By on May 19, 2011

TTAC commentator Sinistermisterman writes:

Hi Sajeev and Steve,

I asked a question about my aging and ailing Ford Escort last year along the lines of “Do I bother to repair it or not…” and after reading all the advice everyone had to give, I didn’t bother to repair it. Now with close to 200k on the clock, a whole host of issues have now come to the surface including:
  • Exhaust manifold gasket leaking (I’m guessing because I never bothered to fix the jelly like engine mounts)
  • Front two shocks gone
  • Both front wheel bearings worn
  • A/C failed
  • Car eats oil (valve stem oil seals?)
  • Getting harder and harder to put into first gear (synchro going?)
Anyway, the car wasn’t in perfect condition when I bought it, but its gradually getting worse, it isn’t worth repairing and I want to replace it. Now my primary use for a car is a 30 mile per day round commute over stop/start roads, a bit of highway and the occasion run to the shops. Every now and then I will do a long distance drive, and I’ve got a couple of very long distance road trips coming up this year. I’m also at that time of my life (late 20’s) where I’m newly married, would love something RWD, silly and fast, but in my heart know that in the next few years certain mewling, puking, pooping creatures will dominate my life and wallet that just wouldn’t fit in the back of a 2+2.
So I’ve got about $5k to spend, either as a deposit for something new or something used. Oh, and heres the kicker – I have a company fuel card and don’t have to worry about fuel costs (feel free to feel jealous). Any more suggestions?
  • New – I’ve looked at and test driven various new 4 door commuter cars, Cruze, Elantra, Focus, Mazda3 – all of which failed to inspire – didn’t bother with the Sentra as I had one as a hire car and it was awful. I’ve even looked at a few of the 4 door sub compacts, Fit, Yaris & Mazda2 which are fine for around town, but really don’t hold their own on the freeway and I feel that in the future they will be too small. Out of all of these only the Mazda’s handled really well but both didn’t have enough poke. I would look at something new and bigger but I’m not sure my budget could stretch that far.
  • Used – Not looked at much, but a certain model of Ford built, v8 powered, RWD saloon are actually quite affordable. I’ve seen good examples around with good history and low mileage which are well within my price range. Apart from that, being relatively new to North America, I’m not sure what other used vehicles are worth checking out…
Sajeev Answers:

Yes indeed, a certain Ford RWD V8 Saloon is right up your alley. And not because our affinity lends itself so well to the phrase “Panther Love” even if that’s a huge part of our problem.  And five large of working capital ain’t a whole lot, baby.  But it’ll make you the King of the Court in a Crown Vic, Grand Marquis or Lincoln Town Car.  Hopefully you’ll have the extra cash and knowledge to remedy their (obvious) shortcomings with junkyard Police Interceptor parts and an performance tune for better throttle response, shifting and a nice kick from premium gas. Gas card in mind, ‘natch.

You say you don’t like the typical midsize, wrong-wheel drive sedans in your budget. Tragic. The really cheeky subcompacts don’t fit your long term family needs and highway cruising goals.  And considering the family, I am very hesitant to recommend going into debt since you’ve done so well with that Escort.  But if I was: the last generation Mazda 6 is fun for its powertrain layout and size, while the Chrysler LX cars (Charger, 300) are w0rth a look…even if my father’s ownership experience of the first 300C was less than inspiring when new. It was a terribly flawed, compromised car.  The redesigned ones seem much better, for what its worth.

So if you are a new recruit to North America and you have a gas card, it’s time to buy a $5000 Panther with a performance re-flash.  Quite frankly, it would be Un-American for me to recommend anything else.

Steve writes:

A lot of the cars I used to recommend for the married guy turned family guy are just about dead now. The Volvo 850 and Subaru Outback were my perennial favorites. So much so that I would buy either models on a weekly basis when I first started in this business. Just so my family would always have one handy.  They were great values for their time. But finding a good inexpensive one with low miles these days would be a borderline Herculean task.
Sajeev and I pretty much share the same playbook when it comes to Panther cars. You can make them into pretty much anything you want in a large car. A few well chosen mods and you’re pretty much cheating the Gods. Passing the buck as it relates to gas will also help you stay an ‘angel’ in the expense account. It’s a top notch choice.
I am obligated to throw in one consideration into this discussion. Let your wife weigh into this decision. Why? Because I already know that you drive a 2010 Chevy Cobalt. You mentioned it in ‘The Best Time’ article about a month ago. I don’t know what she drives now. But if it’s something small or old then ‘your’ next car may eventually become ‘her’ car.
I don’t like SUV’s at all. But if luxury, utility and road trips are a big part of your criteria then a 1999 – 2001 Ford Explorer would certainly deserve a look. They are wonderful to drive on long rides and with a 5.0L 302 V8, they are true kings of the road. The best of the midsized SUV market. They can be modified as well to fit your needs.
By the way, not everyone appreciates the bench seats that are in most traditional Panther cars. If you must opt for the Panther, look for one with bucket seats up front. The benches are not always a good fit for those who need to sit for very long periods of time due to the lack of lower back support. Hope this helps!

