Home » How Fixing And Road Tripping A 230,000 Mile $500 Toyota Minivan Went From Pointless Disaster To Triumph

How Fixing And Road Tripping A 230,000 Mile $500 Toyota Minivan Went From Pointless Disaster To Triumph

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“This trip is totally pointless” I told my friend over the phone as I headed back to my motel after having wrenched all day in a cold St. Louis garage. “What am I even doing here?” I blurted, “I should be helping run the website and not trying to fix this steaming pile that nobody even wants.” I was doubting my decision-making skills; sure, I’d only spent $500 on the 2005 Toyota Sienna, but what was the point of spending all this time trying to fix a 230,000 mile former family-hauler and then driving it 1,000 miles? Where was I even going? I was in a state of mental anguish, but luckily, this would not last, for the high-mileage, totally “uncool” minivan would go on to completely steal my heart, helping me realize that it is perhaps the greatest bargain in all of cars. Here’s how an old van turned an ill-advised trip from a disaster to triumph.

Let’s rewind about a year. I’d just finished an utterly absurd relocation from Detroit to LA involving two cross-country trips, each time hauling a dilapidated junker on a trailer. I’d brought a spare engine, multiple spare Jeep axle assemblies, at least a dozen tires, loads of tools, and on and on — the amount of junk I’d brought was hilarious, and is something I look forward to sharing with you all soon. But for now, let’s talk about my second drive across the country, when I stopped in St. Louis and met a reader named Dave, who had told me he’d sell me his old Toyota Sienna minivan for $500. “I’m interested!” I’d told him before heading to the west coast.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

For about a year, David pinged me every now and then to ask if I was still interested, and for a year I told him “Yes, but I need a little time!” You see, $500 for an all-wheel drive Toyota Sienna was far too good of a deal, and as the editor-in-chief of this website, I know there’s at the very least content to be wrung out of it.

Anyway, after a year, the guilt became unbearable, and I knew I had to figure something out, so I contacted my colleague Jason’s wife, Sally, and asked if she wanted a nice, reliable Toyota, since her VW Tiguan kept breaking down and lord knows every car in Jason’s fleet is perpetually problematic. Especially in light of Jason’s recent health scare, the family needed reliable wheels, so that’s how I billed the Sienna: A nice-condition Toyota. And that is what I thought it was!

Flying With My Tools From LA To St. Louis

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With a future home established and Jason’s North Carolina house as a destination, I packed up my tools and hopped on an airplane leaving LAX for St. Louis.

 

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When I arrived, it was nine degrees Fahrenheit, and despite my blood having thinned in California over the prior 12 months, I learned one thing right away when I stepped out of the St. Louis airport into that frozen tundra: I’m a Detroiter, and there’s no taking that away from me. Nine degrees? Bring it on:

 

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I took a shuttle to a rental car agency, and which wheels did the clerk randomly offer me? A dark red Asian minivan, not unlike the one that had brought me there in the first place:

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I drove the rental to the “Pear Tree Inn” in Arnold, Missouri, arriving at 3 A.M. I crashed, and prepared for a full day of wrenching the next morning.

Realizing That Maybe This Was All Pointless

And it would indeed have to be a full day, as my Southwest Airlines flight had been delayed from Monday to Tuesday, and part of the van’s mission in addition acting as a reliable daily-driver for Jason and Sally was to drive around a military installation that The Autopian had been invited to. More on that soon, but the invitation was for Friday, and the facility was 17 hours away in Blackstone, Virginia,, meaning I needed all day Thursday and early Friday to make the journey. This left only Wednesday for wrenching. Things were tight.

 

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Before heading to Dave’s place, I dropped by what has become a major cultural center of the midwest: Walmart (I know this, as I grew up in Kansas). There, I snagged a cheap $70 battery, oil, an oil filter, an air filter, and some other supplies. Then I headed to Dave’s, and when I arrived, swapped in that 12-volt battery, first thing. The vehicle had been sitting for at least a year, and given how cold it was, there was no way in hell the old battery stood a chance, and even if there was a little life left in it, dealing with battery-related concerns wasn’t something I was going to waste my time on.

