Serious engine problems...worth fixing or replacing?

Hi, folks –

I have a 2001 Dodge Stratus sedan (4-cylinder, automatic). I bought it for $7,000 in 2003, with only 24,000 miles on it. Great deal, right? Yeah, TOO great. It turns out it was a retired rental car, and I have nothing but regret about buying it.

At 40,000 miles, I had to rebuild the transmission, which had suffered from a faulty control module (possibly since leaving the factory). At 90,000 miles, another transmission rebuild. This one seems solid, but come on! I don’t tow things or abuse the car. The way I drive, a transmission SHOULD last more than 50,000 miles…seriously.

Anyway, my current problem: two weeks ago, around 126,500 miles, the engine overheated severely. It turned out that the water pump had failed and the thermostat had broken apart. This all led to a complete loss of coolant for about 10 miles (I made the mistake of not turning the car off in the middle of four northbound lanes of traffic, and instead waited until I could get off the highway). I got the water pump, thermostat, timing belt, and seals replaced on 2/29. At that time, the mechanic checked the head gaskets for heat damage, and they looked surprisingly fine. I counted my blessings and drove home.

But yesterday (3/12), the car started to wobble, when idling at red lights or other stops. Over the course of the last 24 hours, it got progressively worse: the wobble became a shake, and the shake became a car-rocking nightmare. When the “Check Engine” light came on, I brought it back to the shop.

Today’s diagnosis: loss of compression in cylinders 2 and 3. Cylinders 1 and 4 are both right around 180 PSI, while 2 and 3 are hovering around 90 PSI. The result is that the engine is misfiring, and when I’m idling, the converter is getting doused with raw gasoline.

Here’s my dilemma: I’m in graduate school in Atlanta, the home of Southern Gridlock. I have almost no money now, and I’ll have no real income for the next three years. I could buy a used engine and have these mechanics install it for $1,500 to $2,000. I could buy a new engine and have them do it for about $3,000. I could have them repair the actual problem (likely heat-damaged rings or valves, they say) for $3,000 to $4,000.

Or I could give up and try to find another car for $2,000 to $2,500, which I might be able to afford if I save for three months. I’m afraid, though, that any car I get for that amount would probably have significant mechanical problems of its own. I’m not interested in a fixer-upper, and I’d like to avoid buying another lemon like this godforsaken Stratus.

What do you folks think?

– Justin

Given the state of your finances, as well as the unknowns that come with buying another used car, if I were you I would go with the used engine.

Sorry about your situation, Justin. I live in Atlanta and know all about the traffic. You might look into leasing an older vehicle as an alternative, but it probably won’t be any cheaper. Check around on the engine swap. Most salvage yards have a place close by that installs. Call the yards and ask. There is also a place downtown that installs and warrants salvage parts. I had good luck with them, but can’t remember the name.

Low compression in cylinders 2 and 3 mean the engine has blown a head gasket since they’re adjacent to each other. You may be able to get away with a head gasket job only. Odds are very likely the cylinder head will need to be replaced.

The unknown part is what effect the overheating and continued operation of this vehicle has done to everything else. When overheating or running so poorly the CEL is on and the car is vibrating badly the car must be parked then and there. No 2 miles further, much less 10.
Continuing to drive the car 24 hours is a no-no.

It would be interesting to know the details behind the labor quotes you have been given as they all sound too high to me.
Why does a new engine cost so much more to install than a used one for example?
Three to four grand for a head gasket and ring job is also obscene.
It would also be interesting to know if the engine oil is diluted with coolant. If so, this is not good.

Get the cheapest used engine you can find and cross your fingers for the next three years.

I guess I should clarify…

When the engine overheated (around February 25th), I was stuck in traffic and drove it until I could get off the highway. After that, the mechanic checked the head gaskets, found no damage, and wound up replacing the water pump, thermostat, and timing belt. I got the car back on the 29th.

