By on June 30, 2011

Daily driver?


TTAC commentator siggy writes:

Hello Sajeev and Steve,

I’m a big fan of TTAC’s Piston Slap column and I hope you can help me with a good recommendation. Currently, I have one car, a 1984 Mustang SVO.  It has about 75k miles, and I’ve given it numerous upgrades.  I love it, but it doesn’t have a heater or A/C, and the mileage is crap.  On long freeway drives, I can get up to 25mpg, but the reality is my commute to work is 10 miles, and it’s all stop and go, sometimes bumper-to-bumper traffic.  So I end up with about 15mpg.  But, like I said, I love the car, so I will not be getting rid of it in the foreseeable future.

With gas at almost $4, and the way the SVO chugs the premium juice, I think it’s time to get a proper commuter.  Not having A/C in the summer is a serious problem here in Orange County, so with spring and summer around the corner, I need to act on this now.  Time for a beater!

Here’s a breakdown of requirements:

  1. I can only spend a max of about $2500.
  2. Smaller is better.  Ideally, something that can return at least 25 MPG City.  (30+ MPG highway).  Probably FWD.
  3. Easy to work on and easy to find parts for.  One thing I like about my Fox Mustang is how easy it is to work on, with its huge engine bay and tiny 4 cyl. Engine.
  4. I’d prefer a manual.  This is not a dealbreaker though.  The main reason I prefer a manual is because they are way more reliable.  My old ’96 T-bird’s auto started to slip at around 150k miles, and my girlfriend’s ’02 Accord Auto, with 120k miles, slips worse than my Mustang’s tires in the rain.  The added MPG and fun factor of a manual is nice, too.
  5. Because of #3, only American and Japanese brands.
  6. Not really a big deal, but R134 A/C and OBDII would be a plus.

Let me know what you think.  I look forward to hearing back and/or seeing my name up on TTAC.

Sajeev answers:

SVO? SVO! You mean I get to talk Fox Bodies for a moment?  Just kidding…

You have an SVO Mustang and are familiar with MN-12 body Thunderbirds.  That combination is disturbingly close to my restomod(?) Fox Mercury Cougar and daily driver Lincoln Mark VIII.  The Fox and MN-12 love within you is strong: you should embrace that.  Be one with your love, let the passion fly like the turbocharged SVO wind, soaring on the wings of a thunderous Thunderbird!

You might be nuts to not get another MN-12 Tbird. Get a V6 if you want mileage improvements at part throttle, head gasket condition be damned.  $1500 gets a disturbingly nice MN-12, they are really that terrible on the used car market.  And they are a rather brilliant (if flawed) platform even in stock form. I personally think the MN-12 deserved a second chance, a significant re-think: it coulda replaced both the Panther and spared us the disappointment of the Five Hundred, Flex, Taurus, Montego, Freestyle, etc.

Of course I am only partially kidding…

You need an older, 2.3 or 2.5L Ranger with a stick: 25mpg, fun, cheap and you already know the motor from your SVO, inside and out.  Find one in that price range with some service records, new parts and an honest private seller on craigslist. I know you. You are me.  And a Ranger is precisely what I’d want if I were in your shoes.

Steve answers:

I would not fall head over heels over any particular car.

At the price range you are looking at, it will be the prior owners who will determine the long-term reliability of your ride. It also will be pretty damn hard to find a good one… for now.

My advice is to try to seek anything that has a well-known bulletproof drivetrain. The Ford platforms Sajeev mentions tend to be that way. But so are a long slew of various domestic and foreign models.

If you do orientate over a given type of car then Ebay would be a good bet. Go to the ‘completed items’ section and see how much things are selling for these days. If the seller has 100% positive Ebay feedback (like yours truly) then the odds will definitely be with you.

Research the histories, get it inspected no matter what, and good luck.

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.

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50 Comments on “New or Used: I know you. You are me....”

  • avatar

    WOW an actual SVO owner! As a mid 80s teenager this car brings a smile to my face. Always funny to see that a small turbo 4 in an engine bay where a 5.0 V8 normally lives and double spoiler out back. Sorry no recommendations for ya, just happy to see a rare SVO.

  • avatar

    I think your price point of $2.5K is low, too low. A lot of risk when you get much below $3K on buying someone elses steaming pile of crap.

