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My car needs some work, but I don't like taking out too much debt and my savings are sort of depleted for the moment, so I need to do a little at a time. How can I prioritize the work that needs to be done? What I'd really like to know is, in general what types of things should be prioritized and what types of services can be pushed down the list? Are more expensive repairs likely to be necessary, or scams? Obviously "the car doesn't work" becomes Super High Priority, but what kinds of smaller items lead to the car not working faster than others, I guess is what I'm asking?

The specifics of my current situation are as follows, if it helps answer the question:

According to my local chain repair shop (since I don't have a preferred mechanic), it needed the following last time I had work done (with price quotes):

  • Intake Manifold Gasket- $601.39
  • Coolant System Flush - $106.99
  • Transmission Flush Service - $119.99
  • Power Steering Flush Service - $84.99
  • Fuel System Cleaning Service - $79.99
  • Fuel Filter Replacement - $58.99
  • Strut Removal and Repair - $729.96
  • Computerized 4-Wheel Alignment -$99.99

In addition, I am aware of the following issues:

  • Tires need replacing (I had a blowout and elected to replace only that tire instead of all four, promising myself I'd replace them as a set soon...)
  • The parking brake has stopped working
  • I'm about due for an oil change

The car in question is a 2004 Chevy Impala. I need it to last me at least, oh, five or six more years, so I do want to take care of it the best I can.

Edit to add: According to the test in this answer, my struts are okay, and according to the penny test, I have more than 2/32" tire tread remaining, so neither of those are urgent.

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Is the intake leak allowing coolant into the combustion chamber or just forming a puddle on the engine? –  mikes Jul 5 '13 at 20:33
    
I think they said fluids were mixing? I can't recall which ones, I think coolant and oil? They didn't write the problem description on my quote, just the item needing replacement. I haven't noticed any problems driving the car other than an occasional pull to the right which is wheel alignment, right? –  Yamikuronue Jul 5 '13 at 20:47
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Make sure you do wheel alignment when or shortly after you put a new set of tyres on, otherwise, if it is out of whack too much, the tyres would wear out rather fast. –  theUg Jul 5 '13 at 22:29
    
Tire wear is important on the "how many tires do I really need?" question. A picture of the new vs. the old tire wear would be helpful. Also, more information about the weather in your area would be helpful: is it going to snow in the winter? Lots of deep puddles from rain? –  Bob Cross Jul 5 '13 at 22:34
    
@BobCross It snows in winter and it's been rainy this summer, I'm in Northeast Ohio. One of the blogs I follow said something about a penny test, and it looks like the tread on my tires is fine? So maybe I'll hold off on that until just before winter? But the guy who changed my tire when I had a blowout said I should probably replace them all soon, so I'm totally lost. –  Yamikuronue Jul 6 '13 at 15:00
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Caveat: this is your vehicle. Please consider our opinions as such and make the best decision that you can.

Here is how I would group things without considering price. I'll try to be guided by your "about more five years" and your climate (assuming that NE Ohio is roughly equivalent to central Indiana <- where I spent six years of graduate school).

Things that would worry me if this were my car and I was trying to keep it functional if not gorgeous:

  1. Parking brake: I think this needs to be fixed right away. Brakes need to work, period.
  2. Oil change: don't skimp. The car won't last if you cheese out on oil.
  3. Tire wear: if you have a pencil's width worth of tire tread left, I'd worry less about snow and deep puddles. If you're checking to see how much of Abe's hair you can see (the penny test), there's a good chance that you need new tires. You might be able to keep the blow-out replacement around as a full-size spare. Insert your best judgment here.

Next on my list:

  1. Strut replacement: if these are original struts, there's an excellent chance that one or more are completely worn out. If so, you'll have a progressively worse ride and increasing tire wear. This will be super annoying if you've just replaced your tires. FYI: I've replaced the struts on both of our cars (about the same age as yours). It was a full day's work on each (i.e., expect a significant charge for labor) and there were two dead struts on each sides (oil leaks, wouldn't expand after compression, etc). I had fun doing it but I'm a weirdo.
  2. Alignment: If you're replacing your struts, you're going to need a new alignment. Too many things get taken apart and reassembled: increased tire wear and sub-optimal handling will be the main consequence if you delay too long after the replacement.

Now for the "I don't have enough information" portion of our show:

  1. Intake gasket: this is a puzzle. How does the shop know that this is a problem? For example, if the oil and coolant are mixing, they should be able to show you. Normal coolant should look like lime-ade (colored but relatively clear). Anything else is bad in the long term if not fatal in the short. I doubt that you'd pass emissions, though. I did research the replacement on your car: this is apparently a daunting task so labor charges apply again.
  2. Coolant flush: if gunk is getting in your cooling system, it needs to be flushed.
  3. Transmission, power steering, fuel system, fuel filter: what's the motivation for these? Are these just scheduled maintenance? Or are there some symptoms motivating this work?

Now, with respect to cost, some of these numbers do seem kind of high (e.g., coolant flush). I would normally expect scheduled maintenance items to be rolled up into a discounted charge (which didn't seem to happen here). It's hard to make a specific suggestion on a second opinion but I'll take a stab:

Find out if the local tire vendor does general service as well.

