Dying Saturn: repair or replace

Heather’s an '01 Saturn. She’s had a slow oil leak for at least a couple of years, and the mechanic told me it was probably a gasket deep in the engine (the head gasket, possibly?). It’s apparently getting worse, and is now slowly leaking coolant, as well. The mechanic thinks it will fail completely, if I don’t repair it, possibly as soon as this summer (I live in Phoenix. 100+ degree heat isn’t kind to much of anything), and cost something on the order of $1500 to repair. Other than that, she’s in basically good mechanical shape, as far as I’m aware (yeah, I know. “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”)

I am poor. So, as much as I’d hate to lose Heather (she’s a good little car), I need to make this decision on pretty much purely financial grounds. I need a car, that works, so I can get to work (again, Phoenix. Our mass transit system kind of sucks). Which means that, fairly soon, I will likely need to either repair or replace my car.

My questions:

  1. Is there anything inexpensive I can do to make Heather last a little longer?
  2. I won’t have much more to buy a new(er) car than it would cost me to repair Heather (other than the trade-in value on Heather herself). Am I better off paying the ~$1500 to fix a teenaged Saturn, or using that money to buy, potentially, a new set of necessary repairs shortly down the road?
  3. If I do decide to fix her, will I make things worse or anything by basically driving her until the leak gets too bad, as long as I keep an eye on things and make sure she doesn’t run out of oil or overheat or whatever?
  4. If I decide to replace her, any advice on finding a (reasonably) reliable, (reasonably) fuel-efficient car in or at least within shouting distance of my price range?

I’d drive the car until it begins to show signs of overheating, or signs of the oil and coolant mixing. Then either sell (i.e. give) it to a teenager who wants a fix-it-up car, or send to the crusher.

Well, you aren’t going to find anything serviceable for $1500, no way unless someone that loves you has one to pass down. Others will disagree but I just plain don’t like opening engines up like that to repair them. Maybe it would be fine but one thing leads to another such as head gasket then valve repair while its open, then maybe increased oil consumption afterwards. Then you end up with a bum engine still. The other option is just a new or used engine for more money but then you still have an aging car. So the best is to bite the bullet for a better car but in the $5-10,000 range. Sorry but cars don’t last forever.

Unless I can get a lot more than I anticipate getting for Heather’s remains… I won’t have $5000 (much less $10,000) to spend on a car, not by this summer at least. I only have a part-time job. I might manage, say, $3000, but likely not much more.

Here’s a longshot. If you can manage without the car for awhile, check your local community college to see if it has an automotive program. If it does, check with the department chair and see if they’re going to be doing engine work in an upcoming semester. Ask him/her if they’d be willing to do your headgasket in their lab classes. Most of the cost of a headgasket replacement is labor, and community colleges don’t typically charge for labor (in NH they cannot by law, and you even get their shop discount no the parts). The necessary gaskets and misc actually costs under $100.

The tradeoff you’d need to be willing to make is you’ll need to leave the car there for awhile. A college program will typically have two 3-hour lab sessions a week, and there’s training going on at the same time, so it may take them a month of lab sessions. It isn’t like a shop, where a mechanic works on only one car, knows exactly what he’s doing, and works on it day after day until it’s finished.

Again, it’s a longshot. But it costs nothing to ask.

I could do without the car only if I could borrow another vehicle. That might actually end up being a workable solution, though, if I can borrow the van from Mom or something. (said van is… old enough to rent a car, and has no AC, so it’s not an attractive solution, but it might be a viable one)

I think it makes financial sense to fix this car . . . assuming it needs only a head gasket . . . versus buying a used car of unknown origins and possibly sketch maintenance history

I don’t think this car deserves a valve job . . . no offense intended . . . but I do think it’s worth a new head gasket. If that is the correct diagnosis

Since this is an SC, can we assume this is an ordinary 4 banger, and not a V6 . . . ?