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With the new lead-acid hooked to the cables, one crank of the key fired up the 3.3-liter V6 under the Sienna’s hood; it ran great!

 

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But the issue with the van wasn’t powertrain related, it had to do with the suspension: Namely, the strut on the passenger’s side had broken apart (see below). This made for a horrible ride that just wasn’t worthy of a cross-country trip. So I drove the Sienna into Dave’s garage, and we got to wrenching.

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The broken strut

Before I continue on, I need to discuss a realization that I had just before that engine fired up: This minivan was in much worse shape than I’d expected, and this was a problem because I’d told Sally that it was actually quite nice. Sally’s no stickler, but she drives a modern VW Tiguan for a reason: She wants a decent cabin and not a junker. Sadly, as I sat there listening to that surprisingly beautifully-idling V6, I looked around at the cracks and the big chunk missing from the dash, at the hideously worn steering wheel and shifter, at the stained carpets, at the cracked seats, and at the cracked windshield: This thing was not “quite nice,” it was a bit of a heap.

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So I called Jason and Sally and told them my revelation. “I appreciate the gesture, but please don’t drive another junker into my yard,” Sally told me, kindly. I understood; Jason had already littered the yard with broken cars, and Sally’s nice Tiguan had started overheating. The last thing Jason and Sally needed was another heap on her hands, and sadly, as I looked around the car, “heap” is exactly what I saw.

At this point, my entire trip was pointless.

Wrenching On The Suspension Was Easy, Except For That Control Arm

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Still, the van belonged to me now, so even if I wasn’t going to Jason’s, I had to get the heck out of St. Louis, so Dave and I “hit the spanners,” so to speak. We jacked the car up, zipped off one of the wheels, then took the windshield wipers off, and unbolted the wiper transmission from the cowl to give us access to the upper strut bolts:

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The driver’s side strut wasn’t a known issue, I just figured I’d replace it since the passenger’s side strut had come apart; better safe than sorry. I figured while I was swapping the struts, I may as well change the wheel bearings, and since those are pressed into the steering knuckle, I just ordered a pair of knuckles with bearings pre-pressed for $183 shipped:

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I also snagged some control arms and inner/outer tie rod ends for $121:

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And of course, I bought a pair of struts (for $176):

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I figured the last thing I needed was to hand Jason and Sally a car that would require significant service, and front-end bits are often the things that go first. So, since I was already swapping struts, I bit the bullet and dropped $500 on suspension bits. At first, everything went well; the St. Louis winters hadn’t led to too much salt-induced rust:

 

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The suspension came apart without a fuss. Well, at least until it came time to remove the control arm.

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This was perhaps the most frustrating wrenching operation I’ve ever had to deal with (well, tied with the Chevy HHR’s front control arms); two out of the control arm’s three bolts are right there, easily accessed. On first glance, removing that arm seems like a breeze. But then you realize that the third bolt is under the engine mount, and to get to it you are expected to “remove engine assembly with transaxle,” per the instructions below.

That is absolutely absurd! You have to remove the engine and transmission just to get a front control arm out?! Come on!

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I spent far more time trying to solve this issue than I’m prepared to admit. It was just one bolt — the frontmost one and I was sure I could get that out by just shifting the engine mount. But no, that wasn’t going to work. I didn’t have the time.

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The good news was that the old control arms looked ok, and more importantly: The ball-joints are bolt-on, meaning I could just take the ones off my new control arms and fasten them to the old arms, so that’s exactly what I did (the old ball joints were on their way out, based on feel).

I Screwed Up So Badly With The Passenger’s Side Axle Shaft

As soon as I made the “reuse old control arm decision,” things came together nicely:

 

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Thanks to a realization that my Google Maps app had been set to “avoid highways,” the trip was going to take 12 hours and not 17, so timing was working out OK. I was on track to have that front suspension put together by the end of the night; I could get an alignment in the morning, and drive eight hours Thursday, and the remaining four hours the morning of that event at the military facility.

