By on March 1, 2016

Ask Bark: Which Beater Should She Bet On?

New-to-TTAC reader Kobe writes:

Hi Bark,

I’ve only begun to read TTAC and your email responses are a great read, so I figured I’d give sending you a question a shot.

Two of my wife’s friends are looking for reliable, used cars. The parameters I’ve been given were $4,000 or less (as she will need to save a little for maintenance repairs I figure), a hatchback (preferably four-door), automatic, front- or all-wheel drive, and decent gas mileage. Her friend has lived around NYC most of her life, so although she has her driving license, she has rarely driven.

Now, I went about scrolling through all the makes and models that are listed on Autotrader and came up with this possible list:

  • Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe twins (my recommendation, best bang for buck of high reliability and little notoriety so hopefully a better deal)
  • Mazda2
  • Mazda3
  • Mazda Protege5
  • Honda Fit (first generation)
  • Honda CR-V (first generation)
  • Scion xB
  • Saab 9-3x
  • Subaru Impreza/Outback
  • Acura Integra (third generation, not a four-door, but sporty and dead reliable — only problem is they’re often stolen!)

Given the price limit, almost all will have 100,000 miles or more, which means almost all will need some regular maintenance to replace parts that have worn out. Do you have any suggestions on which might be more reliable (and require fewer parts to replace over time) given what you know?

Thanks,
Kobe

Times are tough for Kobe, what with this being his last season and all. I can see why he’d need a beater. Okay, enough of that joke. Time to get serious.

I noticed something about your list, Kobe — they’re almost all Japanese imports. While standard wisdom seems to suggest that you’re smart to consider these makes and models as reliable options, you’re also likely to pay a Toyota/Honda tax on almost all of the cars you suggested (outside of the Subarus, which I’m just going to give a big fat NO). Might there be a domestic option that could provide similar reliability yet also get you a little bit more car for the dollar?

Eh, not really.

2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser

My 20-minute search of third-party classified ads didn’t turn up more than a whole boatload of Chrysler PT Cruisers, the occasional Dodge Caliber, and a few 2000-2003 Ford Focus ZX3 hatchbacks. The Focus wouldn’t be a terrible option, but since your heart appears to be set on something JDM, let’s turn our attention there for a moment.

2004 Toyota Matrix XR 4WD, Image: Toyota

We’ve only been doing Ask Bark for, like, a month, but we’ve already done the whole Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe thing to death. Some people like them, some don’t. You can find a Vibe in your range (if you don’t mind having a relatively high airbag failure rate, as pointed out by one of our more astute commenters) and be done with it, if you like. Honestly, I think you can do better. So let’s press on.

2007 Scion xB Family, Image: Toyota

The rest of the cars on your list that fit in your budget don’t just have 100,000 miles. Most of the examples I can find in your price range are closer to 200k or more. Honda CR-Vs and Scion xBs, in particular, hold their value extremely well. Anything sub-$4,000 looks to come with a host of disclosed issues — and just imagine what isn’t being disclosed! There’s a few unloved second-gen xBs in your range — but they, too, are rather high mileage.

2010 Mazda2, Image: Mazda

I found exactly one Mazda2 in the country at $4,000, and it has 170,000 miles on it. No. Just no. And Mazda3s hold their value very well, so any example of a Mazda3 that’s in your range is going to be in rough, rough shape.

2007 Honda Fit Sport, Image: Honda

Same goes for Honda Fits. Any sub-$4,000 Fit looks to be an “as-is” car. And Integras under $4,000 are virtually guaranteed to be complete shitboxes that were run to death by teenagers. DO NOT WANT.

How about some other options?

2008 Scion xD, Image: Toyota

If you want something Japanese, I’m surprised that you didn’t come up with the Scion xD. With that brand being so recently orphaned, there’s a good chance that Scions will start taking a price dive in the near future, and xDs can be found in that range with some regularity. I’ve always been a fan of the little Scion hatches (they have a little more panache than Yarises of that era) and they should be just as reliable as anything else of similar vintage.

2010 Kia Soul, Image: Kia

If the friend can bump up her budget just a tad, I’d consider a Kia Soul at around $5,000. You should be able to find a 2011 or so vintage in that price range, and I’m not aware of the Soul having a ton of mechanical issues. I’d probably trust a 2011 Soul over a 2001 CR-V any day of the week.

2005 Ford Focus ZX3, Image: Ford

I’ve got to bring the Focus hatchback up again. There are clean examples of cars in your range that are as recent as 2005 model year, and they’ve got decent reputations for reliability. Plus, if they do break, they’re so cheap to fix that it’s a wash.

General Motors announces Thursday, December 7, 2006 that Saturn will add the Astra compact car to its lineup late in 2007.The 2008 Astra joins the Sky, Aura, Outlook and all-new Vue, in a line-up where no Saturn will have been in the market more than 20 months, giving the brand one of the freshest product lineups in the industry. (General Motors Handout Photo)

But, if I were your friend, I might give the private seller who listed this car a call. It’s a pretty nice example of a 2008 Saturn Astra. There aren’t many of them out there, so finding one close to you might be a bit of a pain, but the Astra was one of those cars that was highly regarded by nearly everybody but came into existence at just the wrong time. (I even own one. —MS) Less than 20,000 Astras were sold in America, so I don’t know how great the parts availability on these will be. (Not great. —MS) That being said, however, the 1.8-liter Ecotec motor has a solid reputation for being bulletproof, and there just isn’t a whole lot that can go wrong with one of them. You’ll get a lot more car for the money with this Little Orphan Astra than you will with a comparable Japanese hatch.

