19 February, 2011

Problem solved, right? Not so much.

I've finally been gifted a rather uneventful weekend, and I'm trying to take the most advantage of it that I can. And what a weekend it's already been. I may have to break this into two readable posts, as there's a multitude of automobile news as well as racing news to address. Honestly, I'm just glad to post anything at this point given my lack of posting recently. I assure you, though, there have been good reasons.

I'll start with my car, the Pontiac Grand Prix. It's been an interesting car over the years, bought shortly after my sophomore year of high school. Within a few months we had to replace the transmission for a cool $2,500. Since then we've had to replace some tires, hubcaps (they're cheap plastic, so that's not a big deal), the brakes and pads, I had to repaint it because the paint had cancer and was falling off, the headlights (both bulbs and fixtures), the fog lamps (but they're still out), and I still have water that collects inside my headlamps from time to time. That's not quite as bad as the water that sometimes collects in the passenger side footwell, but that's another story.

More recently, though, I've been going through quite a bit of antifreeze. The light came on pretty frequently for low coolant, but I would keep adding more. Eventually pools of the green stuff began collecting under my car when I'd leave it outside for a while, and as the weather got colder I'd notice that I didn't have heat. I took the car to Kevin at the local garage. He's a great guy who always gives us an honest opinion. He went to kindergarten with my mom, and he's known my dad for decades. He looked for the coolant leak and found it in a little hose coming off the engine. He replaced it, but warned me that my intake manifold was bad and that some coolant has been leaking into my engine. I should keep track of any green streaks in my oil in the future.

So I kept driving it, but I kept losing antifreeze. We took the car back to Kevin who replaced the intake manifold for around $550. The cheap gaskets that Pontiac has been notorious for using in those cars were giving up the ghosts as well. When I drove the car back to college, I had a powerful heating system finally flex its muscle and an absence of a "Low Coolant" light. I thought we were in good shape.

In two days, I went outside to drive my car to the hospital where I volunteer. Lo and behold, the light was on again. I drove it a couple of miles and it went off, but I was still cautious. A couple of days later there was a pool under my car again, but thankfully that's the last time it did that. I turned the car on to open the thermostat, but when I went to add the antifreeze, I was somehow getting sprayed every once in a while. Upon closer inspection, the serpentine belt had been doused with coolant from somewhere, and as it reached the highest point in its path around the engine's side, it was throwing droplets at me, almost as a defense mechanism. This was not a good sign.

I kept adding some more antifreeze, but a few days ago I was mystified when I heard a fast-paced clicking coming from the engine when I revved around 2,000 RPM. When I stuck my head under the hood and had the engine revved, the click sounded like a squeak up close, and it was coming from the right side of the engine (around the belt). At first I thought it may have been a lose belt, but it sounded more like something that the belt was turning instead.

When I drove the car the next day, the squeak was gone as I drove to the hospital. On the way back, though, it returned a bit louder and at 1,500 RPM this time. This was not a good sign either. The light wasn't on, and the clicking increased in speed the more I revved. It was not gear-dependent or speed-dependent, but it was certainly rev-dependent.

Complicating issues was that we were having a warm spell in the weather (something I certainly wasn't complaining about), so I never had to turn on the heat to see if it worked. By the time it cooled down, though, the squeak was active at 1,000 RPM and even appeared occasionally at idle. And I didn't have heat.

So this weekend I've come back to my hometown and I took my car back to Kevin. It took him all of two hours to call me back and let me know that my suspicions had been absolutely correct: It was the water pump. The good news is that it's a pretty quick fix. The bad news is, it cost another $120. He completed it yesterday and got it back to me this morning. Problem solved, right?

Not so much.

When I got in the car this morning, I turned it on to see the "Low Coolant" light (which doesn't bother me. It was just taken apart; there's probably air in the lines) and the "ABS" and "Trac Off" lights on. The combination of the latter two, according to the manual, says I need to "service the brakes," but that light came on last year shortly before my dad and I replaced the brakes and pads, so I knew that couldn't be it. Kevin came out and hooked his computer up to it, but it didn't show an error. So he went back inside and got his giant computer, hooked it up and we drove down the block. Cycling through his options he learned that my right front wheel speed sensor was inactive. In other words, at 10 mph, three wheel sensors are telling the car's computer that the wheels are turning at 10 mph. My right front read 0 mph. It's not a detrimental thing, but it automatically turns off my ABS and traction control.

"The good thing is, winter's over, so you shouldn't be needing traction control again," Kevin smiled. Never mind the fact that ABS may be used at any moment of any day in any weather, but oh well. He told me that sometime we could get it replaced, but there was good and bad news here, too. The good news for him is that replacing it involves an easy replacement of the whole hub of the wheel, bearing and sensors. The bad news? It'll cost $200.

So this presents a conundrum to me. At best, my car is worth $2,000, yet at the time when it was worth $3,000, we put $2,500 in for the transmission. In the last month alone we've put in $700, and at this point my mom is saying that we just need to fix the car, sell it and buy a new one. For those who know me, this is not an easy thing to do, as I've grown quite attached to my car (especially after painting it like I did). But honestly, I'm afraid that I'm starting to agree with my mom. The car's been great for me, and I love it to death when it works, but eventually I have to ask when pumping more money into it will stop making more sense than buying a more reliable car and being done with it.

Given my family's recent propensity for all-wheel-drive cars (for my dad driving 35 miles to work at 4:00am every day in the winter), my mom is leaning toward getting an AWD replacement for the Grand Prix. And after having spectacular headlights in both the Jaguar and (especially) the Audi, she wants to make sure I have good headlights, too.

I'm in favor of being able to see and being safe, but it's a bit sad that my car can't do that for me. In terms of which car will? That's another question. The leading candidate in my mom's eye (mainly for its coolness value and relatively cheap price for an old one) is the Audi TT. I must confess that I love Audi's build quality, and it's definitely a sporty looking car. Don't let looks define it, though. It's a monstrously heavy vehicle, partially because of its AWD. It also has a relatively lightweight sub-250hp engine, so it's not the fastest or most nimble (many complain of its understeer). The boys of Top Gear lambasted it for how its owners use the car as a status symbol and must get gussied up before driving it, similar to how a young boy nervously prepares for his first date. I take their assessment with a grain of salt, though, as Jeremy Clarkson has always had a humorous thing against Audis, their owners, and Germans.

I do like the car, even though its backseat is almost nonexistent. The good news is, the seats fold down, and because of its hatchback-like tail, you can probably fit more people comfortably in the trunk than into the backseat. But anyway, this post is long enough. That's where I am right now. My dad seems quite opposed to buying a new car (partially citing the fact that "We've already replaced just about every Goddamn thing on that car!" and the fact that I don't know for sure where I'll be next year in terms of school), but my mom and I might try to work on him. We'll see. For now I'm just hoping that my car keeps chugging along and that we don't have to pour any more money into it. As I've found over time with cars, though, it's anyone's guess as to whether or not that will happen.

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