Car people: give me advice about my Civic - needs extensive engine work

So, the missus and I have a 1998 Honda Civic that has done yeoman service for us since we bought it in 2008. It had 131K miles on it then, and has just ticked over 200K.

But over the last year we’ve begun to have problems. It began to run rough last March, and the Check Engine light came on. We took it in, and ended up spending over a thousand bucks for a full valve job. The same thing happened again six months later, and it was fixed under warranty by the garage, who told us that the machine shop had screwed up the machining on the valve guides the first time around.

Then yesterday it stalled a couple of times, and the light came on again. I took it in, and basically they said that the trouble is now deeper in the engine, in the pistons, rings, etc., and that it’s now essentially a choice between a complete engine overhaul, or a replacement engine. They said that a replacement (used) engine would probably be both cheaper and more reliable than the overhaul. They estimated a total cost, including replacement engine and labor, of somewhere around $2000-2500.

Now we have to decide whether it’s worth doing that, or whether we should just bite the bullet and get another car. We can’t afford a new car, and even a used car would really stretch the budget right now. We’re still paying off student loans, and my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer just over a year ago and her operation and radiation left us (despite our decent health insurance) with medical bills of over $10,000 (her health is now fine).

So, does anyone have any advice on the best course of action here? I’m willing to spend the money for a replacement engine if it will, indeed, keep the car going strong, but if it’s just a case of throwing good money after bad, i’d prefer to just go out and get a new (used) car, even if it stretches the budget a bit thin.

I’m mainly interested in advice from people who can say something useful about the mechanical issue, in terms of the car’s longevity etc., but if you have other advice, i’d be happy to hear it.

I don’t have specific advice, but I’m assuming one of the big questions is how much of the other stuff on the car has been replaced/rebuilt?

I wouldn’t call myself a car expert, but the retail value of a used 1998 civic is only about 3k. If you are having trouble other than the engine it will not be worth it to keep maintaining the car.

Also what is the labor cost of having a new engine put in? I once considered having a rebuilt transmission installed on an old vehicle and I was only quoted $200 for labor.

Is it known what caused the need for the valve job? It’d be pretty unusual for any car these days to just need a valve job out of the blue, let alone a Honda. Was it overheated, was there a leaking head gasket or a broken timing belt or something like that?

Another IMHO important question is what kind of transmission does this car have? I’d be very leery of putting a bunch of money into a car that’s going to still have a 200k automatic in it especially if the thing may have been overheated. Even if not, the engine internal problems might imply some less-than-diligent maintenance in the past, which might spell trouble for the transmission. If it’s a stick, though, and the rest of the car is in good condition I’d feel generally okay about it, especially since if the clutch is getting down there it’s very little extra labor to replace while they’ve got the engine out.

In this case, with the above caveats, I’d say repowering would make more sense than just going out and buying another cheap car. But, really, how much longer do you want to be driving this car? Even if you drop a lower-mileage engine in it, this car still has a lot of miles on the clock and its resale value will only continue to precipitously drop as you drive it into the 200k’s and beyond. If you’re planning on buying a new car sometime in the next few years, it will probably make more sense to just bite the bullet and talk about financing one now.

Thanks for the input.

Not really sure what caused it. For a while before the valve job, it was idling rough and was dropping its idle speed when the engine was warm. I can’t remember the exact explanation that the guys at the garage gave, but a key part was that the valve guides (i think) needed re-machining, or something like that. They had to send it out to be done at a machine shop of some sort.

I was under the impression (maybe incorrect) that if the timing belt on a Civic breaks, the engine is basically fucked. Is that not true?

It’s a 5-speed manual, and the guys at the garage said pretty much exactly the same thing about the clutch when i spoke to them today. They noted that it would be a relatively small add-on job to replace the clutch while replacing the engine.

We’ve had the car for five and a half years, and put 70,000 miles on it, and it’s all been done on the same clutch. And i’m not sure how old the clutch was when we got the car. One of the advantages of living in Southern California is that about 80 percent of our miles are done on the freeway, so the clutch doesn’t get the sort of pounding that it would receive in constant stop-start traffic.

