By on April 29, 2011

John writes:

Sajeev and Steve,

Thanks for your work on TTAC. The site entertains and irritates, so it’s a great place to read and learn, right?

Here is my problem. I have a couple of jobs, one of them is being self-employed and what I do requires carrying lots of equipment and driving lots of miles. I have used a Chevy Astro Van for a long time; The first one lost it’s second tranny at 246,000, and the one I use now has 193,000 miles. The 4.3 litre engine wears like a rock, but the gas mileage is a killer.

I need to find either a car or SUV at a low price that I can keep for a long time and use in spite of the possible gas price spike. I’ve been trying to keep the target price at $7,000, maybe up to $9,000 if the perfect ride comes by. I actually took a serious look at the Aztek, prices for used ones are very low these days, even with low mileage models. I even ran across a 2003 SAAB 9-3 convertible with 61K for $7,000, which is very tempting in spite of it’s “sludgey” reputation. But then you add an extended warranty, I’m back to 10K for it.

If I am looking at these things seriously then obviously I’m not seeing what I need to see. But geez louise, these days dealers are asking 10K for cars and SUV’s with over 100K on the odometer and that seems insane to me. Anything with less miles seems to be some kind of stripped 4 banger or Chevy Aveo/Cobalt I wouldn’t put my worst enemy even if has 40.000 miles on it. Even a couple of repo auctions I have been at didn’t have anything that match my needs.

What am I missing? Are my expectations too high for the price point I am looking for?

Thanks for your help!

Sajeev answers:

TTAC does indeed entertain and irritate, and we could eliminate the “entertainment” portion for this answer. I mean how irrating is it that you need a vehicle to carry “lots of equipment” but you mentioned the SAAB 9-3 convertible? Self employed dudes such as yourself shouldn’t waste everyone’s time (including yourself) with such overindulgence. As Helen Lovejoy always says, “won’t somebody please think of the children?”

So let’s be real, you’re pushing your luck with suitable replacements (Escape, RAV4, etc) in this price range, and you can smooth out all seasonal fuel price discrepancies with a $7000 cushion in your wallet. And while the Astro is a righteous tin-can of a deathtrap (per IIHS crash testing) compared more modern metal, it’s the only sane choice here. Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream. This van is the perfect vehicle for you: durable, cheap and simple to repair.

Yes, your expectations far too high for your price point. Stick with the Astro until you can afford to spend way more than 10-large on an all-purpose vehicle. In the meantime, put $250 worth of Wal-Mart grade stereo and speakers in it. Cheap and cheerful always wins in these situations.

Steve answers:

I can’t think of two cars any more different than a Chevy Astro cargo van and a Saab convertible. Which brings me to a few important questions. How much do you schlep? How much does all that schlepage weigh? Since you are looking at a Saab convertible I have to ask yet another question. Do you have to secure this stuff? I can almost imagine a utility trailer being dragged around by a wine sipping guy in a hardhat listening to NPR’s Second Cup series. Who knows. That guy may be you.

My advice would be to stick with what you have until it dies. You have something that ‘works’. If you think it’s too noisy, put in a nice stereo system. Bad gas mileage? Buy a Scanguage and learn some hypermiling techniques. Need spare parts? They can be had at the junkyards virtually for the taking.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to [email protected], and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder. In a rush? Don’t be shy about asking to cut in line.

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48 Comments on “Use or Used: Astro-nomical Expectations within a Price Point?...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    So lets look at some logical alternatives. (All figures from “fueleconomy.gov” the EPAs car website.)

    You didn’t give a year for your Astro but the EPA estimates that a 2wd 1995 Astro will get 15city, 20hwy, 17 combined.

    A say late 1990s Lincoln Town Car which has a cavernous trunk (but not likely big enough for you) will deliver 15 city, 23 hwy, 18 combined. (Probably a better choice for me and a golf foursome but not for you.)