    As far as sips gas, great commuter car, proven reliability, cheap to fix, and easy to fix, a Geo Metro comes right to mind. You’ll probably need to go a tick higher in price to get a good one; they have quite a cult following. You can get 50 MPG out of one if you play nice, there is very little under the engine bay that bailing wire, duct tape, and a hammer can’t fix (or at least give you enough range to get to a real repair shop). The 3-cylinder engine and manual tranny set up has proven to be shockingly reliable, and the cars are surprsingly roomy inside. I’d say it’s a no brainer.

    • 0 avatar

      Life is full of risk. The questioner knows his/her way around a wrench and already has an extra car. A Murilee-style fleet o’ beaters seems just about perfect.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree here. Nothing in this part of the country (East-by-Gawd TN) you can buy for $2500 is going to be as reliable or as in as good a shape as that Mustang. Better off to the spend the $2500 getting the heater and AC fixed in the car you have IMHO.

  • avatar

    I saw an early Ford Focus sedan with a manual and a zillion miles on it go for around $2500 on eBay, but that was a year or two ago. The market may be different now.

  • avatar

    Orange County as in California, or upstate New York? If it is California, the biggest problem with a $2500 car will be getting it smogged. Stay away from GM and Nissan products in this price range. The only way to keep them licensed while not spending thousands every time they’re inspected is to have access to an inspection station that is willing to pretend. A Ranger will be easy to work on, but it won’t return 25 mpg in traffic on California gas. Buy the best car you can find for your money. Condition will be as important as finding a particular model, provided you avoid cars known to have emissions related problems.

  • avatar

    Early to mid-80’s Toyota or Honda from the south or southwest. $2,500 should provide for the best of the best in this year range. Maybe even find an original owner version with service history?

    Corolla SR-5s and Accords both can be had with 5-speeds. The Corolla has a drivetrain that you’ll recognize (4 cylinder, rear wheel drive), FWIW.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Lol, you’re not getting an AE86 for $2500 anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      Whoa! NO Japanese cars (most especially Honda) with carburetors! I have had four 1986-87 Civic with the CVCC 3-barrel and one point two million vacuum lines. When they are running perfectly, they are wonderful. One TINY vacuum leak and forget it. Even with the factory manuals, your life is not long enough to troubleshoot all the things that can go wrong.

      The automotive gordian knot is disassembling one of the vacuum-tastic solenoid-filled “black boxes” underneath the hood to change out a dead solenoid (that only took 27 hours, or three weeks of after-work evenings, to diagnose).

      Now a 1997 Civic with the D16Y7 1.6l SOHC non-VTEC engine like I drive now? Rock-solid reliable, maybe will need a distributor eventually. Easily 30+ mpg in the city with the 5-speed manual, and close to 40 on the highway using non-winter gasoline.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Man if your limit wasn’t so low I’d say just head to Carmax and pick up a Cobalt coupe. Last I checked they were moving Cobalt coupes with nothing but AC (manual trans/manual windows) for four figure price tags. If I just wanted a high mpg commuter for cheap, that’s what I’d grab. If you look hard enough for your current budget you might find someone’s grandmothers Cavalier with a similar set up.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Carmax inflates their prices by absolutely insane amounts.

      I’ll give you a quick sample.

      Ebay Cobalt 17k –

      Carmax Cobalt 17k –

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Keep in mind that the Carmax price may likely be more than what the Cobalt sold for when it was new. I know of at least one of our posters who picked up a 2010 Cobalt for $11k (sinisterman).

      • 0 avatar

        What’s up with that? The prices say no-haggle. Doesn’t it discourage people from buying cars when they see prices that are higher than MSRP on two year old cars? Shopping for a car for a friend, I visited a Carmax in 2008. They had a 2006 Civic Si with plenty of miles, mild signs of being run hard, and a price higher than I’d paid for my Civic Si new in 2007. My price included tax and tags, while theirs was before all fees. I’m pretty sure Carmax sells lots of cars. Who buys them?

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        CJinSD, good question. Maybe if I needed a car RIGHT NOW and didn’t want to futz around with negotiating… but good question.

        OP could enter his requirements into Autotrader and see what he comes up with but then that would take all the fun away from us as the B&B.

  • avatar

    put ac and a heater core in the SVO. Drive slower to get better milage.