WWBD? In order: xD, Astra, Focus hatch. I know that you want her to have something a little cooler than that, but the reality is that even Hondas and Toyotas start to break around 200,000 miles.

[Images courtesy of manufacturers.]


A note to the readers: I want to thank all of you for sending in your Ask Bark questions (and please, keep doing so). The reality is that I’m swamped by them at the moment, and we only have room for two questions per week here on TTAC. If your question requires an urgent answer, please let me know when you write to me. I might not be able to publish your answer immediately, but I can reply to you personally with my recommendation via e-mail at my earliest convenience. That way, you get your answer in a timely manner, and I don’t feel awful for not publishing your question ASAP.

Secondly, please give me a rough idea of where you live when you submit your questions. The used car market in Detroit, for example, is much different that the used car market in Miami, or Colorado, or California, or upstate New York, etc. A Subaru that costs $5,000 in Alabama might cost $10,000 in Vermont. A Jeep Grand Cherokee RWD might be a great suggestion in Hilton Head, SC (Hi, Dad!) but a miserable one in South Dakota.

Thanks again for sending in your questions, and please keep sending them to [email protected] or find me on Twitter at @barkm302.

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134 Comments on “Ask Bark: Which Beater Should She Bet On?...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Beater she should bet on?

    Something with a timing chain unless the seller has receipts for the belt change. Corolla/Matrix/Vibe is a good suggestion however if she knows how to drive stick (and wants to) the 5 speed has a fairly fragile 3rd gear (wife’s transmission was partially rebuilt at 40,000 miles due to syncro failures.)

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Many anecdotal reports of manual Matrices (is that correct) having issues.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        One supposed fix is to use GMs fully synthetic manual transmission fluid. I will say the wife’s 5-speed is still temperamental when the temp is less than 40 degrees until the car get’s warmed up but the rebuild has 80,000 miles on it now. (Knock on wood.)

      • 0 avatar
        65corvair

        I had a Matrix with the manual. Major transmission rebuild. Said it was almost too far gone to rebuild. Cost a few bucks under $3000. Car looks nice, but no personality or soul. Auto is the only way to go on this car. The Vibe may be cheaper?

        Have a coworker who love Buick Le Sebres. He thinks they are relaible, but he puts a lot go money in them every year.

        • 0 avatar
          DenverMike

          $3,000?? Never have a manual trans “rebuilt”. The long list of “hard parts” will kill ya. The labour is reasonable, so get another used one for parts, using only the good parts from either. Or just use the ‘good’ used one.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          The Vibe is cheaper – it suffers from the Geo Prism/Toyota Corolla stigma that all of the cars from the GM/Toyota Fremont tie up did.

          I knew many elderly GM loyalists who bought Geo Prisms new and were very happy with them. They had no idea it was all Toyota under the skin.

          • 0 avatar
            BoogerROTN

            I have a Moonstone ’05 Vibe AWD, A/T, “Moon & Tunes” package w/98K miles on it. Original owner, OCI ~5K, A/T drain & fill ~30K intervals, having air bag recall done tomorrow. Ultra reliable, never been to the dealership, never been to a service shop. Comes w/4 Blizzak tires mounted on black rims and a cargo box. $3500 cash. Will not deliver. Location, PNW.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Please note OP is looking for an automatic, so no issues there for the Vibe/Matrix.

  • avatar
    sproc

    Friends don’t let friends drive Calibers. I normally love reading your advice, but that car is an atrocity.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The Xd is a suggestion that I agree with. As reliable as the Echo, but with a much better (in my opinion anyway) body design. The problems with these are i) they are rare, ii) Scion’s hold their value, iii) even when killing the brand, Toyota refused to offer much in the way of deals on Scions.

    As for the Soul. Probably the best option. Good dependability. Fairly good sightlines. Lots of interior room for passengers. Relatively well equipped. Only downside would be slightly buzzy and due to the raised height and short wheelbase, a ride that is a little bumpy. But a good urban transport.

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      The Soul could very well be my next car but have a Nissan Cube with 85k miles and Zero problems ever. Don’t know why the Xb and Kia Soul get mentioned but never the Cube. It’s our second one and the next problem will be our first. Will look at Kia because the cube got discontinued. I think of it as a five door hatch even though the door opens differently.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    Astra, Focus and xD represent good advice in this price range. I would buy the one with the owner who appears most honest, and has the most receipts. But first, I’d get a full inspection at an independent mechanic. Condition is more important than make/model.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    I’d shy away from any high-mileage Mazda if you live in a snow area. At least nothing from before they got their s**t together on rust prevention, if they have.

    Honestly I’m not very impressed with anything Mazda has done. My BIL has a 2008 3 sedan, and it’s already broken one of the rear springs (another well-known issue.) Car mags/blogs love to talk up Mazda because they drive the cars for at most a month, but don’t ever experience actually *living* with the cars they review.

    someone else I know has a Protege which he bought used, and I swear that is the sh*ttiest car I’ve seen in a long time. It’s like everything on it was designed to fail at exactly the same time.