    A 2004 Aztec FWD (like my Grandmother drives – really!) will get 17 city, 24 hwy, and 20 combined. A 2004 Dodge Caravan with the 4cyl engine gets the same figures.

    You’re likely better off keeping the Astro, a similar vintage full-size Chevy van does 2mpg worse.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    I even ran across a 2003 SAAB 9-3 convertible with 61K for $7,000,
    a Saab is really for Sunday drivings. U will be very familiar with Johnny Cash’s song few pieces at a time when u start owning a Saab.

    if the van is getting to be burning too much gas & high maint. u may want to consider a Ford or Chebby Dsl van. And run veggemight or ATF mix with dsl. ATF is not enviro correct so does benzenes & diesels too. Can start plan to ride bicycles.

    Any enclosed trailer will run u a few grand, depends if u can find some real deal.
    Or tow an open trailer then u have nothing to lock. Or build your own top on any UT trailer.

    Old 85 or older merc turbo dsl are quite rugged.

    The newer ones all seems to have some gremlins in the engine.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Comparing a Saab convertible with an Astro van? What are you carrying, the babe in the photo? For stuff, the Astro is your only choice! Just don’t get hit.

  • avatar

    You can get a relatively recent PT Cruiser or Chev HHR in your price range. There’s even a cargo version of the HHR available.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I second the PT.

      If you can stand the mileage penalty, the PT GT is a pretty fun car and many Neon hop-up parts fit.

    • 0 avatar
      Sinistermisterman

      I second the HHR.
      Used examples are getting cheaper and cheaper, and even if you can’t find a cargo version, just go for the passenger as there is plenty of space with the back seats folded down. You can haul a fair amount and the 2.2 and the 2.4 ecotec engines sip far less gas than the old 4.3 V6.

  • avatar

    Maybe FWD Escape or PT Cruiser (or its sibling HHR).
    P.S. Ninjaed!

  • avatar
    Acubra

    Work vehicle is all numbers and balance sheet totals, not emotions and fun.

    Previous model, ex-rental or ex-gov Grand Caravan can be had for peanuts now and will make a great work vehicle that is not too bad to drive, is economical and can be run on a shoe-string budget.

    Or do some shopping around and you can pick a Honda Odyssey from the private party – just make sure the transmission recall has been done. It has an additional expenditure in the form of a timing belt/pulleys every 100K, but otherwise is capable of running forever.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      I second the Grand Caravan. Parts are cheap and with regular maintenance (including transmission fluid & filter) they go a long time. I prefer the 96-00 version the best.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      As an owner of a 2001 Odyssey on it’s THIRD tranny which was installed at 107K miles, I say “stay away!” Unless you can get a good deal on one that has just had a rebuilt tranny put in it.

      If you want to get an Odyssey, the Accord-based models (through 1998 MY) are super-reliable, although a bit underpowered.

      • 0 avatar
        Acc azda atch

        redmonjp:

        The Accord based first gen Odys were 4spd 4cycls and the body was 1/2 = 3/4 size smaller than current. They also didnt get a 6cycl till about the 2nd gen.

        Current issues for Odys include a recall of the transmission when hooked up to the Accord and or related 3.5ltr. Issues for Ody and the trans for the 3.5 go back to 2001.

        However,
        Its not the Ody thats UNDERPOWERED, its the vehicle BEING TOO DAMN LARGE.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Depending on how much crap by volume you have to haul around, get a new or lightly-used Ford Transit Connect if you can swing the payments. Failing that, a used Honda Element would be better than a used anything else. Bonus points if you can find one with a stick.

  • avatar
    Kosher Polack

    Can a 6.2L diesel be crammed into an Astro? Not that it SHOULD, mind you, but there’s a ridiculous way to increase the gas mileage. Depending on what kind of driving you do, could a new final drive ratio bump your mileage up a point or two?

    Despite the fact that they crush like tin cans, I’ve always liked these vans, they’re not the greatest things out there but you’ll notice they’re still out there working away while many Caravans and Aerostars seem to be disappearing.

