The Winter Beater Blows Up: Go To Plan D100

Well it finally happened. The $1200 ’98 Dodge Stratus winter beater I scored ten months ago finally took a dump. And this, just weeks after I’d had the driver side door glass replaced. Some bum smashed it to grab a few bucks worth of coins from the console. With only liability insurance on the virtually worthless rig, the $240 out of pocket glass replacement fee seemed a small price to pay to keep her on the road for another winter. But it was not to be.

With Steppenwolf’s It’s Never Too Late cranking from the Stratus’s excellent Alpine CD player (that was in the car when I bought it), I stopped at a red traffic light. During those few moments, the 2.5 liter Mitsubishi-sourced V6 shuddered a few times then shut down. Of course, this happened just as the light turned green. And yes, it was after 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, December 6 to be exact.

I hit the key and the engine turned over waaay too easy. Yep, the timing belt snapped and without the burden of rotating the top half of the engine, the starter motor was suddenly twice as strong. Before the harsh reality of the situation set in, I turned the key a few more times in a vain attempt to get it running so I could get under way or at least limp it off to the side of the road. No dice. I got out and pushed it into an alley. The wind was blowing cold.

What I hadn’t heard over the sound of the whir of the electric starter motor was the metallic pitter-patter of intake and exhaust valves hitting pistons. Yep, the Mitsubishi 2.5 V6 is a so-called interference engine. In case you don’t know, the term refers to an engine that is configured such that the valves and pistons collide in the event of a timing belt (or chain) failure. Naturally, when everything is correctly phased, these engines run just as well as any other. But when the belt breaks (or slips), its hammer time.

Not every engine is an interference disaster waiting to happen. But some are. That’s why the owner’s manual of many cars suggests timing belt replacement at 60,000 miles (on average) as a handy bit of preventative maintenance. It’s best to nip this kind of expensive trouble in the bud…before it happens.

With 173,100 miles showing on the Stratus’s odometer when I took the reins in February 2009, the health of the timing belt was unknown. And frankly, when you buy a car for $1,200 you take a gamble. Sure, the seller mumbled something about replacing the timing belt, but the dusty engine looked like it hadn’t had a finger set on it for years. But it was running strong.

Until last week. So what do you do with what is essentially a throw away car when a major mechanical meltdown occurs? You…throw it away. I see it like this. For my $1,200 outlay the Stratus got me through the winter of 2009 and took the burden of salted roads and ice storms so my fleet of California-sourced hot rods wouldn’t have to. Not that I’d even considered driving any of the “good cars” after the first snow fall. Throw in the $240 glass replacement and the car cost me $1,440. In it I covered exactly 7,029 miles from purchase to pop. I have no complaints other than the inconvenience of getting stranded. But that’s what cell phones are for.

Sure, I could have blown a grand or more on remanufactured cylinder heads to right the wrong of bent valves. But have you ever looked at a Stratus engine bay? When powered by the inline four, there is a fair amount of room for service. But the optional Mitsubishi V6 is another matter. The potent but complex little mill is transverse mounted and wrapped with so much plumbing I told myself “No way.” I guess I could have figured it all out but I have better things to do with my time. Don’t we all?