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Car Talk: It might be time for a new luxury ride

Ray Magliozzi, syndicated columnist

Dear Car Talk: I own a 1998 Cadillac Eldorado with a V8, 32-valve Northstar engine. It’s in pristine condition and has only 48,000 miles. While driving back home to Asheville, N.C., from Atlanta my Eldorado’s coolant light came on. I stopped to add coolant and went on my way. The car never did overheat or get hot.

When back home, I took the car to my mechanic, and by virtue of a chemical test, he said the car needed a head gasket overhaul and new head bolts. He said it was very complicated.

I also took the car to the local Cadillac dealership, who are very nice. They said that a gasket overhaul might solve the problem, but they have seen additional issues with the engine timing. They recommend installing a brand new engine instead.

I’m sure all of this work will cost more than the car is worth. Your thoughts on this would be appreciated. — Walter

Are you sitting down, Walter? That’s a silly question. I’m sure both your mechanic and your dealer already sat you down to deliver their news, and you’ve probably been sitting with your head in your hands ever since.

This is not good, Walter. The problem is it’s hard to know exactly what’s wrong. Your mechanic did a chemical test, which looks for the presence of exhaust gasses in your coolant. If your engine is working correctly, those two substances never mix. If they’re found together, they’re either mixing through a broken head gasket, or worse — through a crack in the head or a crack in the engine block.

So you could pay your mechanic $4,000 to replace your head gaskets and then find out what you really needed was a whole new engine. And then you’re out another $10,000.

Alternatively, Walter, if you drop 10 grand on a remanufactured engine, you’ll still have a 22-year-old transmission, a 22-year-old suspension system and 22-year-old everything else. That’s a pretty risky bet. So taking that $10,000 and putting it toward a newer, two- or three-year-old car probably makes more sense at this point.

You obviously like a luxurious ride. So you might look at something like a recent vintage Chrysler 300, a Cadillac CT6 or even something like a Toyota Avalon or Lexus ES350. The advantages of a newer car, especially if you buy a certified pre-owned car from a dealer, is that you’ll get a solid warranty with it.

You also can choose a car with up-to-date safety features, like automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning and lane keeping assist. All great stuff that even the best running 1998 Eldorado will never have. And given the amount of driving you do (48,000 miles in 22 years), a two- or three-year-old car will likely set you up for the next 20 years.

If you’re absolutely in love with this old Eldorado and are vehemently opposed to replacing it, you can roll the dice on the head gasket job or bite the bullet and put in a new engine. And then hope nothing else fails for a while. But if you can afford to upgrade, I think the stars just aligned to give you the perfect excuse to go car shopping. Good luck, Walter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Got a question about cars? Email to Car Talk by visiting the Car Talk website at www.cartalk.com.

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