Car Troubles; When Is Enough Enough?

May 15th, 2008 by Potato

The heater control in my car broke last week. I was turning the heat up, and there was a loud “thunk” and then the heater knob didn’t have any resistance to it any more. Fortunately it was stuck on just a few notches up from full cold — cold enough that with the A/C on the car is livable in the sun, but warm enough that it’s not a completely ice box for these spring nights (though it is a little too chilly for good defogging). I hoped at first that the plastic knob just broke; this has happened twice before, and is a $5 part to replace. Unfortunately, that was not the case this time, and a mechanic told me that the cable that connects the control knob to the actual baffle/damper thing that controls the airflow broke. It’s a cheap part to replace, but would require 3 hours of labour to take apart the dashboard to actually get at it. He actually sent me away because he didn’t have the time to fix it, which is a bad sign.

My dad said to think about whether I want to keep the car before going out and spending more money on repairing it. (He also joked — I think it was a joke — about how convenient it was that my heater was broken, so I’d need a new car as soon as the weather started getting cooler around, say, October)

So Wayfare and I did exactly that yesterday, going through the pros and cons of replacing the car. Our target replacement vehicle would almost certainly be a new Prius for a number of reasons (including that I want one, that I want a new car at least once in my life and that my next car might be the last car I ever get as I anticipate the revival of public transit and the end of cheap oil, and finally that used Priuses are just not depreciated enough to bother with anything that isn’t new).

On the one hand, after this heater repair I’ll be closing in on $2000 of repairs done or planned for this year, and the car is only worth about $2000 — and that’s one rule-of-thumb about when to replace a car. Of course, after these repairs we hope that we’ll get another year or two of trouble-free operations. Plus all the repairs have been for relatively minor things: heater, muffler, new tires, brakes, radiator; the engine looks to still be in great shape and the transmission is holding in there. For all the issues and trouble lights, the car has never stranded us somewhere, so it still meets the bare definition of “reliable transportation” — and my fuel consumption average is around 8.5 L/100 km which is not too shabby.

Factors that would also lead us to buy sooner rather than later include the $2000 federal rebate that is, sadly (damn you, Flaherty/Harper!) going away after the 2008 model year. Two grand is nothing to sneeze at, and in fact provides a very good reason for buying now rather than trying to squeeze the last bit of value out of a $2000 car with unknown repair bills or summer roasting in store (air conditioning don’t fail me now!). We’d also save about $600/year in gas due to the lower fuel consumption of the hybrid. Interest rates are low right now, but should go lower in the next month or two as the bank/Toyota rates catch up with the Bank of Canada rates — this is still a factor that favours early switching, just for next month rather than next week. If the plan is to buy a house in 2-3 years, then it might also be beneficial to have 2-3 years of good payment history on a car (though the extra loan may work against us there… credit ratings can be so confusing).

Wayfare and I actually took a quick trip down to Competition Toyota today to have a look at one in the flesh as it were. We didn’t take one out on a test drive, and they didn’t offer, though there were a half dozen on the lot (putting to lie the reports about the supply problems right now due to the gas price spike). The salesman said just yesterday he had someone turn in my exact car as a trade-in, and that the wholesale price was $500 if I was lucky, which was a little disappointing (I know that if it comes to it we’d have to negotiate, but I thought it would start higher than that). He spent a while telling us about the difference between buying and leasing (I wanted to stop him, but just found I was too polite to butt in, and it was a slow day over there anyway), and then finished off by saying that he’d “love to sell [us] a car today, but honestly the interest rates will probably be better later in the summer.”

While we could afford it, it would not be a completely painless purchase — cars are expensive. And of course the fiscally prudent thing would be to just buy a quality used car that’s already had most of its depreciation taken off, kind of like I did 8 years ago. While that’s not quite what I desire, it is a better idea. And if we go that route, there really is no time pressure on when to do it except for when operating the current Accord becomes uneconomical. So we decided to hold off for now, which is probably the right decision. Especially since we don’t really know what the future holds: if my PhD goes poorly and I lose my scholarship funding and have to live off next-to-nothing starting 2 years from now, or if I graduate and then can’t find work then the burden of a new (or newer) car could be even more painful. Plus the Rogers contest isn’t over yet, so I might win one anyway :)

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