By on January 3, 2010

This Taurus a new one?

Why that car? My cousin was slightly amused at the sight of my 2004 Ford Taurus SES. A rental car seemingly loaded with penny-pinching mediocrity and cut corners. An unusual choice for the holidays. It had made the long journey from Northwest Georgia to Jewish Florida in a day’s time. The leather was cheap, but functional. The buttons were cheap, but functional. The price bought it for was very cheap…

and very functional. $1400. So what was the catch? As the Rev. Jesse Jackson would say if he hucked cars instead of skin color, “There’s always an explanation for depreciation.” Cheap always happens in any business for a reason. In fact, for many years I’ve been sampling three types of ‘cheap cars’ that pay off surprisingly well. They are…

1) The very high mileage, late model vehicle.

2) The very low mileage, older vehicle.

3) The unknown mileage (True Miles Unknown) / or ‘Branded Title’ vehicle.

This one was a prime example of number one. Although it was as clean and well kept as any ‘dealer queen’ at the auction, it also had mileage that would qualify it for ‘gold’ status in most frequent flyer programs. 190k highway miles in North Georgia to be exact. However this car was also in exceptionally good shape. Even for a 5 year old car. Ford OEM parts had been installed aplenty in the engine department since day one. The exterior and interior surprisingly free of any signs of substantial wear. It had also been a ‘fleet’ vehicle for a company which had taken it for dealer service every 3,000 miles.

Everything worked from the sunroof to the trunk release. Leather was perfect… which is a very good thing. Because for the most part folks either ‘buy with their eyes’ or get the ‘loaded model’. A modern day sled is still more marketable when it’s full of bells, whistles, and reindeer. This one has 200 horsepower which is a nice marketing combo when you throw in the leather and a roof. A brick load of receipts had kept this road warrior a front line ready unit and the 1500 miles of recent family taxi duty didn’t hurt it either. In fact, it may have helped it given that I can now vouch for it’s road trip prowess.

Resale has always been the shangri-la of the cheapskate and the ugly ogre for those who end up trading their sleds. This Taurus definitely qualifies as a medieval terror in that regard. Like most overproduced and over-rental-ed domestics, the market value is now less than half of a Toyonda equivalent. The next buyer may also benefit from the curse of powertrains past. AXOD transmissions and head gasket sucking 3.8 Liters (not to mention Ford’s rental happy orientation at the time) had doomed the Taurus for well over a decade into the far lower tier of resale value. This one thankfully came with the 200 horsepower Duratec with the AX4N transmission which has overwhelmingly become the powertrain of choice for buy-here pay-here lots. It’s a surprisingly good unit that makes Tauruses quite popular for those companies that specialize in financing the unfinancable. It’s cheap to buy. Cheap to sell… and if you recondition it properly, it’s usually cheap to keep.

This Taurus is also far from alone in the ‘cursed’ regard. Dodge Intrepids often came with a 2.7L V6 that self-destructed well before 100k. I actually had one that was only owned by the Salvation Army, and six months after it sold, the engine went kaput. However the 3.5L unit that went to the high-line models, police cars, and the 300M is an entirely different beast. I bought a 2004 model a few years ago for only $3000 that came with everything… and 133k miles. Over the years, I have bought and financed a lot of these high mileage road warriors from the auction’s discount bin and I have yet to regret it. Explorers with ‘Exploder Tires’, Dexron-ridden GM cars. Even the one blown head of a 1990′s Neon may be bought for a song and sold for a dance. But like any veteran buyer at the auctions, I also do a lot of research and inspection before pulling that trigger. A diligent inspection and a good history of care usually go a very long way; especially when you’re playing with your own money.

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30 Comments on “Hammer Time: Cheap, Cheap and Cheap...”


  • avatar
    James2

    My dad owned a 2002 and a 2006 Taurus wagon. The 2002 seemed better built than the 2006, from both a material and fit-finish perspective. The 2002 had a Vulcan V6, which worked okay, but the 2006 had the 3.8 (I think) and I don’t recall ever hearing a car moan like a whale under harpoon attack as much as this car did. Neither car was exciting, neither set any standards for excellence, but they worked.

