Every mechanical failure gives the car’s owner a stark choice — to repair or not to repair. Depending on the age of the car, the cost of the car and the type of repair, the fix is often worth it. In some cases, however, the expense simply doesn’t make financial or practical sense.
Last updated: March 20, 2020
“Major engine damage” are three words that no driver ever wants to hear. If you’re still protected by your powertrain warranty, an engine replacement should be covered. If not, that means that your car is more than five years old and/or has more than 60,000 miles on it. In some cases, powertrain warranties last up to 10 years or 100,000 miles, which makes repairs that cost as much as a down payment or even an entire car hard to justify. According to Bridwell Automotive Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, a total engine replacement costs $3,000-$4,000 in a shop, $7,500 at a dealership. If you have a diesel engine, or a performance or luxury car, expect to add 50% more or even double the cost.
If you’re worried about how to pay for an engine rebuild, here, too, your car is old enough to have outlasted its powertrain warranty. The $4,000 you could pay for a rebuild is certainly cheaper than a full replacement, but it’s also a 20% down payment on a brand new $20,000 car with a brand new engine and a brand new warranty.
Replacing a Head Gasket
A head gasket creates a seal between the engine block and cylinder head, a critical function that keeps combustion gases, oil and coolant from leaving the engine. It’s an expensive repair that starts at nearly $1,200 and can quickly climb toward $1,500. Cost, however, isn’t the only reason why a blown head gasket might be too big to fix. According to RepairPal, it’s work that usually takes place as part of an even bigger, more comprehensive and more expensive repair.
Engine Block Repair
A cracked engine block is usually a repair that isn’t worth making. It’s a difficult, time-consuming job that requires technicians to remove the engine from the car. It’s a repair that will run you at least $3,500, according to CarBrain, and can often cost as much as a new engine.
Cylinder Replacement or Repair
Like cracked engine blocks, broken cylinders and pistons require mechanics to remove the entire engine in order to fix them. That makes for a big, expensive job that requires a lot of time and labor. Also like a cracked engine block, a cylinder replacement is likely to cost you as much as a whole new engine.
Few jobs are bigger, more complex, more time-consuming and more expensive than replacing a transmission. You can expect to spend about $5,000 for this kind of service, according to RepairPal, but that’s not the only reason you should likely opt to save that cash for a new car. Transmissions usually fail only when they’re in six-figure mileage and they tend to be only one part of a series of large, significant repairs.
Even if your transmission can be repaired, a rebuild can easily cost just as much as a replacement — it’s certain to cost thousands in both parts and labor. Here, too, it’s rarely worth the expense because the car is likely to be older with higher mileage and the repair is usually just one part of a larger and more expensive overhaul.
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Like an automotive skeleton, your car’s frame provides structural support and is one of any vehicle’s most important safety features. A bent frame is a car-wide problem that can disrupt many critical systems and make the car unsafe to drive — the frame, for example, provides radiator support. According to CarBrain, a bent frame can cost you as much as $10,000 to fix, and if you have one, it’s likely the result of an accident, which means that it probably isn’t the only repair you’re facing.
Fixing a broken steering rack is DIYable for just about no one, and if you encounter this repair, the cost of it should make you stop to think if it’s even worth making. According to Consumer Reports, it will cost you over $1,100 on the low end, but it’s quite possible that it could creep much closer to $2,000.
Catalytic Converter Replacement
Catalytic converters prevent toxic emissions from passing through the tailpipe. Without one, your car isn’t safe to drive and won’t pass inspection or emissions tests. Think hard before getting this repair, however, as it’s an expensive part to repair. Labor accounts for very little of the nearly $2,500 that this kind of work can run you, but that fact doesn’t make it any cheaper for you.
Depending on the location and extent, it might not be worth it to have a mechanic eliminate rust and replace components that are succumbing to metal-eating oxidation. According to Consumer Reports, surface rust is often indicative of serious trouble within, particularly when it’s on the body panels, suspension-mounting points, trunk, hood and wheel wells.
If your defroster is on the fritz, if you’re noticing moisture buildup and if your coolant is mysteriously disappearing, you likely need a heater core replacement. This can cost more than $1,000, according to Consumer Reports, but the trouble doesn’t stop there. If your heater core has failed, it’s likely that related systems were strained or damaged, which will send you back to the mechanic soon after the core is fixed.
