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THE CAR DOCTOR

Good buys for $6,000

Plus: Buying GM, clogged catalytic converter

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / April 27, 2009

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Q. We are looking to move from the city to a suburb and will have to buy a family car. We would like to buy with cash, and have up to $6,000 to spend. My only previous experience owning a car was a Honda Accord that I bought with 110,000 miles which was always very unreliable. This time I would prefer a newer car and not pay for a brand's reputation. Any suggestions for an unglamorous, reliable grocery-getter?

A. Your budget of $6,000 gives you access to a wide range of vehicles, although many will have over 100,000 miles. Consider the fact that as SUVs have lost their appeal, you may find some good deals on a five to seven year-old SUV such as a Chevrolet Blazer. I also wouldn't be shy about some of the General Motors and Chrysler minivans. A quick search on cars.com found several minivans such as the Pontiac Transport, Chevrolet Venture, and Dodge Caravan for under $6,000. For something smaller and a little more fuel efficient, you might want to take a look at the Ford Focus station wagon, Mazda Protégé 5, or even a PT Cruiser. These cars offer an amazing amount of interior room which is handy when living in the suburbs. Prior to purchasing any vehicle, have it inspected by a reputable repair shop.

Q. I am considering buying a Chevrolet Traverse. What will happen if GM goes bankrupt? I have a vehicle to trade that is not paid for – the dealer says they will pay it off – but would GM's bankruptcy affect that?

A. Once your trade is paid off, you have no further obligation to that bank or manufacturer. Regarding the warranty, the federal government has stated that they will stand behind any warranty issues concerning both General Motors and Chrysler vehicles. Based on this statement I think you are safe to buy a new General Motors vehicle. In addition, General Motors is following Hyundai's lead and will assume your car payments if you lose your job. As a side note, in my opinion General Motors cars and trucks sold today are some of the best they have ever built.

Q. I have been a Ford owner for a long time and have had nothing but good luck with their vehicles. I currently own a '95 Explorer, but the old girl is pretty much rusting out... Because I did not want to get into a car payment at this time, I decided to buy a '96 Explorer XLT with no rust! Being the exact model, all parts from the '95 are interchangeable. When I purchased the XLT, I was told it only needed a transfer case. I have replaced the transfer case and now have two additional problems. When first shifting into drive, there is a long delay before dropping into gear. Also, when in four-wheel drive it feels like the drive-train is binding up. Do you have any solutions to these problems?

A. The problem may be more than just a transfer case. The slow/harsh engagement could be a worn seal or weak transmission pump. The binding may be due to a sensor or wiring problem. You should start with a scan of the computer system and then a test of transmission fluid pressures. These diagnostic tests will help determine the problem.

Q. A local garage replaced four new tires on my 1999 Jeep and forgot to tighten the lug nuts on the driver side rear tire which he discovered during a test drive when the tire came off and passed him on the road traveling 25-40 m.p.h. He had the car towed back to his garage where he claims he performed a thorough examination of the rotor, brakes, etc. He called to tell me about the incident (after I got the car home) and promised to take care of any future problems I may have due to the incident. I haven't noticed any noises, pulling or other issues, but what other damage could result from this accident?

A. It is entirely possible that there is no damage, but I would ask for a second opinion. Bring the car to a second garage, tell them what happened, and ask them to look for areas that could have been damaged. This would include brake drums and body damage.

Q. I have a 1990 Mustang with a 5.0 liter engine with about 117,000 miles. The car starts up, but when I start driving and hit the gas it starts to lose power (at 20-30 m.p.h.) and does not accelerate the way it should. If I pull over, the engine seems to runs fine. I had a tune-up, replaced the spark plugs, air and fuel filter, and had a fuel system check. Do you have a suggestions? I'm trying not to dump money into a car that might be ready for retirement.

A. It sounds like you have covered most of the basics. One area that may be a problem is the catalytic converter. If the converter is starting to clog up, the engine will idle fine but will severely lack power. There are two simple tests you could try, the first with a vacuum gauge. With the vacuum gauge hooked up, speed the engine to about 2,000 rpm. The vacuum gauge should hold steady. If the reading drops, the converter is likely clogged. The other is a test drive with the oxygen sensor removed. If the engine feels like it has more power, replace the catalytic converter.

John Paul is the public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England. He can be reached at jpaul@aaasne.com.