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To fix or not to fix a head gasket

I have a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan Sport, which has run perfectly for all of its now 175,000 miles, with one past exception. I had to replace the transmission last spring. The transmission has a three year warranty, of which I have used only 8 months.

However, now my head gasket is leaking. One mechanic initially suggested repairing the head gasket and remachining the head, but then said in this car, chances are the bottom half of the engine would soon go, causing me to double the labor, which is considerable because the minivan is front-wheel drive. He said there was no way to know the condition of the bottom half of the engine, even after taking off the head. He recommended a rebuilt engine from a reputable builder in Los Angeles. Their estimate for the head job was $2400 and for the rebuilt engine (including a rebuilt head) was $5750, with a three-year warranty. Another mechanic I have used can do the head job for $1200 (he is always low; his work is good; but I have never had him do a major job before). There would not be a significant warranty (maybe 3 months). The second mechanic agreed that it was not possible to know the condition of the bottom half of the engine, but thought if I had a problem, I would already be noticing it in performance or noise (I have not).

My choices: (1) consider a new minivan or SUV, which would be very expensive; (2) rebuild the engine, which seems extravagant for a 13 year old car; or (3) do the head job, which might be throwing away money if the bottom engine has gotten water into it. It is possible that the design of the engine is key. Any advice?

Biologist

@Biologist That car isn’t worth sinking $5750 into, or even $2400.

If the goal is to just keep driving it economically, go for the $1200 repair.
As part of the repair, do an oil and filter change, replace the thermostat, belts, cap, water pump and flush the coolant system.

Can you describe the head gasket failure? Did a cooling system leak lead to overheating and damage to the engine?

If coolant leaks into the crankcase the oil froth up and look like a milk shake. If that has occurred it is quite likely that the entire engine is severely damaged. If the oil was never contaminated and the engine runs quietly and smoothly now it is quite likely that the $1,200 head repair would be your most cost effective option.

I have a bud who is going on year 3 of a head gasket leak, it is not going into the oil so fill, fill and refill coolant has gotten him by. If you are getting fluid in the oil that can turn an engine to toast in short order. He lives 3 miles from work, and asked should I drive 15 miles to attend a meeting, I said no, that is a road trip for that ford van and a road trip might kill it.

I’m curious which engine you have in your van. The “Sport” can be either a 3.3L V-6 or a 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. If it’s the V-6, I’d sure go for the “head job”. I’ve seen and driven several 3.3s pushing 400K miles. At 175K, it’s worth fixing for $1200. If it’s the 4-cyl, my question is, is the headgasket leakng a little oil on the backside, near the firewall, or is it leaking coolant into the combustion chamber? The oil leak was common on that era of 4-cyl. If that’s all it is, I’d continue to buy oil for it, and drive on. If it needs the headgasket for coolant use, you about have to have the gasket replaced. Either way, that’s you cheapest way out. I’d make the bet that the bottom end is OK unless you got coolant in the oil.

My choice would be a new one. I think your choice should be a used or new one.

Why a new car? Why not a used one?

IMHO, used cars are the bargains - and the less expensive, the more the bargain. The strategy would be to have 2 inexpensive cars - with the idea being that one car could be in the shop.

So I would propose taking the $6,000 and buy 2 used cars.

On the other hand, investing in a known car probably makes the most sense.

As Rod Knox noted, if coolant is leaking into your oil, your engine’s bottom end days may be numbered. Engine bearings don’t tolerate antifreeze very well.

Thanks for all these comments. Here is what I can add. There is no sign of engine damage: the oil is clean and the engine runs smoothly. I am now talking to three mechanics. This week I will see if the main reason the $1200 bid is so low is because he is not thinking of replacing the radiator (fortunately, replaced a couple of years ago), or any peripheral parts like the water pump, thermostat, hoses, etc. I think some of that probably should be replaced if I have a head gasket job done.

As for the cause of the problem… I had not thought of it before, but about two years ago, my car severely overheated. I stopped and had it towed, but the radiator was toast. It is conceivable that led to some sort of warping affecting the head, but it certainly took a long time to show up.

Biologist

@Biologist what was the cause of overheating?
Coolant leak?
Bad cap?
Bad thermostat?

The $1,200 estimate is likely a best case scenario effort that I personally dislike but in today’s economic climate it seems very common. But I don’t recall the labor rate being mentioned. It would be wise to have the head pressure tested for cracks while it is off and few shops are equipped to do that. And if a head is warped, straightening usually requires additional costs to an outside machine shop and should include line boring the cam journals.

Based on the severe overheating episode several years ago, a head gasket job should be thought out first as overheating like that can ruin piston rings. An engine can also appear to run fine in this condition.

Just my 2 cents, but before wading into this I would run both a dry and wet compression test and make a decision based on that.