2002 Corolla: Should I buy it?

I’m shopping for a small, efficient, manual transmission car in South Mississippi, and have finally found a car that is all three. It also happens to be affordable.

However, it has a leaky rear main seal and another leaky seal that has something to do with the timing belt or something. The dealer’s mechanics fixed the leaky rear main seal and guaranteed it. The other seal isn’t a big threat, and will be cheap to replace.

I know these seals sometimes go when the car is run low on oil for extended periods of time. Are there any mechanical tests I need to have run on the car to check for other problems cause by (possibly) running the car low on oil for a while? Or, better yet, should I even consider buying this car? I really like it, and it’s a rare deal. It’s a 2002 Toyota Corolla S with 118k miles (selling for $5500).

Don’t buy it, sounds like a headache. For $5500 you should be able to find a solid car that doesn’t come with problems built in. Don’t be in a rush to buy.

Run away as fast as you can.

While I think Corollas are excellent cars, this one sounds like it may be more trouble than it’s worth. If you suspect the car was not properly maintained, walk away.

I don’t know why you think this is such a “rare deal.” There are MILLIONS of Toyota Corollas. There are also lots of Chevrolet Prizms, which are the SAME CAR.

Keep looking until you find a car with no apparent problems. In the long run you’ll be better off.

I am dismayed that you believe a 7-year-old economy compact is a great bargain at $5500. That’s too much money even for one in mint condition, which this clearly isn’t. My advice? Keep looking.

 The reason I speak of this as being a rare (and good) deal is because of where I live.  Here in southern Mississippi, the car market is very screwed up.  I have been looking for a good car for months, and, believe it or not, this is the closest thing to a good deal I have seen in all my months of searching.  There aren't too many corollas or civics around, and practically none with manual transmissions.
 Still, I understand everyone's point.  I will continue my search for an efficient car with a manual transmission, even if it takes another couple of months.  I won't really need a car until mid August anyway.  Although I didn't hear what I was hoping to regarding this car, I thank you all for answering this question, and I would be wise to follow your advice.

Expand your search area. Are you also looking in Mobile? What about Louisiana? You might also try Jackson since it’s a college town. Baton Rouge is about 100 miles away, you might try there, too.

I’ve searched within 250 miles of my home for these kinds of cars to no avail. Maybe 3 results show up at all. And although your suggestions are quite valid, jtsanders, alas, I have already checked said areas to no avail.

However, I think I’ve drawn too much attention to the value aspect of this car. I don’t care if everyone here thinks it’s a good deal or not, but what I’d really love to know is how I can get the engine checked over to ensure that it hasn’t sustained any damage. The leaks were not bad, and there may be no extra damage, but I’d like to know what needs to be checked out to be safe (like compression among other things).

I’m sorry to mislead everyone with so vague a question as “should I buy it.” Rather, what I’d honestly want to know is if I can check for other possible damage.

In short I pose this: the rear main seal and another minor seal are leaky. What else might be a problem? What should I get checked out?

Once again, sorry for not posing my question in the proper terms.

An oil leak in the timing belt area is something to be very concerned with. If this leak gets on the belt it will greatly shorten its life. Is this car due for a timing belt replacement? Price it out.

Let’s back up.

If the rear main seal has been replaced, then it should no longer be leaking. At 118K miles a leaking rear main may be normal wear and tear, and this might be nothing to worry about. How did you know the rear main seal was leaking in the first place?

I don’t think a 2002 Corolla has a timing belt. I think it has a chain (Gates does not list a cam drive belt for this car). The fact that someone is telling you there is a belt is worrisome to me. What sort of “dealer” are you talking about? Is this a Toyota dealer or a used car dealer. Will there be any sort of warranty with the car.

I’d also like to know where the idea that the leak at the front of then engine “isn’t a big threat, and will be cheap to replace” came from. If it’s cheap to fix, tell them to fix it before you buy the car. It may be a cam seal, which is not unusual, or it may be the front main seal. Either way, the dealer should fix any known problems with the vehicle before they sell it.

With gasoline selling at $4.00 per gallon, the price of used Corollas (and similar vehicles) has sky-rocketed, and perhaps the price you quote is not out of line. Dealers will charge whatever the market will bear, and I’ve seen similar asking prices in my area. Corollas with manual transmissions are in VERY high demand these days, so you have to pay extra if you want one. That’s supply and demand.

There are tests which can be performed on an engine, such as compression tests, leak-down tests, oil pressure tests, etc, but the best way to ascertain the condition of the car is to know how it was cared for by its previous owner. If you don’t know that, it’s a gamble, tests or not.

What makes you think this car was run low on oil? There are people who drive leaky cars and NEVER let them get low on oil. Then there are others who ignore their cars until they barely run. Unfortunately, Corolla owners tend to run toward the latter. If you have genuine reason to think the car was operated for any length of time with too little oil in the engine, then I’d suggest you stay away from it. On the other hand, if you’re just speculating about this, perhaps there is nothing seriously wrong with the car.

We can’t see the car from here, so there’s little for us to go on, other than the information you provide. Your question, “What else might be a problem,” can only be answered this way: ANYTHING else could be a problem, depending, again, on how the car was maintained by the previous owner(s). Owners who ignore oil leaks tend to ignore other things, as well. You didn’t say, but I’m assuming the Check Engine Light is not on. That’s good.

