I Flew 1,100 Miles on a Whim To Buy a Car, but Decided To Help Its Owner Instead
A plan for a big story went bust, but I still had fun.
Back in September, I asked you all a question on one of our posts here at Car Bibles, “What four-wheel drive, manual transmission vehicle would you buy that isn’t a Subaru?”
Y’all came through for me. I was searching high and low for a cheap, stick-shift snow runabout to save my surprisingly corrosion-free Fiat 500 Abarth from an early salt-induced grave. You recommended Suzuki SX4s, Honda CR-Vs, and Toyota FJ Cruisers—all solid choices. Expensive as hell choices, too. Manual 4WD FJ Cruisers are cool, but they’re still commanding prices at or above $20,000 for examples with close to 200,000 miles. I ain’t spending that kind of cash on a used car, with that many miles.
One response on Twitter caught my eye: a reader sent me a link to a cheaply priced, five-speed manual, all-wheel-drive, Hyundai Tucson. The price seemed right, and the specs were there. I had assumed all Tucsons and Sportages of this era were solely FWD when equipped with a manual (and that spec had to be pretty rare, even then.) A five-speed AWD Tucson was definitely off the beaten path as far as recession-era crossovers go.
This particular example of a Tucson had a couple of caveats though. First, it had issues with overheating. Second, the car was near Boulder, Colorado. Like, 1,100 miles away. Sensing what I thought would be my dream winter ride, I booked a ticket to Denver with the makings of an epic trip in my mind.
Last-minute tickets to Denver were cheap. I was confident that I could fix the car roadside, then roll it back the 1,100 miles back to Ohio. The idea of a triumphant, epic road trip, in a cheap car I’ve purchased in a city I had never been to, was irresistible. I told the seller about my plan and he was into it too.
The first-generation Tucson isn’t a terribly bespoke trucklet from Hyundai. Underneath, it’s a Hyundai Elantra XD (2001-2006), which also was the basis for my alcohol-filled Tiburon. Essentially, the Tucson was a blobby Elantra (or Tiburon), with a bit more weight and an optional driven rear axle. Thus, I was a little familiar with Hyundai, especially the 2.0-liter Beta engine under the hood.
The seller, a cartoonist, writer, and even former automotive writer himself, Ron, claimed that the car would intermittently overheat when the air conditioning was on. Ron is a cartoonist and graphic designer, with a love for weird cars too, it seemed like a perfect match. His Tucson was replaced with a yellow first-generation Scion xB to accompany his pristine NA Miata. The Tucson had become too expensive to fix, out of his mechanical depth and budget to get back on the road.
Ron added that when the car would get going again—or when he’d turn the heat on—the car would be fine. According to him, the car wasn’t leaking any fluids, but the vehicle was likely burning out the coolant, as he had to add about half a gallon to the radiator. He insisted the head gasket was likely on its way out.
I disagreed. The Hyundai Beta engine is a solidly reliable engine, if maybe a little less refined or efficient compared to a Honda or Toyota motor of the same era and size. Mechanically, they’re not very complex, lacking more mainstream 2000s-era engine technology like variable valve timing. It is fairly common to see these Beta engines trek well past 200,000 miles with routine maintenance. Sometimes they burn a little oil, or lifters get noisy later in life, but they’re not the type to ruin a head gasket, unprovoked. Unless there’s a horrible cooling system failure, these engines usually hold all their drink.
Armed with the knowledge of more than 35 different cars I’ve owned, it was time to play an automotive version of Guess Who.
Ron said the check engine light was on, but he wasn’t sure why. He said the light would clear itself after a while. He also said the oil was clean, the coolant looked good, there was no exhaust smoke, and the vehicle’s performance was the same as it ever had been.
With those clues in my head, I figured the problem had to be electrical. The Tucson was overheating at idle or slow speeds, with the air conditioning on. For the overwhelmingly vast majority of cars, the radiator fans are designed to automatically run whenever the air conditioning is on. The AC system generates a lot of heat and load, and fans need to be able to blow air through the radiator (and AC condenser, if it’s aligned correctly) for everything to stay within the correct operating temperature. However, if the computer receives incorrect data or too-high resistance from the coolant temperature sensor, fan relay or fuse, or anywhere else in the fan system, the fan won’t turn on. It’s happened to me before, at least twice. A fan relay on a Toyota Yaris I had failed, and the fan wouldn’t turn on when the air conditioning was running. On another car, a Pontiac Vibe, the coolant temperature sensor had failed, and the car’s ECU wouldn’t turn the cooling fans on when required. Before I fixed them, they’d run hot and overheat at stoplights.
It felt like the Tucson was going to be a great story, an epic tale of a young man traveling alone through weird locales in a 14-year-old Korean crossover. And I was ready for the Tucson, to assume ownership, do this long drive in a weird, kind of obscure car. I thought about taking it on a few baby trails, a trial-by-fire solo off-road run, in a crossover. It was supposed to be so goddamn good.
