Looking to replace ’93 Wrangler for reliability

Dear Car Talk:

I am a proud owner of a 1993 Jeep Wrangler that I grew up with. It has 250,000 miles on it, and I love it to death. It fits in the tiny parking postage stamps in the city near me, it has enough clearance and four-wheel drive for the snowy winters and steep roads here, and best of all, it is so easy to work on (I do all my own mechanics). However, it’s not really a friendly size for the family that I would like to start in a few years. And when I’m driving the interstate, I’m either holding up the truckers in the right lane or barreling along at 3000 RPM while I panic internally that my engine will kick the bucket from the effort.

All of this is to say: I’m wracked with indecision. Drop a crate motor in or buy a new-ish car? Ray, what are your thoughts? What are the vehicles that fit the bill most closely? I am not super worried about reliability since I enjoy working on my vehicle (provided it’s not catastrophic failure).

What vehicles are the easiest to work on nowadays? It seems like everything under the sun is jammed into the engine bay, and you’re practically removing the motor to access the oil filter. Thanks. — Casidy

RAY: Oh, Casidy. You probably thought this was a car question, didn’t you? I actually think it’s more than that. I think it’s about adulthood.

The ’93 Wrangler represents your youth. You grew up with it. You had lots of adventures with it. It didn’t matter if it broke down. So what? Another adventure! You had no responsibilities.

And now you are thinking about starting a family, and you fear that it’s time to — yikes! — get practical. And I think you’re right. Unfortunately, nothing is going to be as easy to work on as a Jeep from 1993 (which was pretty similar to a Jeep from ’83, a Jeep from ’73 or a Jeep from ’63).

But if you love the barbaric nature, unreliability and occasional roof leaks of your old Jeep, you can always get one of the newer, four-door Wranglers. But those are big money and not great for toting kids. So at least see how the other half drives before you buy another Wrangler.

There are a ton of rugged-looking crossovers these days that have all of the practical qualities you love about your Jeep — the all-wheel-drive, the ground clearance, the compact size. But what they also have is comfort, safety, good mileage, reliability, a quiet interior, good handling, and room for strollers and child seats. Oh, and they’re all able to stay in their lane for more than a few seconds.

I’ll list a few. You’ll have to go on some test drives and see what appeals to you: Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Ford Bronco Sport, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson, Honda CR-V, VW Tiguan, Jeep Cherokee, Mazda CX-5.

Given the rugged self-image you’ve gotten used to driving your Jeep, I’d start with the RAV4 and Bronco Sport and go from there. And if you want either of those to ride just like your Wrangler, put an extra 10 pounds of air in the tires.

And here’s my final suggestion: Don’t sell your ’93 Wrangler. It’s not worth a lot anyway. Instead, store it. It’ll make this transition a little easier. Then, once your kids are screaming and driving you crazy, hand them over to your spouse for a few hours and go out and get your hands dirty working on the Wrangler.

It’ll be an escape from the chaos of your future life. It’ll remind you of the freedom and adventures you’ve had. You can revel in that while turning your wrenches. And it’ll become more important to your self-image once you graduate to that minivan, Casidy.

Saturn Ion issues trigger ‘limp home mode’

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2005 Saturn Ion with 127,000 miles on it. It’s in very good condition for its age. However, about a year ago, I was driving it at about 25 miles per hour when the power steering indicator warning light (“PWR STR”) and the chime warning sound came on and the power steering stopped working.

At exactly the same time the transmission dropped down to and remained in low gear, and the speedometer stopped working. Also, at the same time, the check engine light came on, and when I pressed the brake pedal, there was a clicking sound.

After a short time, everything simultaneously went back to normal. The car was fine for about a year. Then it happened again. Now it’s been been happening intermittently over the past three weeks. The identical problems all come at the same time and later go at the same time. I took it to my mechanic who checked it for loose wires and loose connectors. He said he even disconnected and reconnected all the connectors at the car’s computer but could find nothing.

At this time, the car has been fine for about a week. Any thoughts? — Dennis

RAY: Yeah. My first thought is to challenge your opening statement that this car is in very good condition for its age, Dennis.

I thought that perhaps some failing sensor put your car into “limp home mode.” That’s the same mode you go into after the neighbor kid leaves his bicycle out on the sidewalk, and you bang your shin on it. Limp home mode is designed to protect your car’s catalytic converter.

If the computer gets a reading for one of the engine’s sensors that suggests that harm may be done to your very expensive catalytic converter, it’ll engage limp home mode, which reduces the engine’s power dramatically, making it seem like you’re in low gear. And that’s usually accompanied by a low power light.

But you’ve got so many other warning lights on that I think your mechanic was on the right track to look for a more systemic electrical issue.

Normally, what we’d do in a case like this is something called a shake test. Basically, you grab onto every wire and connector you can find in the car and shake it, hoping that you can reproduce the problem and narrow down its source. And if you’re really lucky, while you’re yanking on all the wires, the car catches fire and that solves the problem.

There are so many things it could be: a corroded ground wire, a bad ignition switch, dirty connectors in a wire harness, a bad electronic control module (computer). Even a failing fuel pump could cause some of these symptoms.

I know you can’t go to your local Saturn dealer anymore (RIP), but you might consider talking to someone at a friendly Chevy dealer, which serviced these cars after Saturn bailed.

Maybe they’ll recognize the collection of symptoms and save you a few hundred hours of diagnostic detective work. If not, you can give your mechanic another crack at it and see if he finds a stored fault code in the computer this time or otherwise gets lucky.

And if that doesn’t work, rest assured, Dennis, you’ve gotten your money out of this car. And if you decide it’s time to move on — like Saturn did 10 years ago — nobody is going to think less of you. Good luck.

Got a question about cars? Write to Car Talk write to Ray in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email by visiting the Car Talk website at www.cartalk.com.

About the Author