Explorer to take to college - too old? safe?

We have a 1997 Ford Explorer, well maintained, bought new, 190,000 miles, original tranny, starting to burn oil. My 19 year old son is going to community college locally. He quite attached to the truck, and wants to use it, or a newer Explorer, when he transfers to SUNY Buffalo next year. The original plan was to sell it, a 2003 Taurus we have, combine the proceeds with his earnings and savings, to purchase an newer (2002?) Explorer next summer.

Lately he’s been lobbying to use the current vehicle instead. I’m leery that it’s asking for parts now (have done brake lines, alternator …) and I’m concerned about reliability and even possibly safety on an old SUV like that.

Why say you, wise folk of cartalk.com? And dont’ let the probability that the vehicle would be donated sway your opinions …

I don’t see much difference between a '97 and an '02 Explorer, either safety or reliability. You are usually better off with a car you know than one you buy used. If you were talking about selling everything and getting an '08 or '09 Explorer that might be different. But a '97 you know or an '02 that you don’t know? I’d stick with the '97.

I’m with Uncle Turbo. If there is concern, identify, interview and choose a mechanic in Buffalo so your son knows who to go to if he has a mechanical issue that can’t wait. I would also consider an auto club towing membership, or have that added to your insurance policy, so that he has reasonable access to a tow. I like AAA because they have been reliable, no money has to change hands, and you don’t have to expend much effort in calling and arranging for a tow. Adding second, third and fourth to a single membership isn’t all that expensive.

Everything points to keeping the '97 and allowing it to shuffle off to Buffalo. It is well maintained, your son wants it, and a slightly newer version is not guaranteed to be any more reliable or safer.

The repairs that it now needs are perfectly normal for any car of that age. It is not a sign of impending demise. Save the money. Patch up the '97 and send it off to college.

Keep the 97.
It’s a very handy sized vehicle. He can tote a lot of his stuff in there as well as friends and their stuff.

Heck , I kinda wish I had my 92 Explorer back sometimes, valve tick and all.
It fit like a glove.
It was near indestructable and trouble free when I sold it in 2009 at 130k miles to get more space.
Granted, some of the things we do now with the 08 Expedition EL wouldn’t have fit in the Explorer, I still miss it for it’s general versitility.
In fact, I don’t trust the Expedition as much in super foul weather, as the Explorer would go virtually any where , any time. People would call me for assistance and it never let us down. ( most of that is the driver fully knowing the vehicle’s capabilities. ) Which points directly to your son’s familiarity with the vehicle renderes it more safe and utile.
I’ve gotten the Expedition stuck once already and it’s weight makes snow & ice handling so much worse.

Safety is with the driver.

My vote is also for keeping the 97 and avoiding the debt. One thing I would suggest doing (assuming it has not been done) is do a few maintenance procedures involving the fuel filter, spark plugs, transmission fluid/filter, and a general look-over.

Inspecting and cleaning the battery cable ends along with running a load test on the battery might be a good idea also. Auto batteries can work fine for an indeterminate amount of time and out of the blue may decide to go belly up. I prefer to head off battery issues in advance.

It’s just another rather large expense item…If you can carry the load, fine…

When you are young, not having much basis including time for comparison it is easy to become attached to whatever you happen to be driving so that is not a reliable guide to what your son should be driving.

Regarding the potential expense of maintaining an older vehicle, unless your son has a scholarship, the cost of keeping the old vehicle in spite of needed repairs may fall into insignificance relative to college costs.

Do whatever makes his time in college away from home successful including not having the distraction of owning any motor vehicle. Only you and your son can know this.

PS, Regarding safety, if he does not fasten his seat belt/shoulder harness when you are not looking it may not matter much what he drives.

Thanks for these responses, folks! Very good point that this is the vehicle we know, that we know how it’s been maintained, so it doesn’t make sense to go buy a vehicle a few years younger, but still pretty used. A couple other thoughts…

Before shuffling off to Buffalo, what kinds of things should be checked over on this vehicle? And, when/if the tranny goes, does it give any warning? Or does it just decide not to go into any gear like our 2003 Taurus tranny did.

If he can pull together enough $$$ for a newer vehicle (no debt involved), how much newer an Explorer, would it make it worthwhile to buy it instead of hanging on to the 1997 Explorer.

A truck that age is probably on its third set of tires.
What is the condition of the tires that are on it now ?
tread depth ?

To keep an old truck feeling and working as good as new, don’t forget about tires too.

What kind of services and maintenance have been done on the auto transmission over the years? If the answer is nothing, have the trans pan dropped cleaned a new filter installed and refilled with fresh fluid. If you want to “flush” the transmission, you still should drop and clean the transmission pan before doing any kind of flush. Don’t have a quickie lube flush done.

As far as the rest of the vehicle, have it up on a lift and all the steering and suspension parts checked for wear, rust, loose connections, broken parts, and proper alignment. The motor is burning some oil, but not a big deal unless you are talking a quart every 1,500 miles or more. When was the last time new spark plugs were installed? How bout the air filter? Pretty much just have normal maintenance on the motor up to date.

Brakes are a safety item so have the pads checked for wear and thickness. A flush and refill with new brake fluid is a good idea if it hasn’t been done in the last 3 years. Flush out the old coolant and refill with fresh is a good idea every 3 to 5 years.