But then I made a series of idiotic errors; the first one seemed so innocuous: I just zipped off the axle nut on the passenger’s side:

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It may be hard to tell, but those axle threads shown above are totally ruined. The axle nut features a lip that one is meant to hammer down into a keyway in the axle. The lip deforms so that, if the nut tries backing out, the lip interferes with the axle keyway and keeps the nut in place. The problem is: If you just zip the nut out without bending that lip back, the lip completely ruins the axle’s threads.

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Luckily I had purchased a pair of axle shafts for $80 apiece (at this point, I was in this vehicle at least $1,200 — still not bad), so I had one sitting by waiting for its moment to shine. And that’s what it did; I pulled the old axle shaft out, shoved the new one in, and bolted everything back together.

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And so that was it; The car was done. I was ready for an alignment the next day, and then I was off to Virginia for that appointment at the undisclosed military facility.

Kidding. Of course I had to make another foolish mistake.

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After torquing both front wheels to spec, and putting the van into reverse so I could back out of the garage, I just heard clicking. The engine revved, and the clicking’s pace increased, but the van wouldn’t move.

“Yo, you’re leaking!” Dave called out.

I shut off the engine, ran to the front, and realized: The damn axle shaft had popped out of the transaxle/transfer case assembly, leaking fluid everywhere. It was late, and I was tired, so I just turned in to the ol’ Pear Tree Inn, and went to sleep realizing that there was a good chance I was not going to make the invitation in Virginia, and thereafter I had no place to take the van because Sally had made it clear that she doesn’t want a heap in her driveway. All the while, the website could use my help.

This trip had become a disaster — a complete waste of my time.

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The next morning I grabbed some automatic transmission fluid and gear oil for the transmission and transfer case, respectively, and headed to Dave’s.

Draining and filling the transmission was easy, but draining the transfer case was a pain in my ass that required a 45 minute tool run to Home Depot, and 20 minutes of strenuous pumping:

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Then around noon on Thursday, with a full transmission and transfer case, with a new axle shaft with shiny new threads firmly shoved in place, with fresh engine oil (I did that for good measure), with a fresh air filter, with new wheel bearings, with new inner and outer tie rods, and with new struts, the van was ready to begin its 1,000 mile trek.

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Dave bid me adieu, and I headed east.

Driving East. The Van Proved Its Mettle In The Icy Hills

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The van cruised beautifully, especially given that I hadn’t had time to get an alignment done (I’d just eyeballed it). The five-speed auto shifted great, the engine — aside from a little serpentine belt squeal on startup — was nice and quiet, and the ride quality was exceptional.

With that said, pretty much every possible type of check-engine-ish light was making itself known on the dashboard — the Vehicle Stability Control light was on, the Maintenance Required light was on, the Check Engine Light was on, and the airbag light was flashing:

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Since I’d left my scanner in LA, I stopped at Autozone, where an employee read off the fact that my O2 sensors were triggering my check engine light:

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I bet the VSC light has to do with the ABS sensors and maybe the new knuckles/the new CV axle on that one side. Not sure what’s going on there. And the Maintenance Required light probably just has to be reset, and the airbag light…well, that’s just a common thing on many old Japanese cars, I’ve found.

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It didn’t matter, because the van cruised beautifully down Interstate 64, where I saw a notification on my Google Maps App. Apparently there was a Winter Weather Warning for that night up ahead, so I did what I always do when I have weather concerns: I call my brother, Ben, who loves weather more than, possibly, anything.

Ben routed me through Bowling Green, to Nashville, then eastwards through Knoxville. “Yeah, you gotta get down south ASAP, as the rain is going to start freezing the farther north you are. And definitely stay out of West Virginia!” he warned, noting the snowy and icy conditions expected in those hills.

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So south I went.

As darkness fell, so did more rain. I kept a watchful eye over the van’s exterior temperature reading in the overhead console; it hovered around freezing, though it seemed like the rain on the road was still in liquid form due to the ground’s thermal mass.

