaust system and if I knew somebody there maybe even the brakes. But I wouldn’t even think about asking them anything about a transmission.

Now, I’m not saying that its not your transmission - maybe it is. Your description was a bit sketchy (I’m sure it is a hard thing to describe) but for what you have in there I wouldn’t rule out a simple bad CV joint on one of the halfshafts (front axles) - like one that decided to start binding and falling apart but hadn’t quite hit the point where it was ready to completely separate.

Like I said - maybe you’ll be fine with these guys, and they are right - but I would be taking it to a local, independent shop (i.e. non corporate chain) that specializes in transmissions.

Even if the diagnosis doesn’t change I’d still much rather a transmission shop install / rebuild / whatever rather than a general purpose chain shop.

Hmm. Yeah, I definitely hear what you’re saying, and I’m concerned about it, myself. I’m comforted only by the fact that my friend knows the guy, and that the guy thinks I’m stupid for fixing it (since it’s an old car not worth much in KBB). I was thinking of going to an AAMCO, which would be a bit of a tow ($150), but my friend said I should just have it done at his guy’s shop (the Midas).

Maybe I’ll give my regular guy a call on Monday and see what he says if I describe the sounds. It IS a hard thing to describe. I haven’t had any real trouble with the transmission at all until now, and I had both axleshafts replaced last November (because the boots had blown off) by my regular guy.

Now if what you’re suggesting could be the issue is the same as the parts I had replaced (I’m getting the word off my receipt, “axleshafts”), and it might have a bad joint, I’d tend to think that could be possible – partly because while I trust my regular guy (who is independent and comes with excellent recommendations), his staff changed those on the same day they were supposed to change my air filter, which was the wrong size, and I found out a few months later that it was still the same wrong filter I’d had in there. He’d accidentally charged me for the new filter, but clearly no one had really looked at it or done anything. They may have been having an off day. Maybe that affected how the axleshafts were put in?

But my regular guy doesn’t do transmissions, either – he sends people out to a different place. My friend really trusts the Midas…I just don’t know. I’m a little worried that they diagnosed the car without actually looking at the engine, but I’m less worried when I think they’ll look over the engine thoroughly before they put in a new trans.

Then again, if they say I’ve got other major problems, I’m not likely to believe them – so maybe that’s my answer.

*** Also, to clarify about the sounds: When I was going along at 65 mph, after the few-second loss of acceleration (I had my foot down but the car was unresponsive, though it stayed at its same speed), I began to hear a grinding sound in what I guessed was the passenger side of the engine, as though a fan’s blades had begun to come loose and were off-time and off-kilter and were beginning to clank a bit. I pulled over and turned off the car.

When I turned it back on, the engine appeared to run well when just revving in P, but when I tried to pull out, the clanking that had seemed to be just beginning before started again, worse, as though several metal pieces were rattling around inside a metal box. There was still a grinding sound that seemed related. The car wouldn’t accelerate, but since I could tell the acceleration wasn’t catching, I didn’t try to get it up past about 15 mph before I pulled over again. It seemed from the feeling of the car that something in the engine had definitely come loose, and some parts were clanking around in a contained space.

The car was always able to roll in neutral, though I’m told transmission failures often result in lock-up.

Does this sound like the transmission?

That is a better description - though I think it is just impossible to say without being able to actually check it. I would still not rule out a simple axle joint failure. These days almost all halfshafts (aka axleshafts) are rebuilt and unfortunately many of them are terrible. I’ve had them bad straight out of the box. I’ve had them go bad within a matter of months. It could also be that your differential fell apart - which basically means a new transmission.

I would just mention that if you want to get it to a transmission shop do not go to a national chain such as AAMCO. You need a local person who does transmissions. AAMCOs are notorious for wanting to rebuild anything that comes in the door and then the quality is hit or miss.

Why not at least ask the guys at Midas if they

Okay. I actually looked up the guys my regular mechanic sends transmission issues to, and they’re local, independent, rooted in the community and issue a guarantee.

I may still ask Midas if they’d look at the axleshafts (they said they’d look at everything if I had the work done there), and ask how much experience they’ve had with transmissions – and if they’re equally willing to guarantee their work. My friend feels at least one of the mechanics there is a kind of “car whisperer.”

I didn’t catch the end of your question that I should ask Midas – but I’d be happy to hear it if it’s not (or is) “have you done transmissions a lot before?” “will you look at my axleshafts first?” or “what kind of guarantee are you willing to give me?”

I mentioned AAMCO (and called one) because my brother actually had an experience with a local AAMCO in Vermont that solved his trans trouble with a $200 bracket fix or something, when his own mechanic and the dealership had both told him he needed a new transmission. The one I’d be dealing with is not the same one, though, and the sounds I heard seemed like more than a bracket problem – so I take your point and advice on AAMCO.

You did guess at the end of my post correctly - any of those things will do. I guess I had another thought, went somewhere else and to insert it and then never finished that one…

Anyway, I’d say it makes sense to treat an AAMCO location like you would any other place. It might be great it might be bad. To the best of my knowledge, most of them are actually locally owned franchises. The one your brother went to was probably a good one. The one near me fits the stereotype of “All Automatics Must Come Out” and is just a mediocre rebuild shop. People tend to go to them for the name - and that’s why a lot of them will survive even if they aren’t very good. See what people have to say about the one in your area - but you have to make sure you know of someone who’s had something but a rebuild diagnosis.