I’m Avoiding the Used Car Market by Reviving a 166K-Mile Saturn Vue

About four months after moving out of a one-bedroom condo with a singular covered parking space and into a quaint Georgian with a two-car garage and a driveway, my household recently became a two-car residence. My girlfriend’s parents dropped off a 2006 Saturn Vue in our driveway and handed over a keychain with Sears and Jewel Osco membership cards and a lent pendant that cites Isaiah 53:5. It was her grandmother’s old ride de ella, but now that she ca n’t drive in her elder years, it was passed down to us.

This isn’t a mint low-mileage treasure, however. It’s a tired and poorly cared-for orphan with 166,242 miles on the clock. Despite its low value, I’m leaning toward taking it to rehab rather than letting it rot. The reality of the used car market is that, honestly, I would rather throw a grand or two and some weekends into this old Saturn than scour Craigslist and probably have to do a bunch of repairs on whatever cheap thing I can find anyway.

When we accepted the Vue, I knew it had some issues. It has fresh oil, a new battery, and a clean air filter, but I was told it needed at least one motor mount, possibly a transmission mount, and two wheel bearings. There’s an undiagnosed mess of oil near the top of the engine, the air conditioning doesn’t work, the rear hatch struts are weak, a headlight is out, and the windshield wipers and front tires need to be replaced (meaning, I should probably replace all four). That’s the obvious stuff—I haven’t actually driven the thing yet.

As soon as the Vue arrived, it proceeded to leave a puddle of brake fluid on the driveway. Soaking it up with paper towels and a quick scrub with Dawn cleaned it up nicely, but this was not an auspicious start to our relationship. Upon further inspection, the rear drum brakes look like a moon surface made of rust. At a minimum, I’ll need to replace some metal lines, shoes, and wheel cylinders. The knuckles are also in bad shape, but I need to scan those and the rest of the suspension further to see if anything needs replacing. So far, that’s the list that I know needs work.

Tony Markovich

Cosmetically, this ’06 Saturn is fine, with the caveat that it needs a liberal application of elbow grease. The nasty interior will require a Mariana-Trench-level deep clean like you see on those fancy YouTube channels, but that will only require the cost of cleaners and brushes. Maybe I’ll buy a wet upholstery vacuum, steam cleaner, and/or a power washer, but I haven’t decided yet. The exterior has the typical dings, scrapes, and wheel scratches, but rust spots are minimal (shoutout plastic Saturns!).

I’ve run a rough estimate of the initial expenses, with everything kept affordable but safe:

  • Tires: $355 for two, $622 for four (Hankook Kinergy ST H735 with installation)
  • engine mount: $40
  • At least one transmission mount: $25
  • Minimum two wheel hubs: $80 (potentially $160)
  • Rear wheel cylinders: $12
  • rear drum shoes: $23
  • Rear metal brake lines (not hoses): $20
  • front brake pads: $25
  • spark plugs: $35
  • headlights: $5
  • Front and rear windshield wipers: $35 front + $15 rear
  • brake fluid: $10
  • Freon: $30
  • Interior and upholstery cleaner: $20
  • drill brushes: $20
  • Stiff inner brush: $10

Total: $760 ($1,027 with two more tires)

  • Bissell Little Green Portable Upholstery and Carpet Cleaner: $124
  • Bissell SteamShot Surface Cleaner: $30-35
  • Pressure washer: $100-200
Tony Markovich

Even if the current cost ends up doubling that, it’s not a terrible amount of money for a viable getaround car in 2022. And the Vue might not be a future classic, but it’s not a bad second car and pet hauler. There were multiple variations of the first-generation Vue with combinations of an inline-four or a V6, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, a manual or automatic transmission, and ABS or no ABS. There’s also a Red Line performance version or a Green Line hybrid version. This Vue is at the base level.

It’s a front-drive model with a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. When in accessory mode, the ABS light does not come on, so I do not believe that it was optioned on this car. According to Kelley Blue Book, it’s worth $1,080-$2,489 in fair condition for a private party or $1,364-$3,003 in good condition. According to the Carfax valuation tool, it’s worth $1,940 in fair condition for a private party or $2,760 in good condition. The Carvana offer is only $300, and the CarMax offer is the same. I still don’t have a gauge on the engine condition, but I bet I could get the car into the good category after all this work.

In theory, I might be able to find a slightly better car for an affordable price, especially if we sold the Vue for $2,000 to $3,000 after cleaning it up, but I wouldn’t count on it in this high-priced used market. Upon casual Craigslist combing, I see an all-wheel-drive 2004 Red Line with $172,244 miles on it for $5,999, an all-wheel-drive 2007 V6 with leather with 162,729 for $4,000, a 2008 second-generation four-cylinder base with 147,016 miles for $3,999, a dirty front-drive 2004 V6 with 170,000 miles for $2,000, or a cool blue 2006 four-cylinder with 101,000 miles for $3,300. I would not restrict myself to Vues in a car search, but it’s not a highly sought after car, so I feel it decently represents a price floor of sorts.

This left me with a decision. When I first saw the condition of the rusty suspension, rusty brakes, and the grimy interior on our Vue, I was put off and wondered if this thing was even worth the effort. But as I evaluated the situation and figured out where I could revamp rather than replace to save on costs, I think I’m going to do it. With a new-to-me old house that requires its own work, time and effort are more valuable than ever, and a used-car search drains a lot of energy.

How much energy the Vue will actually require remains to be determined. First up will be changing the spark plugs and refreshing the brakes with new pads and shoes, new rear wheel cylinders, new metal brake lines, and a fluid flush.

Any old cheap car is going to need some love. If you can inherit something or get some wheels for almost-free, there’s a good chance it’ll be worth the sweat and expense to get it running right again. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for here.

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