Hammer Time: Cheap, Cheap and Cheap

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

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.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

More by Steven Lang

Join the conversation
2 of 30 comments
  • Otsegony Otsegony on Jan 04, 2010

    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...

  • Himanshu Shah Himanshu Shah on Jan 04, 2010

    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.

  • Tassos When these were new cars, i tassos, could barely afford to “settle” for a tin can death trap 1991 civic dx. I could’ve done better for myself, but chose not to. Just like now - I could be enjoying my sunset years but i prefer to bully contributors on a free site i CHOOSE to visit.
  • Bd2 There's Telluride news you could be posting.
  • Tassos I listen to Andrew Tate podcasts. Also, the voices in my head provide plenty of entertainment. Biden dollars
  • Zerofoo “Can the sedan be saved?” Sure - just lift it a bit, add a mild all wheel drive system, and make the trunk a lift back. I don’t know a single middle-aged woman who doesn’t drive a CUV. Precisely none of them want to go back to a sedan. The sedan may not be die completely, but sedans will not replace CUV/SUVs any time in the foreseeable future.