About a day before my flight, Ron messaged me with some bad news.
“I drove the Hyundai about 85 miles yesterday after the car sat for a couple of weeks, and the temp gauge got pretty hot a few times,” he said. “I don’t know how far you can get driving at highway speeds before it needs to cool down. Do you plan to try to fix it here first, or do you have a plan B for towing it if needed? Just trying to be upfront as possible.”
Overheating while moving does sound like a head gasket issue. Even if the fan wasn’t working correctly, air would still move through the radiator as the car drove down the road.
I had already booked my ticket, and I could still be correct. If the car was that good, I would still buy it, but pay a mechanic to do a head gasket job (and resurface head, if needed) in Denver. Risky, but I’ve got the gumption and kahunas to give it a try. Who knows, my first hunch could be right, and the problem could be a simple electrical repair.
The day after I arrived in Denver, I met Ron at his house about 20 minutes from Boulder. The silver Hyundai looked fine, well-maintained but clearly used and loved as its owner’s main family car.
I plugged in my Bluetooth OBD II scan tool, popped the hood, and got to work. The radiator cap was fine. No brown coolant milkshake, indicative of coolant and oil mixing. The radiator appeared to be fine, too, mostly full, with coolant that looked great.
My scan tool revealed P0125, Insufficient Coolant Temperature for Closed Loop Fuel Control. To me, that pointed towards a faulty coolant temperature sensor, reporting inaccurate data to the vehicle’s ECU. To test my theory, I turned the car on, cranked the AC… and watched as the coolant fan immediately turned on and spun to max speed, disproving my theory. Rats.
Down, but not out, I noticed the Tucson hadn’t smoked or overheated within more than 15 minutes of idling. Confident, I took it on a drive, with Ron in the passenger seat, of course.
The Tucson drove fine, it clearly was well cared for in its 14-year life. In Ohio, most of these Tucsons and Sportages have started to show their age, with brittle plastics, faded paint, and frame and body integrity rust sending these crossovers to a somewhat early grave. The 2.0-liter motor and five-speed manual I thought were downright sporty in my Tiburon, but here, they were pretty slow. I think the slowness was amplified by the Denver area’s high altitude.
Within about 10 minutes of driving, the Tucson overheated. To Ron, this was new—before then, he said the Tucson would only overheat after long periods of driving. Could the head gasket finally have gone on my test drive? I was still unconvinced, there was no cloud of white smoke indicative of an engine burning coolant. Stomping on the gas sometimes would bring the temperature down, not something that goes with a “bad head gasket.” I didn’t want to ruin Ron’s car, so I pulled over, popped the hood, and let the Tucson cool off.
Baffled, I called my roommate to brainstorm about what it could have been. Coolant temp sensor, bad ECU, air in the cooling system—lots of possibilities here. Before I could finish my conversation, I spied a little neon green dribble from the front right side of the vehicle. The radiator was leaking. You could see it while the car was running, underneath the hood, buried near the front lower core support, the whole passenger side of the radiator, was dripping coolant.
In a way, this fix was easier. A leaking radiator would explain the inconsistent heat (the Tucson’s heater hoses are very high mounted), the lack of cooling power for the engine, the… well, everything really. Now I was faced with a dilemma. Did I really want to repair this car and mob it?
I called a few shops, but I couldn’t find a radiator locally. Each shop would have taken days to ship. I also asked myself: Did I really want this car anymore? And was it moral to buy this car when the fix was so simple?
I buy my cars in good faith with the idea that if there’s a problem the seller can’t fix, I’m willing to do it. The seller assumed it needed a head gasket, I disagreed, but never let it out of my mind as a possibility. The seller was getting rid of the car because head gasket repairs are labor-intensive and expensive, hard to repair for someone on a budget. Now, we were both faced with new information.
A radiator replacement on a Tucson is easy. The part is cheap, and the labor shouldn’t be very long even at a grade A reputable shop. I didn’t feel like I could buy the Tucson in good faith anymore; I know the seller could fix and sell in good running condition for far more than he was offering. Or maybe keep it, who knows. I felt I would be taking money away from someone, needlessly, if I purchased the Tucson.
So, I passed on it. I told Ron what he should do to fix it, and wished him the best.
A day or so later, Ron messaged me. He had sold the car to a young family on a tight budget, willing to do some repairs on the truck. A way more noble use of the Tucson than what I had planned for it.
Sometimes it’s about the journey, not necessarily the destination. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something. Even if I leave Denver empty-handed, not blasting down I-70 in a beater, I can feel like I left with my head held high, and my integrity intact.
Or, I’m full of shit and this is a long elaborate story to convince myself that I just didn’t want a broken crossover. Both can be true.
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(Edited: 11/23/2021 – “Tucson” is a hard name to keep correct. All misspellings of the compact crossover have been corrected. Sorry, Hyundai!)