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The Toyota’s HID headlights were a godsend through the hills of Kentucky, as there was no street lighting whatsoever, and I was starting to touch a bit of black ice here and there. Was this a great time to try to stretch the fuel tank well beyond its “0 miles of range left” indicator in order to get to Buck-ee’s? No, definitely not, but I did it anyway:

 

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With a stomach full of brisket, I eventually made it past Bowling Green, where temperatures remained comfortably above freezing. But not for long; as I headed east and approached Knoxville, a combination of higher elevation and the fact that it was now later in the night meant the road became sheet-ice. Like, legitimately scary stuff:

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The van’s tires weren’t amazing. They were less than 10 years old and had plenty of tread, so they were technically safe, but they were still all-seasons, and lightly stabbing the brakes as I like to do to check wintery conditions eventually led the wheels to lock up. When all it took was a touch of the left pedal to get the tires to skid, I knew it was time to hang up the keys for the night and duck into a Best Western.

To make my appointment in Virginia, I had to leave the next morning at 5 AM. There in the video above you can hear me extol the virtues of the van’s excellent all-wheel drive system, which I’d used to rip some nasty donuts in the hotel parking lot the prior night. Sadly, I have no footage of these donuts, but they happened, and they surprised me.

A minivan that can legitimately rip donuts? Just awesome.

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The drive to Virginia that morning was a bit of a slog given how tired I was, but I was determined. I had to get to the base by noon, and hopefully I’d be able to take the van on the special off-road course.

I Got Turned Away In Virginia

After five hours of driving that morning, I made it to my destination on time, but was immediately turned away at the gate by security because my tags were out of date (I’d just bought the car). Sonova!

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It was at this point that I realized I should have just stayed home and spent those three days running the site and getting you, dear readers, the sweet, sweet content you deserve. This trip was pointless! I’d spent $1200 and multiple days to drive to a Virginia military base that didn’t want the van, and then to North Carolina to a family that didn’t want the van. Should I just sell the machine and call it an L?

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I did get to go on the base (in a different vehicle) and ride in and drive a Toyota Tacoma off-road. Plus I got to hang out with Matt, Parker Kligerman, and my friend and talented cameraperson, Erica. It was honestly a nice pick-me-up, but it didn’t detract from the fact that this van trip was a huge waste.

But then, that night, I drove to Richmond to see my brother and college friends. I stayed the night with a buddy from the Virginia Automotive Club that I had co-founded with my college friend Steven, and then the next morning we — Richard, Richard’s brother, Steven, their families, and I — had breakfast, and the guys asked if I could take them around the block in the minivan. “Sure,” I replied.

Richard took the keys, and drove us around the block.

“Yo, this thing rules!” he said aloud. “It shifts nicely, the engine’s got plenty of power, and it rides great!”

Oh yeah, and see that button right there? That’s adaptive cruise control,” I told him. “And this is a DVD player,” I said as I folded the screen down from the headliner. “Oh, and those are heated seats,” I pointed out.

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I Realized That, Even If The Trip Was Pointless, This Van Was Incredible

My friend’s enthusiasm for this van had me realizing: This thing is actually legit! Sure, the trip may be pointless, but that’s not the van’s fault. The van is an absolute gem of a machine. It had driven over 750 miles without an issue, its engine felt powerful, its all-wheel drive system had proven itself in the snow, the adaptive cruise control had worked beautifully, the heated seats were clutch in freezing weather, and honestly: The thing was filled with luxury features I never would have dreamed one could get for only $500.

Yeah, the interior was a little rough, but this van was worthy of love. And as I made that drive from Virginia to see Jason and Sally in North Carolina, I realized that indeed had fallen in love with this thing. It was so comfortable and practical and not horrible on gas (over 20 MPG) and capable in adverse weather and just lovely. Driving it had been a true joy, even if it had been completely pointless.

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“You know what?” Let me stop by this Walmart and see if I can clean this thing up a little. I bought a steering wheel cover, some floor mats, and some cleaning supplies, and I headed to the nearest car vacuum/wash.