  • avatar

    Why not a Ford Ranger, and if you need enclosed space put a cheap bed cap on it. You can get Rangers for nothing, they are easy to work on, and parts are plentiful and cheap. I used to average about 24mpg mixed driving with mine (4 cylinder). The V6 might not improve your gas mileage problem, but they are tough little trucks, and if need be you can tow a trailer with them.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Edmunds says you can buy a 2003 Honda Element for $7K. Avoid the auto tranny. The manual should be a discount.

    P.S. The girl in that picture is either a midget or underage.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I could introduce you to a full formed 28 year old adult female with one child already who happens to be under 5ft tall and whose wedding dress was a size 0 in the bodice and a size 2 in the flowing lower half. I went to college with her. Even driving her POS Chevette she had to put the seat all the way up.

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      Are you implying there’s something wrong with an underage midget?

      She’s cute.

      ’nuff said.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    As an Astro owner, I am compelled to respond. Yes the city mileage is bad but these are very well-packaged, utilitarian vehicles. Plus they are very overbuilt which is why there are so many survivors. GM addressed the bugs by the later end of the production run (2000+) and the safety improved then too (apart from a still-terrible offset crash test). The resale value on these is pretty amazing. As a bonus they are surprisingly short (considering the space offered) and therefore feasible for city living. I like mine a lot.

    You could swap out the motor for the Isuzu 3.9 diesel without too many issues, there are kits for this.

    Wikipedia says there were about 3.2M Astros made, which I find astonishing.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Re: # produced.

      They were in production for 20 years.

      • 0 avatar
        friedclams

        Yes, works out to 160K a year. Still impressive and my goodness what parts availability! Plus they share parts with Caprice, S-10, Blazers and many other GM products.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      My friend’s 04 Astro is his second Astro, and his last. It is killing him with unreliability (AWD transfer case / differential problems, plus brakes), and it is sufficient to drive him out of the GM family forever.

    • 0 avatar
      Truckducken

      …and they’re oh-so-easy to get up on two wheels! Kind of like an old Samurai, minus the fun & sun factors. I guess everyone has his own personal safety standards. Get a five-point harness and rock on, brother.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        FWIW, I have two friends who have ‘Stro’s. One runs a landscaping business with his, and trailers lawn mowers & such with it. I think the towing (and his lack of maintenance) killed the trans at about 100K. Plus, he let a coolant leak go too long also which killed the head gaskets shortly after. But the mighty 4.3 keeps on trucking, although even he is complaining about fuel mileage. But, for his business, nothing else is that size and has that kind of towing power. He’ll switch to a full size van once rust conquers the rest of the body…

        Another friend has one as a conversion van, but after 15 years, that ‘conversion van velour’ interior is pretty dingy. It could easily handle six midwesterners and all of our gear going to soccer games & such. I think they were going to sell it, as he had recently found a newer Grand Caravan which would be easier on gasoline. And nowhere near as rusty.

        Bottom line? The OP really doesn’t say what he hauls. The original ‘Stro was a great package for it’s size, way more durable than anything short of a full sized van. If he truly doesn’t need that capability, sell it and find something smaller. There’s all kinds of FWD alternatives. But if you do need something like the ‘Stro, I’d be looking at shorty full sized vans.

  • avatar
    steve from virginia

    First of all I hate carz, quit your job and become a farmer … seriously.

    Having gotten that off my chest, look around and find a Toyota Sienna from 2000- 2003. You can find them for under $10g

    http://cgi.ebay.com/ebaymotors/Toyota-Sienna-LE-SYMPHONY-2003-Toyota-Sienna-LE-SYMPHONY-_W0QQcmdZViewItemQQhashZitem48401ad1e5QQitemZ310313144805QQptZUSQ5fCarsQ5fTrucks

    You can use these for construction vehicles, take out the rear seats and throw them away … I put 255k miles on mine.

