Car has one cylinder that's pretty much dead

Hi – My '92 tercel has been running rough and doing odd things (the heat stopped for three days, when it was exceptionally cold out a couple of weeks ago, the gas mileage has plummeted, and it ran unusually smoothly two days ago) and I finally took it in two days ago (after about a year). #3 cylinder is at a 50. This had been diagnosed earlier this year by a friend, and rediagnosed by him again recently, before this mechanic looked at it. (I’d asked him to take care of some small things, and he said he wouldn’t do anything to it because, he said, it simply needs a new engine.) He was too busy with pre-Christmas week business and is closing until the end of the year, and didn’t have the time to answer my simple question: is the used engine rebuilt? So I’m assuming the choice is between a used engine and a rebuilt engine. (He also didn’t charge me for the compression check when looking at a car is $85.)

Last year and for several years before this happened, it was getting a thrilling 41 mpg on the highway, about 36 doing local driving. Although it needs a couple of other parts replaced, it’s in pretty good shape, having had various parts replaced in the last couple of years, so I think it could withstand a healthy engine.

So my big question is around what to do. This mechanic says I should replace the engine, that it would have been fine to rebuild my car’s engine at 100,000 miles, but it’s got 210,000, and I should either get a used engine (around $1500) or a rebuilt engine (around $2000).

Or, I ask, should I just look for another car? I know this one and basically it just needs new tires, definitely a new catalytic converter (I know where to buy an aftermarket one for $150), and maybe boots. There’s probably another four years on the brakes, since I was told recently that they were worn down about half way, and they’re four years old now (I got the medium thickness ones when I replaced the previous ones). Also, my insurance is a whopping $329/year. If I replace this car, my insurance rates will most likely go up, and I prefer not adding another monthly bill to my life. If I have the engine replaced, barring any other disaster, the car may run for another 150,000 miles or more, which is at least 10 years. Hopefully it will have as good gas mileage as it used to. The body is fine, a couple of dings and one area of rust that’s been about the size of a quarter forever.

So, I’m partial to having the engine replaced, but open to other opinions. And if I do have it replaced, which do I go for: a used engine that isn’t rebuilt, or a rebuilt engine? Is there anything else I should be aware of?


A used engine is simply pulled from a salvage car as is. Some have a lot of life left in them and others are better than what you have now, but not up to original specs. If you were going to trade the car or sell it soon after the motor replacement then I’d get a used motor.

A rebuilt motor should have most of the wearable parts replaced and be as close to a new engine as you can get. If you plan to drive the car for another 100 to 200K miles spend more and get a rebuilt motor. Since it seems you like the car and would keep it if the motor was solid I think you are a good candidate for a rebuilt motor.

How many miles on this car?? It sounds like you just need a valve job, not a replacement engine…Don’t mechanics do valve jobs anymore? Okay, in todays terms, How much to R&R my head and send it out to be rebuilt?

"It sounds like you just need a valve job, not a replacement engine…

It depends on how the compression test as done. If he put some oil in the low cylinder and the compression came back up, then there is a problem with the rings, piston, or cylinder walls. Since the mechanic was a trusted pro, I’d have to guess that’s how he did it. In that case a valve job will not help.

A used engine may be the answer if the OP really wants to keep this ol’ car going. Check out for a used engine near you. Unfortunately low mileage examples are going to be hard to find.

A used engine for this car is likely to have as many miles, or more, as the engine you currently have. If the car is structurally sound (well, as sound as a '92 Tercel can be), and you want to keep driving it, a rebuilt engine would be a better bet in my opinion. A rebuilt engine should come with some sort of warranty, which a used engine probably won’t.

However, the car is 18 years old and already has over 200K miles. Do you really want to put a minimum of $2,000 into it? You could install a rebuilt engine and something else could go wrong in a month or two, costing even more.

I’d suggest that looking for a nice used car might be a better option. The Toyota Echo is about as close to a replacement for the Tercel as you can get. A Corolla, Prizm, or Civic would be next in line.

You’re going to have a hard time finding anything that gets 40+ mpg, but these cars, and a few others will be close.

There are lots of reliable used cars to choose from without spending a fortune.

Find a copy of Consumer Reports annual Auto issue or their Buying Guide and look at the list of best and worst used cars.

Mcparadise raises a good point. You need to look at the big picture before investing $2000 in an 18 year old economy car.

I assume your goal is to make the lowest cost decision for a car that will serve you reliably in future years. There is no exact recipe for an answer.

If I were you, I’d do the following:

1: Determine what it would take to make the 92 Tercel reliable
   - Cost to fix/replace engine
   - Cost of obvious maintenance (tires, brakes, etc)
   - Any other likely repairs? (transmission, rusted brake lines,
     struts, ball joints, rack-n-pinion,...)

2: Determine cost of buying a newer lower mileage car
   - Have a mechanic look at it to give similar "maintenance" 
     assessment as step 1 above.

With the above info, then make your best judgment call. If you provide
the above info, I’m sure many on this board will be glad to share their
educated assessment to help you decide.

I’m also worried about putting so much effort into an 18-yo car with over 200,000 miles on it. I’ve owned a few, and I can tell you that even though it looks OK and drives OK, anything can and will break at any time. I give this warning, because everything on this car right now has lived past it’s designed life cycle and there are several large and small items that can break with no warning and leave you stranded on the side of the road.

Plus, this car is only worth $2,000 in your eyes. In everyone else’s, it’s worth $800.00 ( If your able to work on it yourself and save the labor, it may be worth tinkering with it. But, at this point, it will become a money pit. The engine is just the start.

I’m with Bustedknuckles on this one except that I think you’d be lucky to get $500 on the private sale market.

One point about the insurance…check…it may go down. When I gave my '91 Camry to my son in 2005 and bought my new Scion tC mine went down. The reason is that the new car has more safety and security features than the old one did. Don’t assume until you check.

I am not that familiar with the Tercels of the 90’s. The tercels of the 80’s were tough little sucker, but they are the bottom line vehicle from Toyota and they had a couple of weak points that spelled the end. One part was the lower control arm mounts. They extend off the frame and once they crack from metal fatigue, it very difficult to save one. They also had rust issues where the rear suspension components are attached.

In 87, the all the Tercel’s except the 4wd wagon got a total redesign where the engine was turned sideways and went from the venerable 3AC to the 4afe.

I would recommend a reman engine if you decide to go that way, but first get the car completely inspected. You could be starting down a path where you end up spending enough money to buy a new, or almost new car, but not get one. But if you and your mechanic think the body is sound enough, it could be a good economical decision as long as you keep the vehicle. You will never get your investment back if you sell it, but at a cost per mile basis, it could be a good one. If you get 40,000 miles without other problems, you will break even with a new vehicle, after that, its all gravy.

2700 pounds X .30 cents, that’s $81 dollars. The Tercels are in the center row next to the Corollas. Park it down there and bring the keys and plates back to the office…Did you want cash or would a check be okay?