COAL, Sort Of… A New Car For My Niece

My niece’s Mariner- The broken grille and bungee cords holding up the bumper hint of greater problems

Two weeks ago, I made an overnight stop at my younger sister’s house in Albuquerque New Mexico. Two of our nieces (my older sister’s kids) were also visiting, and they planned to head out to visit me in California later in the week. The problem was, they planned to do it in this Mercury Mariner, which belonged to my niece Becca Lynne.

During my brief stay, Becca mentioned the Mercury would not always engage reverse, so we checked the fluid level. Since I thought to check the basics before buying any parts, of course it checked out fine (David Saunders is laughing right now). I didn’t have time, tools, or work space for further checks, so I wished her luck and headed out in the morning.

Not Becca’s car- I assume it was far worse

Back in Albuquerque, they took the Mariner to my sister’s preferred shop, and the techs were shocked and appalled at the rust on the Mariner’s frame. While Albuquerque does see some snow every year, they use sunshine to melt the snow, and the humidity level is very low, so rust tends to be cosmetic, rather than structural. Based on the rust issue, the shop could not in good faith recommend putting any money in the transmission repair, so I received a phone call informing me of the new plan- Since LA is full of rust free cars, and Uncle Dave knows cars, the girls would take the train to LA, and return home in a Dave located and approved car.

While I’m happy to help out, and enjoy exploring the used car market, Becca’s budget was a concern- No more than $2,500. Still, her available funds were a hard reality, so I searched Craigslist to see what gems the local market offered. Out of the gate, I wanted to find a private party car for two reasons, first to avoid dealer mark up and second to get a first person report on the car’s history.

Since the car was headed back to Indiana, I wanted to avoid options that may be unfamiliar to local techs. I’m sure Indiana techs could service all major Japanese brands, but maybe not Hyundai, Suzuki, Subaru, or Kia. I also have a strong bias against European brands based on the cost of repair parts. Regardless of the brand, used cars break, and the replacement parts should be inexpensive. Unfortunately, used Japanese cars trade for silly money here in LA, so I was realistically limited to domestic nameplates. My other constraint related to vehicle paperwork – I wasn’t interested in anything with a salvage title.

This Buick represented the most expensive option, and also the newest car to appear in my search. By the way, I noticed this car was still available three weeks later.

Nicer price and an Orange County car, where all Oldsmobiles are owned by respectable citizens who regularly change their oil.

A Palmdale car, up in the high desert. I believe the miles came in right at 100k, which caught my eye. I also noticed that 3.1 60 degree V-6. Many techs see that motor and think “bad head gasket,” but many owners see it and think “decent torque, reliable service.” Me, I just think “Meh.”

Good price, great features, but an address far from Orange County, so the service record may not be spot on. Still, unlike either Century, it’s packing a 3.8 Buick V-6, making it that much more attractive. You can also see why that 2001 Century is still available – Here in the LA domestic sedan market, it’s grossly overpriced.

Our prices keep going down, and Pasadena is just as good an address as Orange County. Excellent price, extremely low miles, and sorry Panther fans, this car is looong gone.

The lowest price yet. For me that location call out is the most important information – Shafter is out in the countryside on the south end of the San Joaquin Valley (think Bakersfield), so I’d need to be really motivated to drive up and look at it.

So how to sort out my selections? I applied a fairly simple equation that factored in price, mileage, and model year. The lower the number the better. Using this equation, a $1,250 ’99 model with 110,000 miles and a $2,500 ’09 model with 80,000 miles both score 100 points.

Given that these cars are all pretty similar, and the three cars closest to the center are separated by a single point, I think it’s an effective measure. No surprise, the ’99 Buick Park Avenue floats to the top. The age, price and mileage are all very attractive, and any car that beats it in one category, exceeds it in the other two measures.

But of course, all my efforts proved to be for naught. Showing Becca my selections, she informed me none would do. She liked the Mariner’s tall seating position, and wanted another compact SUV to replace her old car. Back to the drawing board…

As it turns out, there aren’t many compact SUV options in Becca’s price range. Any RAV4 or CR-V either had mechanical issues or more than 250K miles. Other manufacturers were slow to join this segment, so the domestic options were limited. However, I came up with a few possibilities, including the Equinox. I would have loved to look at this car, but it was not available at the time of my search.

I thought the HHR offered good value for the money (although all the SUVs in this price range had more miles than similar sedans), but Becca did not care for the styling.

We actually looked at this PT Cruiser, as it was three miles from the house. It was clear Becca did not consider it “the one,” and I could see the front clip had been (poorly) replaced and the car was due for a new camshaft drive belt.

