It turns out that this is indicative of either a busted engine head gasket, or a cracked engine head. Apparently this is really easy to diagnose, and relatively easy but very time-consuming (read: expensive) to fix.
So I essentially had three choices:
- Get a replacement (used) engine, for about $1300
- Have them take apart the engine and determine the problem. If the head isn't cracked, a new gasket would be about $750. If the head is cracked, a new head could be $1500, or even more if they can't find a cheap used one. Either of these prices could go up if there's anything else wrong with the engine
- Sell the car, which has a Blue Book value of about $2,150 with a working engine and less body damage than I have
I held my breath, crossed my fingers, and called up the mechanic yesterday to choose option 2. I figure that even if more repairs are needed, this car is worth quite a bit more to me than it would be to someone else, since I don't care about the body damage and since I know what headaches it does and doesn't have.
I called him back today. The head is fine. They're going to poke around tomorrow to see if anything else is wrong with my engine, so I'm still holding my breath a bit, but it's really looking hopeful that I can get out of here with a bill of just $750. Even my 53,000-mile timing belt looks fine, he said.
And the best part? I had totally budgeted my tax return (about $500) for car repairs this summer, since if anything ever goes wrong with it, it's usually this time of year, and I didn't want to risk not being able to afford to fix the thing. So this will hopefully be just a couple hundred beyond that.
I'm still holding my breath, but it looks like I'm well on my way to being very, very relieved.