The Toyota Corolla (and the Chevrolet Prizm, same car)) is one of the most reliable vehicles on the planet, so you’ve got that going for you. The life on ANY car, however, can be severely shortened by lack of maintenance, abuse, or both. How does the car look, overall? Are there any records to indicate how it was maintained? Do you know who owned it previously?

And, finally, what the heck do people drive in southern Mississippi? I thought Corollas were common everywhere.

One more thing, considering your location. Make ABSOLUTELY certain this car is not a flood vehicle. Never buy a swimmer under any circumstances. I wouldn’t even take a flood car if it was free.

Good luck! All you can do is evaluate the car to the best of your ability. You could take it to an independent mechanic for testing, but that will cost you money and time. If this car is worth buying I don’t understand why people are not lined up to buy it. Where I live decent used Corollas, Prizms, Civics, Sentras, etc are selling quickly, and bringing top dollar.

I had a mechanic check the car out previously. He told me to stay away from the car because the two seals were leaking. As for the timing chain, that was my mistake. I forgot exactly what the second leak was, but it’s a cheap and easy fix, according to my mechanic. He never ran a compression test, and I’m unsure of the other tests, too. As far as I know, he just did a quick inspection.

The leak isn’t bad, because I checked for drips myself, but yes it was the mechanic who found it. And the check engine light is not on.

This car comes from a used car dealership that specializes in Toyota and Lexus cars. The dealer offers a one thousand mile powertrain warranty on all of his cars (I know it’s not much).

The car looks very good, and had one female owner. Since it’s from a dealer, I don’t know anything about the previous owner, and there aren’t any records. Still, the car looks to be in great shape.

As for what people drive in Mississippi, it’s mostly trucks and SUV’s. Though with gas prices as they are, dealerships are flooded with guzzling trucks (great prices on those, let me tell you) and efficient cars are snapped up quicky. The thing that has keep this car around for the week is its manual transmission (and the car might even be gone as I type this, sadly).

Thank you very much for the detailed response, mcparadise. With the information you provided, I may take it to the mechanic again and get specific testing on the engine. That is, if the car hasn’t been sold to someone else yet. Once again, thank you for your help.

Sounds overpriced to me and while seal leakage can be somewhat common over time it does sound a bit odd that an '02 Toyota would be leaking in multiple places.

Running the engine low on oil would not affect the seal. As to checking the engine about all that can be done is run a compression test and an oil pressure test. Even those may not be the final, absolutely definitive word.

Hopefully this car is not one of those that was sitting around in Katrina water for a while.

Do you know if the clutch was replaced when the main seal was replaced? I had a Stanza that had the rear main seal go out on it. It just takes a few drops of oil on the clutch plates to ruin them.

It’s not a Katrina car, that I am sure of.

The clutch was actually just replaced, though before the rear main seal was replaced. Only about a week or two weeks’ time between the two.

Were the leaks the only reason your mechanic had for telling you to stay away from the car? They don’t sound like enough, all by themselves, to kill a deal.

Too bad whoever installed the clutch didn’t just go ahead and do the rear main seal at the same time. Of course, that involves removing the flywheel, and more labor.

If this dealer specializes in Toyota and Lexus products, I still say, even more than before, that they should fix whatever is leaking at the front of the engine before you buy the car. If it’s still for sale.

I know most people prefer automatics, but manual transmissions are prized by those who seek maximum fuel mileage.

One female owner, eh? I suppose she only drove it to church on Sundays.

Actually, the price is pretty good. Check it out at Edmunds.com. I priced one in Biloxi with most options in clean condition at $6300 from a dealer. The options were: Air Conditioning, Power Windows, Power Door Locks, AM/FM/CD Audio System, Cruise Control, Front Side Airbags, and Rear Window Defroster. Even eliminating all the options would still put it over $5500, and the price includes a $1500 deduction for high mileage. Price-wise, it’s a good deal, depending what it needs. If you trust your mechanic, this is a well-pirced car. So, what options are on the car?

One more thing: Go to a Chevy dealer and see if they have any Prizms on the lot. It is almost identical to the Corolla as others said and is usually less expensive than the Corolla. You might also see if a Pontiac dealer has any Vibes. The Vibe is a rebadged Toyota Matrix; both are based on the Corolla.

This one has all of those features except the side airbags, and has a sun/moon roof that works. Considering the options, it’s quite well priced.

As for Prizms, the only ones I’ve found around here have 3 speed automatic transmissions, which are not nearly as efficient. I have kept an eye out for the Prizms and Vibes too. The main catch is that I’m trying to get myself a manual.

The price is $750 to $1000 under retail value. It’s a great deal, by your description. Remeber that the dealer’s asking price is the starting point, unless you negotiated a lower price already. Get the last leak fixed by the dealer and pay the $5500 or lower the price by a couple hundred to pay for it yourself. It sounds like you’ve done due dilligence by getting your mechanic to check it. If you trust your mechanic, buy it.

An '02 Corolla that needed a clutch job at only a bit over a 100k miles could point to some abusive driving habits. A female owner can abuse a clutch just as well as a male owner so any insinuation by a car salesman of a gently driven car by a lady should not be relied upon in making a decision.

As to any seals in the timing compartment this should also be looked at as more than a simple seal. Any aged accessory belts, tensioners, or even the water pump should be changed while it’s apart.

As to inspecting a car there’s a number of different ways to go about that and you would be billed accordingly.
Personally speaking, every time I’ve purchased a used car I always figure on 3 to 4 hours for an inspection. No big deal for me since I do it all myself but if you’re having to pay someone to dig this deep then it can get pricy.