    • 0 avatar
      otaku

      I always preferred the Ford versions of the Mazda vehicles back when they were still partners. They always seemed to be less expensive to purchase, less expensive to own, generally more durable and much less prone to rust.

      I bought a slightly used ’91 Escort GT when I was in college. I owned it for around six years with no problems, then my brother took over ownership and drove it until late summer of 2007. My brother was pretty cheap, so he almost never put any money into repairs and really tended to beat on his cars, but the little Escort took all the abuse he could dole out while getting through some of the worst winters in New England. Heck, he almost never even washed the thing, but there was only a little rust showing on the corner of the tailgate when he finally traded it in on a Hyundai Accent.

      Try matching that kind of service record with a Mazda 323 hatchback, which Ford based that generation of Escort on.

  • avatar
    e30gator

    Look at “old people cars”. You know, Buicks, Mercurys, Oldmobiles, etc. Many check all the boxes mentioned, have been well maintained by their blue-haired owners, and have tried and true mechanicals to boot.

    I’d take a low mileage ’03-ish Regal with a 3800 V6 over any Honda with over 150k on the clock. More reliable and surprisingly nice to drive/own.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      They want a hatchback.

    • 0 avatar
      eManual

      I have a 1995 Regal 3800 V6 at 185K miles, and other than needing new struts, looks and runs as good as new. 30 mpg on the highway.

      Unlike some other 4 door sedans, it has a fold down 60/40 rear seat that can substitute for a hatchback in many cases.

      • 0 avatar
        VoGo

        Those were the criteria. If we want to pretend that we know what’s best for people, then we can just replace this column with a sign that says “Just buy a used Miata.”

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      I’d agree since I bought an “old guy” car – a ’03 LeSabre – but the problem is this: old guys can afford new cars, so they tend to trade before things go wrong, and that means mileage under 100,000, generally. That means a higher pricetag. Mine was $7,000 with 72,000 miles, and that was almost six years ago. Most of the GM 3800 models that you could get for $4,000 were bought by the guy AFTER the old guy, and that means they weren’t as well maintained.

      Still, might be a good option, and my LeSabre might not have a hatchback, but it’s got a ginormous trunk (and self leveling shocks).

      • 0 avatar
        johnds

        The biggest issue I have seen with these, are the power window motors. I see them all the time with wooden blocks wedging them closed. Permanently. It’s legal to do that in Minnesota since we don’t have vehicle inspections.

        • 0 avatar
          Andrew717

          Concur. We inherited a 2002 Century from my wife’s grandmother in 2013. Like 50,000 on it, but three of the four window motors failed in the year we owned it. Everything else was rock solid, though. If not for the windows and the hideous fauxvertible roof we might have kept it.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Despite the admittedly PITA nature of those I personally would have kept it for at least awhile.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            I would stay home and eat moldy toddler-drool Cheerios from behind the couch cushions before driving to the grocery store in a vinyl-topped car, unless said car started life as a box Cadillac or Lincoln and the vinyl top was OEM.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          Bingo, johnds.

          But the good news is that the regulators are cheap to buy and easy to put in. I’ve been able to change both front windows myself – probably saved around $700 doing it.

    • 0 avatar
      Fred

      Which to me says PT Cruiser.

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      Vogo, I’ve often been asked for advice on car buying. You probably have too. The one thing I’ve learned is that what people say they want and what they actually buy, often don’t match.

      It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest alternatives. e30gator’s suggestion is an excellent one. I recently helped someone buy a $7000 car. They said they wanted an SUV. I pointed them at a Buick sedan and they fell in love with it. The bang for the buck was too much to pass up. Six months later and they still thank me.

      • 0 avatar
        VoGo

        Fair enough. But as I stated, if the point of the column is to decide what’s best for the buyer, then my answer will always be a used Miata.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        I’ve pretty much stopped giving car buying advice IRL. Got tired of being asked for my opinions, having the person ignore me and get something totally different, and yet it’s somehow still my fault if they don’t like something about it.

        • 0 avatar
          brn

          JimZ, I eventually learned that you must assume they will go against your recommendation. I even tell them that’s been my experience. Once that’s out in the open, things go a little better. Sometimes, they even listen to me.

        • 0 avatar
          SP

          JimZ, you are right on the money.

          Giving used car advice to your wife’s friend, who doesn’t really drive? And telling her that much of your recommendations is based on asking some dude on the Internet? Ha.

          Most likely scenario? She’ll buy a shop queen like a V6 Passat AWD or a new Mini, realize her folly too late, and still slightly blame you for not stopping her.

    • 0 avatar
      Johnster

      A lot of “old people” drove PT Cruisers.

  • avatar
    Corollaman

    Matrix/Vibe. It’s a no-brainer.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      This is Bark dispensing advice, so it’s…

      FORD Focus!

      FORD Focus! FORD Focus!

      FORD Focus! FORD Focus! FORD Focus!

      FORD Focus! FORD Focus! FORD Focus! FORD Focus!

      FORD ALL THE WAY!!!!!!

      • 0 avatar

        As opposed to the purely objective “Corollaman” who thinks a Toyota would be a good idea.