    – eat brakes, every year needs new brake pads up front.

    – gotta change the timing belt every once n’ awhile. If the belt breaks it won’t destroy the engine (non- zero tolerance).

    – gotta watch the tranny, keep the fluids up.

    – 20 mpg in town, 30 on the hiway when you keep the tires pumped. Get good Michelins and keep @ 60psi. Rides like a rock, so what drink more.

    – Doesn’t drop plastic stuff like other Jap carz.

    – Good heater and A/C.

    – A better set o wheels than later Siennas which are tin cans.

    – Enter in 24hrs of LeMons after working career is done.

    PS I hate carz and hope to live long enough to see destruction of entire auto industry. It’s coming folks, maybe in two years.

  • avatar

    2006-7 Mazda 5 slots into that price range. Van doors, easy to build a plywood load floor if you need it (I just did). 25’ish MPG overall easily, 30’ish highway with sane use. Venerable 2.3 as used in lotsa Ford/Mazda vehicles.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Keep the Astro until you can afford something else. Even then keep the Astro for schlepping stuff around and stuff an LS motor in the thing when the 4.3 finally dies.

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      The 4.3 engines don’t die.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        I think that’s why my father purchased one of the last S10 Blazers built. (Before that he owned a Bonneville with the 3800. I think is goal is to have the most durable engine possible.)

    • 0 avatar
      Ian Anderson

      Just don’t pop a head gasket, have been witness to one throw a rod because of it. 250K is dare I say average for them. Just replace/rip off the spider manifold junk if it is so equipped and upgrade to the later multi-port setup.

      Dan, all I have to say to you is your avatar constantly cracks me up whenever I visit TTAC!

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Ford Focus ZTW (Wagon). I am surprised no one has suggested this yet. They can fit an astonishing amount of stuff and mileage should be close to 30 combined. I don’t remember what year they stopped making them, but used should be cheap as dirt. And they are pretty fun to drive when they are not full of stuff.

  • avatar
    TEXN3

    I’d wait a few years until the Astro is done for, keep saving some money and then Transit Connects will be on the used market…probably $15k or under.

    A used Caravan or similiar minivan won’t net you much better in terms of fuel mileage or put off any major repairs. A compact wagon won’t support the weight of whatever you’re hauling, plus you don’t have the height of the cargo area. But, if you were to go the wagon route, I’d suggest one of the last year Taurus wagons, tons of room and a heavy-duty suspension.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    The Pontiac Aztek actually wouldn’t be a bad idea — just don’t expect it to pile on the miles as gracefully as the Astro. The Aztek is about as commode-ous (pun intended) as any other vehicle for the size and weight and price.

    If a car will do, try a 2003 Toyota Avalon for about $9,000. Comfortable, big trunk, and half again the fuel economy of your Astro.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    For cheap big mileage hauling I suggest a Volvo 940 station wagon. Not as big as an Astro, but still plenty of cargo capacity. You can buy the nicest one in the country for <$4K. Miles on it is largely irrelevant, I just picked up a corker for $1400 with 215K, and it is barely broken in. Rugged, reliable, cheap stupid easy to fix and seats that will make you not care how long the drive is. Not fast by any stretch, but still a LOT nicer to drive than an Astrovan.

    • 0 avatar
      FuzzyPlushroom

      I’d agree with this. The N/A models aren’t exactly powerful, but they can average 24 or so MPG – markedly better than a turbo. The later AW70L gearbox’s lockup torque converter makes a difference, economy-wise, compared to the ’70 in pre-’90 740s, and the ’92- models have wonderful seats. Miles of legroom, too, and the rear seats fold flat even with the fronts most of the way back.