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Vacuuming and then scrubbing the carpets, and installing floor mats had helped, but the biggest game-changer was that steering wheel cover. After doing the best job that I could on the interior and exterior, I drove to Jason’s house. Upon getting there, I couldn’t stop talking about the van.

The Van Has A Loving New Home!

“It’s not pretty, but seriously it’s incredible. The number of features you get in this thing — and they all work!” I told them. “And honestly, the thing drove here flawlessly!” I said, smiling. “I’m blown away. It’s got 230,000 miles on it, it’s filled with luxury features, and it all works. And for $500!”

I think Jason and Sally could tell how smitten I was by the van.  “Let’s have a look at it,” they said.

Sally immediately liked it! “Oh yeah, this thing is great!” she said. “You said it was a junker. No no, it just needs a little bit of love. It’s got tons of potential!”

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WHEW!

What a relief!

This whole trip’s purpose had been to get Jason and Sally a good, reliable vehicle, and the road trip had proven that the Sienna fit that description. But because the van was in worse shape than I’d initially thought, I was convinced it’d be turned away. But who was I to doubt Sally’s vision for true potential? She married Jason, after all!

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Before I flew back to LAX, my friend and Autopian contributor Stephen Walter Gossin swung by to help swap the front brakes and the valve cover gasket; the front rotors had been vibrating a bit on the highway, so I figured I’d spend another $80 on new rotors and pads; why not? The valve cover gasket was leaking oil onto the exhaust manifold, causing smoking, so we took care of that for $20 and 20 minutes.

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Jason and I took the van to the airport, but not before making this video, which has garnered over 1000 likes:

 

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Come on, how can you not be convinced? $500 for a power moonroof, power rear vent windows, power seats, heated seats, a DVD player, a CD player with navigation, adaptive cruise control, HID lights, power mirrors, power side doors, a power rear hatch, and so much more. This van was the deal of the century, it had proven itself as unstoppable on that 1,000 mile road trip, and though it wasn’t minty inside, Sally loves it! Just check it out!:

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In fact, after Jason took the vehicle to get an alignment and to swap out the seized slide pins that I should have handled during the brake job, Sally took the van on a trip to Virginia and back, and it was flawless! According to Jason, Sally’s been driving it around all the time, cleaning the interior, enjoying the project.

And I’m just delighted. Thoroughly, thoroughly delighted.

I have no doubt this machine will serve them well for years to come. (As long as that timing belt doesn’t snap before I can swap it next summer. Gulp!).

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Nico
Nico
16 days ago

I do not regret you taking 3 days to fix a $500 minivan. Loved the article so much!

Ted Fort
Ted Fort
16 days ago

If you’ve never tried it, use Folex for the stains. It’s a carpet/upholstery cleaner that works miracles. They typically have it at Home Depot.

NoRush
NoRush
16 days ago

Well, would you look at that… The ol’ beater Family Truckster & Ultimate Utility Vehicle cleans up pretty nice! Most comfortable and most utilitarian vehicle I’ve ever driven, hands down.

Last edited 16 days ago by NoRush
Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
16 days ago

And hopefully this van will last you to at least the summer… because at that point, I’ll be looking at replacing my 2008 Honda Fit which I may donate to the cause… unless it has a catastrophic failure. The only complicating factor is I’m in Canada… so someone will have to do the import steps.

Alexander Moore
Alexander Moore
16 days ago

Even if it’s not the nicest, everyone with the space and time for one should totally have a beater minivan. It saves you from renting a Uhaul for IKEA, can be used as a small pickup for landscaping projects, can haul the extended family once a year, and can keep miles off your nicer cars because, well, it’s a beater. My parents’ 220k Odyssey is in pretty much the same place as this Sienna but my mom still adores it—it’s ‘her’ van! And like I said, it’s just so convenient to not have to rent anything for those edge cases. Now if only my parents would change the timing belt on the Honda, too…

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
17 days ago

The sheer amount of self-flagellation in this article confounds me, but I admire it.

