We’ve all been there—you’ve got a car that you love, and it’s paid for, and you’re attached to it… but it’s starting to have problems. First it’s relatively small stuff… it needs a new alternator. Okay, done. But then, just two months later, the steering pump goes out. The bills start to pile up.
But you’re practical… why buy another car, and take on payments, when you own this one free and clear? And you like this car. You’ve been through a lot together. You can’t turn your back on it just because it’s starting to show its age. Or can you? Should you?
The trouble is, at a certain point the stakes will get higher: maybe the transmission will go out next. Then you’re going to be stuck with a car that you can’t drive, and you can’t sell, and that will cost several thousand dollars to fix. And even if you make the expensive repair, chances are something else will fail before long. Maybe it’ll stall on the highway, or strand you somewhere—in those cases it’s more than just money, it’s your (and maybe your family’s) safety. But how do you know when you’re getting to that point, when it’s time to let go?
Here are some of the top signs that you’re really better off biting the bullet and cutting your losses before this car starts costing you more than it’s worth.
A light show… on your dashboard
Dashboard warning lights usually mean trouble. Sometimes it’s minor, like the one warning us we’re low on washer fluid, or that one of our tires is low on air. Other times, it’s less benign: the check engine light, for example, can be the harbinger of all sorts of automotive doom.
It’s especially bad if more than one light is illuminated; it either means that more than one thing is wrong with your car, or it can be a signal that your alternator or entire electrical system is in trouble. None of that good—or inexpensive—news.
When you press the gas in your car, you expect the engine to respond, and at the same time—if you’re in gear—you expect the car to go. That happens because the transmission basically transmits the power from the engine to the drive axle, which makes the wheels turn.
But when your transmission starts to slip, usually you’ll notice the engine lugging or revving. It might make weird noises, like groaning or whining, like it’s in pain (and it sort of is!). It might shift really hard. Or have a burning smell. Your acceleration might feel sluggish or weak. All of these are signs that it’s circling the drain.
Once your transmission goes, your car doesn’t. You’ll press the accelerator, and the engine will rev, but there will be no power to the wheels. Unless you feel like Flintstoning it, your car’s just a very heavy art piece, or doorstop, at that point. Replacing a transmission usually costs thousands of dollars, so it’s generally a tough call to justify putting that kind of money into an aging car where things are starting to fail.
Engines basically generate power through a series of small, controlled explosions. One of the keys to keeping them controlled, and therefore powering your engine, is timing—they all have to be properly aligned and synchronized to work effectively. It’s kind of a delicate balance, in fact.
If you start to hear knocking sounds, that’s a bad sign. It means that something is out of sync in your engine, and that those controlled explosions are no longer under the right degree of control. And when that happens, they can literally blow a hole right into the side of your engine. That, as you might imagine, is basically game over for your engine.
Black gold. Texas tea. Leaking everywhere.
If you start to notice oil stains on your garage floor, or your driveway… that’s a warning sign. Oil in places it’s not supposed to be is a bad sign. It’s also dangerous; it’s slippery and flammable, so it’s not something you want on your garage floor, or anywhere in your engine that it’s not supposed to be.
Oil leaks can be caused by deterioration of gaskets and hoses, which in and of themselves are not expensive parts to replace. The major concern, though, is how long the oil has been leaking—because if it hasn’t been adequately lubricating the engine parts, then they’ve been sustaining damage. And if engine components are damaged, they can create a whole host of other expensive problems, right up to the engine seizing. So a car that’s been leaking oil for a while might have a high risk of engine failure. Another thing to consider is that oil is flammable. So if it’s leaking to places in your engine or drivetrain where it shouldn’t be, there’s a risk that it could ignite and cause a fire.
And on a related note, a car that’s leaking oil is also likely to appear to be guzzling oil. The low oil light keeps coming on, and when you add more, the same thing happens again in short order. (Because, you guessed it… it’s leaking oil.) So be sure to check for leaks if your car is burning through oil too quickly.
Ghosts in the machine
If your car has all sorts of quirky, troublesome signs, this is also a reason for concern. Most of the time, random problems like your car intermittently not starting, or your engine cutting out while you’re driving, are electrical problems.
You may have heard the term ‘electrical gremlins’. If your battery is not the problem, and your alternator is working correctly, there are a lot of minor parts that could be causing it—and you’re in gremlin territory. It can be incredibly difficult to pinpoint the cause of these electrical problems, so it usually requires lots of mechanic hours and replaced parts, which can add up very fast. And even then, the cause may stay hidden and unresolved.
Good money after bad
The bottom line is that, no matter how practical it may seem to keep your fully-paid-for car, there’s a point where it just doesn’t make sense. That point is when it can no longer be trusted to start when you need it to start, or to transport you safely without stalling or potentially catching on fire. Or when it starts to have failures (or signs of impending failures) that could cost you more to repair than the car is worth.