      • 0 avatar
        30-mile fetch

        Focus was his third choice, behind a Japanese and Euro GM.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

          ” Focus was his third choice, behind a Japanese and Euro GM.”

          SHHHHHHHH! Facts DO NOT apply when his meds wear off, its all about the rage. Someone should mention the “C” word, or better yet, the three letter name of their smallest offering. Better get a sedative injection ready, or start planning to pay for the new roof.

          Now, dw, feel free to attack me for the rest of the day. As per usual, I wont read it, but Ill just assume youre making an azz of yourself. Its a pretty safe bet. Toodles!

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Euro GM > Euro Ford, or Euro GM < Euro Ford?

        • 0 avatar
          Corollaman

          Yeaaa! free mechanical service with Bernie, that means I can keep my Corolla for another 400k miles. Or elect Trump and I will, win, win, win enough money to buy a new Corolla.

          • 0 avatar
            VoGo

            Yes, but then you will be sick of winning. So you’ll get a 15 year old Audi A8 and spend all your money on repairs.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            “free mechanical service with Bernie”

            No fracking way! Finally some free sh*t for 28.

            Late model Jaguar here I come!

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Well, DW, when a car fits you recommend it. I’ve owned a Focus and I’d definitely recommend one.

        And you’d like the gauge cluster in a Focus too.

      • 0 avatar
        johnds

        Definitely a 2004 or newer. I worked on a 2001 sedan that was always trouble. My friends 01 wagon was trouble, and my roommates 2003 ZX3 has been taking $300+ every other month for repairs.

        • 0 avatar
          Jason Lombard

          This. Stay away from the early Foci (especially 2000-2001). I am a former owner. There are many, many, many well documented issues with these. As johnds alludes to above, you might as well have a car payment….

          • 0 avatar
            EMedPA

            The 2005 and on Focuses seem to be pretty reliable. And they handle better than you’d think. The 4 speed auto is not exciting, and the fuel economy won’t be best in class, but I found it to be pretty bulletproof.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    $4000 is a tough price point to shop in. I’d urge them to be flexible on the body style and look also to sedans. Any limitation based on personal preference at this price is really going to reduce your options.

    Sticking with hatches, consider perhaps the Kia Spectra5. I’ve got no idea about reliability of those, though, but the Soul has good marks on TrueDelta. There are 10 Kia Souls listed nationwide on autotrader for under $5000. Ten. The listing for one of them said “Missing rear seats. Good bags”. Good Luck.

    The Astra and xD are good recommendations. There are another 34 total of those nationwide, combined.

    Now, there are 1600 PT Cruisers and Chevy HHRs under $5000. That’s probably where I’d be looking, you may be able to afford to be picky about interior condition and negotiate on price.

    • 0 avatar
      davefromcalgary

      I kind of want an HHR SS. But I have problems! :-D

      • 0 avatar
        30-mile fetch

        The haphazard chimera created by taking a chunky little economy wagon and weaponizing it (against its will, no doubt) with an aggressive suspension and powertrain is indeed somehow appealing.

        • 0 avatar
          davefromcalgary

          One thing I could never determine was whether or not the HHR SS came with the LSD. On supercharged Cobalts, only the Recaro seat cars had it. On the SS Turbo, it was standard.

          I really liked the 07 SS S/C Recaro car I test drove. It had a huge trunk (for the size of the car), but a tiny opening. This disqualified it and I bought a Mazda 6 instead. I know, I cross shop weird cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      There’s one car with which I’ll be really pleased once the prices drop into sub-$5K territory, and that’s the old Elantra Touring wagon. That was a great car.

  • avatar
    paxman356

    Why a 3 door Focus? Why not a 5 door? Or a Wagon? They made them up to 2007 and a good one should be found for that price range.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Scion xB. My xB1 – over 7 years – needed a window switch and an O2 sensor.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      Yep any Echo-based Scion (xA or xB) with the 1.5L engine might not set the world on fire, but they are just fantastically cheap to run and very reliable/durable.

      The first gen CRV idea is very good as well, as would a 1st gen Rav4. Both are known to rack up massive mileage. On the CRVs, valve adjustments are imperative or else you risk burning the exhaust valves. Also keep the fluid in the rear diff changed. Aside from that and somewhat trouble prone A/C, not much goes wrong on those cars even at high mileage.

  • avatar
    eManual

    With gas this cheap (hopefully for a few years) a Minivan might also fill the bill. Most get 25+ mpg highway, and the amount of storage over the hatchback is tremendous. Parking on city streets / small garages might be a problem, however.

    I liked my 1987 Dodge Lancer, a 4 door hatch, but having a highway cruiser / Minivan duo is better.

  • avatar
    Pinzgauer

    I bought a ’74 CJ5 recently for $3500. You could technically call it a hatchback and it has 4WD! And a 304 V8! California car! So look for one of those. I win.

  • avatar
    kmars2009

    Always check Carcomplaints.com to check out isssues on ANY vahicle. It provides NHTSA complaints, recalls, crash tests, and Service bulletins. That way you know exactly what to look for.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I’d vote for the Focus.

    It’s decently reliable. Plus, it’s American, so it depreciates horrifically, and it was very popular, so there are tons of them out there. Lots of supply + horrific depreciation = low low price.