      And seriously, it can carry a twin mattress, box spring, and frame with the tailgate closed (my ’92 745Ti has). Most compact SUVs won’t do that.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    I haven’t checked prices lately, but I’ll bet that a 2005 Chevy Malibu Maxx hatchback is available in your price range. With the fold-down rear seats and fold flat front passenger seat, these can hold a lot of gear. My wife gets mid-20s MPG and up in hers, and it’s been pretty much trouble free for 4 years/70K miles now. We bought ours used (less than 1 year old w/15K miles) for about $12.5K because nobody seemed to like them much, but I am seeing more of them around lately.

  • avatar
    heybikr

    Mike A. here –
    We use an 07 hhr.
    Dash computer shows avg speed & mpg at 29 & 35.
    Not bad for a veh. that a 6 footer can sleep in.
    Later –

  • avatar

    Stick with the Astro Van and drive it forever. I stumbled on a cheap, clean, rust free Arizona cargo Astro a few years ago and bought it on a whim. Now I may never part with it.

    What little it lacks in near perfect reliability is made up for in simplicity and cheap cheap widely available parts. People cringe about working on “vans” but frankly give me an Astro van with its easy RWD layout and removable interior doghouse to any front will drive, can’t see half the motor, crammed under the cowl, maybe Chrysler techs know braille layout. Having worked on a lot of Astros and S10/blazers, the Astro is easier than the trucks, when the dog house is off, the front and back of the motor are with in easy reach.

    I work full time in auto repair at a independent full line domestic and Asian shop. Our fleet of customer Astro’s keep marching on (with the exception of the AWD versions which are gas sucking Pandora’s boxes on wheels). We see the usual GM age related issues such as fuel pump modules and intake manifold gaskets, but frankly your dealing with straight forward stone age technology, with a dash of modern electronics. Our shops customer’s Chrysler, Ford and Chevy venture based vans are all problem children with flimsy drive trains components, suspect electrics and weak FWD platform power. I’m sorry my Van for hauling lots of stuff should not have the same weak motor as a similar era small sedan. The Pontiac Aztek is just a Venture in sheep’s clothing. Looks aside, I wouldn’t buy a Rendezvous, Aztec, Montana, Silhouette or Venture.

    The bottom line is that I love my Astro so much, that as our family grew and I got tired of playing treasure/parts hunt when working on our 98′ Volvo V70 wagon that I sold it and bought a passenger Astro in the same color inside and out as my cargo van, call them his and hers. Yes I took a hit in fuel economy, but for the 9k a year she drives, the amount I’ll save in cheaper parts, down time and repair work (my time) it was worth it. What Americans need is simple, reliable fuel efficient vehicles. When it comes to the category of vehicle that seats eight and that can tow a moderate amount the compromise that is the Astro beats all comers. It beats all other mini vans in simplicity, beats many in long term ownership reliability and beats the other side of the spectrum (the suburban crowd of family tanks) in fuel economy. Its a compromise in many directions, but as we say in the auto repair business sometimes you just need to keep driving it and be happy.

  • avatar
    mazder3

    I have to be the one to say this? Really? Okay… First gen Scion xB. I know a DJ who traded in his high-mile Astro for one. He loves it. He went from averaging 16 mpg to 32 mpg and he loads the same amount inside the xB as the Astro. It even looks like his old Astro.

  • avatar
    ajla

    First-gen Scion xB.

    *edit: looks like mazder3 beat me to it*

  • avatar

    PS. Did I mention the Astro will consume a full 4X8 sheet of plywood laying flat on the floor and the doors will still close. Show me any other vehicle that is not a full sized van or truck that will do that. I didn’t believe it till I tried it.

  • avatar
    nova73

    Friend bought an extended body Ford Econoline with 4.2L V-6. He reports about 17MPG around town and 20 on the highway.

  • avatar
    Bimmer

    Try converting it to propane. In Canada 6-cylinder vehicle conversion is $3,600. Propane cost 50% of gas on fill up. It takes on average 40 fill ups to pay for conversion, but in your area there might be rebates for conversion. The more you drive the faster conversion will pay for itself.

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