Is the vehicle I got for free worth fixing?


John Paul, AAA Northeast’s Car Doctor, answers a question from a reader who didn’t pay anything for a car that needs a lot of work.

Is the vehicle I got for free worth fixing?
The 2007 Dodge Nitro. Dodge

Q. I have a car that my brother gave me, and wanted to know if it’s worth putting money into to fix. The car is a 2007 Dodge Nitro SLT 6 cylinder with all-wheel drive. The check-engine and airbag lights are on, it has failed emissions, the brakes need to be done, and it idles roughly. The belts I see look like they need replacing. Plus, the two rear windows will not go up. 

A. You easily listed what could amount to several thousands of dollars worth of repairs. Considering the car is 14 years old and was not the best vehicle built by Chrysler at the time, even as a free car the repairs may not be a good investment. At this point the best money you can spend is to have a good repair shop give the car a thorough inspection and get a detailed repair estimate of the overall cost of the repairs. As a general rule, if the cost of the repairs exceeds 50 percent of the value of the car, it is not a good investment.  

Q. I just changed the oil in my 2009 Honda Fit, but the indicator on  my dash still says my oil condition is at 20 percent. How do I return it to 100 percent oil life since the oil and filter are new?

A. Every car is a little different when it comes to resetting maintenance reminders. Some require a scan tool and others, like your Honda, are menu driven. Turn the ignition switch to the ON position. Press the select/reset knob repeatedly until the engine oil life is displayed. Press the select/reset knob for about 10 seconds. The engine oil life and the maintenance item code(s) will blink. Press the select/reset knob for another 5 seconds. The maintenance item code(s) will disappear, and the engine oil life will reset to 100.

Q. At how many miles is it safe to switch to synthetic oil? I have 6,000 miles on my 2019 car and want to switch to synthetic.

A. There was a time where it was thought that switching to synthetic oil early in the life of an engine would not allow the piston rings to seat properly. Today we see cars come from the factory with synthetic oil in the engine, and the engines are fine. Call me a little old-fashioned. I typically wait, depending on the car, until the second oil change before switching to full synthetic oil. Since your car is two years old, you can switch to synthetic oil with no worries. 

Q. My daughter recently bought a 2006 Acura TL with 206,000 miles. The owner’s manual says to use premium fuel. If she does not, what are the consequences? With 206,000 miles, what oil should she use? The owner’s manual says 5w20 oil, but should she use conventional, synthetic blend, or full synthetic? I had heard that using full synthetic in a high mileage car will cause oil to leak from seals. 

A. If the owner’s manual or the fuel door states that premium fuel is required, you need to use it or risk engine failure due to detonation (pinging). If the manual only recommends premium, use 87 octane fuel. The car’s computer system will adjust the engine systems to prevent any damage. AAA tests show that any loss in fuel economy is vastly offset by the reduced cost of regular fuel vs premium. Synthetic oil will not cause a leak, but it may find one and make it more noticeable. If this were my car, and as much as I am a fan of synthetic oil, I would use conventional oil and change it as recommended in the owner’s manual.  

Q. My 1996 Dodge pickup truck is in great shape, looks impressive, and starts every time.  It has been relegated to dump runs and trips to the beach with the dog. My dashboard, being a Dodge, disintegrated into chips and dust. I can’t seem to locate a replacement for a reasonable price. It ends up at like $1,000 for a piece of plastic, not including the installation. Is there a way to find a dash that will basically fit. Ford, Toyota, Chevy or whatever? I’m one step away from using cardboard cutouts covered with resin and fiberglass.

A. You have a couple of options that are relatively inexpensive. You could get a dash pad cover (looks like carpet) ($50 online) that covers most of the dash. The second option is a complete overlay of the dash — about $150 online. The overlay requires some prep and patience when installing, but both could be workable solutions. If the dash is really deteriorated, yes you could make something up with fiberglass. Hot Rod shops build custom dashboards all the time. 

John Paul is AAA Northeast’s Car Doctor. He has over 40 years of experience in the automotive business and is an ASE-certified master technician. E-mail your car question to [email protected] Listen to Car Doctor on the radio at 10 a.m. every Saturday on 104.9 FM or online at