Basically if the truck has been maintained properly and is up to date on scheduled maintenance there isn’t anything special you should need to do. No amount of maintenance guarantees you won’t have a breakdown. Even new cars can breakdown. AAA is a great way to put your mind a ease. Things like fuel pumps and fuel filters can go bad on you, but you don’t replace a fuel pump usually until it just quits on you someday.

The tires are good, Michelin M&S, fairly recent.

Tranny service has been regular by schedule; I had them do a service after the first 5 thou on the advice of a Ford engineer I knew. The last tranny service was something like 40 or 50,000 miles ago. Seems solid. I’ve heard different things about getting an old tranny flushed and serviced - don’t do it if it’s old, don’t do it if you’ve never done it but do it if it’s been serviced before, do it in any case. Apparently a lot of old trannies fail right after this. What say you - which of the three is true?

Back when I noticed the engine burning oil I asked our mechanic about it - his answer was “It has a RIGHT TO burn oil.”

Biggest gripe, other than worrying about its age, it the gas. I get about 14 mpg out of it, my son gets about 8; I think that’s a combination of short trips and his driving style.

Last spark plugs I think was also about 40,000 ago. S-belt replaced recently. It’s a V8.

Folks tell us that 180,000 is really a long go for an Explorer tranny. I got the towing package with it, never ended up doing much towing. So it has the cooler.

Keep doing what you are doing for the transmission, it seems like it is due for another fluid change. Just don’t do a fluid flush at a quick change oil place. Get a transmission shop to do it or your regular mechanic. Flushes done well (drop pan, clean pan, put in new filter prior to the flush) are fine, but this is expensive and most flushes are just hook up the machine and let it run. This quick method is what kicks up dirt and debris hanging around and can cause more problems than they solve.

A newer Explorer won’t get much if any better gas mileage unless you drop down to a V6. Having a V8 and a tow package is why your tranmission is lasting. It has a bigger and better trans oil cooler, has a bit more fluid, and was build stronger to handle the torque of the V8.

Your Explorer sounds fine and seemly is well maintained. To upgrade it significantly I think you’d be looking at an '08 or '09 and I wouldn’t want to put such an expensive car in the hands of a new driver. Again, stick with what you got.

Service the tranny…as UT said. Just do it. Any failures you hear of are far more likely to be because a tranny was abused, and going to fail anyway, it just happened after someone finally was nice to it. Having a cooler on it probably has helped make it last, but servicing regularly will ensure its longevity. It’s not like you’ll do this more than once every couple years, so consider it an investment - much like you would the regular maintenance on any vehicle. We all have to do it.

As to mileage, I think you’re right. It’s probably his driving style. He’s young. I know I was definitely like that - and still growing, btw, at 49 (this month, no less) :wink:

One other thing - any rust? All brake lines and fuel lines in good shape? Have him give it a good cleaning, inside and out, he might even take better care of it when it looks good…

Brake lines just replaced (needed it!), fuel lines probably should be checked.

The kid has not only cleaned it inside and out, he’s re-painted he faded-out back posts (whatever you call’em) on the rear liftgate and by the side windows black again, restored the headlamp lenses, replaced lamps in the dashboard, got a strut to the liftgate replaced. He’s now upset about the gum he stuck to a rear seat 14 years ago …

As to rust, well, that’s one of the concerns with an old vehicle that has spent its life in upstate New York. It’s no rustbucket to be sure, but its starting by the wheel wells, the corners of the doors. And the chassis “shows its age” per the mechanic.

Is there a timing belt concern with this vehicle, or something else like that, where if it goes before replacement, there’s big trouble.

You can go to gates.com to check for timing belt and interference engine. I don’t think you have a timing belt in a Ford V8, but better to check the web site and/or owner’s manual to be sure.

We’ve had a '96 Explorer since new (just 95,000 miles though) and I trust it not only in good weather but in bad. We’ve never added any oil between changes.

I would second the advice to get a tow membership if only because your son is going to an unfamiliar area. If you decide to keep it I’d also second the advice of having your mechanic go over it and replace age-related items, such as (perhaps) the hoses and belts. Ask your mechanic to be more specific about “showing its age.”

Safety is another issue. Although it may have enough mass to protect from cell-phone users, the brakes and handling on the car are not up to modern standards so it should be driven more slowly, with proper tire inflation. I’d recommend an afternoon at a driving school, and taking the car out into an empty parking lot on the first snowy/icy day of the year to assess its handling/braking performance in bad weather.

The '97 Explorer didn’t start burning oil (that I noticed) until around 140,000 miles. It was our only vehicle until 2009.

We do have a road service through USAA, had occasion to use them 3x in the last two years, after not using them for decades. They cover the cars I insure, so he’s covered.

As to modern standards, that’s one reason why I asked how new a used Explorer should be, before I decide to give up the tried and true 1997 to go to it instead.

Kiddo is already good with the vehicle, and used to weather; he’s even pulled someone out of a snowbank with it. It’s hilly and curvy around here. Buffalo’s a lot flatter.

On getting everything checked out reaaal good, I agree. I might even take it back to the dealer I used for some years, as well as take it to the current mechanic. I’ll definitely get the tranny serviced.

Mechanic says it does not have a timing belt (S-belt does everything, and it’s new), but there is a timing chain, that makes a lot of noise before it fails. True?

Of course we don’t have to finally decide until next summer.