By on September 13, 2011


Ryan writes:

I have a friend who just got her PhD and is moving to Texas for her post-doc. She has never owned a car, but now needs to get one so she can go out in the field to do research. I’ve agreed to help her find something used, probably a small manual-transmission pickup truck. Needless to say she’s not a car person at all, just wants something inexpensive (under 5k), that she won’t have to worry about too much. I’m recommending something after 96 or so, to get the R134A A/C and maybe a few more airbags and safety features.

I have owned a couple Nissans (Frontier and Rogue), and a Toyota Tacoma, and my brother owned a Nissan Frontier, all were mostly problem free. I also had a 91 Ford Explorer before that, which also gave me few problems up to 200k miles.

Given my experiences, I’ve been thinking Tacoma or Frontier for my friend, I think they will be more reliable at the high mileages she can afford. But looking in the local (Phoenix, AZ) Craigslist – By Owner section, I see that Tacomas are relatively more expensive, older Frontiers are cheaper but less common (many are also heavily modified), and there seem to be lots of less expensive Ford Rangers available.

Do you agree with the 96 or later idea? Or do you think something older could work? What about the Ranger’s reliability as opposed to the imports? Also, are there any other models with a proven track record she should consider? And finally, given that a 10+ year old truck with over 100k miles is going to need maintenance no matter what, what about parts availability and ease-of-maintenance between the brands?

Sajeev answers:

1996 and newer is definitely the way to go: any modern mechanic can diagnose and repair an OBD-II vehicle, and you do get the benefit of better equipment…usually.  Now there was an all-new Tacoma for 1995, and rumor has it that they received OBD-II like their 1996 brothers somewhere in the middle of the production year. From a Piston Slap standpoint, the Tacoma had the nicest motors and are generally regarded as the best in their class in design and fit and finish.  From a “New or Used” standpoint, they are ridiculously overpriced and the Ranger is good enough.

I’d recommend all three: Ranger, Tacoma and Frontier. In that order. Rangers are stupid cheap, unquestionably reliable (especially the 2.3L and 3.0L models) and there will be plenty of cheap spares for decades to come. The Tacoma is great, except for the asking price.  I never liked the Frontier as much as the other two, especially when the Ranger received all the interior and suspension upgrades from the 2nd Generation Ford Explorer.

But honestly, how far off-road will she travel?  I think the original Ford Escape or Toyota RAV4 with AWD and slightly knobby tires will be more than adequate, and might be a better all-around vehicle for her.

Then again, the original RAV4 wasn’t especially refined in my book…so maybe a truly honest pickup is right on the money. The budget is tight, so the Ranger is right.

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27 Comments on “Piston Slap: The budget is Tight, the Ranger is Right?...”

  • avatar

    If she’s using it primarily for work, then panel vans (e.g. Econoline, Savana, Express Van) are great for carrying around gear and will usually go anywhere a pickup will go (they’re noisy as hell, of course, and completely unrefined, but very practical for many jobs and she won’t have to fret about stowing things in the cab all the time). Of course if it’s a daily driver, then I’d go with Sajeev’s suggestions (adding the Tribute to the list).

    I know it might be a little over budget, but she might also like the Honda Element.

    p.s. If she’s really going off road as OldandSlow notes below, then an older 4Runner would be an excellent choice.

  • avatar

    The Element and Escape lack proper ground clearance for primitive unpaved roads. Plus, the suspension even on my Escape/Tribute really doesn’t seem up to really rough roads. You have to do them slow.

    The Tacoma TRD is the way to go, if you plan on leaving the beaten path. The TRD with large tires has the clearance, the suspension, plus a locking rear diff, if equipped with an automatic.

    • 0 avatar

      We’d all like to see stormtroopers beating people in the streets, but who’s going to pay for it? If a base Tacoma is stretching the budget then a TRD is out of the question.

  • avatar

    If she’s going to be in Phoenix, the least of her worries will be ground clearance! A Ford Ranger would do the trick – I owned a 1996 SB standard-cab 4 cyl 5 spd. XLT and loved it. handled any road it needed to, but it was only 2WD. Her real concern had better be an air conditioner that works – really well – and a heavy-duty cooling system; she’ll need it and thank you for it! The terrain out there is pretty flat with assorted buttes that she won’t be climbing with a vehicle anyway, plus roads go everywhere she’ll need to go with only a relatively short jaunt into the field, either by vehicle or on foot.

    Who knows? Maybe my wife and I will see her out and about in about three weeks when we’re out there for a few days!

  • avatar

    Subaru Outback.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I’ll say Escape (or Mazda Tribute – a forgotten brother of the Escape) or the aforementioned Ranger. Rangers are very common and cheaply had. But the CUVs will be more refined.

  • avatar

    Yes, the Ranger is right…a 4 cylinder with a manual transmission and 2 wheel drive.

  • avatar

    Since she has never owned a vehicle, is a stick really a good idea?

