Car choice paralysis

I live in Austin Texas and I am watching the slow but steady deterioration of my sweet sweet car and need to make a decision about what to do - keep and fix or get a “new” used car. I currently own a 1990 Red “Woody” Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser. I love this car, and the engine is zippy as hell still, but… here is the list of things I have already fixed…

I have replaced the transmission, I have replaced the alternator - 3 times, I have replaced the plugs and wires, but the plug in the # 1 spot is stripped and I couldn’t get it out so I just replaced the wire, I have replaced the Air Intake part and something to do with the idle arm (?), I have replaced the rear brake drums (which are no longer made) and I have recently replaced the battery. This has all been over a number of years with the frequency of repairs needed gradually increasing.

What the car still needs or other influencing factors (like availability of parts) are: the tire place where I buy my tires informed me that probably by the end of the year they will no longer carry the tire I am using because the manufacturer is going to stop making that size. Something will be available, but not much because this size tire is just not used that much anymore. My mechanic suggested that the alternator problem may be due to problems with the tensioner (sp?). I recently returned from a vacation to find my 3 month old battery dead. Something is drawing current. I think I have found what - I think there is a short in the glove compartment light switch, but I haven’t had a chance to find and pull the fuse yet to make sure that’s it. The rubber around the windows and doors is coming off. The valve cover gaskets need replacing. It’s getting rattley. The housing around the driver’s side door panel window and lock control has come off and needs to be re-attached but the “tabs” for securing it have sheared off. The heat has caused the adhesive on the rear view mirror to quit working and it needs to be re-attached. The radio SUCKS! I had put in a model that had a cd player which is now esentially not worth the effort of cussing at it. The locking mechanism on the tailgate to open either just the window, or the whole tailgate is not working for just opening up the window.

Clearly the evidence is strongly pointing towards replacing this car but here are the factors that keep tugging me back towards keeping it: I own it, and it is paid for. The insurance is cheap. It still gets GREAT gas mileage. I once drove from Alpine Tx to Llano Tx (339 miles) fully loaded with two other people in the car and only used 3/4 of a tank. (that’s about 27 miles to the gallon) I am a massage therapist and I do a lot of “out calls” - that is I go to the person’s house. I drive a lot, and I drive a lot of highway miles so I still average 25mpg in town driving. I have unfortunately moved a lot recently and it’s loading capacity is amazing. I can carry my table in the back and still have seating for 5 yet it is a mid sized, 6 cylinder car with LOTS of get up and go left. Since the car is a wagon, there is a fold up rear facing seat in the back. I have never used the seat, but I do use the foot well as my “trunk” to keep my tools, jumper cables, etc. I am emotionally attached to this car because it is soooo cool!

If I get a “new” used car my requirements are: Reliability; great gas mileage - at least 25mph, preferably better, NO HYBRIDS; hauling capacity, I sit very tall, have wide hips and low back issues, so I have to physically, comfortably fit in the car; good radio!

Here is what I have looked at so far: After looking at Consumer Reports and talking to my mechanics, I decided that the Subaru Baja met all my needs. So, I test drove one that was for sale in my area. I am a massage therapist because a car wreck I was in mess up my lower back. Auto car seats, even though they are “designed” are mostly crap and terrible for your lower back. I loved every thing about this car except that after I drove it for only 10 minutes I had already started hurting. I could add a cushion to the seat, but that would probably put my head touching the headliner. So, back to square one. Suggestions? I have considered the Volvo C30, but do not know if I would fit in the car since I sit so tall, and also do not know if my table would fit in the back. Oh, another thing, lifting my table in and out of the trunk has GOT to be easy. For instance the Lexis has a cavernous trunk, but I would have to lift my table almost up to my waste to get it in there. HELP! What do I do now? Do you see now why I am still considering fixing my old car?

So why not get an estimate to have everything you listed repaired by a professional? Between a good body shop and a trusted mechanic, you may be able to get it fixed and be happy with your choice.

