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One of the lone times I’ve ever lost money on a flip car, at least until my ill-fated Civic flip, was on a 2001 Honda CR-V. It ate a transmission, I held on to it for far too long, and the rear differential probably exploded. I got tired of it, realized it was way out of my unskilled 22-year-old self, and sold it for less than what I had in it. After that failure, I had resigned to never flipping any sort of four-wheel-drive vehicle ever again. It was too much hassle and there is too much potential for something to go wrong. That presented a tough situation, however. No one likes car-shaped vehicles anymore, even on the used market, and SUVs of any size are hot commodities. I noticed that my other car-flipping friends could dump their SUVs in fractions of the time it took me to sell a sedan, coupe, or hatchback. Thus, I decided it was best that I focused on front-wheel-drive SUVs and avoided ones with more complicated drivetrains.

The Car

I saw a good deal for a low-mileage 1999 Toyota RAV4 for $1,000, but it needed an engine. The numbers looked right, so I drove two hours to go check it out and exchange money. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bust. The RAV4 hadn’t been moved in years, and it was sitting in wet grass the entire time. The front subframe, brake hardware, and suspension were lovely shades of oxidation brown. Pass. A week later, another car popped up, one I wasn’t familiar with. 

A Mazda Tribute in a snowy parking lot.
Kevin Williams

It was a front-wheel-drive 2001 Mazda Tribute with a V6 and an automatic transmission. The owner had moved to Ohio from California only a few weeks prior to starting a new job at Ohio State, so it was a California car in good shape. He only wanted $1,250 and claimed that the car, “had no power and had a horrible whining noise.”

I didn’t know a damn thing about these early crossovers. Until then, I had only bought and sold Japanese cars, including an Accord Coupe, a Civic Coupe, and an old Altima. Sure, the Tribute was branded as a Mazda, but it was a restyled Ford Escape, a car that was essentially a mystery to me. 

I showed up to look at the CUV, still not fully committed to wanting to buy it. Because the car had been in California its entire life, the exterior was clean without a spot of corrosion. The suspension members looked great and all the bolts and bushings were pristine. Ford and Mazda products of this era are notorious for horrible corrosion protection (which is why I don’t like them all that much), but this car had no evidence of that.

In discussing the car’s condition and issues, the owner said, “Oh, the car barely starts, and when it does start, it’s got no power and a horrible squealing, I can’t figure it out!”

I took the key from the owner and turned the ignition. Crank, crank, crank, no start. I tried the ignition once more, and the Tribute stuttered to life for about five seconds, then shut down. I attempted a third try, but this time when I turned the key, I gave it a little throttle. Finally, the Tribute stumbled to a too-fast idle, accompanied by a horrible high-pitched squeal emanating from the passenger side of the engine bay.

“What the hell is that?” I thought to myself. “It sounds like a pulley is about to fall off, gotta be.” The noise stayed proportional to engine speed, and a stab on the throttle only made the squealing louder. Popping the hood revealed nothing, at least at first. The car looked normal, and the accessory belts and pulleys looked fine. Then I spied it, a metal component near the passenger-side of the firewall. It’s the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) valve, with a huge comic-book-esque hole blown out of the front of it. Exhaust gasses were rushing out through the housing and causing the sound. 

EGR Valve
Kevin Williams

EGR valves are cheap, and replacing them is pretty easy. I figured that a gaping hole in the EGR is basically a huge vacuum leak. That would explain all the symptoms the owner was having, the low performance, the trouble starting, and the high-pitched squealing.

Quietly, I kept that information to myself. The guy didn’t want to be bothered with trying to troubleshoot his car. He had a new job and had already replaced his Tribute with a brand-new, fully-loaded Nissan Rogue. His asking price seemed fair, so I paid him $1250 and went home with the intent to pick the car up later. When I got home, I did some research. True, the EGR replacement is cheap, but why would a car blow it up? 

What Could It Be?

Through research, I learned that the Tribute, Escape, and Mercury Mariner commonly have engine misfire issues. The Duratec 3.0-liter engine tends to misfire on bank one of cylinders, cylinders one, three, and five. This misfire is caused by several things, such as a bad powertrain control module (PCM), worn ignition wires, or spark plugs. These cars have three catalytic converters, one for each cylinder bank, integrated into their respective exhaust manifolds. The third converter is underneath the car, uniting the exhaust streams from the two exhaust manifolds. 

When the car is misfiring for whatever reason, the unburnt fuel from the lack of combustion is sent down the exhaust, where it lands on the catalytic converters. The unburnt fuel inside ignites and melts down the precious metals in the converter, clogging the converter. Then, the exhaust gasses don’t have anywhere to escape (heh, heh, pun), and they’ll force their way out wherever they can. 

This would explain my Tribute’s problems. The performance was reduced due to the clogged catalytic converter. The sky-high back-pressure on the engine forced the exhaust gasses out wherever they could. In this case, they funneled out through the EGR valve.

