New Or Used: SUV Resurgence Over the Common Sense Corolla?

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used suv resurgence over the common sense corolla

Steve C. writes:

Currently I own two cars, a daily driver and a completely impractical two seat roadster with no trunk. The daily driver is a 1996 Toyota Corolla that has 145K miles. It has been in my family since new and has received good maintenance. I’ve had the car since 75K miles, doing all of the maintenance myself, and have enjoyed a mostly problem free ownership experience as is usually the case with these cars. However, the car did overheat once about 4 years ago while sitting in traffic due to a fan failure. The coolant actually boiled before I even realized there was a problem. I replaced the fan and thermostat, changed the coolant, and had no problems since.

However, in the past several months the engine has started consuming oil at a somewhat fast pace. I lent the car to my dad, who forgot to monitor it, and over the course of ~3500 miles the car lost enough oil to where there was barely any on the dipstick (the check engine light went on). The car also has some sort of vibration while coasting that seems to be an engine mount or axle issue. Basically, the car has reached the point of where its likely going to cost more to fix then its worth. Additionally, the back seat doesn’t fold so it makes it difficult to bring along my snowboard during the winter and I wont even mention the surfboard and backpacking trips. I would like to replace the car with something more suited toward my active life style, probably a pickup or SUV.

My budget is going to be ~$5,000, give or take a little. I am thinking about a 1990’s Tacoma or 4Runner, though I’ve had trouble locating one in my budget range that is a 4×4 (I live in the North East so a rear wheel drive truck just wont do). Do you have any other suggestions for an older vehicle that can be counted on as a dependable daily driver and can carry my gear? I am not too concerned with MPGs as I bike to work during warmer weather and my commute is ~7 miles round trip. I don’t want anything crazy huge because I live in a city where parking is a bit of a concern. Thanks for your help.

Steve Answers:

Do you even know what’s wrong with the Corolla?

You need to have an independent mechanic look at that vehicle. Motor mounts are cheap. A check engine light and low oil does not always equal engine damage. Plus $5000 is a lot of money to blow on something you may rarely use.

If you must buy an AWD vehicle, any SUV will do. Loaded low mileage Explorer from the late 90’s are more than fine along with a Ford Escape with a 5-speed. Chevy Blazers and their kin can also be a good fit for you. Cherokees, Grand Cherokees, Pathfinders, Rodeos, Troopers… they all ascribe to a simple and durable powertrain that was made in the hundreds of thousands. 4Runners from that era will be overpriced and they were not leading vehicles for this time. Tacomas of that vintage will ride like your roadster over bumps, and the price premium is even worse.

I would spend $4000 to $4500 on a vehicle that has been well kept. Then spend the remainder amount catching up on any upcoming maintenance issues and customizing the vehicle. That is if you must blow the dough.

Sajeev Answers:

See, the problem with writing alongside Mr. Lang is that he’s usually correct. I’ll forgo the Piston Slap routine with your Corolla, since you don’t much care for it. I recommend cleaning the little sedan up, selling it for a decent price on Craigslist so you can take advantage of this model’s impressive resale value and high desirability among the average car buyer.

Cash in hand? Good. Now buy something with less perceived value, but good real world driving value. Sounds to me that you’d love an SUV or CUV, and the only way to narrow it down is via test drives. Lots and lots of them. My gut feeling is that a body on frame SUV gives the most bang for your outdoorsy-lifestyle buck. While I prefer the 1996-up Explorer on interior fit/finish alone, either the Blue Oval or any one of GM’s (1999-up) Trailblazer derivatives will cheerfully fit the bill…for cheap.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to, and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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3 of 70 comments
  • Toad Toad on Dec 10, 2010

    Have you looked at a 1996-2002 Isuzu Trooper? The are comfortable but built like a tank, and have a hard to find low beltline that gives the better outside visibility than any other SUV I can think of. They are also a mid size SUV that holds a lot but is not a land barge. Because Consumer Reports reported that they were more likely to roll over than other SUV's their sales and resale value went in the tank, so prices are pretty attractive. I put about 150k miles on one and regret ever selling it. Bonus: if you find one that has been kept in the south it should be rust free. Seriously, find one on Craigslist and take it for a test drive. The Trooper is a great, low cost option.

  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Dec 10, 2010

    Hmm overheated, using oil and run low on oil. Sounds to me like the engine in your Carolla isn't long for the world. My friends 1996 did about the same thing until it set up in sub zero temps with the engine at high idle trying to warm up. It through a rod, out went the oil and the engine never ran again. I wouldn't trust a 90's Toyota truck judging my all the rotted out frames issues I have encountered (neatly brushed under the carpet by Toyota in offering far more trade than the truck is worth). The older Subies are spotty with many examples dropping there trannys with well under 100K. I agree about the Vue. The Honda V6 is smooth and powerful and will last. That plus the body that won't rust out make it even better.

    • PhilR PhilR on Dec 10, 2010
      " I wouldn’t trust a 90′s Toyota truck judging my all the rotted out frames issues I have encountered (neatly brushed under the carpet by Toyota in offering far more trade than the truck is worth). " The frame rust issues are on the 1995½ and newer Tacomas, not the older Toyota trucks. Of course, any vehicle that's 15 years old or more might have high mileage, rust and mechanical problems but there are some that are still quite good, even in the northeast! And I don't see what you mean by "neatly brushed under the carpet". I think that it was a fair offer considering that a replacement frame isn't available for the first generation Tacoma and that it would, in most cases, cost a lot more to replace the frame than the resale value of the truck with the new frame installed! A friend of mine has a 2000 Tundra and we discovered last month that it's frame was perforated bnear the transmission crossmember. Toyota won't buy back his truck but they'll spend about 14,000$ for the frame replacement (his truck is currently at the dealership for that). 14,000$ is almost twice the value of his truck.

  • Alan Many of the comments reflect a poor attitude of who should be f@#ked over with little thought on why the fines are imposed. Humans have used a system of penalties/imprisonment for centuries and it doesn't work. What does work is limiting a persons freedoms. If their is a compliance issue, ie, VW with its Dieselgate and huge fines doesn't alter the way VW operate (I'd bet VAG is still finding ways to circumvent the system). This is human, if we know there is no or little chance of a genuine effort to conform things will stay the same, until electronic devices are used to regulate speed. Then we will here the whining about freedumbs. When your behaviour impacts anothers' freedom it isn't freedom anymore. Like guns as well, as well as white collar crime, etc. Controls and regulations tend to protect the rich, even driving regulations, so just remove the driving licences of serial offenders, their freedom. If they persevere imprison them.
  • MaintenanceCosts The Thunderbird SVE used a supercharged version of the 2-valve Mod, not the 4-valve one at issue here.There were nonstop rumors in the early 90s that the 4-valve engine would end up in the P71, making a true competitor to the LT1-powered bubble Caprice, but it never happened.
  • MaintenanceCosts Removing hardware that is already present in a physical machine you bought is theft. Someone affected should sue Tesla for conversion.It's just one more example of the sort of sharp business practices that you expect with Elmo at the helm..
  • Theflyersfan Needed an updated picture of Philadelphia to replace the rather nice ones above.
  • Arthur Dailey Any vehicle with a continental hump, even if vestigial, gets a thumbs up from me.