Should I repair '89 Corolla or upgrade?

Been having real trouble with this decision, and really don’t know what’s best. Any guidance much appreciated.

We have a 1989 Toyota Corolla, manual, with 189k miles on it. The timing belt was changed around 179k miles. The clutch has, I think, never been done and I think I am very easy on clutches. It runs very well, the frame is good, but will not pass inspection in my state without something like $800 worth of repairs. It has some significant body rust around the wheels and part of the trunk is rusted out (which will need to be patched to pass inspection). Last year I put about $800 into repairs, and each year is around there, probably, though I haven’t strictly added it up yet. I live in a rust-intense area in the Northeast US. The car has an ice cold AC from a 2 yr old compressor repair, new front struts, new alternator, exhaust work, etc. But the stereo is an original tape deck and it and the speakers make it just about unusable, it’s a little drafty/moist inside in winter, and a bit tinny feeling to drive. But it’s also our old friend. The mechanic just said today that he would expect two more years of driving out of it, but that struck me as a bit of a guess. We have been averaging 6000 miles a year on it, though that may increase a little this year, but not much.

I have a friend selling a 2004 Toyota Camry, automatic, with 147k miles on it, for $4,000, which is about the KBB value online. The car is in, it seems to me, excellent shape. She is about 70 and has been the sole owner and took it in for repairs at the slightest sound. Her mechanic spoke at length with me and says the car is in great shape indeed. It has zero visible rust on the exterior, though underneath some very minor surface rust on the metal but that’s only to be expected out here. The body/paint shines like new. If we were to buy it, the plan would be to drive it for as many years as we possibly could–we hate having to go through the headache of deciding on what car to buy and doing it. 10 years+ would be ideal (we have had the Corolla for 11 years).

I’m wondering what to do. I could also keep looking for another used car around here but this area is really bad for that, since the population density is so low and so many pickup trucks, etc. (not an area for Japanese passenger cars, really).

I’m super cheap, and want to do what’s best for our finances, both in terms of repairs, purchase price, and gas costs, but a distant second would be minimizing repair headaches, driving more enjoyably, etc. The Camry would be the more comfortable car for sure, mainly for the drivability and the better stereo (though i could put a $200 stereo in my Corolla, but haven’t since I keep wondering how long it will last…have done that for 11 years!). We have the money to do either choice in cash without any concerns other than spending money unwisely.

Also, both my wife and I prefer to drive sticks. We find it more fun to drive, she’s more used to it, and we figure we’d avoid automatic transmission repair costs, which I am under the impression are super expensive. But it is not a major factor.

Anyway, what should I think about in deciding this? What would you do, and why? THANKS!

Your car is getting pretty close to the end of its life and you have a chance to pick up a relative creampuff (assuming your own mechanic agrees with the condition). To me this would be an easy call.

Your current car is scrap. Buy the newer car from your friend if it passes a per-purchase inspection by a mechanic you trust. The inspection might cost $100, but you might need more than $100 in repairs to pass inspection. Offer the $4000 less any repairs that are required to transfer the car to you and license it. If you can’t drive it legally, it does you no good.

If the Camry is a 4 cylinder, make sure they check for any head gasket leaks/coolant contamination. Just google Toyota 4AZ-FE head bolts and see. Not to say your '89 Corolla was not prone to particular issues and now since it is rusted, I agree that it is time to move on.

One more vote for the newer Camry.

Youll likely need to spend considerable money fixing the rust for a car thats lifespan is reaching its end. The 4000 on the newer car is much more for the money. Time to move on.

The 04 Camry will also be much safer should you have an accident that the ol’ '89.
Dump the Corolla. Get the Camry.

One more vote to dump the Corolla. Let’s face it, even though the Camry is already ten years old, in terms of safety, it’s light years ahead of the Corolla. Plus, if the Corolla is as rusted as you say, trust me, there’s more rust than you can see, and that affects structural integrety in a collision. I’d hate to by anywhere in your tin box if you get hit by pretty much anything.

I think the rust problem is the key issue here. I own a 92 Corolla. I think your 89 is a very similar design, you have the 4AFE fuel injected engine right? (The engine number is stamped on the emissions and tune-up label under the hood.) That is a very good, robust design, especially for an econobox. That’s why it has served you so well for 25 years.

California is easier on a car rust-wise probably. I happened to be laying on the driveway under my Corolla just the other day inspecting the rear struts. I noticed I didn’t see even a spot of rust anywhere on the underside of the car, except for a little oxidation on the exhaust pipe connectors near the muffler. I’m planning to keep my 92 Corolla going for a while. But you do have a rust problem on your 89, so that makes keeping you 89 more problematic for you.