    What is an MN 12?

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii


      15 mpg and a 20-mile round trip commute is about $5-6 bucks a day. Buying a 3-cylinder Metro or such would knock that down to $3-4 bucks, which isn’t enough to offset the costs of smogging, registering, and insuring a second vehicle.

      • 0 avatar

        Abusing a classic sportscar every day in bumper to bumber stop and go traffic sounds risky to me :P
        Get a banger.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s not much of a classic car with no heater or AC.

        I can understand that in a convertible or an old vintage car , but not a closed car from the 80s.

        It’s value would increase if he fixed the climate control.

      • 0 avatar
        George B


        Wait to buy a 2nd car until prices come back down. Watch for a good deal and buy a used car because you want it, not because you need it now. Parts to fix the A/C and heater may be less expensive than registration and insurance on a 2nd car and the Mustang SVO has lots of room to get at the parts. Steve probably has suggestions on what A/C parts are good bets at the salvage yard and what parts like the dryer need to be new.

      • 0 avatar

        You guys may not realize just how rare an SVO Mustang is, let alone one with only 75k miles in daily driver running condition. I dont know how the consmetics are, but its a very rare car, even without heat or AC.

        He should be able to find an old beater, even in Cali… just shop the “little old lady’ specials. You know, the 81 Ford Fairmont that is ugly as sin but only driven to church on Sundays?!?

    • 0 avatar

      That was going to be my suggestion. It can’t be about saving money cause at only 20 miles round trip you can’t get a car cheap enough that gets mileage better enough to come out ahead.

      If it’s about saving wear and tear on the car and extending its life or going deeper down the weekend race car rabbit hole, than a beater makes total sense.

      MN12 is the chassis code for 89-97 Thunderbirds & Cougars. FN10 is the very closely related 93-98 Mark VIII

  • avatar

    Just found it for you:

  • avatar

    I have no idea what might be available used in you area, or for what prices, as I live in Norway, but an older Civic is usually not a bad thing if it’s not yet riced or rusted through, and even some of the older Accords can do 25mpg with a manual (my 1990 Cb7 with the 150 hp 2.2 averaged 26 mpg, not much highway driving). If you can live with some road and engine-noise Honda’s are almost always more fun to drive (the noise is after all because they are reasonable lightweight). Be aware of relatively un-cheap suspension and drivetrain parts on heavily molested cars though.
    As for the SVO, don’t ever sell it, period. Even if you crash or total it (which I hope you don’t) you can still use the parts to restore an XR4ti ;)

    • 0 avatar


      For ease of wrenching, parts availability, good mpg, and fun-to-drive, it’s hard to beat a mid 90s Civic. As hard as it is to believe for a FWD economy car, they even have soul. The hard part is finding one (regardless of budget) that hasn’t been completely trashed by it’s previous owner who probably got it as his first car.

      My advice if you go looking for one of these: make sure the A/C works (usually scrapped by someone who owned it previously), make sure it’s a manual, and make sure there are no check engine lights.

  • avatar

    Mazda Protege. The 1.5L and 1.6L will get better fuel economy than the 1.8L or 2.0L, but still be quick enough for commuting (provided you get a 5-speed.) Good little cars, easy to work on and parts are pretty cheap.

  • avatar

    Second generation Neon with a 5spd in a higher trim level isn’t a bad option.

  • avatar

    Keep it (or sell it to Me!). Just unclip the wastegate actuator so you lose all boost. It won’t exactly double your mileage but it’s better than alternative.

    Bought mine after the numbskull that had it before put the wrong 3.08 rearend gears in it and also had no boost from that particular missing “clip”. Not sure of the MPG at the time but I’ll go 100 miles and the gauge would barely move.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    I thought of two things once I saw the requirements for a stickshift and the fact that you’ve driven two Fords:

    1. Fox body four banger five speed. Seems natural to me with the sick SVO you already have.

    2. First/second gen Taurus SHO five speed.

    If you want *really* cheap/gas friendly:

    1. Geo/Chevy Metro 3 banger five speed.

    2. Old Toyota Corolla/Geo Prizm five speed.

  • avatar

    Go for a 1979-1985 Mercedes 300 Turbo Diesel. Lots around for $2500. I think some even had manual transmissions.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan!&Number%2520of%2520Cylinders=4%7C!