We owned a similar GM three seater wagon like yours, and only a mini-van comes closest to meeting our needs. Whatever you purchase probably won’t meet your needs and get the gas mileage you are currently getting. How many miles do you have on your beast?

191,000 @ 20 yrs

Here are my thoughts on the repairs you list:
Tires availability: odds are an acceptable substitute will be found. Purchasing tires on line, while not my preference, may solve this issue.

Alternator: after you investigate the glove box lishgt short, should be able to resolve this issue, if there is one with the tensioner.

Rubber around the windows and doors is coming off. DIY glue back on, or a good body shop can do this for a price.

The valve cover gaskets need replacing. How much oil consumption? Are they so bad you can smell the burning oil?

It’s getting rattley. I would live with it.

The housing around the driver’s side door panel window and lock control has come off and needs to be re-attached but the “tabs” for securing it have sheared off. Body shop can order parts, possibly used, and fix this. A good used parts place should be able to find the parts if you want to DIY for the labor part.

The heat has caused the adhesive on the rear view mirror to quit working and it needs to be re-attached. DIY with proper adhesive at any parts store. Follow the directions on the kit. Summer is worst for this.

The radio SUCKS! Check out Best Buy when they run free installation offer. Be prepared to replace speakers also at this time, if necessary.

The locking mechanism on the tailgate to open either just the window, or the whole tailgate is not working for just opening up the window. A good body shop can diagnose and repair.

Most current wagons are basically luxury mobiles and very expensive. If you get a used Volvo, Audi, or BMW wagon you’ll spend a lot more on repairs for them that you are spending on your old GM wagon.

Before giving up on it take it to a body shop for an estimate on all the issues with locks, doors, window seals etc. A mechanic and get the #1 plug out and put in a heli coil to repair the stripped threads. Get a new radio from a decent car audio or your local electronics retail store. Most stores offer installation.

If all this is doable and you have the money, consider an expensive paint job too. You can make the car look decent, run properly, and get many more years of decent service from it. This is a case of they really don’t make them like they used to. When someone starts making a good FWD wagon without all the luxury stuff, AWD, leather, and a motor that sucks up gas there could be a market.

If you have to replace the old wagon check out Ford’s new Transit Connect. It is roomy gets good gas mileage and has the flexibility you need.

The Mazda 5 is about as big as your Oldsmobile, gets mileage in the high 20s, and is reliable. It didn’t strike me as especially comfortable, so you might want to check that out.

Re the tensioner: It is making a funny noise, that is what made my mechanic suggest it may be a problem.

Oil consumption is still at a minimum, I just discovered the gasket problem when I cam back from vacation. When I finally got the car started it smoked all over the place. I didn’t hesitate - I took it to the mechanic’s right away. By the time I got there (about 4 or 5 miles) the smoke and oil smell was gone and when he read the oil after a while, it was fine.

Thanks for the info re Best Buy.

Well, you are correct, the paint HAS started to go south, and I have been considering getting a paint job. Last summer was blisteringly hot- 69 days with temperatures over 100 - and my driveway was next to, but not shaded by a Pecan tree. I guess it was something about it being so hot, but the Pecan started dropping sap in a bad way. When I came out in the morning to go to work I would put my hot tea on the top of the car when I was unlocking the car. I rinsed the car off a lot so the sap wouldn’t get to the paint, but I think a combination of the sap getting cooked on by the horrible temperatures and my hot tea in the morning did it in. Thanks for the Ford suggestion. I’ll check it out.

There is a Mazda dealer close to me. I’ll go take a look. Thanks.

Most of these are nickel and dime repairs that are just annoying. You can get some rearview mirror adhesive and fix this yourself in about 10 minutes. has great aftermarket radios and speakers—You could make your car sound great for under $300, or just get a factory radio with a CD player from a junkyard or off ebay.

Valvecover gaskets on my car were under $300 to get them done. A body shop can advise you on the paint and trim issues–they can do the whole job for you. The cost would depend on the quality of the paint job you want. And the tires and brake drums are still available. You may have to go with a different brand of tire–which may be a better tire than you’re used to!