The main problem w/the Camry – you’ve already pointed this out – is the automatic transmission. Camry’s may not even be available with manual transmissions these days. I don’t know. For me an automatic would be a deal breaker. Mostly I just enjoy the manual transmission driving experience more. Life is short, so you might as well drive the configuration you like while you can. But also, I just don’t want to deal with the future expense of an automatic transmission rebuild. And transmission rebuilds on these newer automatic transmission are very expensive.

I think your 89 Corolla is probably near the end of its life. Whether you want to keep it going for a couple more years is up to you. You are probably right, you’ll unlikely have any clutch problems since you drive your car gently. I still have the original clutch. No harm done doing keeping your 89 on the road for a while, provided the rust doesn’t make it unsafe to drive. If you have to spend $750 per year repair and maintenance to keep it on the road, no big deal. Considerably less than a car payment.

So if it were me, I’d be keeping the 89 (with the rust caveate above) but looking around for a newer car with a manual transmission. Another Corolla, Honda Civic, something like that. Since it isn’t an emergency, you still have some time to find a good deal on a newer car you like.

I’m assuming you are “frugal” rather than “cheap”. Frugal means you spend $100 and have a mechanic verify the Camry’s condition before buying it.

Your current car, as pointed out by others, is scrap!. Don’t sink any more money into it.

For those mentioning my current Corolla is “scrap”… I don’t know. The mechanic today, who is an experienced mechanic and does the local police fleet, said the car was solid and was worth repairing. He of course is motivated to say that, but I believe him; his employee also said it “runs great”. Another mechanic said the frame and engine were solid and these cars run forever.

I had bad rust before and did a body job for $600, that’s all four door bottoms, both rear wheel wells, and trunk, that has lasted me like 3-4 years. I don’t really want to keep chasing the rust, but if I can get 2 more years out of the car, that’s the idea. I’m just wondering whether I’d really be saving, given the difference in likely future repair costs for the '89 Corolla vs. the '04 Camry.

But I do get the idea of moving on… I just have never spent $4k on a car, and that is like 5 years worth of $800/yr repair costs for this car all at once, and that doesn’t include future repairs on the Camry.

@GeorgeSanJose; not all 89 Corollas are created equal. I had one, had to buy it since it was the best option at the time. Mine had a carburetor and an ECU and would drive everybody nuts after 120K miles with constant CEL and stalling. I had all the codes down with my paperclip and would constantly short the solenoids to make it run. It also had the 3 speed automatic which would rev high in the hwy and is notorious for the final drive going bad. The diff was separate and would go bad. Mine was very noisy towards the end and I had to put high viscosity oil in it to help.

It’s scrap because it isn’t worth anywhere near what it would cost to turn it into a safe, reliable car. Certain bits and pieces could be of use to someone with a similar car, but not attached to a rusted hulk. That Camry sounds like a good deal. You know how it has been maintained, the most important issue for any used car you might buy, and the Camry is likely to last you a good many years, especially if you keep an eye on any rust.

Just google Toyota 4AZ-FE head bolts

The 4 cyl is the 2AZ-FE.

Maybe your mechanic will buy the Corolla from you if he thinks it is worth repairing. That will reduce the out of pocket const of the Camry.

Yep, time for them to ‘put up or shut up’. Lots of folks will tell you how much of your money to spend. When it’s their turn, not so much…

I’ts my opinion that the safety aspect alone is enough to let the Corolla go. Personally, I wouldn’t put another cent into it.


I actually have a few concerns about this 2004 Camry . . .

Although much newer and rust-free, it’s got nearly as many miles as the old Corolla

As far as maintenance goes, was the automatic transmission fluid and filter serviced every 30K?

Toyota claims the fluid is “lifetime fill” . . . this is pure marketing BS

Was the valve lash ever checked? . . . you have to check it, even it it’s not noisey

If it’s a 4 banger, make sure there’s not a problem with those head bolts . . . to be more specific, it’s the female threads in the block that are the problem

If it’s a V6, you may be way overdue for a timing belt


It's scrap because it isn't worth anywhere near what it would cost to turn it into a safe, reliable car. Certain bits and pieces could be of use to someone with a similar car, but not attached to a rusted hulk.

But I’ve had two mechanics tell me the frame is fine. When I say there is rust, there is rust on the body , above the wheels, and on the sides at the bottom of the trunk, I really don’t know how much the frame itself is rusted and how structurally compromised it might be, but two mechanics think it is solid. Now, a year ago, a different mechanic first said it looked fine, but then said it was unsafe (but only after he got an issue with police for not doing his inspections right). So that is 3 “it’s safe structurally” and 1 dubious “it’s not”, which I think he only said because he was still wary from the police issue.

What I’m clear about is that neither mechanic this month gave any obvious sign that it was structurally unsafe, and I have reason to believe both of them would have told me. So that’s why I am questioning it being “scrap”.

Your car has no frame. The body is the frame, and the body is rusty, and has been for years. You have our opinions, you’re free to do as you please.