I’m more than capable of replacing a timing belt, but the engine bay in a PT Cruiser is so tight you need to remove an AC line to access the front engine mount. This means you need to discharge the system for basic maintenance, and that’s a deal breaker for me. We walked away without any regrets.

The price and description on this Vue intrigued me. As some of you may recall, from 2003 to 2008 Saturn purchased V-6s from Honda, which used a timing belt. However, there’s no V-6 badge on this car’s tailgate, so it appears to be a four, which used a chain for the camshaft drive. In the end, the owner did not respond to clarify these issues (a frequent issue with Craigslist), so I’ll never know the actual situation.

The owner of this car did respond to my e-mails, but once I saw the car, I very quickly dismissed it. The “owner” was clearly a part-time dealer working out of their apartment complex parking lot, so there was no car history to be had. More importantly the car presented very poorly, with ripped interior panels, a non-functioning blower motor, and multiple dents and dings.

After a weekend of fruitless phone calls, a couple test drives, and no good prospects, I stepped back to scan the landscape. I found myself leaning towards the Saturn Vue for several reasons, most notably the orphan brand discount. While Saturn is gone, the Vue shares lots of parts with other GM products. Therefore, despite a lower price in the used market, warehouses across America still have Saturn repair parts.

The perfect Vue- Brand new with no miles!

As mentioned, compact SUVs tended to trade at higher prices than sedans, so vehicles in Becca’s price range came with higher mileage. Since Honda engines have a reputation for rolling up high mileage without complaint, finding a Honda equipped Vue could help mitigate my concerns. Right or wrong, I found myself leaning in the Vue direction.

I also decided to move away from Craigslist, and explore online car sites. Almost immediately, I stumbled across the BLOK Charity Auto Auction, located two miles from my house. Acting as a clearing house for vehicles given to local charities, they offered several hundred cars at a weekend auction, OR would sell you a car anytime using a “Buy it Now” pricing approach. The listed prices were quite reasonable, since for them, cash sales avoided the uncertainties of an auction. Even better, I found two different Saturn Vue V-6’s on their website.

I love Kurt Russel, but I don’t want to buy a car from this character…

BLOK uses an interesting approach, and I like to think people who can afford to give their cars to charity tend to maintain them during ownership. I may be naive, but the cars I saw at BLOK tended to support this thought. The salespeople were also very straightforward, unlike the classic Used Car Salesman cliche. Additional pluses for Becca included the no hassle sales approach, and the assurance of an established business should there be any post sale paperwork issues.

There was one downside – The lot did not allow test drives. However, you could start the car and check things out, and they had an exchange program, so if I identified a major after sale issue, I figured we could swap into something else. When we got to the lot, it turned out they had THREE silver V-6 Vues, of varying mileage. This one (with 173,000) miles slid right under Becca’s budget at $2,350, so we took it home.

During my initial inspection, I spotted a ripped seat, burned out map light, and heard a “clunking” engine mount. Beyond that, there were only a few cosmetic issues including clouded headlights. On the drive home, it shifted well and tracked straight down the road. On a lift, the underside looked perfect, with minor exhaust system corrosion, good suspension bushings and intact CV joint boots. The brakes were worn, so with new shoes, pads, and an oil change it was ready for the road.

Before Becca headed out, I was also able to fix the map light (turned out to be a bad switch), and replace the torn driver’s seat cover with a junkyard replacement. I considered replacing the cam shaft drive belt (engine access is very good on the Vue), but Saturn recommends replacing the belt every 105,000 miles. Based on that, the belt has almost certainly been replaced once, and the current belt should have 25-30,000 miles left on it. Since much could happen in that mileage, Becca decided to hold off and possibly budget the change out in 2020.

The Saturn engine mount. The design prevents the engine from moving once the rubber blows out.

I also left the bad engine mount, which was frustrating, because it was very easy to access. However, it cost about $100, and a failed mount still keeps the engine in place – The metal parts of the mount just knock together under certain engine loads. I did look for a good mount in the salvage yards, but those I saw were in worse shape than the one on the car…

I did spend $20 on a headlight polishing kit, and was quite pleased with the results. I took this shot after finishing up on the passenger’s side. I also used some blackout tape around the lower edge, to cover up damaged paint. Overall, I was quite pleased with the improvement.

So here’s the final result, just before Becca Lynne headed back to Indiana. While circumstances put this particular Saturn on our front curb, chance could just as easily landed 10 or 20 other cars here. With the incredible advances in vehicle reliability, they may have all been suitable choices, but there’s no magic touchstone to identify the best choice. Hopefully, I can report back in a couple of years that this little ute is still in service.