    Plus there are tons of them out there so parts shouldn’t be an issue.

    And I love the styling of the first-gen hatchbacks.

    Focus for the win.

  • avatar
    Fred

    No way is a SAAB going to be reliable or cheap to fix. In any case at $4000 the model isn’t too important, as much as find one that has been maintained and not be in a serious accident. Patience pays off, and don’t worry about paying a few hundred more for a really good one.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Indeed.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Yeah, I was gonna say, “if you don’t LIKE this person, suggest they get one of the Saabs”.

      I’ve seen the nightmare that “cheap used Saab” normally is.

      • 0 avatar
        mattmers

        04+ Saab 9-3 are pretty reliable. The only real maintenance and repairs (other than pre existing issues related to an accident from the previous owner) I have had:

        Ignition coils
        Battery
        and vacuum pump seal.

        These are all common things and are under $300 repairs and possible on be an issue every 3-4 years

        on the Saab forums their is a few sayings
        “I’m not saying its a coilpack……but it’s a coilpack”
        and if there are any starting or electrical problems a new battery should fix it.
        and for the vacuum pump? it just leaks oil.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I’ve considered a Saab convertible as a weekend cruiser but the spotty reliability makes me wary.

      • 0 avatar
        LUNDQIK

        GM owned late model 9-3s really aren’t that bad. Certainly not money pits. (This is from an owner of a Saab Convertible weekend cruiser owner)

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          From what I have researched the 03-07 are a more robust design as well as the refreshed 08-11. However I see plenty of 99-02 models that are in good shape in the $2-4k range, roughly the price of a pedestrian Corolla or Elantra.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      The one thing that makes Saabs unreliable is using cheap aftermarket parts. I’ve seen people get into a cycle where they replace an original part that lasted 10 years with a “cheaper” one that only lasts a year. Repeat that mistake with a few parts and you’ve got yourself a money pit that’s always in the shop.
      Original parts are easy to source, and they aren’t very expensive compared to other brands. It’s dead easy to keep a Saab going.

  • avatar
    brn

    It’s nice to see an automotive article that recognizes the negatives of buying a used car that has a high resale value. As many will admit, most cars are durable. As long as you’re not buying a high maintenance car (VW, BMW, etc), you want to look at those with low resale value. Even a domestic hater has to admit, a 100K Focus is going to outlast a 200K Civic.

    Thanks Bark.

    • 0 avatar
      e30gator

      Having experience with both, I’d take it even further and say there are plenty of 100k domestics that are as good/better than a 100k Civic.

      Considering both what I paid to purchase and repair my ’04 Civic back in ’07 VS what I paid for my ’99 Saturn (which never broke) back in ’03, the Saturn was a waaaaay better value….so what if the ashtray rattled a little ;)

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Ick,

    I’d just tell the young ladies to get a second job and come back for auto advice when they have some cash to be picky.
    Never ceases to amaze me that poor people have a list of standards a mile long then get shocked that what they want doesn’t exist. If your in the market for a 4k car, you are poor. You don’t get choices. If you have 8k or more you have options, good ones in fact.

    Ready: their is not such thing as a Honda/Toyota/Scion for 4k or less that doesn’t have 100k miles or more and or if it does said unit has a salvage title or some other major flaw that is a deal killer.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I like the Astra and xD, but not at a $4K budget.

    In this price range I wouldn’t outright reject the PT Cruiser or HHR. They aren’t great vehicles but you’ve actually got a shot at finding one with lower miles that has had some level of maintenance performed on it.

  • avatar
    johnds

    I have also helped friends find cars that were preferably under $1000, 4wd, 2005 or newer, a toyota/honda, under 50,000 miles, and no maintenance. The sad part is telling that person that it will be near impossible to find that car.

    I think with $4,000 a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Corolla, and Civic will be your best bets. They’re not hatches, but good deals can be found.

    • 0 avatar
      johnds

      Also, one of the best deals my mom in law got was a 2007 ford taurus for $995. 212,000 miles. Needed a little work, but it serves her well and the safety features on it beat the ones on the 97, 98, 99 vintage cars she was looking at.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    You don’t get much Honda, Subaru or Toyota for 4 grand or less even at some auctions. They are so overpriced it’s comical. Even examples with 150K, rust and a service engine lamp on I have seen them priced above 4K. The ones that are under 4k are usually best avoided with salvage titles or loads of little hidden problems. We had a guy come in with a 2007 Subaru Forester that he (over) paid for with just under 100K miles from a competitor down the street 10 minutes away from us. It has needed nearly 2k in repair work the past several years and currently with 120K has both an oil leak and is losing antifreeze at the rate of half a quart every week, needs the manifold to catalytic converter pipe replaced as is very noisy and his rear sway bar links are toast causing all sorts of clunking. He is pretty frustrated and probably will never buy from that dealer again and will probably not buy another used Subaru again.

    • 0 avatar
      johnds

      It isn’t easy, but I look through every car with a fine tooth comb. Some can be had. It is outrageous how much some will charge for a car. I’ve test driven all sorts. Once a 2002 civic with water in the trunk, and they still wanted $3000.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      Not the swaybar links!!!! Just kidding, these are like $100 bucks in parts and absolutely trivial to replace. The other issues are certainly serious and expensive, but I would not complain about a 10 year old car with 100k miles needing the sway bar end links replaced. Sure beats the sway bar itself rusting and breaking in half, something you should know very well as a GM dealer (common w body malady)

  • avatar
    tsoden

    What about the older style Elantra GT? Or even the Elantra Touring?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I wondered this, too, but those cars are approaching 200k, with serious rust problems.