  • avatar
    ruckover

    Jewish Florida?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      It sounds a helluva lot better than ‘chad central’.
      And yes… retirement communities in the West Palm Beach area tend to be predominantly Jewish. I should know. Half my family is there.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    I’ve been to two auto auctions, one with two lanes, one with three.  I had no idea what the heck was going on.  I couldn’t even tell if a car sold or not.  Esp at the three lane auction, the noise was incredible and the auctioneers unintelligible.  Unlike antique auctions that I have been to I didn’t have to sign in and get a placard, so I was deathly afraid I would accidentally bid on some early 90′s ChryCo product.
     
    My questions to Mr. Lang are:  How and when do you do your inspections?  How do you know what the hell the auctioneer is saying?
     
    Thanks for the article, hammer time is one of my favorites.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Count me in as one who appreciates hammer time too. There’s an auto auction near my house, and I’ve gone there a few times over the years. I always forget to bring earplugs, forgetting that there’s nothing like being auctioneered at for three or four hours at top volume to make one’s head swim for the rest of the day. This outfit does a hundred cars or so at its monthly auction in one lane. They also do general estates; small town but long-time outfit.

  • avatar
    Rday

    A friend of my wife’s refers to Southern Florida as ‘Jew Heaven’.  And he is jewish.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Love hammer time too.  It has made me look at all auctions differently, including eBay.  I wonder more about the histories of the cars down at my local dealer who goes down to Phoneix (400-500 miles away) at least once a month and restocks his used car lot when the trades aren’t coming fast enough. 

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    If I had to drive that taurus, I think I would be sad.  I’d rather have a Zx2 with a stick.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I can echo your experience on the Intrepids.  My sister in law had a mid 90s model with the 3.5.  Although she eventually had to deal with air conditioning and radiator issues (and possibly a tranny, though it may have been done before she got it) she drove it to nearly 300K.  The drivers seat was starting to self destruct, but that 3.5 kept running.
    But in the end, it did not keep her from buying a Camry for her next car.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    A used Taurus (or Sable) in good condition is one of the best used car buys for the appliance crowd.  Cheap to buy, cheap to run, repair and insure.  My station car Sable just turned 18 years old.  No rust, minimal repairs and still the original transmission.  And it was never garaged.  Yeah, its best to avoid Gen 1, but there really aren’t too many of them left.  You would be hard pressed to buy a better value.  And there is a surprising amount of aftermarket support thanks to the SHO models.  And really, the interior appointments on the high line models are really not that bad.

    BTW: all of Florida is not “Jewish”. Just choose Jupiter instead of Boca.

  • avatar
    lahru

    What as always amazed me is you can go to the sale and buy cars like this with leather and a roof for what, maybe a extra $100 over one without. There are many cars and trucks that if you do your homework and know what you are buying, beyond year, brand and model can provide many miles of trouble free driving. This car is a favorite of mine and when you put a shine on it and don’t get greedy on the lot always sells well. Second to this is a Chevrolet Impala of the same ilk and as long as the seat is not fattened out and the intake if the 3.1 is OK, of makes money. Me right now a 2000 Subaru Outback, 163,000 with a thick maintenance file at our dealership and aside from the dent in the hood (moose) will carry me for who knows how long. Paid $1500 and that is the most I’ve paid for a beater in 10 years. If it breaks I call it, OTB, goes over the bank.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I agree with Mr. Lang’s purchasing philosophy.  My two most recent purchases were a ’98 Grand Caravan (99k miles in 2007, now 144k) and an ’01 Elantra (138k miles in 2009).  Both needed some work and $$ to straighten out, but have proven financially cheaper and more reliable than two other cars I bought new: an ’02 Passat and ’05 Odyssey, each of which cost me my shirt and patience.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    Every time I read your articles, I feel you demystify the “fact” that US domestic cars are crap.
    They have, as you stated, their faults in some models, but some are real gems.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Something like this is EXACTLY what my sister-in-law needs right now. Unemployed, she moved across the country to be closer to my wife.  With limited funds (maybe $1500-2000), she needs something more or less reliable enough to get her to and from whatever job she hopefully lands while attempting to raise her three-year old girl by herself.