Another wild thought . . . perhaps the oil and coolant leaks are 2 different issues

For example . . . oil pan gasket and water pump

My cooling system… kind of had a serial replacement a while back. And the oil leak has been around for a while, and I think my previous mechanic checked for any external leaks. I suspect the head gasket diagnosis is correct. (er, from what I know, which sadly isn’t much… but the fact that 2 different mechanics said roughly the same thing about the oil leak suggests they’re right)

And… I… um… don’t actually know if she’s a 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder (though I at least vaguely know what those things mean)-- I’m the kind of person who kind of goes to the mechanic and says “Please do all the things.” I can check and refill the oil, and check and refill the coolant, and refill the windshield washer fluid. And add gas, of course. That’s about it.

Normally I’d suggest putting a product like Bars Stop Leak in the radiator to stop the coolant leak and ignore the oil leak. That is a stopgap measure for a car that’s headed to the junkyard anyway. That doesn’t seem appropriate here if you can get it fixed within your budget at a community college or vocational school. The Phoenix area also has a couple of automotive mechanics schools like Arizona Automotive Institute in Glendale and Universal Technical Institute in Avondale.

If you can trade the car in on a better used car. Pour in the stop leak and hope it works. Don’t feel bad about deceiving a dealer (you can’t) because the dealer will auction off a car this old anyway. The trade value is around $1000 to $1500. Add your $1500 and you could get a decent car. If you can afford a small car payment, you may be able to get into a better car. It can’t hurt to talk. Try one of the big used car superstores like AutoNation or Carmax.

An 01 Saturn would be a 4 cylinder unless its a Saturn Vue, but if it is the iconic Saturn, it is a 4 cylinder. The question would be if it is an SL1 or SL2. If it says “twin cam” on the trunk lid or SL2 somewhere on the body, or title or registration, it is most likely an SL1.

These cars are not prone to blowing head gaskets, but it can happen. Small oil leaks are common but as long as you are not loosing more than a quart per 500 miles, it is no big thing. The valve cover gasket is the usual source of oil leaks and it is not too expensive to replace, about $100.

The most common sources of leaks in the coolant system are the hoses and the water pump. There is a small hose behind the engine that self bleeds the coolant system that is often the source of a leak, it is hard to see and easily missed, but a cheap fix.

One of the biggest issues with the SL1 is the intake manifold gasket. If you engine idles higher than 750 rpm, then it is probably leaking. Its about a $200 fix.

I suggest you look for another mechanic and get a second opinion. Car repair is a business transaction so take a business approach to it.

She’s an SC, not an SL. One of the cute little 3-door jobbies.

I’m pretty sure the valve cover gasket got replaced at one point, and slowed the leaking, but didn’t stop it (ie she was probably leaking from there, too)

(sorry for the double post, I didn’t see that this had posted)

Find out for sure which gasket is leaking. If it is the head gasket there is no temporary fix and when it goes completely it can ruin the engine. I don’t know what a 01 Saturn is worth but you are not going to get another car that is in good shape for $1500. This is a financial decision that you must make. What does your mom think you should do?

And I’m pretty sure the valve cover gasket was recently replaced, which reduced but did not eliminate the oil leakage.

Saturns are well known for developing headgasket leaks and warped heads.
Had one. Did exactly that… but only after the ex took it in a divorce. Perhaps there is justice in the universe after all.

If it’s certain that the oil and coolant leaks are related to the head gasket and valve cover gasket my vote would be to fix the car.
With some serious footwork and patience it’s possible to find a 1500 dollar car that’s at least reasonably tolerable but it also means that whoever is looking for a car like this needs to be mechanically inclined and know what they’re looking at and for.

You seem to like this car and know what you have which is a better alternative to buying an unknown and discovering even more serious problems with the new purchase.

Considering 2 different mechanics have (to the extent I understand what they’ve told me) said the same thing… I’m pretty sure it’s the head gasket, or something very much like it, that is the problem.

If I keep an eye on the coolant levels and temps and so forth, can I safely drive Heather until I can get her fixed, without causing worse damage, or do I need to get her in as soon as humanly possible, if I am repairing her? (I just emailed all the local community colleges, hopefully I can get her fixed there, though it means borrowing my mom’s ancient van in the meantime–with no AC, in Phoenix, in summer, or at least pre-summer)

I’ve seen an external head gasket oil leak go from a quart a month to a quart a day in a few days. Check every day.

Sadly… doesn’t look like I can get her fixed at any of the local community colleges. Most of 'em apparently don’t do that, one possibly does but is currently all booked.