      But there could be a clean one out there somewhere.

      Our 01 Elantra was a durable car, but it nickel-and-dimed me to death over the 5 years we had it (09-14). It was traded/junked when the rust holes in the frame would accept my hand through them.

  • avatar
    r129

    As a former owner, I would like to submit the Suzuki SX4 for consideration. I have heard the occasional horror story here and there, but I didn’t have very many problems with mine in the 75,000 miles that I owned one, and I see plenty of examples for sale that are pushing 200,000 miles, so they can’t be too bad. I found a few examples with under 100,000 miles for somewhere around the target price.

    The Astra is a great choice as well… I have a friend who is on Astra #3 (first two were totaled), and it hasn’t had many problems. In both cases, parts might be more difficult than average to come by, but I don’t think it will be too outrageous, since the manufacturers are still in business in some form, somewhere in the world.

    A well-maintained Focus hatchback is definitely worth considering, and will be cheap and easy to fix. I would also consider the right HHR, if you can get past the styling. They have a ton of space inside, and while they’re not perfect, they’re not terrible reliability-wise.

    Though I am willing to stoop down to the level of the HHR, I wouldn’t go so low as the PT Cruiser or Caliber.

  • avatar

    No mention of the Nissan Versa: a 2006-2008 will probably fit her budget, and while it offers little as a driver’s car, it is an incredibly pleasant place to be, considering the price: very quiet, very spacious. Gas mileage is just fine (even better in the CVT-equipped SLs), and problems are not massive (the AC/Defrost buttons tend to fail, and the part is officially expensive, and unofficially repairable if you know how to use a soldering iron and know how to order surface-mount switches on the internet.

    Yes, the Versa may be the most boring car in existence, but in a good way.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    I am surprised you didnt mention the Focus ZX5. It was introduced later than the three door, but still arent hard to find (as far as I know, what I mean is I see them fairly often but I havent exactly been looking for one).

    I liked the ZX5 because it reminded me of my ex’s 1989 Escort 5 door. We loved that car, and after she plowed it into a Neon, I bought it from the insurance company with the intention to repair it, but I was forced to sell it as I had nowhere to park it or work on it. It was a great little car, very pratical and reliable.

    Note: Im NOT suggesting the “friend” looking for a car in this post consider a late 80s Escort, Im just stating how much I liked ours. That was about 12-15 years ago, so it wasnt that old at the time.

    My suggestion is to add the Ford Focus ZX5 to the list. Id also like to say that the Focus sedan with the 2.0L “Split-Port Induction 2000” engine should be avoided unless the new owner is planning on a timing belt change. Unlike the Zetec engines used in the hatches, its an interference design (and a damn noisy/harsh one at that).

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    I just helped a friend get into in a Mazda6 sportwagon with the 3.0l v6 and 5 speed manual transmission. It had 125,000 miles and signs of having been well kept until recently. Good leather interior, some small-to-mediium dents and dings, but a solid, nice driving car. Asking price was $4500, sold at $3800 private party sale from craigslist. So far it has needed a couple of coils and a master cylinder cover but she’s really happy with it. It’s about as much car as you can get at that price.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    You were looking at the wrong generation of Scion xB. Last Fall, I sold my ’05 with 92k miles on it for exactly $4000. I figure the new owner can drive it with nothing but routine maintenance for another 3-4 years.

  • avatar
    Alfisti

    Hyundai Accent is the answer. We owned an MY06 and it was reliable, only worth $4,500CAD with 80,000 miles on it too. Did they make a 5 door hatch though?

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    Toyota Yaris or Scion xA, all day long. Big on the inside, small on the outside, cheap to buy, not prone to rusting, and the drivetrain is unkillable, especially the 1NZ-FE engine which has the added benefit of a timing chain.

    Scion xB is the same platform, but they run $1500-$2000 more than a comparable xA or Yaris, at least in central OH. Call it a “cool tax.”

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe twins – this use to be my recommendation, but be mindful the 04-07 have Takata airbags and the highest failure rate of any Takata equipped vehicle. There is a better than 1:50 chance a Claymore mine is in the steering wheel. Stay away from the manual 5-speed versions, the Toyota 5-speed gear box of this era is crap apparently.

    Mazda2 – if it is big enough for her – the only bad thing I’ve heard is the very spartan interior.

    Mazda3 – this is now my new first recommendation for affordable, sensible, 5-door car

    Mazda Protege5 – not with the automatic – they are complete crap. Also the Protege5 would be pretty old at this point.

    Honda Fit (first generation) – I think there is better bang for the buck out there – good one if you can find one in the price range not dogged out

    Honda CR-V (first generation) – for under $4K and not with HUGE miles on it? Good luck.

    Scion xB – good one, same thing as the Fit, need to find one not dogged out in that price range.

