Talk me out of buying a new car

I currently own a '99 SL2 with 122,000 mi, which I’m strongly considering ditching in favor of a new car (a 2008 Mazda3). Here’s what’s currently known to be wrong with the Saturn:

1. Needs 4 new tires

2. Problems with the oxygen sensor that may or may not just be a bad connection/broken wire, but keep turning on my SES light

3. Has reverse slam, almost certainly needs (at minumum) new valve body, tightened/replaced input shaft nut

4. Suspiciously dark transmission fluid – it was dark almost immediately after changing by the dealer a while back, who said the darkness was because of some additive or other. Can’t tell whether the fluid is burned, or whether it’s the “additive”

5. Burns about a quart of oil every 400 mi. or so, frequently belches white smoke while idling or accelerating strongly; probably needs rebuild/replaced engine.

I have neither the time (I need the car to get to and from work) or the tools and space to do much of the work myself, so I’d be taking it somewhere to have it fixed; and while I have no other obvious indications that there’s anything wrong with transmission, I shudder to think what I’ll be told when I have the valve body replaced (I’ll probably buy that part on eBay, if I decide to fix it). And I’m nervous about other issues that might have been caused by the burning oil, too – how does this in general affect the emissions system?

So, do I fix all the problems and keep the car until it dies, or ditch it favor of a shiny new Mazda3 and a $350/month car payment? I can easily see sinking another 5-6 grand into my Saturn, which ends up being close to a third of the cost of this new car, and then I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Opinions?

Well usually I always say it’s better to hold onto the used car and repair it, but the Mazda 3 is much more than a new car-it’s also an upgrade in quality, comfort, speed, well…just about everything. It also has the potential to serve you for 250K+ miles with proper maintenance and is quite a bit of fun to drive (handling is brilliant). I think I’d let this Saturn go and just enjoy a new car on this one…

Another plan would be to buy a three year old Mazda 3 with most of the depreciation hit out of the way if money is tight.

Yeah, sinking money into this thing and buying a brand-new car aren’t the only two options. You can buy a very nice used car for 5-6k!

With the possibl exception of the item 5, all are maintenance issues and should be done ayway. Item 4: was all the fluid drained or just a portion of it? Mixing old and new fluid would change the color immediately. I don’t know about your car, but Honda recommends flushing the transmission fluid 3 times when it is changed.

I doubt that it is justifiable on a cost basis, but if you want a new car, get it. Life’s too short to drive a car you are tired of. But - how long is the loan? It’s probably 4 or 5 years if you are financing the whole purchase. You might consider a used car with fewer problems and a lower total cost to purchase (price plus interest).

My philosophy is that once a vehicle begins having internal problems with either the engine or tranny it’s time to consider it as having lived a full life. Yours has both. It’s time.

I’m puzzled why a car with that few miles had deteriorated to such extent. Having said thjat, I agree that with the 2 major items needing major attention, you probaby need to get another set of wheels.

I would look at a 3-5 ear old Maza 3, Mazda Protege or Hyundai Elantra with preferably low miles. In all cases, have an independent mechanic do an inspection, and follow the maintenane by the book!!! It appears you present steed had had less than perfect maintenan during much of its lifetime.

I’d say give up on it and get a new (or newer used) car. It’d be different if you really liked the car. It’s always easier to spend money on things you like.

I would get an estimate to fix issues and then see how many $350 payments that is. Living payment free is a nice thing although when they run out you should at least save half if not all for your next car and repair/maintenance fund.

Skip the 2008 Mazda3, buy a 2005 or old instead. You will save bundles due to steep depreciation at the intitial part of a new vehicles life.

IMHO Consumer Reports reviews of cars is cruddy and reliability data not great, they have good articles along with other publications, read this

Sounds to me you have already decided on a new car. Good luck.

If you are looking at it as an economist (which I am) I would say keep it.  There is nothing you have noted that would indicate that it would not be more advantages economically to keep it than to sell and buy something else, new or used.  Frankly most of what you list are just maintenance items that it appears you have been putting off.  Some may have been the result of putting off maintenance. 

However it is your money, not mine.  If want to buy new, that is your choice, it really sounds like that is what you want to do and you are just trying to convince yourself.  Hey, if you are paying the bills and you want to go that route, I say go for it.

I bought it with 34,000 on it (a rental previously), and right off the bat it has oil-burning issues. Apparently a quart every 1000 is normal for this vintage SL2, so the dealer would do nothing about it, citing “normal consumption.” Since then it has just gotten worse. This is a common problem is this model Saturn, as is the reverse slam problem, which was only intermittent when I bought the car (and thus couldn’t be reproduced at the dealer) as has likewise gotten worse. I’ve actually maintained it fairly well!

I get your drift, but I’m a little leery of of used (maybe irrationally so) based on my experience with this car. Maybe I should keep poking around.

Can you reveal a better source of objective car reviews conducted in an identical manner? Also a better source of reliabilty data?

Yeah, that’s my big dilemma – do the non-economic considerations (mostly in the reliability department, but also a bit in the quality/comfort/shininess department) trump the savings of just putting money into this car to fix it? And then when it’s fixed, I’m left with… a '99 Saturn SL2, with other potential unknown problems.

As was said, I wonder too why this car is burning so much oil. Sometimes new valve stem seals can fix it. Hopefully you don’t have worn piston rings due to oil, oil filter and air cleaner maintenance neglect by yourself or a previous owner as applicable.

Your points 1 and 2 are typically normal maintanance; inexpensive compared to car payments.

Point 4 could require a trans fluid and filter change along with judgment of the quantity of debris in the trans pan.

Saturns are typically durable cars. We had one; it did very well. Ours had an aluminum engine but with steel cylinder liners; just as Cadillac is doing now with their successful V6.

I have no view and no comment for your item 3.

Try Truedelta for late model used cars concerning reliability. As for reviewing the car, I prefer Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and a few of the syndicated newspaper reviewers. CR and I have different agendas when comparing cars.

While we’re on the subject of reliability ratings… I bought a new 1998 Buick Regal LS and wanted to see hoe CR rated it about 3 years later. I was satisfied to see that in every category, my Regal got half or full red circles - better than Accord or Camry! Oh, but maybe not. CR rated the 1998 Accord and Camry with outstanding reliability. My suddenly sad Regal was below average. So, which CR rating do I believe?

Well, believe it or not, this probably was one of the rare used car nightmares that wasn’t due to previous owner neglect. Maybe some may argue with this, but these Saturns were really really crummy cars, probably some of the worst cars ever made this side of 1990. Like you were saying below, they drink oil like crazy, the fit-and-finish on these things is terrible and the automatics have a habit of conking out for no apparent reason. I can practically guarantee that pretty much ANY other model of used car will wind up being better, provided you get a pre-purchase inspection done by an independent mechanic.

Why do you tar all Saturns with this “really crummy car” brush? I have a '98 Saturn (SL2) with 129k miles. It has had a handful of very minor repairs, still runs well, the fit and finish was fine, and it drinks less than a quart in 3000 miles. I plan to keep it a lot longer. It’s a stick, so I can’t comment on any automatic tranny problems.

I’m with the crowd that says your car’s time is up. I test drove a Mazda3 5door and it was a nice ride. If you’re looking for cargo room, the 3 will not allow you to fold down the passenger seat down, just the rear seats. The Pontiac Vibe will allow you to fold down the passenger seat to accommodate longer items such as a ladder, or a big screen HDTV.

The Mazda 3 is a good choice. Don’t bother with looking for a used model, they are quite popular and don’t depreciate fast enough to make it worthwhile.