      Still might be hard to meet that price limit.

    • 0 avatar

      easy to work on, get parts for?
      There are plenty of them with manual transmission over here, but a 30 year old 300TD struggles to make 25mpg mixed driving, and cost of parts is downright scary. The newer 250’s without turbo is a great car if you have a lot of patience. Still not easy to work on, get parts for or paying for parts though…

  • avatar

    Acura Legend FTW!!!!

  • avatar

    I know you. You are me (almost). I’m also a proud owner of an 84 SVO, but its quite the garage queen these days (and its bone stock so it gets very good mileage). You’re right to spare her from the daily grind!

    If you want to stick to Mustangs, why not consider an SN95 (1994+) with a 3.8 V6? I’m sure there are some pretty cheap ones to be had…

  • avatar

    Another idea, 1989 Ford Probe GL or LX with the 5-speed manual. Stay away from 1990 to 1992 models with the Vulcan 3.0 V6 and motorized seat belts.

    The Mazda 2.2 is a torque monster of an engine and you can easily get 40 MPG on the highway if you play nice, very high 20’s in the city. Seats four, cargo room to spare, and a relatively easy engine to work on (some quirks). Lots of junkyard parts out there – could easily find one with life still left in it for under $2.5K

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent suggestion. Plus, if you get one with out of balance wheels and tires, you can brag about your “pulsating Probe.” (I stole that juvenile little gem from a buddy whose ’89 Probe was so afflicted after it was recovered from a joyriding theft.)

  • avatar

    At this price, I suggest a late 1990s to early 2000s Nissan Altima. Thirty highway is easy, 25 city would be a little optimistic. The 2.4 liter engine has a lot of torque, so they are reasonably quick with a 5 speed manual.

  • avatar

    I agree with Steve, prior owner is the most important part. Any well maintained Japanese 4-banger should meet your needs.

    Might I recommend a early/mid nineties geo prizm? Same as corolla, generally cheaper. I think corollas from this era were lightyears better than their econobox peers.

  • avatar

    I’d probably go for a Honda Del Sol, Nissan Sentra SE-R or a Nissan 240SX.

  • avatar

    agree with Jerseydevil..

    Your commute isn’t that bad, just fix the AC and enjoy !

  • avatar

    Up until a few weeks ago, I drove my son’s 1997 Toyota Tercel everyday…5 speed, near 40 MPG, completely bulletproof, easy (and cheap) to work on…interior still looked new. I absolutely love, love, loved that little car. But my son was finally allowed to have his own car where he goes to school, so we had it shipped out there. Yes, even with 197k on it, I trusted that car more than just about anything he could find out there for the same coin you’re talking about. With little in the way of cumbersome electronics, the car just runs and runs and runs…
    As for the SVO, man I do love that car!

  • avatar

    Mustang is the right call here.

  • avatar

    A left-field suggestion – it isn’t FWD (but who cares in Orange County), isn’t THAT small, no sticks, and is niether American (except for the Dana rear axle) nor Japanese (except for the Aisin-Warner transmission) but is as reliable as sunrise and tough as an anvil – a Volvo 940 non-turbo.

    I picked up a decent ’95 945 on eBay a couple months back for $1425. I’ve put WELL less than a grand into it bringing it up to snuff. Everything works, ice cold air, cruise control, even the heated seats. Quiet and calm and kind of soothing as it won’t really hurry even if you want to, though they handle quite well. And nothing is easier to wrench on. It’s all simple, the hood opens straight up, and that is a tiny engine under there.

    Best of all, as they are deeeply unfashionable, even at the cheap price I got one that is nice enough to be presentable, but not so nice that I feel bad about leaving it out, never washing it, and parking it at the airport for weeks at a time.

    • 0 avatar

      Well that’s basically what I came here to say. 93 – 95 940 is the way to go in the “cheap, comfortable daily driver for under $2500” category. I sold our newer car away and picked up a ’93 wagon instead. Zero depreciation, cheap insurance, cheap parts and reasonable fuel mileage (20-22). It’s the Swedish Panther!

  • avatar

    Mazda Protege.

  • avatar

    As a long shot, go to the junkyard and get that Justy that’s on the front page. It looks like you could get it for less than $500 and spend a $1000 to put it back into shape.

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