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To Keep or Not to Keep?

Help! I have a '97 Honda Civic with 168,000 miles on it and more than its share of dings and dents. (Taught my kid to drive years ago and it’s a manual–'nuf said.) The check engine light’s been on since last August. The mechanic said it was because it needs a new catalytic converter and since it’d cost $1,500 to replace, which is more than the car’s worth, I should just drive it until I can’t any longer. First of all, I’m feeling guilty polluting the air like I am and, second, I came into a little money recently and could buy a new used car, but I’d much rather use the money on home repairs. Other than the one obvious problem, the car seems to run well. And I can live with its looks a few more years. Would I be a fool to just go ahead and have a new catalytic converter put in? And if I did, what else should I have the mechanic check to make sure it’s in running order? Any input’s much appreciated…

You may not need a new catalytic converter. Your mechanic probably got a code described as “catalyst efficiency below threshold”, which can mean many things, usually that the downstream oxygen sensor is getting a bit lax in doing its job properly. A tailpipe emissions test would determine whether the converter is actually doing its job, and how well, and a proper computer scan and monitoring of live data would determine what’s going on with your oxygen sensors.

If this were my car and I were not subject to emissions testing, I would likely live with the light and consider putting the money elsewhere. Can you remember when the last time you had your timing belt and water pump replaced? If not, you may want to consider spending your money on that since failure of those parts can (and usually does) mean instant destruction of your engine. Check your local Honda dealership. They often have specials on timing belt/tensioner/water pump/seal kit jobs that are cheaper than anything general repair shops can touch, and it will probably be half what you were quoted to replace that catalytic converter.

Thanks so much for the input. I do know that my timing belt’s fine. I had it replaced not that long ago. I’ll check with my local Honda dealership for any specials. You’ve been very helpful.

We had a 98 Civic with a CEL. One dealer quoted $2700 for the cat and several other parts. Took it to another dealer to get a second opinion, and they found a short in one of the wires (most likely caused by a mechanic when replacing the clutch). The repair was $85.

mark makes a good point that it could possibly be the post converter o2 sensor but i will say over 90% of catalyst low effeciency codes i have seen have been due to a bad converter. 1500 dollars for a converter sounds like a dealership quote, i am a dealership tech so i know they are expensive from the dealer, and unless its under warranty we send our customers to an exhaust shop where they can just cut out the bad converter and replace just the converter instead of alot of other stuff thats not needed.

Keep driving the car but don’t spend the money yet. Get at least 3 quotes from other mechanics. One should be the dealer, and two or more from private shops. Unless you are sure that a chain shop like Midas is honest and knowledgeable, stay away from the chains. Ask your friends and neighbors who they recommend for repairs. Tell the shop that you want an aftermarket converter if they recommend one. You won’t keep the car long enough to justify the cost of an OEM unit. If you need the catalytic converter and can get it installed for $600 or so, you will still have a lot of money left over for home repairs.

@ByCracky here’s some food for thought.

$1500 is about 3x new car payments. That is the worst case. The best case may be an O2 sensor which is a $50 part you can change yourself. If the car runs well and has been well maintained, by all means keep it. Hondas go forever.

Thanks, everyone, for all the great suggestions and recommendations.

Just for reference I googled up a replacement non OEM converter for the 97 Civic. It costs less then $120. No way labor is more then an hour to replace it. Not sure where you reside but if you have yearly emissions testing you’ll need to replace it eventually if you want to keep driving the civic. I’d certainly check the O2 sensors first as suggested


I’ll do that–thanks!