    Saab 9-3x – no no no no no no a thousand times no

    Subaru Impreza/Outback – no no no no no no no a thousand times no. At that price range head gaskets, the tin worm, deferred maintenance on things like timing belts, just say no

    Acura Integra (third generation, not a four-door, but sporty and dead reliable — only problem is they’re often stolen!) – no no no no no no no a thousand times no

    Honda Element? I don’t know what used pricing is for the ugly little wart but fits the bill.

    Kia Soul? Same as Element – don’t know what used pricing is but I haven’t seen awful data on reliability stats

    First gen Ford Escape with the base 4-cylinder. You can now buy these for under 4K, the auto is questionable, the RWD manual version mechanically can’t be killed – the tin worm will wipe it out first.

  • avatar
    2o6

    The Astra is literally the worst choice here, even behind the Chrysler PT. The Astra has very little in common with the US made GM Delta cars, and the 1.8L isn’t the strongest in regards to longevity. The oil pumps on the 1.8L like to fail without warning, taking the engine with it. Since the 1.8L isn’t used in any other applications here in the US, finding a replacement is expensive.

    Also, the 4AT is not similar (and less reliable, significantly) than the Cobalt’s.

    Also, it shares more BCM and ECU controls with GM of Europe rather than US GM, so it needs special computer tools to do certain functions – which means you trip to the dealer.

    The best idea is to ignore the hatchback part and get a nice used Yaris sedan. The engine and trans combo in those cars are literally some of the most reliable combos that Toyota has ever made. The Scion twins may be acceptable too (xA in particular)

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Think of like the Australian built Pontiac G8. Essentially a captive import with some similarities to U.S built GM vehicles but not enough to avoid trips to the dealer for service as well as a wait for parts from overseas.

  • avatar
    eighttrackmind

    The big unanswered question here is what you want these cars to be reliable *for*. How many miles per year does the car need to go? How many years does the car need to last?

    The reason I ask that question is that a newer, higher-mileage car can often be a great bargain. I picked up a 2011 Prius with 320k(!) miles for under $3k, and I couldn’t be happier.

    Newer, higher-mileage cars are often maintained well by the people who rely on them heavily, so they can be a good find for the right buyer. Like the person above who had a 2007 Taurus for the price of a 1998-2000 model, I’ve found the modern safety features to be a good trade-off for the expected maintenance.

  • avatar
    AK

    2006-2007 Ford Fusion

    Good friend of mine has a 2007, SEL v6 with leather. 97k, he’s the second owner. Never been wrecked, never had to have a thing repaired and it has freshly done brakes and tires.

    He’s looking to trade it in and he’s struggling to get more than $3500 for it on trade. He’s considering listing it privately and hoping to get $5k otherwise he’s going to keep it as a second car.

    Long story short- early fusions have poor resale and they’re more than adequate cars that are built fairly well.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      I tend to agree, but would like to add the 5AT in the I-4 was not as long lasting as the 6AT used in the V-6 cars. The Duratec 3.0L is a very reliable engine. Its main drawback is difficulty replacing the alternator, but that shouldnt be an on-going issue.

      The op states that an automatic is required, but if it wasnt, an I-4/5MT would be a good choice. Good handling, MPG, and no worries about the 5AT.

      Resale value must vary greatly by region. Looking for a decent Fusion for my neighbor’s daughter has been frustrating. The affordable ones are run into the ground (200-250k), the decent ones are on up there, usually out of her budget. She finds one JUST listed (within the past 24 hours) with decent miles, good options (SE or SEL V-6), fair price, so we call about it and “they just drove off with it, sorry”. Its happened a few times.

      She loves the Fusion, but doesnt like any (except new body style) Accords, otherwise the search wouldve been over months ago.

  • avatar
    cc-rider

    Very surprised the 2nd generation Prius has not been mentioned yet. You can pick them up for the budget, are very reliable, and have a hatch.

    • 0 avatar
      Corollaman

      I believe people are scared to buy an older Prius because of the pending death of the expensive battery, which is similar to replacing an engine or a transmission

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        But it is not at all similar to replacing either an engine or transmission!

        It is much easier to do, and much less expensive as well.

        There are aftermarket places that carry remanufactured batteries.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    I love Saabs but no way a 93 x no way run forest run, Since they live in metro NY no stick, see I at least read the letter, it is a PITA to drive around metro NY w you, I would say a Kia, maybe a Rio or something like that, my other suggestion would be a Golf, they are cheap and plentiful around the NY area, buy a auto with the gas engine and you will be ok, forget AWD you will not need it around metro, perhaps a Pontiac Vibe might do the trick but there are pretty rare in Metro NY.

    • 0 avatar
      aajax

      I’ll second that. They can probably find an 07 with a little over 100K. A bit of haggling should get it down to $4000 easy. Golf’s can have niggly problems, but are overall very substantial..

  • avatar
    06V66speed

    Pffft. Come on! Keep it simple.

    Honda Accord (or Civic, since tight spaces/crowded urban atmosphere).

    Toyota Camry (or Corolla, “).

    Saturn Astra? Lol… WHO?? WHAT?

    I’d like a diesel Suburban, too, but you’ve got better luck getting struck by lightning then finding one of those that’s been maintained properly and not being hoarded by greasy diesel mechanics or rotting away on your rural cousin’s property for occasional hunting use and towing purposes.