As for general maintenance, the previous owner gave us a bunch of records that suggested he had looked after it pretty well, and we’ve been good about basic upkeep since we got it. The oil gets changed three to four times a year, filters are done on schedule, the timing belt was changed at the recommended interval, spark plugs changed when the garage suggested, and brakes and tires have been done as required.

Well, the resale value isn’t something i’m so worried about. I assume that, if we don’t get it fixed (either an overhaul or a replacement engine) the resale value will be negligible anyway. I was thinking that we would basically drive it until it dies, then move on. If that’s misguided thinking, i’d be happy for advice.

If we could afford another car along with our loans and medical bill repayments, i’d be happy to go that route, and i’ll look into the monthly payments available for financing. I’m not sure what sort of financing deal we’d get with our debt level. We always make our payments on time, but we have a fair bit of debt and not much in the way of assets.

We earn more than the median family income, so we’re not desperately income-poor and we’re not on the verge of being on the street. We even have some money in the bank. It’s just that there are a lot of outgoings right now, and we like to have a cushion in case something goes wrong. I’ve got enough that i could pay for the replacement engine without putting too much of a crimp in our budget, but now isn’t a great time to pay out more than we absolutely have to.

Oh, a couple of other things. One, I always say with engine swaps you should consider shopping around. An engine swap is usually just a little bit outside the day-to-day for most mechanics, but some shops are really good at them and so can shave some serious hours off the job. Some salvage yards even have a little shop nearby that basically does nothing but swaps.

The other thing is that because of some oddball motor vehicle regulations in Japan, there has traditionally been a supply of cheap low-mileage used engines for common bread-and-butter Japanese cars (like your Civic). I haven’t really looked into it for a long time, so I don’t know if that’s still as much of a thing as it once was, but it the west coast used to be a veritable cornucopia of cheap Japanese iron. So it might be worth shopping around for the engine too.

(Although all that said, $2-2.5k is probably a pretty competitive price for an installed used engine.)

When the valve hits the piston, the piston wins fairly decisively. Usually all a broken timing belt necessitates is basically a valve job. Supposedly sometimes the damage to piston can be bad enough to cause problems, but that’s pretty rare.

Well, many people would say that the engine crapping out would constitute it having died. But, if the alternative is buying a comparable cheap used car, paying more to fix the car of better known provenance is probably going to be a better strategy. Especially since this is (usually) a pretty solid model, and finding a similar used one in good shape may be tricky.

My bit of more psychological advice would be to very, very carefully scrutinize the condition of the car before you make a decision. These days, what really kills cars even more than major drivetrain failures is simply that the bodies start falling apart and stuff starts getting neglected to the point that the owners get sick of driving them around. Just to confirm that you really do think you want to keep driving this car for a few more years, I’d give the car a good, long look to make sure there aren’t a lot of minor problems or little annoyances you’ve been overlooking because the car was proving such good service up to this point.

My vote would be new engine and clutch rebuild. You obviously aren’t going to be too worried about resale and going into more debt than you have to for a car is a bad idea.
Not exactly the same vehicle but our friends drove out to see us and had their 03 Saturn Ion eat its timing chain necessitating a replacement engine. Their cost out the door was $2500 and that’s in Alberta where car parts are much more expensive than SoCal. I suspect you would be able to get a decent used engine for about $1500 installed and depending on what engine you have sell the block or at least get a core charge back on it. I would also give some of your local tuner shops a call as the Civic is a car that gets a lot of after market attention and they do engine swaps as a matter of course. That is assuming the rest of the car is in OK shape.

Thanks for the responses.

My garage called me back. The guy told me he had found a good reconditioned engine with 120,000 miles on it. He said that he could install the engine, along with a replacement water pump, timing belt (it was just about due for changing anyway) and clutch for about $2500 including labor. And he said that this is a worst-case scenario, and that he had factored in $200 for unanticipated problems, just in case. I haven’t done any shopping around at other engine shops yet.

(We’ve been taking the car to these guys for five years, and they’ve always been straight with us. They’ve been in the neighborhood since 1945, and have an excellent reputation.)