Yesterday (March 12th), the car started shaking somewhat. Today, the vibrations worsened, and the Check Engine light eventually came on. As soon as that happened, I had the car towed to the shop. When he looked at it today, the mechanic again checked the head gaskets and said that they’re okay. His best guess today was that it’s the rings or a valve.

The quotes I mentioned included the estimated costs for parts – as such, the new engine quote was significantly higher than that for a used one. Just the labor cost for installing any engine would be around $1,100 at this shop, which sounds fairly standard (based on my limited knowledge of engine installation costs). The guy did indicate that if they did an engine breakdown and replaced the rings/valve(s)/any other internal engine components, it would likely be in the $3,000 range, including parts.

Finally, he specifically mentioned that the oil and coolant are not mixing, but he indicated that they probably would eventually, under the current circumstances.

Another marginally interesting part of this problem (probably irrelevant to where I go from here): for now, the car only struggles when I’m stopped/idling. The acceleration out of a stop is very slow, but once I get up to about 25 MPH, it runs fine. Actually, before I took it to the shop, the CEL flashed intermittently when I would stop for more than ten seconds, but it would switch off if I was moving for a while. Now, it’s on all the time…I only mention this in case it has any bearing on potential alternative causes. The mechanic did show me the pressure on each cylinder at ignition today, and the middle two are the ones suffering. He had the same thought you did – that it must be a gasket – and reinspected the head gaskets, only to find no apparent damage.

– Justin

With 2 cylinders down on compression the engine is going to idle rough and maybe stall a bit when first taking off, followed by smoothing out. This is entirely normal for an engine with low cylinder pressures and the only cure is to bring those cylinders back up.

Why is he guessing at this? Low compression on the middle 2 cylinders usually point to a head gasket breach between those 2 cylinders.
Before tearing into it he should attempt a wet compression test. This means squirting approx. 1 teaspoon of oil into one of the cylinders that has low compression and retesting it. If the compression reading takes a significant jump, say going from 90 to 130 PSI, then the rings are at fault. This means a major engine repair or replacement.

I would have a near impossible time trying to justify a 3 or 4 grand expenditure on an 8 year old Stratus. A simple head gasket repair is feasible though and this is what needs to be determined with your car.
Head gasket symptoms can vary but low pressures on the middle 2 cylinders point to a failed head gasket and continued operation of the vehicle in its current condition will only make things worse.
Hope some of this helps.

i doubt the head gaskets were “looked at.”

if he “looked at” the gaskets he would have changed the gaskets while he was ‘looking’ at them.

the loss of pressure and the symptoms sounds suspiciously like a head gasket.

BUT, at this age your engine is pretty much toast. unfotunately you hve no really easy decisions here.

the repairs will cost about 9 months worth of new car payments. so you are gambling that nothing else is going wrong with it. when you start spending as much on repairs as the new car payments (new or used) would be, then you have to think about bailing out of this one.

(at this age the dividing line between whether to get new, or keep plowing cash into this car becomes clearer, but its up to you.)

at this point you have spent approximately 180 bucks a month on car payments. (9000 / 50 months of ownership) taking into account the repairs done already. another thing to look at is that you are approaching the original cost of the car for what you are going to have into repairs. (1000 each for two tranny rebuilds, 3000 for a new engine, and what else have you done?

i have a friend who pays NO more than 500 bucks for his cars. he is always on the prowl for a used toyota. he buys them, gets about 6 months to a year out of them, then they are ready for the scrap heap. so he is always spending around 100 a month for his ride. he is happy, and never get attached to his cars.

Upon further reflection, you’re right…although the guy did use the word “inspected” when he was talking about the head gasket, there’s no way he actually physically/visually inspected it. I’m not sure exactly what he did do to determine that it wasn’t a head gasket issue, but he certainly didn’t dismantle the engine and put it back together.

Ultimately, my course of action here is becoming obvious: either do what your friend is doing with a series of cheap cars, or put a used engine in the Stratus and hope for the best. Repairing the known damage to this engine wouldn’t make sense, as there are likely to be other problems that rear their heads only after a few hundred more miles.