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46 Comments on “New or Used: Cheating the Gods via Fuel Card...”


  • avatar
    jj99

    200,000 miles on a Ford? What? I have never witnessed such an event. Fords usually throw up well under 150,000. From my personal experience on a number of recent Fords, 150,000 is nearly impossible unless you finance many many repairs.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      We easily put over 200k on our 93 Escort, and I’m sure Educator Dan will be along shortly to spank your lack of Escort faith.

      As to the poster, I’d go with a Panther if someone else is picking up the gas. Probably your last chance to drive a big V8 sedan, and you can pick up a nice one for practically nothing.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        I’m still waiting for Educator Dan to slap me for forgetting to mention the Ford Flex the other day! He must be out of town or cramming for his test he spoke of some time ago.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        Nah, employer is cracking down on internet usage at work. PRODUCTIVITY IS THROUGH THE ROOF! But it means I have to wait till I get home.

        @jj99, who do you think you are? Z71silvy?

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Cracking down on internet usage at work? Dan, that’s just plain wrong!

    • 0 avatar
      jj99

      Actually, I have seen F pickups and Ford Explorer with a lot of miles that were reliable. I forgot about those.

    • 0 avatar
      windswords

      159,000 + on my Escort ZX2. I know many (from the internet boards) who have well over 200,000k on them.

    • 0 avatar
      Exfordtech

      Once got an 89 Escort 5spd wagon. from an auction with 125,000 on it. The auction fee was more than the price of the car ($75 total). Replaced the clutch, inner and outer tie rod ends, plugs and wires and front and rear brakes. Flushed the cooling system. After that used it daily on a 100 mile round trip commute with a consistent 35 to 40 mpg, not pure highway, alot of stop and go outside of Boston. Nothing but oil changes and filters right up to 330,000. Would have kept it but the rear strut towers rotted out in 2002. JJ I think you need to get out some more.

    • 0 avatar
      ciddyguy

      JJ99,

      You may be confusing things, just about any Ford from the past 20 years will go for well over 150K miles, before that, who knows since their reliability issues were legion, as was Chevrolet around the same time.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    This person plans to have children, so as Click and Clack like to say: forget about performance, you have children, your life has changed, they’re the priority. Since having children means carrying a lot of stuff with you on a regular basis, and it often involves a large, shaggy dog sharing your space, the only recommendation that makes any sense is a minivan.

    This person also doesn’t appear familiar with North American winters. So forget about rear wheel drive. Minivans have excellent traction, especially the short wheelbase ones, and they don’t flip on their roof when sliding off the road. And with kids in the car, you’re not going street racing anywhere at anytime. Bottom line: it’s going to be minivan, it’s inevitable, so accept it.

    You’re not going to find a Honda or Toyota for under $5,000 unless it’s a junker, so stick with domestic. I just bought a ten year-old Grand Caravan for $2,000 and put $1,000 into it. The 3.3 engine has plenty of low-end torque (which is what counts) and will easily go 300,000 miles with no repairs (I’ve done it). I just drove from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee and back and averaged 25 mpg, even with the wicked headwind coming back and driving half the distance on two-lane roads (for fun).

    The minivan — it’s the best idea Detroit ever had.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I’m not necessarily anti-minivan, but I drag my son around in my Town Car five days a week without any ill effects, including wintertime.

    • 0 avatar
      Sinistermisterman

      I thought it was the French who came up with the idea for the minivan… but I digress. I don’t really have to worry about winter. I live in a low lying area of the Pacific Northwest and I’ve seen snow on the roads for a grand total of 2 days in the past 2 years. The rest of the time it just rains a lot.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      I’m doing fine dragging my two 1/2 grown children around in the back of my Focus SVT, so I’m not so sure about the need for a mini-van as soon as one thinks that one might have children some day.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        I’m with you, but my MAB (middle-aged back) screamed at me every time I had to bend over and hoist the little one in and out of the back of our Civic (which I still use as my DD).

        The Odyssey allows me to hoist both little ones (bought the van right before kid #2) right into their seats while standing straight up, and the rear sliding doors are a godsend in narrow urban parking spots.

        We have two other friend-families that were both strongly anti-minivan as well for years. Now that both of them have two kids, one has recently traded in the old Subaru wagon for a Sienna, and the others are considering going from a Camry to a minivan.

        Of all the cars in our fleet, the minivan excites me the least, but darnit, it does what it does so well that we couldn’t live without it and it is a wonderful long-trip car as well.

