Sajeev and Steve,
My buddy is in college and needs a used set of wheels. After 2 years of depending upon Baltimore’s awful public transportation system and the generosity of friends, roommates, frat brothers, and total strangers for car rides, his school work is starting to suffer and he’s decided to buy a car. Unfortunately, his budget is about $2000. His living situation and total lack of mechanical skills rule out anything German, Swedish, or otherwise maintenance intensive.
His criteria for the car are reliable/durable, fuel efficient, and cheap to run. Working AC and heat would be a bonus, but he really only intends to drive the car about 15-20 minutes per day for school. He has absolutely no pretensions about the car’s badge, perceived coolness, sporty driving dynamics, etc., but he probably won’t spring for a total crapcan like a metro or echo. Also, he’s currently unemployed, and I don’t think he intends to find a job due to his course load.
His prior cars have all been automatic Volvos, but he’s driven drunken frat brothers’ manual-equipped cars before, and he’s willing to drive a stick on a daily basis. Any kind of repairs on a high mileage automatic would probably bankrupt him. Personally I would never advise anyone to buy a high mileage automatic; I’d feel like I was telling them to buy a ticking time bomb.
My first advice for him was to budget at least $1000 for future repairs, maintenance, taxes, registration and insurance out of his original $2k. What are your recommendations/advice for finding a sub $1000 set of wheels that won’t kill my buddy with repair bills?
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
- Saturn S cars – as long as he avoids the DOHC motors, which I’ve heard require head gasket replacements every 70k or so.
- Geo/Chevy Prizm – it’s basically a toyota with heavier depreciation, and I haven’t heard of any ‘known’ issues with these cars.
- Corolla/camry/Civic/Prelude/Accord – again, do you know of any issues with these cars for the 90’s models? I checked Craigslist and autotrader and couldn’t find any examples of these within the $1000 price range.
- Neon – I’ve heard that except for the last few model years, the Neons had head gasket issues, so I’m inclined to tell my buddy to avoid these.
- Focus – no clue on these
- Contour – Mondeo FTW! Obviously, the I-4 motor.
- Cavalier – again, no idea whether these had common problems
So, what advice can you offer regarding vehicle selection? Buying from a dealership would be ideal, since it would be easier to take the car to his family mechanic for a pre-purchase checkup, but I think we’re going to end up on Craigslist and at auctions. Assuming we can’t get any of our mechanically inclined buddies to show up, what checks can I reasonably perform on the cars to weed out total dogs? Offhand, I know to check oil levels and check for oil frothiness/discoloration, check transmission and hydraulic fluids, coolant levels and colors, belts and chains, and to do things like run the AC, wipers, etc.
I would avoid the dealership like a harsh case of psoriasis. You need to go to the private owner. As for the sub-$2000 car in this economy you should look for…
- No A/C: This automatically knocks off $500 to $1000 off the price
- The EXTRA car: Folks who already have one more car than they need will sell the leftover ride for cheap. I was able to buy a 10 year old Camry for $500 back in the days when I was getting started. Don’t bet on that happening in today’s times.
- Older folks: Owners who are middle-aged and beyond tend to be less abusive than younger folks. Feel free to visit some of the retirement communities in your area and you’ll see exactly what I mean. 4) Gas Guzzlers: Although any vehicle in good condition will do, your friend may actually come out ahead by buying an older vehicle that drinks gas but requires minimal maintenance.
The brand name is completely unimportant at this price point. What is important is that once your friend finds what will work, it is immediately taken to an independent mechanic for an inspection.
Once he buys the car he will want to bring the car back into ‘day one’ condition with it’s fluids. I would buy a Mityvac and replace all the fluids as soon as possible. $80 for a manual pumping Mityvac and about $50 in fluid and filters should be more than enough if his friends are willing to help him out. If not then let the mechanic do the work.
Right now your friends only concern should be to get good grades, great work experience, and a pathway to a good job. Don’t worry about the ‘type’ of car. Just by something that has been well kept and keep focused on the work and grades.
Both your and Steve’s assessment are correct. Quite honestly, you will buy the first vehicle on Craigslist with a smattering of service records and a sub $1000 asking price. And yes, anything European is entirely out of the question, but automatic transmissions are a hit or miss at this price point. I would not rule them out, especially if you stick with slushboxes made by GM or the major Japanese brands.
From there I can only guess: any GM sedan, a non-Z car Nissan, or some other non-Honda and non-Toyota from Japan (i.e. resale value) is a good idea. In theory. Or maybe an ex-cop car Panther, in reality. Because, why the hell not?
Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to firstname.lastname@example.org, and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder. In a rush? Don’t be shy about asking to cut in line.