When is my car economically obsolete?

I’ve just brought my car into the shop, and I’m waiting for the phone call with the estimate. At some point, it is no longer worth pouring money into a car; you should just trade it in and get a new one. My question is, when?

Should I add up all the repair bills, compare it to the price of the car, and junk the car when the cost of repairs exceed the price?

Should I junk the car when the repair estimate is more than a certain percentage of the blue book value of the car?

Or what?


It doesn’t always work that way although many people think that it does. What matters is how the car will affect you personally financially. If you have a car that is only worth $2000, it may be worth it to do a $500 repair if you mechanic says that it is completely sound overall. The process of buying a better car will almost always cost you more than $500 overall so you will lose money on the swap.

This thinking is a lot more complicated and it has some risks like totalling your car the day it gets out of the shop and doesn’t include the satisfaction of having a newer car but there is no point where you can say ditch your car when it needs an X dollar repair so that you can benefit finacially. Some beaters go forever and are worth repairing. Newer cars can cost $300 a month or much more and that can pay for an awful lot of repairs to a beater if you just look at the financial angle.

Can you afford the constant (relatively) inconvenience of your car breaking down and 2+ hours each time in the auto shop each time? If you enjoy the gamble of having a car that could break down at any moment (which is somewhat true for any car, but increases as it gets older), then by all means, keep the car as long as possible. My car is 7+ years old, and I figure an inconvenience or two isn’t too much of a hassle, when it increases more than once or twice a year, new car for me.

I think the most reasonable analysis is to estimate the cost of keeping the old car and compare it with the cost of getting a new one. These costs would include repairs, inconvenience, fuel, insurance, and hazards such as increased liklihood of an accident due to mechanical failure. Of course, the estimates of these different costs include some uncertainty, but for starters you could look at what you spent in the last year or two on repairs, and you could consider things that are somewhat predictable (for example a car with 200,000 miles on the engine will probably want a replacement engine in the next 100,000 miles).

Keep in mind that most car don’t spontaneously break down without any forewarning. If you feel your car vibrate when braking, you may want to consider having your brakes looked at. If you have torque steer maybe you should have your front end examined. If your transmission won’t go into first gear until the car’s heated up, well, then don’t act to surprised when it stops working completely in a month.

Sure, there are some completely spontaneous problems (electrical and electronic in nature, generally), but if you get to know your car, you’ll know when it needs attention before it leaves you stranded.

I figure my car can’t be worth more than about $6,000 right now, but if they told me I needed a new $4000 transmission tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. I know the rest of my car, and I wouldn’t know a potential replacement until it were too late.

This is what I use. When you start noticing potentially big problems, like transmission troubles, but the car still works (perhaps delayed engagement, but it’s something you can live with), when another component goes out you have to consider the possibility that the component that is going can give out soon too, which tends to lead me towards replacement of the car.

I more or less follow Napier’s line of thinking. My car is 12 years old and has over 100,000 miles on it. A couple times a year I add up my repair bills for the last couple years, add in what I spend on gas (it’s all in Quicken so it’s easy, plus my weekly mileage is really consistent) and other regular maintenance over the course of a year, and determine if that’s more or less than the annual cost of a new car. So far, it’s been less.

Within a few more years, I suspect that’ll change.

The “Car Talk” guys say that as long as the wheels haven’t fallen off and the body isn’t total rust, keep it going.

Things I take into account (that haven’t been mentioned):

Would it be cheaper to just buy the same car instead of getting it repaired? This is really hard to figure though. The state says my car is worth less than $250. I’ve seen people selling similar ones for that up to $1000. But my car is worth well over $1000 since I know what condition it is in, and so on. So a $500 repair that will not have to be redone for many years is a no brainer. A $2000 one would make me go to plan B.

Getting parts. I can still get parts, but some have to be ordered and take days to arrive. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to know what will need to be replaced and order ahead, then make arrangements with my mechanic ahead of time (he calls when he has a free slot) so the repairs are cheap.

How much am I willing to pay per year to keep this thing going? I figure anything under $500 a year is a win. And I beat that by a large margin almost all the time.

I see this ads for car leases in the $300-$400 per month range and wonder what is going thru those people’s heads. But 2 late model used cars, if one needs to go into the shop, drive the other.

However, newer cars in general get better milage, emit less pollution, and are much safer.

So, if it is a toss-up, then I say; buy new a car.

The problem here is that many people are amazingly brain dead when it comes to cars. I have had customers bring cars in that would barely move they ran so bad. When I would advise them of the needed repairs, they would tell me that every thing was just fine, and accuse me of trying to rip them off. :rolleyes: Oft times the problems develop over such a long time, that the customer does not notice what is very obvious to an outsider.

To answer the OP, I would say that when repairs reach a significant percentage of the value of the car, it may well be time to bite the bullet and get a new car. If your car is worth $1500 and it needs a transmission to the tune of $1000, it probably does not make sense to repair it.

How good a car could you get if you sold your car and added the money you would have spent repairing it (minus something for the inconvenience and administrative costs of changing cars)? If the new car is better than your car would be after being repaired, then it’s not worth repairing.