Man, I wish I’d chosen a profession that didn’t require graduate school before earning an income.

At first read I was inclined to suggest that perhaps you and a friend could try replacing the head gasket yourselves. The gasket is cheap, the tools would not be that many, and you may just get away with it and have a usable car for awhile, although the life of the engine has definitely been reduced and the engine may not run like new.

But then I reread the parts about the transmission problems. You’re likely in for more. You’re probably going to be dumping thousands every few years into trannys. Having read that, I think you’d be better off looking for a cheap used Civic.

For reasons unrelated to my current problem, this response interests me. No one has ever been able to give me even a guess as to why this car has eaten through transmissions so quickly. I’ve even asked, point-blank, “Given that I’m not towing anything or constantly flooring it, is there anything I could be doing that’s causing all these transmission problems?”

Honestly, why might a car like this one go through two transmissions in under 100,000 miles? I would guess that a faulty transmission control module might have affected shifting for a long time, which could account for the first rebuild. But why would it happen again 50,000 miles later?

I don’t know the details, but I do know that CHrysler has had a history of problems with some of their trannys. They implemented their “lifetime drivetrain warranty” to attempt to offset the resultant reputation. This may be one of those problem trannys.

You do have the advantage of access to a University campus. There are often faculty members going on leave, students going abroad, or students who are graduating and are taking a job far enough away that they don’t want to take their present car. Scan bulletin boards on campus–you may find a vehicle in your price range that fits your needs. You can’t be choosey about the make of the car. In fact, if you don’t do a lot of driving, an old “gas hog” like a Grand Marquis Mercury may be available in reasonably good condition in your price range.

If you elect to purchase another car in your price range, then here are some of my ideas. I’ve been in your position.

  1. Be certain that the car is safe–brakes, tires, steering gear, no major rust out.

  2. The question is not whether the engine consumes oil, but how much oil does it consume? A former owner may bail out because a car uses 1 quart in 700 to 1000 miles. If everything else is o.k., you may get a good price and oil isn’t as expensive as the repair you are facing on the Stratus.

  3. The question is not whether the car has been in an accident, but rather how bad was the accident? If the damage is merely cosmetic, a few dents don’t hurt the operation of the car. The doors, hood and trunk should open and close, but dents don’t affect the gas mileage.

  4. Torn or ripped upholstery lowers the value of the car, but this works in your favor. If a ripped seat bothers you, buy a terrycloth cover at the discount store.

You may be able to find a car on campus that is safe, or can be made safe at a reasonably low cost (a new tire, brake pads, etc) that will do the job. Unless a head gasket repair for under $1500 or so will make the Dodge Stratus serviceable, move on.

One other thought: You might want to buy a mass transit company. Is there public transportation available where you need to go?

btw; whats your major.

I’m in a doctoral program in clinical psychology.

I’ll just address the transmission issue here and agree the first one could have dropped because of an electronic glitch.

In regards to the second transmission going south you should realize that the word “rebuilt” can mean a half dozen, or a dozen, different things.
A transmission is just like an engine and the quality of the rebuild is only as good as the rebuilder allows it to be.
With transmissions some consider a couple of seals, drop the pan, clean the valve body, or even a partial repair a rebuild. The next step would be a “soft” rebuild (seals, clutch packs, etc.) and on up to a “hard” rebuild which means all of the previous plus bearings, bushings, updates, etc.

The same applies with an engine. Some consider a set of bearings/rings and a valve job a “rebuild” and this could fall into the same category as the transmission “soft” rebuild. Kind of, but not really.

Still sounds like you have a head gasket problem to me. That’s what the compression numbers point to and if the vehicle is not losing coolant or mixing coolant with the oil my guess is the gasket is breached between the cylinders. When the head is removed it will probably be obvious to the naked eye.

have you met pascha? he’s in the computer EE doctoral program there