We’ve also started looking at replacement cars. Once a month there’s a “Used Car Tent Sale” at Qualcomm stadium here in San Diego, where a bunch of local used-car dealers bring cars to the parking lot so that people can look over a whole lot of cars in one place. We checked it out last night.

If we replace the car, we’d like to get something similar: a reliable smallish, four-door sedan with a manual transmission. There’s only two of us, so we’d also consider a two-door like a Civic coupe. We’re looking at Civics, Toyota Corollas, and the Mazda 3. Volkwagen Golfs and Jettas are also available, although i’ve read mixed reports about their reliability, and i’m not sure if they’re more expensive to maintain than Japanese makes. Used Civics tend to be more expensive than other makes and models of similar vintage and mileage, and i assume that this is at least partly due to the car’s excellent reputation. I’ve read some good reviews of the Ford Focus too, although car magazines aren’t really evaluating reliability in their road tests, and reliability is an important consideration.

We could get a 2010 Corolla S or Mazda 3 with about 60K milles for a sticker price, before any negotiations, of around $13,000,. If we traded in our Civic (i know, it’s probably worth almost nothing) and put down $2K in cash, this would probably leave us with a payment of somewhere around $200-230 a month, give or take a bit. We could sustain that sort of payment, especially since we’ve been forking out over $600 a month in medical bill repayments for the last 15 months, and are almost finished with that.

This statement really hit home as i was sitting in the newer cars last night. Apart from the general issue of more up-to-date interiors and trim levels, it was noticeable how much firmer and more comfortable the seats were (because they haven’t been sat in for 200,000 miles), and just how much more pleasant it would be to spend 13,000 miles a year (our typical annual mileage) in a newer car.

We don’t need flash or luxury or mind-blowing performance, but having a newer, reliable car with a comfortable interior would really make a difference.

You can get a nice Audi A4 or VW Passat (same car for all practical purposes) vintage around 1999-2003 for about $4-6K. Far better cars. I bought a refurbed VW Passat GLX last May for $6K and I love it!

I just traded in my '98 Civic last year. It had been a great, reliable car— the only problem I had over several years of ownership was the ignition coil, which burned out twice for some reason. It was still in good shape when I sold it at 145K miles. Much as I liked the car, I’m not sure I’d have been willing to sink $2500 into repairing it.

Like others have said, after putting $2500 into the engine, what’s to keep the transmission from going bad? The suspension? Brakes? You have a 15 YO car with a lot of miles on it. Strange things can break.

My son-in-law has a 2002 Chevy Cavalier with over 230K miles (to the Moon miles) on it. Mostly routine maintenance and very reliable. However things are starting to go wrong with it more often. For example the rear defogger quit working and we found a wire connector that went bad. Two window motors have gone out. The AC compressor died so no AC.

But now the headlights won’t work properly. They flash on when starting but won’t stay on. We’ve replaced the bulbs, control stalk, a relay, and the Body Control Module. We’ve checked grounds and power to wires. No joy. So he’s going to break down and buy a new car soon.

The point of the story is that there comes a time where you are throwing good money after bad. The car can become a money pit AND the reliability can not be trusted.

I quite like Audis and VWs, but they don’t exactly have the greatest reputation for reliability, and when something does go wrong they are generally considerably more expensive to fix than a popular Japanese or American car. I’ve been looking at more recent Jettas and Golfs/Rabbits, and some of them look pretty tempting, but i don’t think i’d choose an 11- to 14-year-old VW or Audi over a 3- to 6-year-old Honda or Toyota or Mazda.


Yep, this is how we’re thinking right now.

While we need to do this relatively quickly because the Civic is our only car, we’re not going to rush out tomorrow and just buy the first thing we see. I rented a car* yesterday, at the outrageously cheap rate of $75 a week. If we have to hang onto the rental for a couple of weeks while we look for a replacement for the Civic, then i can live with that.

  • The rental is a Toyota Yaris hatch. It’s fine for getting around, but we’d like something a little larger and more substantial, especially for all the freeway driving we do.

Except, those cars are more expensive to fix, and aren’t all that reliable.