My current car costs me, monthly, $0 (payment) + $60 (current insurance).

A new car will cost me, monthly, ~$225 (payment) + $60 (current insurance) x 1.5.

My current car has, in the three years I’ve owned it, cost me $750 in “abnormal” (beyond normal maintenance) costs. As my car is approaching 170k miles I expect this figure to increase.

I really, really like the first figure. When that last figure equals 75% of the second figure I’ll replace my car.

I tend to drive trucks until they self-destruct, so 200,000 miles is nothing. When it looks like I will be spending over $2500 in a year on repairs, then I start shopping for a new one. But basic preventive action can keep most late-model cars on the road for at least 200,000 miles. For Nissans, that means checking the valves often after 100,000 miles and keeping up on the fluid changes.

My car gets great gas mileage, passes emissions easily (and the two combined mean I put out less bad stuff than the SUVs that dominate the road in my area). My car is also not an “accordian” like newer models. The “safety” of newer cars means they took out a lot of metal and redesigned them so that they fold into nothing in the smallest accident. I have “10mph bumpers” which forces the design of the whole car to be a lot better than what you generally see nowadays.

This I disagree with. The price of getting the same car is (presumably) discounted to account for the likelihood that will need repairs, either at the time of sale or in the future.


:rolleyes: First off your emissions test does not always accurately reflect what the car is doing while you are driving. It is entirely possible that a car that passes an idle emission test to be an absolute pig when driven or run on a loaded mode test (on a dyno that loads the engine) Also older cars pass a less strict test than a newer car as the requirements have tightened up over the years. So because your car passes an emissions tests does not mean it is anywhere near as clean as a newer car.

As far as your crash safety comments go, you do understand that energy cannot be created or destroyed? If your car does not crumple, then that energy is transferred to the passenger compartment and to the occupants. It doesn’t just disappear. In both the auto design business, and at the trauma center this is considered a bad thing.

You misunderstood. There is not crumpling enough and then there is also crumping too much. The latter has 2 negative consequences:

  1. Economically. A small thud results in a totalled car.

  2. Safety. A real accident and you have an engine shoved into you.

The goal should be to handle small stuff with minimal damage and absorb the big stuff without turning the passengers into kabobs. Most current cars do neither well. Again, this has to do with skimping on using metal in manufacturing. Consumer Reports has been harping on this trend for 20 years now.

I’d respond to SuaSponte if I had a clue has to what the issue was. Maybe if he/she had quoted one more sentence in my post…

I tend to drive cars to the wrecking yard. However, I’m retired and a car is not vital to my daily life. As long as the car is reliable I say fix it. You can do a lot of repairs for the cost of dealer’s profit on a new car. Not to mention the tax, added insurance and other costs that you lose immediately upon signing the sales contract. However, if it begins to be the case that every few weeks there is some hitch in the car’s mobility I’d say it’s time to get rid of it.

Oh, you mean those Chinese cars. Most unit body construction cars are designed to have their engines (if broken free), go under you. If you want a modern car with a body-on-frame, you can always get a Crown Vic or Lincoln Town Car. You’ll never ride in anything that cruises better or is more comfortable.

You do realize that since Big Oil bought the patent rights to the 200 mpg carburetor and buried it, the only way to meet government required CAFE is to do things like lighten cars, which necessarily means using less metal – that’s where most of the weight comes from.

Funny that cars are safer now than they ever were before. how is that possible if new cars don’t preform well in accidents?
When I worked for Volvo they crashed about 1 car per week every week of every month, of every year. This is in addition to all the computer simulations. They also operate a crash investigation team that rolls out of actual accidents in Sweden to gather real world evidence. I can tell you that a 1960s Volvo was among the safest car on the road at that time. I can also tell you that each of the model cars that replaced it was safer than its predecessor.
One thing that the engineers noticed is that people were getting severe lower leg injuries in accidents. With some study they found out two things. First off people were surviving accidents that had just a few years ago been fatal. Secondly as part of the accident, parts of the front suspension were entering the passenger compartment and doing severe damage to the occupants lower legs. Steps were taken to prevent this intrusion.
The important part of this story is not that the pedal box was reinforced, it is that just a few years previously such an accident was fatal.
Here is a video of a crash of a 2004.5 Volvo S40 the smallest and lightest Volvo at I believe 35 mph. Would you care to point out where the engine has entered the passenger compartment? You will note that there is no damage showing behind the A pillar, and while not shown in the video, the door on the car will still open. The S40 despite being the smallest and lightest Volvo turns in the same crash numbers as the S80 the Largest sedan built by Volvo. This is done though some very clever engineering, and what Volvo calls Intelligent Vehicle Architecture shown here There are four different grades of steel in the front structure. In a very low speed accident a few bolt on pieces must be replaced. In a super severe accident the engine and transmission are forced down and backward to wind up under the car, not in the driver’s lap.
The science and engineering to do such designs did not exist thirty or forty years ago.
Bottom line is current cars are way safer than cars of yesterday.