  • avatar
    twotone

    I’d go Panther, or Hyundai Sonata if you wanted something more “modern.”

  • avatar
    segfault

    Did they make that many Panthers with buckets? I know it’s nearly impossible to find a Cadillac Deville with buckets, and that car has a similar demographic to the retail Crown Vic.

    How long will you have free fuel? The budget is small, but a V8 SUV isn’t out of the question if someone else is paying the fuel bill. I think Steve said earlier that the market for base model SUVs is somewhat attractive for buyers right now. The loaded ones are still in demand.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    I’m surprised that someone recommended Volvo 850s. I dated a woman whose family operates one of the better known US Volvo parts and used sales operations. They didn’t resell 850s, considered their own reputation too important. Interestingly, when 850s seemed like a harbinger of a dark future for Volvo, they branched out into Subarus as a second specialty. When the V70 face lift was released, most of the built in flaws of the 850 were addressed.

    If I had a company gas card and a five thousand dollar budget, I’d get a ’74 Dodge Monaco with a 440 pursuit package. Failing that, I’d do some research on which ten year old SUVs are the most dependable. A Grand Cherokee handles better than a panther, although it might not be any better built.

  • avatar

    The in-laws had a maroon one with buckets, I think it was 2002 or 2003 and I think it was labeled “SPORT”. It had a lower ride hight, some ground effects, painted grill (hardly any chrome), sportier wheels and buckets. It really looked sportier than the standard crown vic and still rode comfortably but handled better than the standard fare. Not sure how many were actually made or how hard they are to find, but it sounds like it might be worth trying to hunt one down.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The LX Sport was made in even fewer numbers than the Marauder for the most part it’s just the HPP package, different wheels and Marauder buckets, definitely one to look for though.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Used:
    1. Panther
    2. Jeep Grand Cherokee with the 4.0L I6
    3. Last-gen Mazda6
    4. ChryslerCo LH cars with the 3.2L or 3.5L
    5. Le Sabre/Park Avenue/Bonneville

    New:
    1. Mazda6i (steep discounts FTW)
    2. Elantra Touring
    3. Mazda5

    None of those are really high up the fun meter though. If you really need to go for excitement, then Lincoln LS.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I thought Sajeev once told me to avoid the Lincoln LS cause of some various “issues.”

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Well, Sajeev knows a lot more about Ford stuff than me, but what are the alternatives? A Northstar Cadillac, Jaguar S-type, M45, or 540i don’t exactly sound like trouble free motoring either.

        It’s only money anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        I would like a Cadillac technican to tell me if they really did solve most of the Northstar’s issues in the early 2000s. Even recent examples go stupid cheap and I’d love to hoon around in a DTS.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    Sajeev is spot on you owe it to yourself to own at least 1 Panther. I got my first when I started having kids and the trunk will swallow all the junk that comes with them.

    For the best Panther love experience try to find one with the HPP or handling and performance package. It nets you quicker steering, different sway bars, 3.23 gears instead of the 3.08, air suspension, and dual exhaust. That is the easy way to tell the dual exhaust. With kids in the future leather and keyless entry (the pad on the door) are good things to have.

    To enhance your Panther Love you may want to add: 255/50-17 tires, performance mufflers, K&N. Cutting the front springs and adjusting rear height sensor.

    The key break point years are 98 when they received a new rear suspension and 03 where they got a new front suspension and frame.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    Morning all. Sorry to disappoint everyone (my question is several months old already), but as Steve mentioned, in late February I dumped my money on the last new Cobalt I could find. $11k before tax and I’ll have the thing paid off by the end of the year. For that kind of money the only other new cars I would be looking at was the Hyundai Accent or Kia Rio. No thank you.
    4000 miles later I haven’t fallen in love with the Cobalt, but I don’t hate it either. It goes, it stops, it’s relatively comfortable, it doesn’t rattle (yet) and the only issue I’ve had so far is a badly fitted door seal which GM are going to replace under warranty (without any arguing).
    Although the call of the Panther was strong, my current abode is an apartment complex where I have one underground parking space and a Nazi like bunch of rules and regulations which won’t even allow me to pop the bonnet without incurring a fine, so something that had a warranty and requires zero work fitted my bill exactly.
    So I took the boring/cheap option. I’m sorry it doesn’t make for fascinating or inspiring reading!

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Not a bad choice at the price, and it is good to buy something you can afford. Chances are it will still be on the road when the last hamster powered Cruze is a memory.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      I find it funny that you wouldn’t consider a Hyundai or Kia, but bought a Cobalt. To each their own.
      But for $11k your Cobalt should be a decent value.

