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When Stellar "Deals" Aren't So Stellar (Update!)

Update: It appears the oil pump fully failed yesterday while she was trying to see if she can salvage the car and not donate it. The engine now has a rod knock and it sounds like the timing chain is really pissed off. It also smokes like an old Detroit Diesel, ha. Yeah, she’s definitely more confident about cutting her losses now.

Seems to me the seller knew this thing was scrap and just wanted to find someone to pay him more than scrap price for it. He knew it would run well jusssst long enough to pass a short test drive and sniff test. Oh well, if she can get the tax deduction she was offered by the organization she chose she’ll consider it a win. Taxes are going to be fun for her next season anyway.

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Illustration for article titled When Stellar Deals Arent So Stellar (Update!)
Photo: Mercedes
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It’s not uncommon for me to find absurd deals like my Audi TT or the old VW Passat TDI Wagon. It seems by nature of my job I am able to snipe up cheap vehicles before anyone else can.

Usually they’ll have a small issue the owner doesn’t know how to fix, thinks is terminal, and lowers the price to reflect that. The Audi needed a starter, the VW a boost hose. But both cars were priced like they’d never run again.

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In an upcoming article I’ll have on Out Motorsports I go in depth about my madness. Unfortunately, not all deals have worked out.

Once I made the mistake of trusting a seller, only to find out the title they gave me didn’t match the vehicle they sold me. Once I gave up too early and dumped a great vehicle that would have taken 30 minutes to fix. And once I bought a vehicle without a test drive, only to find out the seller lied about everything about the vehicle’s condition. These lessons have made it easier for me to not end up with a total junker, lessons my girlfriend is learning now as she starts her own adventures in trying to find cheap rides.

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Until this summer, I had a somewhat strict $1,000 limit on cars and motorcycles. The idea being if they break I won’t lose money on them. If I fix them, I make money on them. But this meant I was solidly outside my list of dream vehicles and essentially forcing myself into crapboxes I liked, but didn’t really want. Nowadays I don’t have a dollar limit so I can get dream vehicles, but I still try to find the best deal possible.

My girlfriend started her cheap car quest with an $800 Bronco. It turned out to be a far bigger project than expected and she sold it for a small profit. The new owner has a welder and cutting tools. He’s reportedly already replaced the floor, rocker, and is going after the tone ring next.

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Illustration for article titled When Stellar Deals Arent So Stellar (Update!)
Photo: Mercedes

Her 1999 Camry has been an absolutely stellar daily. Cold A/C, plenty power, good unibody, and has never let her down. And after she put a new cat on it the car drives so buttery smooth. I’d rank it near the top of the $500 range car purchases I’ve seen in a very long time. The sunroof even works without leaking. It’s a car we’d hop in and do a road trip in without a second thought. In fact, we’ve done that twice already!

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Illustration for article titled When Stellar Deals Arent So Stellar (Update!)
Photo: Mercedes

Because of the Camry’s smashing success she’s decided to copy my old idea of assigning an arbitrary dollar limit to vehicle purchase. Hers, however, is far more stringent than mine was at $600. But she has the caveat that she’ll spend about a thousand on something worth it.

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Recently she found some killer deals that I’d rate similar to mine. There was a beautiful supercharged Pontiac Bonneville that just needed a new rocker panel (which came with it). A crazy low mile supercharged Buick that needed minor TLC, a couple HHRs, and another supercharged 3800, this time being a pretty minty Pontiac Grand Prix. There was even a rare Buick Reatta that just needed a battery. Most of them needed minor stuff, but she knows the 3800 in and out so she wasn’t scared.

Unfortunately, she’s not nearly as snappy as me and all of these cars sold before she could get to them. That is until she spied her eyes on a suspiciously cheap 2004 Nissan Maxima. The only noted issues were a bad wheel bearing and a sorta melted rear end. She decided to go for it.

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Why the Maxima when all her favourite vehicles are GM barges? The Maxima has a pretty reasonable spec sheet for her desires. 0-60 in roughly a similar 6-ish second time as my Audi, well-equipped for its day, and she likes the style.

The Worst Used Car I’ve Ever Driven






Sitting in the owner’s driveway the car seemed pretty serviceable. I checked out the body while she observed the engine and interior. The rear bumper, trunk, and taillight were partially melted by something. However, their mounting surfaces were undamaged and the damaged parts were all bolt-on. Easy fixes. Tires had enough tread and all the lights worked, too. The rest of the body had tiny just barely surface rust spots in a couple areas and the underbody was mint, even for normal people standards.

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During her part of the inspection she popped the hood to witness a beautifully smooth 3.5L V6. Even more surprising, the engine bay plastics haven’t been lost to time. The seller told us there he just changed the oil and topped off all fluids, so the levels weren’t checked. I hopped in and found no ominous lights to accompany the smooth engine. While my short drive in it revealed some odd rear end noises it was nothing too crazy. Temps held, no warning lights. I attributed the noise to the rocky dirty road. It seemed to us that it was indeed just a high mileage warrior that needed some TLC. And for the princely sum of $300 she thought she was getting away with a gem. I elected to drive the car home to give it a full evaluation of what needed fixing.

