Replace an engine or buy a new (old) car?

Hi everyone,

I have a 2004 hyundai santa fe 3.5L with about 123k mi on it. It went kaput and is currently inoperable, and I’ve been told the most economical choice to get it running again would be to completely replace the engine.

I was supposed to drive it from Austin, Texas where I went to grad school, to DC where I now live. In May, the night before the big move (I think) the timing belt went out. So the car is in Texas, I am not. I need a car and I have to something with the one I have.

Car Troubles:
About 3 weeks after I bought it the engine light when on. The code read as a cylinder 2 issue. It already had 107k miles on it so I replaced the timing belt kit when I bought it (3 yrs ago). My buddy did the work and he thought the code was being thrown by faulty coil, which we replaced, in addition to the spark plugs. Since then I’ve replaced tires, AC, battery, windshield wipers and brakes as well. It’s added up to a lot, a big investment. And the engine light has just been on and off the whole three years, despite the fact that car has run fine. There were no warning noises or issues before it just wouldn’t start that night.

When I had my car diagnosed back in May after the engine failed, I was told that there was probably an issue with the 2nd cylinder itself in terms of not firing, or having low pressure (sorry, I know nothing about cars so my second-hand descriptions are probably confusing). I was told a shop could run tests, but by the time they opened everything up to try to figure out whether the problem was one of a few options and fixed it, it would be very expensive and didn’t make sense. It would make more sense to just replace the engine.

I was told I had two choices: (1) pay to replace the engine (maybe $2300 at cheapest) and (2) sell it as (get maybe $800 at best).

The Predicament:
I need a car for work to get to my client’s homes, and we only have max $5k to buy one. My fear is with that much money we will be forced to buy another older used car that might just have all new old-used-car problems (and no new tires, or AC, or wipers or other things I’ve already fixed on this one). However, replacing an engine is also expensive, and since it will be a used engine, most likely ALSO with 110k+ miles on it, it also comes with a big risk.

So basically my question is: when you’re a starving recently graduated-grad student does it make more sense to replace an engine or buy a new (old) car?

Any thoughts and advice greatly appreciated!

I wouldn’t do it with that car. There are just too many unknowns and you aren’t there to investigate. This is a reason people finance cars though or even, gulp, lease. Have a good job but not a lot of cash to spend on a car. Personally I try to go for a new car or even a three year lease when you’ll be more prepared to buy what you really like. I wouldn’t go putting more money into that one though.

Do you really need a car in DC? If the answer is “no”, you might consider giving a friend or family member in Austin “power of attorney” to sell the car for you and use public transportation until you get some cash together.

In DC it is easy to go from the central city to the suburbs or shopping malls but not so easy to use public transit to visit clients in their homes. That’s why I figured, done with grad school, new job, good future, don’t go buy a junker car. Life is too short.

Mountainbike, Julia needs to car to see clients at their homes.

@poorgradstudent’s_lament, do you work for yourself or someone else? How are you reimbursed for your work mileage? If your employer does not pay you, claim the going mileage rate (53 cents per mile I think) on your taxes. If you work for yourself, take the mileage allowance out of your income. For each 1000 miles you drive for work, that’s $530 you are reimbursed. That can go a long way towards a lease or a loan. BTW, the lease is tax deductible too. This will allow you to spend more than the $5000 you can afford right now.

Mileage reimbursement is also tax free. It was a profit center for me.

I will just add that the OP is being mislead if they’re being told that testing will involve hundreds of dollars and/or tearing into an engine to find the problem; a.k.a. needless fishing expedition.

Any problem with that cylinder can be diagnosed in 10 minutes or less. If a shop can’t figure this out PDQ without going to great expense then they certainly don’t need to be working on the OP’s car; or possibly anyone else’s.


Get an estimate together
Call the customer
Wait for the customer to call back
Get approval
Get the car from the back lot
Do your compression tests and whatever tests, as needed

Seems to be a lot more than 10 minutes has elapsed, by now

I could guzzle a whole case of “energy drinks” and NOT do all of that in “10 minutes or less”


I’d buy a new car. You’re a grad student, right? So focus on that. You don’t have the time or energy to deal with this kind of problem now. If you are determined to fix this car, put it in storage and fix it after you graduate and get a job.

The OP went to grad school in Texas and now has a job in DC. I assume grad school is over or if not, at least the OP is working now. Don’t know the rationale for the $5000 but that much is not needed to get into a new car that will be trouble free for at least a few years until a more suitable decision can be made.

@db4690 the OP states there is a problem with cylinder No. 2. It doesn’t take that long to yank one plug and run a few tests on one cylinder. The rest of the cylinders that are apparently hitting can be shunted aside for the time being until it’s known for sure why low compression exists on that cylinder.


If you want to do a compression test, for example, you’ll still have to prevent the engine from starting. That could mean pulling the fuel pump relay.

I don’t know about you, but most of the vehicles I run into don’t have an owner’s manual sitting in the glove box. That means asking your colleague if they happen to know which unmarked relay is for the fuel pump. Or going online to find it. Not a big deal nowadays, as most manufacturers have an owners website with free information

And if you’re using a scan tool, you’ll probably be looking at live data, freeze frames, etc., to see what sets #2 apart from the others

I still don’t see any of this happening in 10 minutes or less

I can . . . and have . . . diagnosed bad fuel pumps in 10 minutes or less. And that’s including verifying that the pump is getting proper power and ground, and verifying the engine is capable of briefly running on ether. And that’s without even crawling under the vehicle at all

I believe what you say could possibly be done under ideal conditions. But in the real world, I don’t usually run into that.

