Used Japanese Engines

used Japanese enginesReader Question:

I have a 1999 Mazda Miata with a blown engine. It is a leased vehicle with a year left on the lease period. My wife was driving when she noticed engine noise. She pulled in to a Jiffy Lube where they added oil and said she could drive home but should have it checked.

Two blocks down the road the engine froze up on her. I had it towed to the Mazda dealership and, upon inspection, they notified me that an engine replacement would be necessary (cost $5800). Since I had just checked the oil a week ago, I asked how this happened. They said that they could not determine the cause without tearing down the engine, at considerable additional cost to me.

My only strategy is to contact other resources for a less expensive rebuilt engine, but I wonder if I am missing some other option. I asked them if they had checked for any open recalls related to this problem, and they said that there were none. Not a good situation, and I guess I’m at the grasping at straws stage. Any advice?

Dear reader,

First off, I would NOT let the dealer install a complete motor; this is NOT their line of work. Replacing a car engine in some cases requires 15 or more hours of labor. You can easily see that 15 hours at a dealership labor rate can quickly skyrocket the overall price of the job.

Contrary to popular belief, big jobs like this performed by dealership “type” mechanics are usually not very profitable for the shop. In the time it takes to install a motor, the mechanic and the shop could have performed many other more profitable jobs (like brake work, tune ups, etc.) With this in mind, most dealerships will “politely” out price the job so you WON’T want them to do the work!

If you live in a big city you might want to look at buying a used engine from a salvage yard (junk yard). In Houston there is a company that buys used, low mileage Japanese motors and transmissions in huge container shipments. I can buy motors from this company very cheap, and they offer a 90-day warranty to boot.

A Japanese motor with 30K (as long as there is oil in it) will last a long time, so it is not like you are buying a used, worn out engine.

I had read somewhere a few years ago about a supposed law in Japan that requires engine replacement at 30,000 miles. I did some research on the Internet to see if there was some truth to the story, and Cheston with Soko America told me this:

There is no such law “requiring” engine replacement at a certain mileage. That is a urban myth propagated by importers and car owners who simply don’t know or understand the situation in Japan. The high taxes (annually assessed), insurance premiums, gas costs, and especially the safety inspection/registration (occurs biennial) combine to keep turnover of vehicles high.

For example, the Safety inspection for your typical car (say Camry/Accord type) can typically cost $2,000….each time! New vehicles have a 3 year grace period before they are required to submit for the Safety Inspection. In other words, for a 10 year old car, you will have already paid over $8,000, in just Safety Inspection fees!

Don’t forget, gas over in Japan is also typically four times the cost of here in the U.S. Mileage is kept low on the vehicles as EVERYONE (unless your fabulously rich and patient) uses alternative transportation to get around. Most folks use the trains for local and medium distance traveling/commuting.

Far distances are taken by airplane and local transportation done by either bicycle or bus. In that society, your car tends to be a status symbol more than anything else. I hope this sheds a little more light for you!

Visit the Soko America Website for for great deals on Japanese motors and transmissions. Soshinusa.com

Call a few salvage yards and see what they have to offer you, or you can use this used part finder service. If the first salvage yard you call does not have an engine that you are interested in, ask them to run it on the “hotline.”

The hotline is a communication system that connects all salvage yards together by telephone. The hotline can save you lots of time and frustration. You might be able to find a wrecked Miata with low miles and a good engine.

Once you find a used engine with a salvage yard you are comfortable doing business with, you will then need a mechanic to install it. If you have a regular repair shop that does your maintenance, you should ask them if they are interested in installing a used motor that you furnish.

You might tell the shop where you found the motor and give them the information (the salvage yard will deliver it to the shop for free) let the shop make a small markup on the motor just to be fair. The main reason you should let the shop make a small markup on the motor is to let them share in any liability or warranty issues that could occur.

The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a warranty issue and have the salvage yard blame the repair shop for an installation problem, and the repair shop pointing fingers at the salvage yard for selling you a bad motor. Trust me, you do not want to be in the middle of this situation.

Doing some of the leg work on your own might help insure you get a motor that has a bright future, where as the repair shop might order the motor from the first salvage yard that says they have one, or says they have the “cheapest” one. Hopefully you are using a trusted and honest repair shop, but they could be very busy doing other things and not have time to search through salvage yards for your motor, so I would take on that task myself.

Hopefully you might find the time to visit and inspect the motor and the condition of the car it came out of before you purchase. You might even be able to start and at least listen to the engine to make sure it doesn’t make noise or have any obvious smoke bellowing from the tail pipe while you are at the salvage yard. It will be well worth a 10 percent markup to hold the repair shop liable for the entire job by their warranty policy. The last motor job I did like this was on a Toyota 4Runner.

A fast lube place forgot to put oil in the engine after they drained the old oil out, and my customer was in the same boat you’re floating in now. She paid the lube center to change her oil, so they paid for her new engine, but I am afraid they are not liable in your case. Call around and see what you find remember junk yards LOVE cash and CASH talks, so feel free to negotiate.

Some things to remember:

  • Check the under-hood fluids regularly
  • Try to park in the same spot to help identify any fluid leaks
  • Change the oil and filter every 3,000 miles
  • Stop the engine immediately when noise or overheating is occurring
  • When possible, leave your vehicle at a regular repair shop for oil changes so they have time to look over the car for potential problems on a regular basis.

Austin Davis, The Honest Mechanic

Austin Davis,
The honest Mechanic

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About the Author:

Austin Davis, consumer car repair advocate. "Hi there! I love to help people solve their car repair problems and I hope my site was helpful to you today. Thank you for stopping by."