"You're brave," one reader wrote when I announced my plan to drive coast to coast in our 16-year-old Lexus ES 300, a.k.a. the Debt-Free Car. Sure, there are a lot of lonely stretches of road where I wouldn't want to get stranded. But was it inevitable that I'd have a breakdown in a car with nearly 140,000 miles on the odometer? I was going to find out.
All the precautions in the world can't completely eliminate engine failure, even in a new car. But with sensible and economical measures, we could greatly reduce our chances of mechanical snafus. And who knows? Maybe our older car would offer some advantages over its modern, soulless brethren.
Ready for Nearly Anything
Before I set out, I made sure to address any outstanding maintenance issues. When we first bought the car, we did some preventive maintenance, buying fresh rubber and replacing the battery. Just before the trip, we did a brake job that included a brake rotor replacement. However, there remained two potential problems: a slow oil leak and some dripping coolant. I brought along a quart of oil and a jug of pre-mixed coolant and promised to check the fluids every other fill-up.
Of course, there's always the chance of a complete breakdown. So if anything bad happened, I planned to phone the Automobile Club of Southern California. Before heading out, I made sure that my membership was up to date and that my AAA card was in my wallet. Also I looked over a few other suggestions for families preparing for a road trip in a car of any vintage.
Picking the Route
It was tempting to stick close to the interstates, because if I had a problem, help would always be close by. But most of America is off the beaten path, not to mention the interstate, and seeing such places is the reason to drive across the country in the first place. So early on a Sunday morning I set off from Los Angeles, drove up through Las Vegas and then left the security of well-travelled roads for the two-lane Nevada State Highway 93. It was a remote area, but I took some comfort from my inexpensive GPS navigation device mounted on the windshield, which seemed to work just as well as one of the $2,000 factory-installed units that come in pricey option packages on many new cars.
After an hour's drive I spotted an intersection with a jumble of parked cars and a small crowd milling around. I stopped and parked, thinking there had been an accident. Moments later, I discovered the source of the interest: This was the beginning of the Extraterrestrial Highway, technically known as State Route 375, which leads to the highly secretive Area 51.
Later the first day, my heart sank when I looked down and saw the yellow glow of a "Check Engine" light. There were no garages within 50 miles, so I kept driving. But the following morning, the light went off. Over the next few days the light repeatedly came on and off.
I knew from writing an article on "check engine" lights that some problems are borderline and the light can simply reset itself after several driving cycles. Soon, I forgot all about the engine light. I had a much more pressing issue to deal with.
As I approached my friend's house in Detroit, the needle on the ES 300's temperature gauge began climbing. My GPS showed I only had 3.4 miles left to my friend's driveway, so I decided to go for it. The needle pegged on high just as I rolled up. I thought back to all the barren stretches of road where the Lexus could have overheated. Instead, I was at my friend's house. Talk about great timing.
Early the next morning, I refilled the radiator and followed my friend to Fox Automotive of Rochester Hills . The service advisor said the shop had a full schedule and if the repair required ordering parts, they wouldn't arrive until Monday. I pleaded my case and sweetened the deal by requesting an oil change and tire rotation, which I saw were needed when I checked the ES 300's odometer.
Four hours later, the shop had identified and fixed the overheating problem and I was ready to roll again. It turned out that coolant had leaked from loose hoses at the rear of the engine compartment. Also, the radiator cap didn't hold pressure, so the shop replaced it. Total bill: $178.
Back behind the wheel, I held my breath, half suspecting that the leak would somehow reappear. But the temperature gauge was steady for the rest of the trip, even through several days of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When I reached my father's house in Barre, Massachusetts, the check engine light had reappeared. I borrowed my father's code reader and plugged it into the car's computer. The screen read: P0401. A quick Google search on my iPhone identified the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) valve as the culprit. I found a wonderful little how-to about fixing the EGR valve on the Internet, which helped me locate it on the top of the ES 300's engine. I discovered one of three hoses leading into the valve was disconnected, so I pressed it back in place and cleared the code. The light never came on again.
Safe Behind the Wheel
To prove that I'd made it from coast to coast, I shot a picture of the Lexus by the Atlantic Ocean. Then I headed west again, this time on a more southerly route that would lead me through Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City. As the days passed, I found that a comfortable range for me, as a solo driver, was 500 miles. But with a little pushing I could do 650 miles in a day. And my longest day (out of necessity) was from Columbia, Missouri, to Denver, a distance of 728 miles. Even so, stopping for 15 minutes every two hours was essential to keeping me alert behind the wheel.
My only close call on the entire trip came in Worcester, Massachusetts. I was in the middle of the city, stopped at a red light. A horrible screech of tires signaled what was about to happen: An inattentive driver rear-ended the car beside me. It was purely the luck of the draw that I was in the right lane and could drive away unscathed.
In the final day of the cross-country drive, I found myself wondering whether the journey would have been a lot more comfortable in a brand-new car. The answer is obviously yes. But that's not to say this 16-year-old car was uncomfortable or even just lacking some crucial bit of hardware.
I loved the superior visibility of an older car, which is free of the thick A-pillar and high beltline of more recently minted models. The Lexus cruised quietly and efficiently at highway speeds, and strong crosswinds didn't knock it off course. It even climbed well in the high oxygen-starved passes of the Rockies, with smooth downshifts providing adequate power. The only annoyances were the old seats, the lack of storage space around the driver and having to feed my CDs into a cartridge in the trunk.
One major difference between this old car and any modern counterpart was the suspension. The struts were tired and the suspension setup is outdated. Most of the time, I didn't notice these shortcomings. But if I got it on rough pavement, or put it into a sharp corner, the difference became apparent.
Sixteen days after I left, I pulled up in front of my house in the Los Angeles area. All told, the Debt-Free Car had logged 6,834 miles, bringing it up to a hefty total of 145,786 miles on the odometer. The 18-gallon gas tank allowed a cruising range of as much as 433 miles between gas stations, and the fuel efficiency over this distance was 27.4 mpg on 87 octane. The Lexus used about 250 gallons of gas, so we spent $940 on fuel at an average of $3.75 per gallon.
This lengthy road trip showed me how much utility and comfort there is in a high-mileage car, even one for which we paid only $3,480. Unlike its newer counterparts, however, this car required a little more preparation for its journey, along with some contingency planning and a careful eye to evolving maintenance issues. Still, if money is tight, the compromises are well worth it. In my case, the whole experience has left me wondering how much farther this car can go and how much money people can save by driving older cars.
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 1: Finding and Buying an Affordable Used Car
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 3: Curbstoners and Internet Scams
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4: Dealing With Repairs
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5: Driving Cross Country in a 1996 Lexus ES 300
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 7: Sailing Past 150,000 Miles
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 8: Wrap-Up
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.