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Buy a high-mileage used car?

We’ve got a 2001 VW Jetta with 90K miles. It’ll be paid off within a year, but given what we know about the electrical problems in Jettas, we’re thinking its not the car we’d like to keep for the long term. So: we’d like to get rid of our car payment as soon as possible, but once we do, we’d like a car that will last us a while…say, at least 3-4 years. We drive less than 10,000 miles a year.

Everything we can buy that falls into the “dependable” category (Honda, Toyota, Subaru) and is in the $7-$8K range has well over 100,000 miles (often more like 120K).

I’m concerned that our strategy is short-sighted. While buying one of these cars would meet our needs price-wise, I’m afraid that we’d only turn around and spend the money on repairs.

Thoughts? Advice?

You have unlimited choices. If you have a good independent mechanic you can stick with the Jetta. After all, you have maintained it and know its foibles. If you buy another car with 100k or so on it, you have inherited someone else’s problems — you don’t know how well it has been maintained.

What is your budget — $8k? that will pay for a lot of repairs for the Jetta.

Tho if you can find a car that has good maintenance records…

AS Bill Russell mentioned, you do know your car. A big risk with a hi-miles used car is usually lack of knowledge of its maintenance history. Maintenance will affect the car’s long-life reliability as much as will the design. Even if you KNOW that the car has been properly maintained, reliabilty itself is statistical. There is a lot of info on average reliability (MTBF, or whatever) of various makes/models, but I have not seen data on variances, which would be needed for a sound mathematical analysis of the risks.

The cost trade-off can be difficult enough for “repair the old car” vs. “buy a new(er) car”, but I think the decider in your case is psychological. How much do you fear your current car, traded-off for how bad will you feel if you buy a hi-miles used car and wind up having to do a lot of repairs on it.

Vote three for keeping the Jetta…start saving for a new car over the next few years and you’ll be that further ahead. Jettas may have “some” problems, but there still a decent car mechanically…make your decision later when you have all that saved money in the bank in your car fund.

PS Don’t be afraid of “repairing” a car to keep it running. It’s far less than buying new and never compares to body repair. Keep it clean and washed and waxed. You’ll always be ahead.

to add onto my reply, I had good luck with a 95 Jetta that I drove to 2003, with not much going wrong (some electrical problems). Now have a 03 Passat, again not much going wrong.

I am looking at my new Consumer Reports Car issue. They have a comparison of brands over time. It is true that over 10 years VW was on the top of the list having and average of 1.75 problems over those ten years. GM had 1.60 problems. When you get down to it, the real differences are not all that much.

I would go further. If you care properly for your car, it will have fewer problems and I would guess that a well cared for VW will have fewer problems than most makes with average care.

Don’t over react. The spread between makes is just not that large. The spread between any 10 individual cars is likely to be more.

While VWs don’t have the greatest relibility record as they age, your car has the advantage of being, to a major extent, a known quantity. Conversely, a used car, even a used car from one of the more reliable marques, is a totally unknown quantity.

Yes, you will sometimes find a used car with a verifiable service history, and yes, you can take a used car to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection, but you will never know how it was driven or whether it was regularly abused, and a pre-purchase inspection does not involve things like tearing down the engine to look for sludge or indications of excess engine wear.

So, as some others have said, I would recommend that you keep the car that you have, rather than venture into unknown territory with a used car.

Thanks all, this is helpful. Particularly the part about not being afraid to put a bit of money into a car to keep in on the road. I tend to think of that as something to be avoided at all costs. Maybe it’s not.

One thing I didn’t make clear above is that we actually bought the Jetta used in January 2007. Right after we bought it, we had a bunch of electrical problems (that the dealership agreed to fix), such as the car losing all power and dying in the middle of the road. This hasn’t happened for about a year, but it took at least three trips to the dealership before the problem was fixed. We considered cutting our losses then, but decided to stick with it.

Although we’ve taken good care of the car since then and haven’t had any problems within the past year, I’m still not sure I trust it. Sorry not to be more clear in the original post…does that change your opinion?

I have always been of the opinion that when one buys a used car, he is buying somebodies headach. Ai would keep the Jetta now that you know it better. My opinion only.

what was the problem, or what did the dealer say it was?

At 7 years and 90,000 miles that Jetta probably isn’t worth much if you sell it. I am somewhere near the other opinion. I think we all agree buying that Jetta was a mistake, but you have it and have it fixed now. My vote is for keeping it until it gives you more problems, then dump it. You can’t lose much more because it isn’t worth much anyway.

Even a Jetta should run you a while if you maintain it.

If you must buy, look at Prizm, which is essentially a Toyota anyway.

I agree that your strategy is short-sighted, fix the jetta and plan on keeping it for 5-10 more years. The past problems are not relevant if you had them repaired correctly. The $7-8000 you are talking about will buy lots of potential repairs. Keep the jetta until the cost of repairs exceeds the replacement cost of the car. Why do folks think they need to buy a new car every couple of years?

Could that problem ended up being the 109 Relay?

Not every VW encounters all the problems you hear about. I know a few VW owners from the 150k-200k range of same vintage very satisfied with their cars still and get good performance. Your car will easily last another 40k miles IMHO.

One way to help prevent electrical problems is to check the ground wire between engine and frame/body. If you can find the stand-alone wire and disconnect and scrape the body end, you could prevent an electrical problem. If electrical is your main concern, you have to remember that problems don’t happen on every car just because the rating is bad overall. If you heard about the Toyota problems over the years, you would probably have doubts about their cars. Honda, Toyota and Subaru parts aren’t cheap either. I don’t recommend used Subarus because they have the potential for thousands of dollars in repairs. There are Jettas with well over 200,000 miles on them. I would wait until the Jetta has 110,miles on it, buy a Toyota for $1200 and drive it for a month. If there are no problems with it, sell the VW. It’s not a well thought out strategy, but I do most of my own repairs. If an engine or transmission quits on a $1200 car, you haven’t lost a great deal and can simply junk it. There are always ideas; even goofy ones. I like the nothing ventured, nothing lost ones.

If I understand correctly, I think this can only happen with a diesel car, which ours is not. Ours is a manual 1.8 Turbo.

I don’t quite recall, to be honest. I believe it had something to do with a problem that continued to burn out the alternator. I think they replaced it twice, and the second time fixed whatever the “upstream” cause was. (I realize this doesn’t answer your question, really.) When it happened we’d be driving along and the lights on the dash would start to ping, one by one, and the car would just completely die and could not be restarted.

If you haven’t had electrical problems in over a year, it seems like they are fixed. I’d keep it and not worry about problems until they crop up. You might not have any major problems for a long time, especially if you take car of it. It’s a fun car - enjoy it.

Where are you and where are you finding these cars??? I bought a 2001 Hyundai Elantra for $8900 4 years ago, it had 19000 miles on it and ran beautifully! When I went car shopping recently, 8K would have gotten me something 2-3 years old with less than 50k miles on it!! If you wanna dump the VW, start looking around carefully( is a great site to start with). Surely you can find more than a few cars with low mileage in your price range. As was mentioned before, have a mechanic check it and avoid small, “we tote the note” lots and title loan lots…these are usually cars repo’d or bought at auction and probably have questionable histories. A Carfax report can also come in handy. It’s not a silver bullet, but it combined with careful inspection and a mechanic’s OK can help you find something you can live with.