So I would think as long as the engine and powertrain aren’t on their last legs, that you can make the car like ‘new’ for under $4000. Which is a lot, but a LOT cheaper than a good used car with an unknown history.

The main question is: Is it worth it to you? I’m pretty attached to my car, but I’m starting to get kind of bored with it after 11 years… are you ready for something different? If you can afford it and you’re bored, I say “Go for it” Life is all about change, right? You can keep both cars if you’re attached to this one and you have the space and money to keep two cars registered and insured.

Thanks everyone. I’ve been reading your replies thinking, “You know, this stuff IS pretty minor…” it’s just that everything together could be pricey, and, as of yet, I don’t own a gold mine. So really the question is, as always, is it worth spending the money on the old car, instead of spending the money on a good “new” used car. I kept wondering if I included everything that was going on with the car and I DID forget one repair/soon to be possible repair and some information influencing my decision process. After fixing the Air Intake valve (?) and the Idle Air flow sensor the mechanic told me that the there was an electric part under the Idle Air flow sensor that was going bad, and I should consider selling the car because “They were going to have a hard time finding that part - if they could find that part at all - and once the electronics started going. . . that was it. Things would get really difficult to repair” When I mentioned that to my friend, the person who owns the station, he said… “Well… I don’t know about THAT…that car engine is still pretty zippy. I mean it really kicked into gear when I drove it.”

And here is the other factor influencing my thoughts about this: History. My EX partner is the one who bought the car for me. He is the one who introduced me to the person who owns the station and the station, and his son, etc. My EX partner is who “fixed” the alternator, changed the fluid in the transmission (which I didn’t know about because he did that before he gave me the car), and he is the one who cleaned up but did not replace the Air intake Valve and the Idle Air flow sensor. I met the station owner when I was with him. His next door neighbor had a garage in the back of his property that a bunch of old college car friends went to (probably still go to) on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. They call it “The Lodge Garage”. They completely rebuild cars into hot rods. I would go over with my partner and watch what they were doing and joke and laugh with them. They called me the lodge princess because I was the only woman who ever came back after the initial visit! After my split from my partner things were a little strained at the station. The owner is still very nice and genuine, but I have noticed most of the workers scattering when I show up. That is mostly my fault because I kept pestering them about the transmission rebuild. When I got the car back it just wasn’t as zippy. I drive this car all day, every day and I know when it is not right. Finally my friend gave me an explanation that made total sense and I stopped bugging them. But I think the damage had been done. So, in order to stay in their good graces, just as Click and Clack suggest, from time to time I bring them goodies. Last summer I brought them two home made cherry pies. At Christmas I brought them a bunch of sugar cookies. But the last time I talked to the mechanic he was stony faced and carefully unresponsive. I very clearly get the idea that they don’t want to work on my car anymore, and I don’t have enough knowledge to do it myself, but I trust them, and don’t know where else to go.

There are plenty of good shops in Austin. If you think this is a time to break with these mechanics, then do some research (Mechanics files can be a start), and then make the break if you think it is the right thing to do.

You will need to find a body shop, anyway. Here, other friends’ recommendations of successful quality work can help. You are really taking a calculated risk on the car, anyway, but I think I would prioritize my requirements (most immediate/least expensive), and go from there. That way you can stop if an unsurmountable problem develops.

Check out a used Chevrolet Malibu Maxx wagon. These are no longer made but the fuel mileage will be even better. Rear seat leg room is excellent and you will need to see if your stuff fits in the back.

Our 05 Malibu 4 door sedan had electrically adjustable brake and gas pedals as well as a telescoping/tilting steering wheel for very short or very tall people.

Thanks everyone for the info/advice/suggestions. You’ve suggested approaches and strategies and cars that I would not necessarily though of, which is why I posted. THANKS!

Even if the cost was $1000, that’s like 3-4 car payments, so if the $1000 lasts you for 6-10 months, it is worth it.