Jake Baldridge
Jake Baldridge
17 days ago

It’s like David has become self aware, but also less self aware at the same time.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
17 days ago

A 230k mile Toyota will make a better daily than a VW anything, ever. There is a reason my daily drivers are Hondas. Leave the german stuff for weekends.

Also, AWD minivans rule. I looked into Siennas for a bit, they even make lift kits for them to turn them into decent offroad rigs, but settled on an Astro for the towing abilities, and larger interior.

Still, everytime I make a cross country trip in it, when I’m at the gas pumps I gaze longingly at Siennas with their futuristic 20mpg (I get 13ish).

Last edited 17 days ago by ADDvanced
JumboG
JumboG
17 days ago

Note about the furious pumping of fluids – I made a great discovery last month. They now make a pump that lets you draw a pint of your automotive fluid from the bottle (like a giant syringe,) then you push the fluid into your transmission/whatever. Yes, a little drips out while you move from the bottle to the vehicle. However, the time and effort savings are immense, and it only cost $15 at the Zone.

Santiago Iglesias
Santiago Iglesias
17 days ago

You fixed the stability control, right? Right?? on a family car?

JumboG
JumboG
17 days ago

That light was on because the CEL was on.

Mike B
Mike B
17 days ago

Great article! I really look forward to these, I really love DT’s writing style and adventures. I was almost hoping they’d pass on the van, I think this would make a cool offroad build (like SkiClasse, but actually work) and would generate some cool content.

I like these vans, my buddy in San Diego has the last year of the previous gen, it doesn’t have as many options (but it does have dual power sliders!) and is a really nice ride. Lots of room for mountain bikes, surfboards, etc. He really does live that SoCal lifestyle, haha. Riding in it while visiting had me looking for one when I got home.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
17 days ago

I wish I’d known this was an ongoing thing for as long as it was (I made multiple comments offering to help as a St. Louis local resident that went unanswered). I’d have been happy to donate time, parts, and labor at my shop to getting more done ahead of time and let you make it a road trip story (though where’s the fun in that, haha).

Maybe next time!

Doctor Nine
Doctor Nine
17 days ago

Firefly is one of my all time favorite shows, hands down. What a deal.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
17 days ago

Congratulations, David!
Plus, in due time Otto will drive the heck out on that van.
Big win, you all.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
17 days ago

It was good to see Torch feeling well enough to wrestle with a rear seat.

That guy
That guy
17 days ago

I just replaced a control arm on a similar vehicle. I loosened up the engine cradle and front engine mount bolts. That gave me enough play to use a long pry bar to separate cradle and engine far enough to remove the end mount. Still not easy, but doable without removing complete engine.

Rotarycoach
Rotarycoach
17 days ago

Great stuff- “David are you a king or some kind of sheikh??” That IG post had me laughing out loud.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
17 days ago

VSC and ABS/Trac light will come on with the CEL as those systems will be disabled if there’s a problem with the engine. So fix the O2 sensors and reset the codes and those lights may very well go away as well.

And get SWG up there soon to swap the timing belt and replace the valley coolant hose (and knock sensors if the valley hose is already leaking). Those are NOT things you want to sit on. Don’t do that to Sally after Torch basically did the exact same thing with the Tig… deferred addressing KNOWN problem areas.

JumboG
JumboG
17 days ago
Reply to  FloridaNative

Yep, I had a RAV4 and when the CEL came on it lit up the dashboard like a dragstrip Christmas tree, which initially freaked me out that something was terribly wrong with the CUV. Then I learned they just did that to warn you the various systems were disabled.

Gregory Schmidt
Gregory Schmidt
17 days ago

What.
The.
Frick!
do I have to do to know when you are going to be in Virginia, let alone RICHMOND!
If I organize a Richmond, wacky car collectors show, will you come? Be a guest judge? Whatever? You wouldn’t even need to drive a ’74 Pinzgauer cross country; we would just get you a flight!

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