Powertrain Control Module (PCM) Repair
Your power control module (PCM) or engine control module (ECM) is the brains of your car, and although replacing it isn’t terribly complicated, getting to it sure can be. It involves work on both the engine and the transmission, and according to CarBrain, it can cost as much as $2,000 to repair. Not only is it a costly repair, but it’s one that’s usually required only on cars that are too old to justify dumping thousands of dollars into.
Replacing an Axle Shaft
A broken axle shaft is a major expense on its own, but the other problem is that “on its own” rarely applies. According to RepairPal, it costs as much as $1,679 to replace an axle shaft, but this kind of work is usually done in conjunction with a larger and more expensive series of repairs.
Replace Electric Car Battery
Traditional car batteries are fairly cheap and easy to replace, but there’s nothing traditional about the batteries that power fully-electric vehicles. Replacing them costs close to as much as replacing an engine on a gas-powered vehicle — $5,000 or $6,000 — but cost isn’t the only reason to skip this repair. Electric cars generally come with warranties that span eight or 10 years, according to AutoTrader, which means if you have to pay for it yourself, you’ll be pouring thousands into a car that’s a decade old or more.
If your airbags deploy, they must be replaced, and that repair alone can cost about $3,000. In many cases, however, related parts and systems like control modules must also be replaced, which will make the bill even higher. Also, if the airbags have deployed, it’s likely because you were in a fairly significant accident, which means you’re fighting a repair war on more than one front.
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Complete Suspension Overhaul
Replacing individual shocks or struts is a fairly common, fairly affordable repair, although it does cost hundreds of dollars. If the entire suspension has to be overhauled, however, it will cost thousands of dollars and can equal even an engine or transmission replacement. It might, in this case, be time to consider whether it wouldn’t be better to put that money toward a new car with a new suspension.
Camshafts are critical components that regulate how engines take in air. Change your oil regularly, because failing to do so is one of the most common ways to kill a camshaft. If that happens, it’s likely your car is fairly old — too old to justify the $3,000 it can cost to repair or replace one.
Air Conditioner Compressor Replacement
If your air conditioner compressor goes, you can expect to spend more than $1,000 to get it fixed, according to RepairPal. The problem is, the work usually takes place as part of a larger, more significant package of repairs. It’s also a repair you can simply put off if you must — it’s usually safe to drive, albeit uncomfortably, without one.
Turbocharger Assembly Replacement
Turbocharger assemblies, on the cars that have them, are complex systems that are difficult and expensive to repair. According to RepairPal, this kind of work starts at just shy of $4,000 and can often go over $4,000. Another reason to consider abandoning the vehicle if you encounter this problem is that it rarely exists in a vacuum — it’s usually part of a bigger and costlier set of repairs.
Clutches wear out, and when they do, you can expect to spend as much as $1,500 to fix the problem, according to RepairPal. The problem, however, is that they mostly happen only on older cars that might not be worth fixing at such a high cost. Also, they’re often just one part of a larger, more expensive problem with the transmission.
Fuel Injector Replacement
You can spend close to $1,400 to replace a fuel injector, according to RepairPal — a hefty sum on its own. This kind of work, however, is often just one component of sprawling, system-wide repairs that might involve work on things like the exhaust manifold, intake manifold, intake valve and ignition coil.
You can replace a radiator for inside $1,000 in most cases, according to RepairPal, but if a radiator has to be replaced, chances are good it’s a repair that will require other repairs. If the radiator is no good, you’ll likely have to also put money into components like thermostats, hoses and pumps. Also, if your radiator fails, it’s likely that your car is fairly old.
Diesel Particulate Filter
If you drive a vehicle with a diesel engine, you have several pricey parts that standard car owners don’t have to worry about. Among the most expensive of which is a diesel particulate filter, which reduces soot buildup and pollution. If yours goes, chances are good your car already has a lot of miles on it, making the $2,000-$4,000 repair one that’s not worth making.
A Complete Brake Job
Replacing brake pads, rotors or calipers a la carte is a manageable repair, coming in at several hundred dollars. When your entire brake system needs to be replaced however, it’s time to wonder whether this repair — which easily costs more than $1,000 — is worth making. Not only do you have to consider the cost of the repair, but the fact that often only older cars need complete brake jobs, which means that the next mechanical failure is likely not far away.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.