    That is all.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    Hatchback, low miles, automatic, original family owners, and a bit of style… Let me present, the 2001 Mercury Cougar. Only $3,000.

    http://smd.craigslist.org/cto/5461960400.html

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Jaeger

      I like the idea but the Cougar has all of the downsides of the Contour posted recently since it shared almost of the components. I wouldn’t recommend an aging one to anyone other than an enthusiast prepared to put up with its many quirks.

      But it is certainly an interesting and affordable car to buy.

      • 0 avatar
        TMA1

        Got to admit, I forgot the Cougar was mostly Contour, though I knew it was a Ford of Europe product. My grandfather and uncle both had them, bought new. They both really liked those cars, until my grandfather aged out of his (too hard to get into, he replaced it with a Sable), and my uncle’s was totaled.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    $4000 is not a really good price range unless you’re very lucky.

    Anything you buy in that range (or lower) will immediately need a couple thousand more in work to be in dependable shape unless you are a proficient DIYer. Alternately if you’re just looking for a disposable beater you can spend less.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      Yeah I find the entire affordable late model car for under $8k market totally awful. Stuff is just way too used up. At that point I’d rather go for the low end with a $2k Corolla or older Maxima, prioritizing finding one with a rust free body and healthy engine, then spend a healthy amount catching it up on maintenance, tires, and suspension, even if that ends up being close to the purchase price of the vehicle. At the end of that you end up with a properly sorted, reliable older used car. Rather than a newer vehicle but with more questionable mechanicals.

      • 0 avatar
        CincyDavid

        I agree, gtemnykh, I like to look for $1500-2000 asking price Volvos, preferably rear wheel drive models, and wind up paying $1000-1200, do a timing belt, water pump, fluid changes and 4 tires, and I’ll have cheap transportation for a year or more.

        $3500-5000 is just not a good place to be, when used car shopping.

        I tried to help a sister in law recently, she wound up spending $7500 on a 2006 Explorer Limited with 95k miles…VERY nicely kept truck only hurt by the lack of a 3rd row of seats…everything we saw for under $5k was too old and nasty for her taste.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          The height for all vehicle production was 2007 followed by a steep decline of about 40% until rebounding in 2012. So there are some lean years for used car supply, hence some of the stupidity in the sub 5K end of the retail market.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Under $4K? That was the dilemma I faced last fall after getting my first deer. With my beloved Aztek.

    I had similar criteria, something with a hatchback, seating for at least four and the capacity to haul my bikes and kayak. I had just re-roofed the house and was cash poor at the time.

    I managed to find a 2004 Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan with 154+K miles on it. It looked like Grandma had owned it, very clean with only minor rust. It was at a car lot and the kid selling the car just wanted to go home. I drove off the lot for $3100, including taxes, title, etc.

    Four months in and the car runs great, the only major expense I had was a new set of tires, but in this part of Michigan, you’re nuts not to have good tires on the car. Fuel mileage is about 19 or so in town, about 25 or so on the freeway. Its a big goddamned box, so we’re not going to see Prius (or even Malibu) fuel economy.

    I would take issue with the recommendation of the Astra, as much of a GM fan (and Opel fan, having driven them in Germany) as I am, I think they’re too old and oddball for the average non-enthusiast to deal with. Along with others, I’d recommend a PT Crusier (get the 2005 or later models), HHR or even a shorty minivan, if you can find Grandma’s minivan, like I did.

  • avatar
    pleiter

    Chevy Spark prices are falling in DC; save your nickels and plot intercept for about a year from now.

  • avatar

    2007-2010 Hyundai Sonata/KIA Optima. Boring as all hell but dead nuts reliable.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      Not really. I like how they look and ride, but my coworker’s ’09 Sonata has started to fall apart spectacularly once it hit 110k miles or so. Trans. computer, ABS controller, power window/lock regulators, mysterious coolant leak somewhere, rattly suspension. Anecdotal evidence I know. These cars also have a recall for subframes rotting out and failing.

  • avatar
    Avid Fan

    It just needs more Ford. Reapply Ford as needed. Season to taste with Ford and serve. Be sure to Ford daily. Keep calm and Ford on. Better to have a Ford and not need it, than to need a Ford and not have it. Worship the Ford with all your heart. May the Ford be with you. Have you hugged your Ford today? Can’t see the Ford for the Fords. If you can’t fix it, Ford it.

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    Panther luuuuv. Get a decent example, and you know it is worth repairing for years to come. Live with the low mpg. Gasoline figures to be about $2.00 USD per US gallon for years to come.

  • avatar

    I’ve often thought that a new car for 5k would meet real consumer need, but by the time it gets through the system, it becomes a 17k car.

    I hope this person has money for repairs, because a 4k car will eat a 1.5k tranny and become a 0$ paper weight, but still have a note.

    Also, try to get out of the NY metro area. No place is tougher on cars.

  • avatar
    09box

    I’d pass on a Soul. They have a crappy amount of cargo room and the hatch doesn’t have a wide opening.

    HHR is going to be your best bet in that price range. You could find a later Ford Focus Wagon in that as well.

    A Nissan Versa hatchback might be the sleeper choice here. The only drawback is the back seat folded down doesn’t line up with the floor so it creates a little hump.

    The Focus Hatchback is becoming the new beater hatchback of choice.


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