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I'm Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500

Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500

I was going to write my annual “New Year’s Wrencholutions” post wherein I lie about how I’m going to sell some of the cars in my oversized fleet, and fix the ones that are actually in decent shape. But this time, I’ll just hit you with the truth: I’m going to repair the most worthless, decrepit piece of junk I own. And solidly at the top of that list is my totaled 2003 Kia Rio. But before you declare my priorities out of whack, hear me out.

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It was New Year’s Eve, and I decided to attend a party made up of a bunch of Chrysler engineers whom I didn’t really know all that well. I’d just spent Christmas alone, so I figured I’d rather spend time with strangers than have to clink two wineglasses together, one in each hand.

The party was great and filled with excellent car-people including an engineer named Bryan, whom I’d actually met before. In our conversation about the only topic I’m remotely capable of competently discussing—automobiles, of course—he mentioned how he wanted to participate in the Detroit Gambler 500, an unofficial on and off-road rally involving hundreds of people driving $500 cars around the state of Michigan. He said he was on the hunt for a car.

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A lightbulb illuminated in my skull, shooting photons from my fascial orifices.

Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500

You see, there’s this Kia that, for some reason, I traded a beautifully-running $1 Oldsmobile Alero for (the Olds was a once-reliable machine that has since failed numerous times, but that’s a story for another time). The Kia is a 2003 Rio that my landlord bought new, but totaled in a rear-end collision.

The good news is that the Rio still ran great after the crash, so I figured that, since I’d planned to destroy the Oldsmobile in a Still Not Finalized video series, I may as well trade. After all, why destroy a functional car when there’s a perfectly dysfunctional Kia that’s halfway destroyed already?

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The only problem was that, as soon as my landlord parked the Kia in my front yard (see above) after we agreed to trade, the piece of crap stopped running.

Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500
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Eventually, I managed to get the Kia to run (ish), but since it wasn’t insured, I drove it around my backyard to run it through its paces. It got stuck immediately.

This led to a whole ordeal involving me trying to ram the Kia (with my coworker Jason behind the wheel) out of the mud pit using a $600 Jeep Cherokee; me spotting my neighbor walking into my yard in a rage as I sat in the Jeep, mid-ram; my neighbor calling me an animal; and ultimately, me yanking the entire front fascia off the Kia.

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Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500

I then managed to pull the piece of junk out of the mud pit and park it on the side of my house, where it sat for nearly two years, sank itself into the dirt, and was in short order hidden by tall weeds, except in the winter, when it was often covered in snow.

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Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500

Anyway, on Saturday I managed to get the Kia onto a hard surface for the first time since early 2018 after Bryan hooked his battery jump-pack, and I jumped the starter relay (the key will not start the car; I assume the relay is shot) with a wire.

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Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500

While we were at it, we hooked a tow strap to the radiator support crossmember on one end, and to my $500 winter beater Jeep Cherokee on the other, and gave the Kia a yank or two.

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Here’s a look at the crossmember pre-pull. Notice how kinked the radiator hose is:

Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500
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But after we yanked the support, the radiator wasn’t crammed up against the engine, and that radiator hose restriction is much less:

Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500
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That’s pretty much all we’ve done so far. We did throw in some new gas and exchange the spark plugs for the hell of it, but it didn’t solve whatever was causing the engine to run rough.

Illustration for article titled Im Reviving The Totaled Kia That Sank Into My Backyard To Run It In The Gambler 500
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And boy does it run rough, especially at idle. Under revs, though, it even knocks, and trying to put it in gear either stalls the motor or results in extremely slow propulsion with almost no torque to overcome even small obstacles.

We noticed some of the plugs covered in fuel, which was peculiar. We also saw that there are no fault codes except one dealing with a transmission range sensor, which I guess could theoretically be putting the vehicle into limp mode.

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So Bryan and I still have some work to do before the Gambler 500 on May 2. Plus we have to figure out how to get some all-terrains on this thing, and of course, some skid plates. But when that’s done, this will be a glorious Gambler car—the ultimate send-mobile, really: A vehicle that I truly, truly don’t give a crap about. If we want to jump it, we can. If we want to drown it, we can. If we want to ram it against a tree, sure! There are no rules, it’s the Gambler 500, and we’re driving a car that doesn’t matter. It is the American dream.

I will recognize that I do have other cars around my house that could use some attention, including:

1. 1992 Jeep Cherokee (needs head work)

2. 1991 Jeep Cherokee (needs a front axle)

3. 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle (needs an engine rebuild)

4. 1985 Jeep J10 (needs only minor repairs)

5. 1966 Ford Mustang (needs to be baselined; hasn’t run in years)

6. 1948 Willys CJ-2A (needs head work, brake work)

7. 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd (needs a control arm, interior work)

8. 1995 Land Rover Discovery (needs engine work)

Of those, the ones more worthy of my time than the Kia include:

1. 1992 Jeep Cherokee (needs head work)

2. 1991 Jeep Cherokee (needs a front axle)

3. 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle (needs an engine rebuild)

4. 1985 Jeep J10 (needs only minor repairs)

5. 1966 Ford Mustang (needs to be baselined; hasn’t run in years)

6. 1948 Willys CJ-2A (needs head work, brake work)

7. 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd (needs a control arm, interior work)

8. 1995 Land Rover Discovery (needs engine work)

Yes, it’s the same list twice—they’re all more deserving of my wrenching time than the piece-of-crap Kia. But hey, the Kia needs to go eventually, and that I’ve got a friend willing to help on that front is a blessing. Even if it throws my priorities a bit out of whack.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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If you can finally get that Kia off your writer bio thing I call it a win.