With that information, I formulated a plan. Kelley Blue Book told me I could get anywhere from $2,300-2,600 for a 2001 Tribute. I figured $2,500 was a fair goal, as I feel that any car that runs decently is worth $2500.

Here’s my initial pricing estimate:

  • Purchase Price – $1,250
  • Tax/Title/Registration – $126
  • EGR: $30
  • Rearmost Cat – $88.
  • Installation for rearmost cat – $80
  • Interior/Exterior Detail – $55 

Total investment – $1,599

Picking the Car Up

Later that evening, I came back with my roommate to limp the car back to my home. I could deal with a lack of power, it’s no big deal to drive with limited performance. Oh, but this was more than just “limited performance.” I hopped in the Tribute, put the pedal to the floor, and the car hardly moved. Uh. What?

I tried flooring it. The engine barely revved, the squealing EGR shrieked loudly, and the needle moved from 0 mph to 5 mph. After five minutes of prodding, I was able to coax 15 mph out of the truckette. I was 15 miles away from my house, and the return drive was nearly all freeway. Undeniably, this was not sustainable, but what the hell was I supposed to do? I didn’t budget for a tow. 

Suddenly, my roommate had a stroke of genius. “Why don’t we just undo the exhaust somewhat to let the exhaust escape?” he said. “That car is from California, right? That means it’s not rusty, so no broken bolts, so this should take two seconds.” 

The interior of a Mazda Tribute.
Kevin Williams

In his trunk, he had a ratchet and a 10-mm socket. Five minutess later, we had an intentional leak in the exhaust that let off some of that back-pressure.

I cranked the car, and it started right up. The Duratec 3.0 roared to life now that the car was straight-piped. Good lord, the stares, but it worked. I was no longer limited to 15 mph, the car accelerated like normal, and I could drive on the freeway with no issue. We might actually get away with this thing!

Repairing It

The EGR valve was an easy replacement, as only two bolts hold the thing on, and the whole assembly is accessible. Its replacement took me 15 minutes, mostly because I dropped one of the bolts in the engine bay.

A diagnosis showed me that the two catalytic converters integrated into the intake manifolds were fine. The car had new spark plugs and wires recently, and there was no misfire. I was lucky. The only converter that was clogged was the one underneath the car. 

How I Made $800 From a Rust-Free Mazda Tribute
Kevin Williams

The Tribute had issues with cold-starts, which I tracked down to worn-out intake manifold gaskets. Simple fix. The oil light would intermittently turn on, which pointed to a faulty oil sender unit. This was a little more tricky than the intake manifold gaskets, but it was an easy repair overall. After a detail and an interior door handle repair, the Tribute looked great.

My new price estimate looked like this:

  • Purchase Price – $1250
  • Rearmost Cat – $88
  • Installation for rearmost cat – $85
  • Tax/Title/Registration – $126
  • Oil Sender – $6
  • Interior/Exterior Detail – $60
  • Intake manifold gasket – $13
  • Passenger side, front door handle (interior) – $8
  • Total investment  $1,636

Selling It

I put the Tribute on craigslist for $2,800 with some flex to go as low as $2,350. My phone rang off the hook. This was a front-drive, 15-year-old early crossover with more than 150,000 miles, but everyone wanted it.

The first person to take a gander offered me $2,500. Perfect! That’s exactly what I wanted for the car. The potential buyer was driving a rusty and tired Buick LeSabre, so this Tribute definitely was a step up, no shade intended. I was excited to get rid of the Mazda, and the buyer was excited to have dependable transportation. It looked like the car was sold. Or so I thought.

How I Made $800 From a Rust-Free Mazda Tribute
Kevin Williams

The buyer wanted the car, but the LeSabre decided to catastrophically fail by lunching the head gasket. The buyer had driven across town, 35 minutes, and the dumpy Buick couldn’t make the drive again. The buyer didn’t have any money to get a cab or rideshare and still have enough left over to pay me the agreed-upon price. The buyer thanked me for my time and wished me luck with finding a new buyer.

I felt bad for the person. I didn’t have any reason to think this was a lie or scam, and I didn’t want to lose out on a sale, so I offered to drive the Tribute for a lower price. I know what that feels like, to have a car strand you and lock you out of a good opportunity.

The buyer was thankful and accepted the offer.

Overview:

  • Purchase Price – $1250
  • Rearmost Cat – $88.
  • Installation for rearmost cat – $85
  • Tax/Title/Registration – $126
  • Oil Sender – $6
  • Interior/Exterior Detail – $60
  • Intake manifold gasket – $13
  • Passenger side, front door handle (interior) – $8

Total investment $1,636

Sale price: $2500

Total Profit: $864

2001 Mazda Trubute
Kevin Williams

This SUV sold quickly after it was listed for only three days. In contrast, my car-shaped things have languished on the market for weeks at a time before finding a buyer. Sigh, I guess people do want SUVs more than cars now.

This was way back in 2017, too. It’s been a couple of years now, and I still see the Tribute driving around town.

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