1997 Chevy Cavalier Two Mechanics - Two Different Stories

Tiny
LML
  • MEMBER
  • 1997 CHEVROLET CAVALIER
  • 4 CYL
  • 2WD
  • MANUAL
  • 125,000 MILES
I will do my best to be brief. I bought a 1997 Chevy Cavalier for my daughter. By the third day it had broke down. Luckily I was the one driving it. I am 55 years old and have had a few cars, needless to say. I could tell it was probably related to the battery, or maybe the alternator. I took it to a mechanic I have used for years, and felt I knew personally as well. (Mechanic #1) First off I told him I was afraid I may have bought myself a lemon and needed him to look it over and let me know. If it was indeed not in good shape, I would need to unload it as quickly as possible and count my loss if any.

He assured me the first thing he would do would be check the compression in the engine. If the engine was shot, there would be no reason to look at the rest of the car for any needed maintenance, etc. Again, I made sure he understood I was not interested in putting any more money into this car if it wasn't worth it.

The next day we talked again and he told me the compression test was good. He did indicate that engine had been worked on in the past, but he felt from the test that it was still a good engine. Because of recommendation, I decided to look at any other issued with the car. I knew it needed tires, and that the tires on it were worn on the inside and he explained that alignment was needed, and that the rear axle was slightly bent, maybe from a slide on ice into a curb type thing. He replaced the axle with a used one.

So, $1600 worth of repairs were done, including a complete set of 4 new tires. I spent this money on his recommendation that the engine was in good shape and the car worth the repairs.

Once the car was repaired I drove it to my daughter who lives about 75 miles away. There is a section of curvy road on this route, and I was pleased with the way the car handled and noticed no problems.

Two weeks later, I get a call from my ex-husband, who lives in the same town as my daughter, and he is calling to give me bad news about the car. Apparently the car broke down again, and he had it taken to his mechanic. (Mechanic #2). His mechanic told him the engine was shot, AND that it was apparent it had over heated before and been worked on. I proceeded to go through all I was told from my mechanic (Mechanic #1), and that he had done a compression test on the engine and had assured me it was in good shape. The ex said something about them being able to tweak the compression on a bad engine to hide the fact that it was bad.

My question is first, Is this true? Can a mechanic tweak an engine to mask that it is actually bad?

Question number two is, do I have any recourse with Mechanic #1? I would not have spent that $1600 if he had detected the engine was indeed in bad shape. I feel betrayed.
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Friday, August 27th, 2010 AT 7:05 PM

5 Replies

Tiny
LML
  • MEMBER
I was afraid this is what I would hear. But I do understand and appreciate your response. Do you have any idea what I can expect to pay to get a used motor, including labor?
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Friday, August 27th, 2010 AT 9:38 PM
Tiny
CARADIODOC
  • EXPERT
Hi LML. Welcome to the forum. I think you're expecting too much in the way of "fortune telling" from the mechanics. It's almost impossible to tell with certainty that an engine has been overheated even after disassembling it. That's why good shops keep records of past work performed. All new car dealerships do this for about five to seven years. Even if it was overheated, that happens to almost all small cars at some point, either from a leaking head gasket or the head gasket can be part of the RESULT of overheating. It doesn't necessarily mean the engine is junk. It just means it has to be repaired.

Compression testing is only one indicator of an engine's health. High-mileage engines often have relatively low compression and still run fine. 125,000 miles is not high mileage on today's engines.

Just because a car breaks down doesn't mean it's a lemon. You have a car that commonly needs $7-800.00 in repairs every six months. I saw students buy GM front-wheel-drive cars all the time and have huge repair bills on a regular basis. Unfortunately that is also true of most cars today. What I would be much more concerned about is the crash worthiness of the car. It is extremely common for occupants to be killed in relatively minor crashes involving GM cars. That's my opinion after learning about a number of crashes including one witnessed by a county deputy following a Cavalier while on routine patrol. Both cars were going 45 mph in a 55 mph zone. One young girl slid on the ice into the path of a Grand Am. Each car had two occupants. All four people were killed. That was just down the road from my house on a very safe county highway.

