Looking for Advice on a Used Car I'm Looking to Buy

Hey all,

I’m looking to buy a 2004 Mazda 3 S on Tuesday morning from a private seller. A little bit of background: I’m a recent college graduate who moved a few months back from NYC to Austin, Texas. Seeing as I never needed a car in NYC, I’ve never had one. But now that I need one, I’m finding myself wishing I knew more about the mechanical side.

Well it looks like I found the perfect car – with one caveat, however. It has a 109k miles, the Carfax checks out clean, and it passed a pre-buy inspection from a local mechanic. Added to that, I got the price down from the asking price of 4800 bux to 3850. I’m pretty pleased and am only waiting for the seller to get the title mailed from his folks in Galveston ,TX.

Here’s the question I have though – the car appears to burn oil. Let me explain:

I met with the seller, who I met over Craigslist, yesterday and, after a test drive, I had it inspected by the mechanic. He found nothing to worry about (there are a few things like radiator hoses and the power steering fluid that, since they’re originals, he advised replacing at the next maintenance appt) EXCEPT that there was very little oil in the car. The seller claims that the car loses oil but was vehement in the fact that there was no leaks – the mechanic couldn’t find any. The seller said that his mechanic advised switching to a more viscous oil, which he proceeded to pull out of the trunk and put in. He also pulled out proof of regular oil changes and an oil change within the last five months.

Now my question: while the mechanic said it was a great deal and the oil is nothing to worry about, is it? Does it mean that, considering the mileage already on the car, the engine could melt down soon? There was no smoke, the car drove amazingly (seriously, one of the best manual cars I’ve yet driven), and there are definitely no leaks. Would switching to a thicker oil actually fix this?

Thanks in advance!

Forget this car and move on. There are way too many good used cars on the market to buy one with issues. This is not a rare collectors item – it’s basic transportation.

@twotone Agree; look elsewhere. My son has a 2004 Mazda3 with 130,000 miles on it and it does not use any oil even using 0W20 weight. This car, the one you are looking at, is an “S” model, meaning it is a sports model and likely seen a lot of hard driving!

Mazda3’s are great cars, but buy the standard model, and from someone who has cared for it better.

The S in Mazda’s is for Sport, but Sport is their base trim and nothing sporty other than that about it.

Now, getting that out of the way; to the OP question. As I was reading your post, I was thinking at least for CA prices you are getting a good deal, UNTIL you got to the oil story. Today’s catalytic converters are very good in masking the blue smoke you would see when an engine is burning oil. You could take it to an emissions test and measure the hydrocarbons, but as mentioned, this car is not worth your time or money. Move on.

Title mailed from Galveston? Burns oil (seller couldn’t even keep it full!)? Run away…

@galant‌ What if I told you that it passed an emissions test that was recorded via Carfax last month?

Thanks for the advice everyone!


It’s smart that you brought the car to a mechanic to check out

The fact that the crankcase was low on oil doesn’t speak well for the seller

If I was selling a car, I’d at least make sure the fluids are topped off, among other things.

The fact that the seller just happened to have the thicker viscosity oil in the trunk absolutely proves he’s known about the oil consumption . . . probably for a long time

Perhaps the oil consumption is not due to owner neglect, but it’s still concerning enough that you should walk away

High oil consumption will severely diminish your chances of legitimately passing a smog test, because it will compromise the catalytic converter, over time

Did your mechanic happen to look at the spark plugs?

I hope you haven’t given the seller any money yet . . . ?!

The fact that there was oil in the trunk ready to add would make me suspicious. Very suspicious.

@db4690 I haven’t paid him anything yet – I just paid for the pre-buy inspection.

You all are echoing what I’ve been worrying about. Does it make any difference that three mechanics at the shop told me it was “nothing to worry about” and a steal of a buy? Or does it hint at the fact that they want future business from yours truly?

You really need to run, not walk, away from that car. If the car is not leaking oil then it’s burning oil and the reason for no smoke is that it’s being caught in the converters.
It’s going to need engine work that will be moderately expensive to godawful expensive.

As to why those three mechanics told you not to worry I have no idea unless all three are clueless or trying to play a sick, and expensive, practical joke.


Okay so I just spoke with the seller and he agreed to meet me at another mechanic who will do a full inspection of the engine to see what’s wrong.

If it’s something fairly minor, I think I might still go for it. But, if the problem is something horrific and godawful expensive, then I’ll run. I’ve already spent 100 on this car for the first inspection - another hundred won’t break the bank and might save me from a huge headache.


You can lead a horse to water…

I would not buy a car just because you already spent money to have it evaluated. Another ther $100 on the same car is a commitment. So far, it’s is a lesson. Save that $100 for the next car. The car had very little oil in it and the seller did not even have the common sense to add some before a perspective buyer came to look at it. Double trouble. A car that burns oil and an inept seller. You would be better off if the car did have minor leaks. Many of those are easier to deal with. That’s another inept statement on the sellers part. A full inspection of the engine ?There are better buys out there for $4k that have motors that are perfectly fine. I second…keep looking. We have given you the best advice, so just make your $100 check out as a donation to PBS. Thank you !

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@dagosa‌ done and done. Thanks everyone for the advice!

What I didn’t mention is that I’m also looking at a 2004 Mazda 3 hatchback that I’ll be bringing to the mechanic tomorrow. The seller of that car, however, wants 5500 although he said he’ll negotiate. I already test drove it and it felt great.

I think I might try to use this Mazda sedan you all are so vehemently telling me to forget about as a playing chip to bring the hatchback more into my budget range.

I like the way you think.
Sincere best,

To answer your question about emissions, if you put thick STP as a stop gap measure in the oil, it might pass emissions and I suspect the original owner might have done this. As others stated, the red flag is the thick oil in the trunk. The owner is well aware of this problem. Good for moving on.

@galant‌ and @dagosa

Question: Is oil consumption different from oil burning? I said in the beginning that I don’t know much about the mechanical side so, all shame aside, I have no idea. The seller said it was consumption as did the mechanic but the word burn was thrown in once or twice.

If it makes any difference, the folks that have responded here are highly knowledgeable and respected for their car savy.

Consumption to me is a general term usually applied to the tendency of an engine to use oil in more then one way. All internal combustion engines " use" or consume oil to some extent between oil changes as there is never a complete seal during combustion. . Oil may leak through gaskets or cracks in the block and that may be considered consumption as well.

Burning oil tends to be a term you might use to indicate the oil is definitely entering tthe combustion chmaber at a rate higher then an acceptable amount which requires adding oil between oil changes. It is not unusual for engines to burn oil at a higher rate as they age. 100k miles for a modern engine though should not be burning oil at a much higher rate then normal if has been well cared for. Low oil levels can be a sign of overall neglect in general or bad driving habits or hard use. If in the case of the first car you looked at, a very low motor oil level on any inspection is a sure sign to me that it has been and is being neglected.

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When there’s more oil in the trunk than there is in the engine there’s a serious problem. I can see a car seller laying some BS down as part of a sales pitch.

What I find a bit distasteful is the problem being blown off by the mechanics as no big deal. Why they did this I have no idea. Maybe they don’t need to look at the next vehicle for consideration.