Why? The vendor is motivated to give you a good overall price because they want to sell you product as well as services. If you go in saying that you're considering purchasing four new tires and four new struts, you're pricing out a major sale. If you also make it clear that you're looking for a shop that will handle some other items on your mind, they might be strongly inclined to negotiate on price.

This has worked for me in the past. The tire vendor just down the road has received our active recommendation because they (a) do good work and (b) aren't sexist jerks to my wife (sadly, this is still a concern).

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Safety Items should be the highest priority. Next on the list are things that if left unrepaired will become a safety issue or drastically increase the cost of the repair. Them would come the items that increase reliability.

  1. tires (safety)
  2. alignment (so you don't ruin the new tires)
  3. parking brake (the odds of a rusty brake line will vary with location) safety
  4. intake leak (I would first try some inexpensive stop-leak until you can get it fixed)more potential damage if coolant level is low enough to let engine overheat
  5. strut repair(I would move this above intake leak if the spring is broken) could be a safety item if it is broken or severely worn
  6. oil change (if the oil level gets low enough it will damage the engine) add oil if needed until it is changed
  7. fuel filter (reliability) if the filter is plugged you may get stranded but it won't damage anything else
  8. Any other fluid flushes (reliability) The most important thing do between repairs is to keep the fluid levels up so that more damage doesn't occur. Of course this is subjective since we can't see the car
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Can you expand on which category each item falls into? –  Yamikuronue Jul 5 '13 at 20:50
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To save a few dollars you could check the local salvage yard for tires. prices vary but where I am low mileage used tires are around $50 installed. –  mikes Jul 6 '13 at 13:42
    
Fuel filters are a standard mileage based maintenance service. However, the fuel supply quality must be better these days. Clogged fuel filters just don't seem to happen much at all anymore. Even when people never bother to change them. :-) –  Brian Knoblauch Jul 8 '13 at 13:25
    
When I used to get used tires, they were $10 a piece and included free rims. Now I'm stuck getting new tires, but on the bright side, they're $50 a piece, new, installed. –  R.. Jul 9 '13 at 3:19
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Almost all the items in your list sound like scams.

  1. Intake manifold gasket: this one only matters if you're leaking oil or coolant (or worse, the two together) somewhere where they pass across the gap the gasket is sealing. You should get an explanation of WHY they think it needs to be replaced, since unless there's a real problem, it's something you can ignore indefinitely.

  2. Coolant system flush: overpriced. You can do it yourself for $10. Shops should not charge more than 1/2 hour labor + parts (fluids) for it. Whether it's needed probably depends on what other issues are present. If you're leaking oil into the cooling system, then it does need to be flushed, but only after the leak is fixed.

  3. Transmission flush: always a scam. You may need to change the oil but there is never a need for a flush unless the transmission has been contaminated, which should never happen.

  4. Power steering flush: always a scam.

  5. Fuel system cleaning: always a scam. All they'll do is pour a bottle of Seafoam into your gas tank. You can do that yourself if you want, but there's no reason to do it unless you have a problem you expect it to fix.

  6. Fuel filter replacement: not urgent, but should be done as scheduled maintenance.

  7. Strut removal and repair: sounds really early for a 2004 vehicle, but maybe. Do you have suspension problems you're aware of?

  8. Alignment: should not be needed unless your vehicle has been in a minor accident.

And for your other items:

  1. Tires: important. Replace at least the one across from the one you already replaced (i.e. if you replaced front-left before, replace front-right). If your car is front-wheel drive, make sure the best tires are on the front. I'm not sure what the proper placement for a rear-wheel drive car is.

  2. Parking brake: fix it asap. It's important for safety and to pass inspection.

  3. Oil change: you shouldn't hold off too long on this, but the safety items are more important. Oil change is easy to do yourself, but you can also find shops that will do it very cheap.

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They said something about finding oil in the coolant or vice versa, is why they suggested the gasket. Is this something I can verify myself? –  Yamikuronue Jul 6 '13 at 14:59
    
Also every time I go in they say my struts are awful but I've not noticed a problem while driving so maybe that's on their list of scammy things to recommend –  Yamikuronue Jul 6 '13 at 15:01
    
If oil is getting into the coolant, or vice versa, this is a serious problem you need to get fixed. There are various ways this can happen though and I'm not confident the shop you took it to has done anything to determine the cause; they may just be planning to try something (the intake manifold gasket), take your money, and wait for you to come back again if the problem isn't solved. The major ways you can get oil in the cooling system are a busted head gasket (worst), ... –  R.. Jul 7 '13 at 3:31
    
... a busted intake manifold gasket (only on vehicles where both oil and coolant pass side-by-side across this gasket; I'm not clear on how common that is -- anyway, this one is a pain to change but nowhere near as bad as the head gasket!), or a leak in the transmission fluid cooling lines to the radiator (the easiest and cheapest possible cause of the problem; this one only applies to automatic transmissions). –  R.. Jul 7 '13 at 3:33
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I disagree on alignment - it's easy for things to be knocked out of alignment by potholes etc. Also, if you have any work done on the suspension, such as replacing the struts, a wheel alignment will be essential afterwards. –  Nick C Jul 8 '13 at 9:40
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