That all changed when the engine temp exceeded normal range only minutes from the seller’s house...

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Well, wait a minute here. The seller said he topped up all the fluids.

Illustration for article titled When Stellar Deals Arent So Stellar (Update!)
Image: Know Your Meme (Fair Use)
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While the needle never actually touched the hot line it certainly liked flirting with it, so I turned on the heat full blast.

Pretty much immediately after I rapid fire discovered two more problems. Whatever that rear end noise was during the initial drive became a frightening soundtrack of something that sounded like it was going to fall off. Meanwhile, when coming to a stop the oil pressure light illuminated then stayed on until I hit the throttle again. This isn’t good..

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Finally off gravel roads, the car drove even worse on pavement. It felt like I was going to uncontrollably veer off into the cornfields at any second. A new issue also presented itself. Each gearchange was excruciatingly harsh. So harsh the car sometimes chirped the tires on engagement. I’ve never driven a vehicle that made me fear for my life, but this one did it. I was getting ready to ditch it somewhere, maybe have her call for a tow.

We limped it to the nearest fuel station where we discovered the seller was a big fat liar. The car had no coolant (the bottle is stained the colour of coolant), the dipstick was dry, and I had no idea what was causing the bad rear end noise.

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Something told me to check the wheels again. I shined a flashlight at the first wheel, saw five lug nuts, then moved on. The second wheel had five nuts as...wait a minute, something was fishy there. I got on my knees and noticed that one of the nuts was NOT a nut but a really shiny stud. The other four nuts were present, but two of them weren’t auto grade nuts. Indeed, this dude installed regular old nuts.

Startled at what I had driven for the past ten minutes, I checked the other wheels. They too were missing a nut and had two regular nuts as substitutes. Checking even further, EVERY nut was not even hand tight, and one nut on the wheel that actually had five matching nuts was not all the way on, rounded out, and cross-threaded. I debated with myself about calling it quits and going home. Someone was going to get hurt.

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Over the next hour we added coolant, oil, and tightened some new nuts we had on hand. Of course, the car congratulated us by barely starting up for no explicable reason. But now with the newly added fluids the car kept cool and the engine was even more smooth and even quieter...though the oil pressure light at idle remained. Thankfully, with all four wheels now nice and snug the car transformed from a deathtrap to remarkably tight. Absurd night and day difference.

Thinking about it, the hard starting, occasional stalling when decelerating, and hard shifts could be a dying camshaft position sensor. Nissan forums seemed to support this idea. As for the oil light, well that was likely either a clogged pickup screen or a dying pump. The scary part is that the cheap fixes immediately escalate to multi-thousand dollar work if they don’t do the job.
If the cam sensor doesn’t resolve the hard shifting and hard starting, the transmission is junk (common problem, anyway).
If the oil pump isn’t clogged, it would need replacement. The car decided to kill its parking lights during this thinking session. *sigh*

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At least with the wheels nice and tight the car actually became fun to drive. It corners flat and it has enough power to make several highway passes with one punch of the pedal. And most amusing to me, the transmission actually shifts fine when you drive it like a hoodlum. Only when driving easy does it shift like the transmission is a really pissed off caged animal trying to escape. Without the lag of a turbo it feels even faster than my Audi. It even sounded decent enough at high revs. For how awful this thing drove, it was kiiiinda nice when it worked? Even the gobs of awful torque steer made me laugh.

Since it was increasingly looking like the transmission is junk and the oil pump living on borrowed time, I suggested turning it into her Gambler car. Send the car out in epic fashion. Maybe take the Sawzall and make a Maximute. She felt different. She didn’t want to kill the car. She wanted a project but the prospects of trans replacement and a new oil pump left a sour taste. And perhaps as a middle finger to us, the car decided to gush all of its power steering fluid out upon arriving home. Yep, that fluid trail is from the Maxima.

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Illustration for article titled When Stellar Deals Arent So Stellar (Update!)
Photo: Mercedes

Ultimately, she decided this unfortunate sack of car will be donated for a $500 tax deduction. Even if her problems turned out to just be sensors and a dirty oil pickup tube, these cars are apparently notorious for eating auto transmissions anyway. So she had to decide whether it was even worth trying to fix, just so it could break later. It’s a shame because aside from the sketch engine and transmission it’s actually pretty nice.

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She feels it’s technically making a profit on the car. Fine enough with me.

SO, new items added to my personal used car checklist will now be “check the oil even if the seller says he changed it”, “check wheel nuts because the seller may not care if you live or die”, and “take it for the longest test drive possible”. I normally always check the oil immediately, but you’d think if the guy says he just changed it you could take his word for it. Nope, not going to trust like that again.

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Meanwhile, my girlfriend has learned that scraping the very bottom of the barrel is risky. Some cars may end up like the Camry, but thus far most have not. She for now is just going to enjoy her Camry, maybe save her Gambler car dreams for later and more money.

This concludes a story of how a Nissan Maxima tried to kill me last night. A part of me wonder how these cars are like with a manual. Shame they’re FWD.

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