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    Wait a minute… now that the oval Taurus is gone, it’s somehow an amazing, durable used car recommendation? Didn’t everyone rail on it the entire time it was being built? When I was in a job where I had to travel a lot, I used to request these things at Hertz. They were generally in better condition than any Camry, Hyundai or Impala. The interior was crap, but as long as the wheels were balanced, the car was generally solid.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    Excellent article on the best value in used purchases.
    I wonder:  With the decline of manual transmission sales, are used MT vehicles too rare to develop of ‘feel’ for long term reliability?
    To me, it seems that those who buy an MT vehicle fall into one of two camps:
    1) value drivers who drive it until it turns to dust
    2) performance drivers (both true and poser).
    You can’t buy from 1 and generally don’t want to buy from 2.
    FWIW, I have fond memories of old, indestructible domestic pickups with clutches…

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I would prefer a high miles car with a bunch of reciepts to a  low miles older car. Most cars don’t like to sit or go  just short distances.

  • avatar
    TAP

    I recommend to friends in need of cheap wheels a local used lot called Freedom Wheels,which sells well-sorted older cars and trucks to raise cash for Vehicles for Change.  This non-profit provides  cars cheap to people getting back on their feet, who have a job and need a car. It’s located in Halethorpe, MD.

  • avatar
    George B

    Steve, I always enjoy your articles.  How many too expensive cars do you have to sort through before you find a car like this Taurus?  Do you focus on a short list of cars you expect to sell at a low price or do you cast a wider net and get unexpected bargains?
     

  • avatar
    celebrity208

    Steven, might you be able to write a post that includes two lists; one a list of drivetrains you avoid and another those power trains with sterling reputations for reliability?  You’ve started this list, at least in my head, in this article by chastising the Chrysler 2.7L and Ford 3.8L + AXON combo but giving a head nod to the Chrysler 3.5L and the Ford Duratec + AX4N combo.  To the reputable list I’d suggest the Honda F22B 2.2L engine, the GM 3.8L + 4T60 combo, and the Toyota 1ZZ-FE engine in Corollas.  I’m tempted to recommend, because of an impeccable personal history with, the GM 2.4L LD914 + 4T40 combo but I don’t have many other anecdotal data points.  So, any other power train dos or don’ts?

    • 0 avatar
      texlovera

      I second celebrity208′s request.  Such a list would be extremely helpful, as my next car purchase will be for my college-bound daughter in a few months.  Reliable drivetrains will be at the top of my list for used cars.

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      I third the request. Hammer time is possibly the most useful feature on TTAC and I’d love to see Steven’s “Must to avoid” list.

  • avatar
    threeer

    @ Steven Lang…she moved to be closer to us…we live just outside of Charleston, SC (actually, I’m assigned here in Huntsville, Alabama…which makes it even harder to help her get a car when I’m 8 hours away)…but a decent sedan at $1500-2000 would be good for her.  Nothing fancy, just something safe enough to carry her and her three year old…with “hopefully” minimal repairs, since she is still unemployed and struggling.

  • avatar

    You’ll never, EVER, catch me buying a front-driver with more than 100k.
    Good luck.

  • avatar
    olivehead

    i had a 2002 taurus SES that i bought used (former rental) with about 12k miles on it.  otherwise in near mint condition.  drove it for about 102k without major repair, until a perpetual engine warning light caused me to get rid of it.  i can’t say it was otherwise less well put together than my ’09 accord, including fit and finish and materials.  interestingly, i had an occasion to drive a nearly identical 2006 rental, and the difference in fit and finish, and particularly interior materials, was striking, and a little bit depressing.  at least nowadays, as far as ford goes at least, they’re bettering the materials in the updates of their cars (e.g. fusion) rather than cheapening.  apparently market forces can have some positive effects.

  • avatar
    otsegony

    I have to say my experience agrees with Steve on this car.  I drive a 2002 Taurus SEL wagon that I bought at a local dealer five years ago at a great price because it had 70k on the clock.  It is now over 160k and it has been a very good car.  I’ve never had an engine or transmission repair and the only consistent fault has been small body components like door latches and trim pieces that have broken. The car was paid off two years ago and now sports dents and dings from three deer hits, two icy weather low speed encounters with guard rails and the like as well as the beginnings of a couple of rust spots.  At this point it is the “go-to” car for dump runs, bad weather and taking the dogs for walks.  I’m looking for another one to replace it…

  • avatar

    A couple of years ago, the auto press couldn’t ask enough questions about how soon Chinese cheap cars would hit American shores. The Chinese auto industry was growing explosively, but Chinese internal demand was so robust that there was no reason to bring them to the U.S. Plus, there were doubts about whether the Chinese could meet U.S. quality and safety standards without a lot of outside help.


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