    She doesn’t really need 4wd since I imagine any work she does will either be on public land or at a landowner’s discretion, more often than not there is some sort of road (even if it was just bladed to remove rocks). She really just needs good tires on the loose dirt, gravel, and caliche (which sucks to clean). I’d go with an Outback, Escape, CRV, RAV, etc… keeps your cargo from getting dust and dirt in it. And plenty of cargo liners out there (I have a Canvasback liner in my Outback, awesome!) to keep the interior from getting stained.

    I’m out in the “field” quite often, for utility related jobs (gas, power, wind, solar), and the worst roads seldom need the company pickup or rental pickup/suv put into 4WD. Only on a steeeeeeep climb with loose ground. That is in states like Montana, Idaho, Utah, not Texas.

    She will want a good AC to crank it after being in the hot sun all day.

    • 0 avatar

      The best way to learn to drive stick is right from the start and what better way than in a small truck with its non-sports clutch and load hauling gearing. With manuals it’s possible to start the motor on a weak battery by roll starting and that adds a level of safety out in the field. They are simpler therefore more reliable and easier to maintain.

      • 0 avatar

        You’re not telling me anything I do not know. Almost all of my vehicles (with the exception of my TL) have been sticks, including the Outback which is our family rig.

        They are not necessarily more reliable at an older age, a worn clutch can certainly cost quite a bit. A basic 4-speed auto transmission (not transaxle) can be very robust.

  • avatar

    How about a Subaru Baja? Great gas mileage and supreme reliability. Also Indiana made quality!

  • avatar

    Another vote for the Escape – my brother has 250,000 miles on his, and it’s been very reliable. As long as “out in the field” doesn’t mean unpaved trails, the Escape will be fine.

  • avatar

    another vote for a 97+ subaru outback. just watch out for the head gaskets. If it was already previously replaced that is great, if not expect it to fail sometime down the line, but still very much worth it IMO.

  • avatar

    Rangers are cheap and bulletproof. Make it a 1998 or later as they were largely reengineered at that point. Much improved suspension, boxed front frame rails, and a lengthened cab for singlecab models. A regular cab 5 speed will approach 30mpg and will be surprisingly fun to drive.

    A cheap aluminum cap will add significant security and utility — fiberglass caps are useful as well and arguably prettier, but they add fuel-sucking weight. I’ve had both and prefer the aluminum cap; I can remove or replace it without extra hands in about five minutes, and it doesn’t affect fuel mileage at all.

  • avatar
    George B

    The Ranger is fairly cheap and versatile, but it’s not that great to drive long distances on the highway. Going out in the field in Texas could easily mean several hundred miles per trip. Depending on the ratio of highway driving to rough roads and where in Texas, a mechanically OK but sun oxidized paint beater car may be better.

  • avatar

    No love for the GM compact trucks? S-10 (chevy) and S-15 (GMC) pickups are dirt cheap and easy to find. I worked at the plant where they built some of them (Linden, NJ). Decent trucks, definitely not as refined as some of the Japanese counterparts but more than capable. My fiance has a 2000 Jimmy with 120k on it now that’s been pretty reliable.

    I have no problem with the Rangers, either, but just giving another option.

    • 0 avatar

      Not even close in either build quality or reliability. Durability is significantly less than a Ranger.

      Acquaintance who manages a fair-sized fleet of compact trucks quit ordering S10s more than ten years ago because of excessive downtime. Says there is no functional difference between a Tacoma and a Ranger, but a significant cost difference.

  • avatar

    From a resident AZ native: Rangers are inexpensive and reliable. Echo the comments regarding the cooling and AC. A cap would be nice.

    And she DOES want a 4wd if she is going off road very much. She will be driving down sand washes, and crossing sand washes. And without 4wd she will very likely be *stuck* in sand washes – or not be able to go where she wants to go. Trust me on this.

    Edit: Whoops. Just reread and realized that she is moving to Texas from AZ. I can’t speak for the Texas terrain, but the Ranger is a good vehicle.

  • avatar

    Ranger, Ranger, Ranger, it’s the only good choice, they aren’t cheap, at least around here they go for a s much or more than a Toyota. 4cyl or Vulcan 3.0 only don’t mess with a 4.0 you get full size MPG with compact usefulness.

    • 0 avatar

      Not sure where you live, in the Rockies and Pacific northwest Tacomas are often $3k-7k more depending on the year and equipment. A 15 year old Tacoma 4×4 SR5 extended cab is still worth around $10k. A similiar Ranger is probably around $6k.

    • 0 avatar

      Here in British Columbia, Tacomas are quite a bit more expensive than the Ranger or B-series.

      I was able to buy a new 2011 4-cyl auto reg cab Ranger for less than $18 K including all taxes.

  • avatar

    Sajeev made a good comment on the Escape, but the only more outrageously overpriced Toyota than the Tacoma is the RAV4. If you can even find one with less than 150k miles, it will be way over her budget. You would think they are made of gold!

    But Jeep Cherokees and Explorer Sports can be found in that range all day and will work as well as a pickup.

  • avatar

    Does she need to buy the car in Arizona? The state of Texas buys Rangers in droves. You can find scads of them up for auction from time to time at And at the very least you know they’ve kept up with a regular maintenance schedule.

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