Holding on to that old car: + or -?

If you're like a lot of people, you've been running your present car as long as you can to avoid the cost of a new or used replacement. But how long can it go on?

Sooner or later it could wind up costing you more than it's worth.

So if you're not sure if the old car is worth keeping, weigh the following considerations. Rate each question with a plus or minus sign, then tally the results.

If you come up with more minuses than pluses, now might be a good time to cash in your car for a newer model.

* Does your car need major replacement parts, such as brakes, shocks, ball joints, or exhaust system?

These are those important out-of-sight, out-of-mind items that can go from bad to awful in a hurry, leaving you immobile and with a huge repair bill to pay.

First, ask yourself how long it's been since these items were replaced. If you're talking 20,000 or more miles for any of them, beware. Your wisest move is to take your car to a garage that offers a free safety inspection. Have the mechanic check the condition of these parts and give you a status report.

Remember, you're interested in finding out not only what's bad, but how long you can go before these items need to be replaced. That will tell you if you can hang on to your car for another year or longer without major expense.

* Does your car need major engine or transmission work?

We're not talking about normal maintenance requirements, such as a tuneup, but far bigger problems that may require a new carburetor, engine overhaul, or transmission work. If your car's been sounding off with clangs, bangs, whining, whirring, or other strange noises as you accelerate or go through the gears, then beware.

Have your car checked by a transmission specialist or have the engine checked at a diagnostic center to confirm the nature of the problem.

* Does it need a lot of general maintenance work?

When was the last time it had a tuneup, oil- and air-filter change, lubrication, front-end alignment, and other regular upkeep? Collectively, they can add up to a pretty penny that might be better spent for a newer car.

Don't forget about the tires, either. If the tread depth is less than 1/16th of an inch, you're overdue for a new set.

* Do you drive your car more than 10,000 miles a year?

It doesn't take a genius to know that an older car is less reliable over the long haul than a newer one. So ask yourself if your car can handle the mileage, driving, and weather conditions you can expect to encounter.

Is the coolant system, for example, still capable of sustaining the high heat of long drives? Is the suspension still strong enough to rebound from potholes, rough roads, and heavy loads? Will your car keep running in cold weather, through all of the stops and starts you'll make?

In short, can the car go the distance without habitually stranding you and your family in faraway places?

* Does more than one person drive it?

People have different driving habits. Some are tougher on brakes than others, some accelerate faster and more frequently than the norm, and some will drive a car places where others might fear to tread. All of this is hard on a car and adds to its upkeep.

So if you're sharing the car with a new family driver, your spouse, or whomever, ask yourself if it can handle the strain as well as a newer car.

* Is the car fuel efficient?

It's hard parting with any car that gets good gasoline mileage. And if your car is more than a few years old and uses regular-grade gas, you're saving a nickel a gallon or more, compared with more recent cars that require unleaded fuel.

At the same time, good gas mileage should be weighed with the costs of upkeep in deciding whether it's a good enough reason to hold on to the past.

* Can you get dependable service?

With all that can go wrong with an older car, it's important to have a source that you can rely on for good, economical repair service. If you have such a source or are skilled to handle many of the repairs yourself, that's a plus for keeping the older car in the family.

* Do you like your car?

If you're happy with the way your car looks and performs now, the chances are you'll give it the tender loving care it needs to keep performing well in its waning years. If you dislike it, however, that feeling could lead to a variety of problems that arise and worsen from sheer neglect.

* Are the car's outside finances low?

Generally, it's more economcial to own and operate an old car as opposed to a new one, simply because the fixed costs, such as depreciation, insurance, and the finance charges decline in later years. Usually, this decline more than offsets the increased maintenance costs that come with age.

Now add up the score. The more minuses you have, the more evidence there is to say bye-bye to your bucket of bolts. But the more pluses you have, the more reason there is to keep a good thing going for months, maybe years, to come.

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