If you want a really tough car that can withstand a real crash, and is fairly reliable due to its lack of unnecessary computers, look for a Dodge Shadow / Plymouth Sundance.

Keep in mind both mechanics are calling on past experience and training to provide a diagnosis. No two people are ever going to give you the exact same story unless they actually remember working on the car previously. Parts fail all the time. A '97 Cavalier is old enough to be somewhat reliable compared to newer cars, and they are relatively inexpensive to repair as far as routine maintenance is concerned. I would rather have any '97 model than anything newer.

I've never heard of "treaking" the compression. The first mechanic could purposely write down numbers that are different than the actual readings he got, but what would be the point of doing that? Adding a tiny amount of engine oil to each cylinder is a standard part of the testing on cylinders with low compression to help identify the cause of the low compression but that is not cheating.

As far as what's wrong with the engine now after it has apparently been running fine for two weeks, "shot" is not a professional term. Can you find out exactly what happened and what is wrong with the engine? A lot of mechanics hate working on GM four cylinder engines because they need a lot of expensive special tools, repeat failures are common, and they don't want to be "married" to it. That's a term we use when the customer keeps coming back with new problems over and over again. The mechanic gets blamed for not doing the repairs correctly when more often than not, it's a characteristic of the car model. The second mechanic might be trying to convince you to not repair the car because he doesn't want to work on it. While it is always a possibility that the engine really does have something serious wrong with it, it's not uncommon for any engine to need costly repairs. Chalk it up to using lightweight materials for better fuel mileage, and squeezing more power out of tiny engines that have to work really hard.

If possible, please provide details of what repairs the second mechanic is recommending. If he wants to replace the engine with a used one, I would seek a second opinion first. It's not often engines need to be replaced unless they were abused or if the person kept driving after an overheating or knocking problem developed.

Caradiodoc
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Friday, August 27th, 2010 AT 9:44 PM
Tiny
CARADIODOC
  • EXPERT
I deleted my first reply. Kindly reread my story as I added a few paragraphs at the end.

Caradiodoc
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Friday, August 27th, 2010 AT 9:47 PM
Tiny
LML
  • MEMBER
Well, as you can imagine, I am not a happy camper at the moment. I paid $2100 for the car, plus the $1600 in repairs, and still have a broke car. I will chalk it up to experience, and the bumps of life. I'm just not sure who I can trust now. If they don't want to work on the car, they should just say so. I may just sit on it until I can save more $$ and see about getting out from under it some way. I know it won't be worth much as a trade in, especially if I don't get it fix. What a mess.

Thank you for your responses.
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Friday, August 27th, 2010 AT 9:51 PM
Tiny
CARADIODOC
  • EXPERT
Again, if you can find out more details, holler back when you know them.

As for it not being worth anything on trade, I'll share a story from my days as a tv repairman. Often when giving someone the bad news during a service call, the owner tried to decide if he should repair the old tv or trade it for a new one. My story went somewhere along the lines of:

"It will cost $100.00 to repair your old tv, then it will be worth $125.00 on trade towards a new one. If you don't spend that hundred bucks, your broken tv will still be worth $75.00 on trade". In other words, the tv, (and your car), still have some value even when they are broken.

I'm not quite ready to call "trust" into question. These two incidents are two weeks apart. A lot can happen in that time including breakdowns the first mechanic had no way of foreseeing. As I mentioned earlier, all of these newer cars, especially the smaller ones, break down all the time. My sarcastic response is that's how the manufacturers make their money, ... By selling a lot of replacement parts. I have a 1988 model as a daily driver that has not had a serious breakdown in its life of 221,000 miles. I have the same model, but a '95, that I wouldn't trust any further than I'm willing to walk back home! It seems to me, the newer the car, the less reliable they are, but they sure have a lot of fancy complicated toys.

Caradiodoc
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Friday, August 27th, 2010 AT 10:14 PM

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