Hammer Time: Second-Tier Standouts

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Even if I were a billionaire, I would still buy the store brands at the local supermarket. Names really mean nothing to me and the better deals always seem to be with the unproven or unpopular brands on the bottom shelves. Especially if they come with the right coupon as an incentive. When it comes to cars, I generally have the same attitude. Yes, there are brands that I personally disfavor on the low side (Daewoo-based Suzukis) and on the high side (BMW) as ‘keeper’ cars. But in between I’ve found a lot of great cars that simply carry the wrong name on their hood. And the loser – winners are . . .

Entry-level car: 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer

There was a time in the early 2000s where nearly every Mitsubishi model was the ‘value’ model, thanks to corporate suicide. The company had effectively shot themselves in their financial foot by offering $0 down, 0% interest vehicles until the very next year rolled forward. The results? The brand died an ugly death made of thousands of ratted-out repos. Just like today’s sub-prime housing market!

Anyhow, I really like the more athletic and techno-centric nature of the current Lancer. It’s far more sporty than anything short of an SX4 and its level of features would make a Yaris blush with envy. A 650-watt stereo, satellite radio, moonroof, hard drive-based navigation with a 30GB storage drive for playing/saving digital music, Bluetooth phone integration, and a keyless entry and starting system. The Lancer rides like it’s on rails, looks nice, and has the pleasure of being amongst the unfashionable brands these days. A one year old GTS model with all the options and 30k recently went on eBay for $12,900.

Mid-sized car: 2008 Mazda 6i

Red rover, red rover, let rental cars come over. Unlike the Malibus, Imaplas, and others of the general bland, the Ford versions are actually pretty interesting to drive. Well, not really. In fact, forget I ever said that. I originally was going to give this award to the auction staples that are the Fusion and Milan. But after careful consideration and long model runs, I think the even longer in the tooth Mazda 6 is the truly better deal. Name your adjective and read the 200+ reviews on the web. They all mirror the fact that the 6 is a lot more fun than most. Thanks to the recent model changeover, 6s are cheap. This 2008 with less than 20k miles on the clock sold for just $10,995. Of course you’ll have to drive to Cleveland to get this model, but maybe this video will cheer you up.

Minivan: Last-Gen Chrysler Minivan

There is no segment out there where the ‘premiere’ models get a bigger price premium than the minivan segment. There’s something about conservativeness, fear, and ‘must have’ reliability that makes Honda Odysseys and Toyota Siennas sell for insane markups on the near-new side. The flip side? Vehicles that can offer 90% of their utility and comfort typically go for 50% of the market leader’s price. Very few folks are into racing minivans. So if I were to buy a cheap late model for schlepping kinfolk and stuff, this segment would be it.

My top pick here is a Chrysler minivan. Preferably with highway miles (low stress and bigger depreciation hit), no stow ’n‘ go (second seats are more comfortable in regular mode), and no power sliding doors or electric doo-dads. You also have a powertrain combination that has literally been made in the millions. That means cheap parts and a surprisingly decent reliability record for the late models. This one on eBay sold for $4,500. We literally get tons of these vehicles at the auctions that are used by corporate and fleet lease firms. The outoging Hyundai Entourage may also be worth it if you want something a bit more fancy without the ‘right brand’ mark-up.


Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Cory02 Cory02 on Jun 15, 2009

    Great article Steven. I look forward to every installment of Hammer Time. From on economic standpoint, this is probably the best time ever to buy a car. However, its also the worst time to try to make a decision. So many choices, so cheap. What do you predict for used car prices in the next 12-18 months? I figure that the passage of the Cash for Clunkers bill will depress used car prices somewhat as an extra $4500 off a new car will be enough to sway some buyers in the direction of new versus used. Also, we should see some more "orphan" cars on the used car market. A year old G8 GT should be in the low $20's (and maybe a V6 model for around $15-$17k). Year old Vibes should be a good deal also (especially when you consider their Toyota underpinnings) and truck buyers should be able to pick up year old Dodge Rams on the cheap.

  • HD HD on Jun 15, 2009

    Steven, I'd like to throw in the 2000 Chevy Metro into the mix. It might be an oldie, but its a goodie. My dad bought a Metro LSi Hatchback in 2005, as a daily comuter. Picked it up in a private sale with 32,000 miles. Since then he's put about 25,000 miles on it. Hasn't had any problems with it. Just regular maintenance and it sitll averages 35 MPG. Also the "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video" was hilarious. A lot of great one liners; "Our main export is cripling depression" hahahahahaha

  • Hermaphroditolog Good hybrid cars use ICE implosion mode.Mercedes-EQXX uses implosion turbines (turboexpanders) for regeneration from heat losses.
  • Kosmo I, for one, and maybe only one, would buy a 5.0 L, stickshift variant of the sedan/hatchback that is Ford's "Not A Mustang EV" tomorrow.I'd buy the sportwagon version yesterday.
  • Akear I am counting the days when Barra retires. She has been one long nightmare for GM. People don't realize the Malibu outsells all GM EVs combined.
  • Redapple2 you say; most car reviewers would place it behind the segment stalwarts from Honda and Toyota,........................... ME: Always so. Every single day since the Accord / Camry introduction.
  • Akear GM sells only 3000 Hummer EVs annually. It is probably the worst selling vehicle in GM history.