Ideal conditons . . .

Hood already propped open

Somebody has left the owner’s manual on the seat, with the fuse/relay page opened up for you

Relay pliers already waiting for you

Compression tester is at the vehicle with right adapter, waiting for use

oil squirter full of oil and waiting for you

Scanner is already there and plugged in, with proper vehicle selected, and engines selected, showing live data, or whatever it is you’re looking for

3/8" drive ratchet, extension and spark plug socket at the vehicle, waiting for you

Flashlight, mirror, rag, etc. at the vehicle, waiting for you

pencil and paper waiting for you, because maybe you want to write down some numbers

You can call me a pessimist, but I believe I’m more of a realist


My suggestion is to explore buying a new car, with a longer loan payback. Some companies are now offering 6 year, 0% loans (Toyota Prius for example). You certainly don’t need an SUV in DC traffic, and if you are driving around in traffic a lot, a hybrid will pay off. Gas prices are low right now, but don’t go assuming they will stay there. The loan will cost you about $325 a month, depending on how much cash you put into the deal, but the car will run reliably and you won’t be getting stuck for lots of repairs.

The other choice would be a 3 year old car like a Prius. Check out and join a credit union and see what the rates will be for a used car loan.

With a broken timing belt and bent valves there is no point diagnosing and old misfire fault.

The OP is in DC and the vehicle is in Austin. After spending who knows how much to repair it they will have to buy a plane ticket to Austin, most likely a night at a motel and drive it back to DC with more motel costs. If the thing breaks down on the way then the new employment position is in Jeopardy. Just cancel insurance and have it sold for scrap and move on.


I was talking about BEFORE, when #2 low compression was the only problem

Now, obviously, it’s much more serious

Thank you everyone! It sounds like you are all agreed (at least) that its not worth putting another $2k into my santa fe.

As for the relative ease of the repair, I think the problem was getting to the particular cylinder to run the various tests involves taking a lot of things apart because it was underneath, not on top like some of the other cylinders (???). I remember this being a problem for my friend when was doing the coils and timing belt. Also, I believe the bad cylinder made the new timing belt break. So that is an additional and totally separate problem which is why both he and the guy who diagnosed the problem said it would be a better investment to get a new engine in it. (But really they both told me to ditch the car).

Does anyone have thoughts on how much I should be able to get for it? The high humber I was told was $800, but I’m hoping the new AC and tires should count for something, right???

I appreciate the suggestions as to finding a replacement. I guess I don’t know much about leasing but it just always seemed like you don’t have the benefit of owning at the end, so it feels wasteful I guess? Maybe I need to look into the options more, your ideas are great. I’d love to have a hybrid for the mileage benefits but assumed it was way out of my budget. My fear of getting financing for the car is (1) I already have more than 6-figures in debt for a degree I can never pay off with the type of work I want to do, and so I’m afraid of adding more debt to that, and (2) because I have a very low-paying job I doubt I’d be approved for a new car at a good rate.

As for the 5K I mentioned, I just finished law school, but counter to the stereotype, I will not be making very much money at all. I mean, really, very little. Thats the money I can scrape together with my partner (mostly his) for a replacement car. I’m going to be representing indigent survivors of violence which is why I feel it’s important for me to go to their homes when needed. Public transport might work depending on the location of the client, but my understanding is they’ll live all over, not just the metro area. Add winter to that and it’s important to have a car.

I really appreciate the suggestion to look into tax breaks for the car! I hadn’t thought of that. I’m working for a non-profit but essentially treated as if I’m self-employed so I think you’re right that I should have some options there.

If anyone has further thoughts or suggestions on either the car repair, selling my poor santa fe, or how to get into a safe vehicle with the funds I have available, I’ll be all the more grateful. However, this has already been a huge help.

Thank again!

Thanks for the additional information

There are several different cylinder bank layouts out there, but it sounds like #2 is under the plenum. Yes, that makes it more difficult to access, when you want to change plugs, coils, or perform a compression test

However, I don’t believe #2 low compression caused the timing belt to fail

I agree that paying for another engine of any kind in this vehicle is a real gamble, and perhaps not financially worth it

It sounds like you don’t really need an SUV. A decent hatchback should be able to handle the paperwork associated with your upcoming career.

Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll be getting much for your vehicle, in its current condition. A potential buyer isn’t going to be thinking in terms of what parts you’ve already thrown at it. He’s going to see a car with a bad engine, and he’s going to think in terms of how much it’ll cost to get it running

I just checked on craigslist, and 2005 Santa Fes are being listed for between 3K and 5K, in running condition

Yep maybe in your case look for a good used small car.

I can’t resist, in the Legion mag this month is a lawyer joke. A lawyer called a plumber to repair a leak in the sink. After a few minutes it was fixed and the plumber said that will be $150. The lawyer said that’s outrageous and more than I get per hour. The plumber said yeah that’s why I quit being a lawyer.

On the radio tonight they were talking about the problems with young lawyers. After working hard they get thrown into the meat grinder at a law firm with little support. Then after five years when they should be making partner, there is a turnover rate of 80%. So don’t think you made a bad decision doing something you like and making a contribution instead of the law firm track.