Dear Umbra,

I’m the not-so-proud owner of an 18-year-old Honda Civic — great car in that it gets 39 mpg, has a decent amount of zip, and generally runs well. However, it needs some mechanical work, the paint and some of the upholstery are shot, and the AC runs on Freon. I’ve reached the point of analysis paralysis in deciding whether to fix this car up or trade it in. At what point do you give up the ghost on an older car? And how bad would it be if I got the old car painted?

Driven to distraction,
San Leandro, Calif.

Dearest Renee,

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Passing the buck: I think this is a question for a trusted mechanic. I know we talk a lot about buying efficient items — from toilets to fridges to, yes, cars — and I often take my cues from the letter-writer as to whether they are ready to lay down the cash to upgrade. I figure people don’t write in about buying a new car unless it’s a real possibility for them. Today, though, you got me on the old “is it good money after bad, or bad money after bad?” train of thought. It’s the car dilemma — when is the money just being thrown into a bottomless transmission?

Ask Ed.

Photo: iStockphoto

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You have a great car already, from an environmental standpoint, so there’s no need for me to encourage you to downsize or upgrade. Because the only answer to your question about when to give up the ghost is “when you get sick of fixing the car,” only you and your mechanic can predict when that will be. What you need to know is something I can’t tell you, namely, when will this car fail you? Mechanics know cars, they like cars, and unless they are fancy-car snobs, they are fond of your old clunker and its endless get-up-and-go.

Take it to the mechanic and ask for a long-term prognosis. What is going to go next? What major repairs are coming down the tailpipe of time? How much will it cost to get a new coat of paint? Is there anything to do about the shot upholstery? How about the Freon in the AC — how much would a retrofit cost? Then look around at the classifieds and see what an environmentally comparable car will cost you. After doing both of these, you’ll have new information.

You’ll be able to ballpark the price differences between keeping and maintaining the car and buying a new car. You’ll know how exhausted you feel at the thought of keeping the car running versus the thought of vetting a parade of newer Civics. These have got to be your deciding factors.

Don’t worry about the coat of paint. Paint protects the car from degradation and as such is a worthy expenditure to keep a good thing going strong.