2003 Dodge Neon head gasket vs radiator?

I really hope that someone can help me because I am at the end of my rope here. I have a 2003 Dodge Neon, 143K miles. I drove the heck out of it for years until I moved to DC about a year ago. After that it’s been sitting except for occasional use, mostly highway going between Dc and Arlington. I am moving back to St. Louis in late August and need to drive the car back when I go.
I wanted to get it checked out because I felt like it was running really rough. I went to Firestone, and they told me that the coolant system was pressurized and that I had a leaking head gasket (leaking but not blown), which they said would cost around $2000 to fix. They also said that I needed new control arm bushings, engine mounts, oil pan gasket, and oil switch, all of which added up to another $2000 in the estimate. They did an oil change and charged me $200 for the “checkup.”

I took the car to a mechanic that my cousin recommended that they trusted and have been using for years. I already knew that the car wasn’t worth paying to fix the head gasket, so I bought a bottle of Blue Devil Head Gasket Sealer. The mechanic checked everything out and told me that the control arm issue was bogus, and the engine mounts were a little worn but they were fine and that this was what was causing the rough idle, and it is common for 4 cylinder cars of this type to run like that. He also told me that he wasn’t worried about the gasket because it wasn’t skipping or blowing smoke, but that we could go ahead and put the sealer in just in case. So we put it in, and after about a half hour of idling the car was severely overheated and chiming the warning chime. We cooled it off and he drove around with a sensor plugged in and said that it was running about 5 degrees hotter than it should just driving in the city at low speeds. He told me that he was concerned about the radiator and I should check it out on the highway. I drove the car home after that and got on the highway for about 30 seconds (on and off at the next exit, but got up to about 50) and it overheated into the red. I have NEVER had problems with the car overheating before. I let it cool overnight and then drove it around the block for about 20 minutes the next morning. The gauge got up past the first mark after about 10 minutes, which it never did before. I called the mechanic and he said that he thinks the pressure in the system was from a blockage in the radiator and the sealant had just exasperated it, but now he thinks we know what the problem is. He told me to take it in next week after the holiday and he’ll check it out and probably need to replace the radiator, which he said would only be a couple hundred dollars.

Now this second mechanic came highly recommended and spent about 2 1/2 hours checking out the car with me and explaining things and did not charge me for anything except $50 to replace the leaking oil switch, and he has spent probably 2 hours on the phone with me between 4 phone calls, and never charged me for any of it- so I know he’s not just out to scam me out of my money. What I am confused about is that according to him, Firestone was basically just making up really expensive repairs right and left that I didn’t need. He says that if we get the radiator fixed I should be able to make it back to St. Louis.

I don’t know what to do. My parents will be driving with me in their car, but I still don’t want to get stranded on the road in the middle of the drive. Should I replace the radiator and trust him and hope for the best? Should I worry about the gasket that Firestone said was a problem? I can’t pay to replace the head gasket- this car is NOT worth it at all. Should I just cut my losses and buy a used Honda to get me back home? I am really stressed out and at the end of my rope here. Can anyone please help me?!

The goo you poured in likely plugged a marginal radiator. Replace the radiator and test drive the car. It’s only $200 or so. If it doesn’t overheat and you still don’t trust it, trade it in on a newer car. You won’t get spit on a trade if the car overheats on the mechanics test drive on trade. A Neon with 143K is work about $1500, enough for a down payment on a nice 3 year old used car.

Agree that doing the radiator is the only thing worth doing. Don’t sink more than $300-$400 dollars into this car.

Thanks for the replies. I already know that I shouldn’t put much more money into it and that I need a new car, but I cannot have a car payment right now. Does anyone have an opinion on whether I should actually be worried about the gasket? Could a radiator block have been causing the pressurized coolant system?

Yep, I agree, change the radiator. If that’s not it, the car is not worth fixing. A leaking head gasket though is a blown head gasket though. Sounds like you just plugged up a bad radiator though. Radiators are cheap now.


I suggest getting a radiator from one of those mom and pop radiator shops. In my area, they ALWAYS have the lowest prices (far cheaper than ANY of the franchised auto parts stores), and unless you’re driving something exotic, they ALWAYS have the radiator in stock.

If the car overheats into the red zone very quickly and pressures up then I might suspect the thermostat is acting up.

Diagnosing a failed head gasket is not something that should take an hour or so and there’s not enough info available to know whether the head gasket is a problem or not.

As to whether the car will make the trip without problems I could not even begin to tell you but will suggest that if I were in your shoes I would not even consider it without some issues being nailed down first. Two grand for a head gasket is way high and not viable even if the alleged head gasket problem is legitimate.

You also need to avoid Firestone and the mindset that buying a used Honda means you will have an uneventful trip home. It may or it may not.

I’d agree that the radiator may be plugged, and using the sealer probably was the death knell for a radiator that was fairly well gunked up. It may have also clogged your heater core. The car is worth putting a new radiator in IMHO. A competent mechanic could be able to tell fairly easily whether the radiator is plugged, or whether you have a worse problem, like a failed head gasket, or both. I’d also change the thermostat before doing anything else–a bad thermostat is the most common cause of overheating, and whether it’s just fate messing with you or somehow the sealer gummed it up, it could be the problem.

Regardless of what you do, every time you run the temp gauge into the red, you’re taking life off your engine, and if you don’t have a head gasket or major engine problem yet, keep overheating it like that and you soon will. I definitely wouldn’t drive it like that, not even around the block if the gauge is going into the red.