      • 0 avatar
        Sinistermisterman

        I didn’t compare the Cobalt to the new Elantra or any of the new compacts because it was completely outclassed – I was comparing on price alone. Take an Accent or a Rio out for a spin one day and you’ll see why the Cobalt stands head and shoulders above both of them. Screw the shorter warranty, I can live with a car which makes me shrug my shoulders and say “Meh”, but the Accent and Rio are absolute crap-cans that left me very irritated after only short test drives.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        The Cobalt is a far better vehicle than the Rio or Accent.

        Buying a vehicle in the final throes of it’s last year is usually the best opportunity to make the most of your money. GM slapped $4000 rebates on the Cobalt to make way for the Cruze. At that level of discount even I would have considered jumping on it had I not already been in the used car side of the business.

      • 0 avatar
        Russycle

        I’ve been driving my daughter’s Rio for the last few days, I actually enjoy it for a putzing around town appliance. The visibility from inside the vehicle is fantastic. But I have test driven a Cobalt and I have to admit, I’d probably take it over the Rio.

    • 0 avatar
      jerseydevil

      My favorite car? One thats PAID FOR.

  • avatar
    Mud

    For a Panther with buckets, look for a CV Sport. They were all equipped with front buckets and a center console as well as larger diameter wheels, larger swaybars, higher rate coils/airbags, factory duals and a reasonable 3:27 rear gear. I suggest whatever Panther is considered, go with 2003+ to get the benefit of rack and pinion steering and aluminum front suspension components. The HPP Panthers are equipped the same except no front buckets/console.
    I also suggest to stay away from used P71’s (copcars) unless you are dead certain of who owned it and related maintenance. And I’m not a fan of base CV or Grand Marquis models either.
    I own a 2002 CV HPP and a 2003 Sport and both have aftermarket tunes. The 02 has a variety of engine mods that needed a tune, but the 03 has a basic 87 octane tune with no significant mods. Much better driveability and 1-2 mpg increase from the basic tune on the 03. Average mpg for the 03 is 24 for combination of hiway/city, for the 02 it’s a hair over 22. Certainly modest by todays standards but in my case they are both paid for and I like not having a car payment.
    For you there are lots of choices out there, just presenting some info on these models since they were mentioned.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    EDIT: (previous comment deleted, now that I read S.M.’s response above)

    The Cobalt, like the Cavalier before it, will be one of many “cockroaches” of the road – never at a loss for parts – not that it’ll break, but if anything does, you’ll have a treasure trove to choose from!

    Happy motoring!

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Zackman: Remember, cockroach of the road is my trademark.

      You owe me a beer.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I suspect the Cobalt will prove to be a much better long term bet than the Cruze or new Focus, but I’ve never lived anywhere that they sold in meaningful numbers. I still see Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires on the streets of San Diego, but rarely spot a Cobalt or G5. When they were here, they were rentals. The supply of parts may depend on living somewhere that people bought them.

  • avatar
    vbofw

    “I don’t like SUV’s at all. But if luxury, utility and road trips are a big part of your criteria then a 1999 – 2001 Ford Explorer would certainly deserve a look. They are wonderful to drive on long rides and with a 5.0L 302 V8, they are true kings of the road.”

    …..and do yourself a favor and check said Explorer isn’t rocking the original Firestone tires!

  • avatar
    wsn

    You only got $5000. A boring budget will buy you a boring car, get it?

    Elantra Wagon

  • avatar
    DeadEd

    OK, I know this is too late, but you clearly like smaller cars. You don’t have the kid yet, and weren’t adverse to something sporty that you would love. I would have suggested a CPO BMW 328i. The $5K would have been the down payment. If the E90 is anything like my E46, you’ll still love it long after it is paid for. It is a joy to drive around town, in the curves, and the seats are all-day comfortable on those 600 mile drives. The key is not to get fancy. Stick shift, and the standard pleather seats (for the future rug rat). The basic BMW is fairly reliable. It is the toys that cause the problems, and the 328 doesn’t even have the high pressure fuel pump issue. The 328 even gets pretty good mileage. Premium required, but that fuel card takes care of the extra cost. I see late model CPO’s for $25K-$28K fairly frequently. Sorry I’m too late!

  • avatar
    colin42

    I would have suggested a Mazda RX8 with + an extra set of winter rubber – surprisingly easy to get a car seat in the back with the suicide doors.

  • avatar
    mzs

    That 1st gear must be the most annoying trait. It might be easy to fix though, and then yo can get some more miles! Is it hydraulic clutch? If so, keep topping up. Otherwise adjust the mechanic linkage. If it’s not simply your clutch wearing-out. I had a problem with a leaky slave cylinder. It first seemed like it was harder to get into first. I also thought something was up with the synchros, cause I could hear them! Anyway it really was that the clutch was not disengaging completely and the sychros were having a hard time compensating considering the gear ratio for first. I went 6mo before it got so bad that when it was cold I needed to top-up every week. Then I fixed it, it was less than $6 in parts, two evenings of work, since I’m not great with repairs and learning as I go.

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