New or Used: College Priorities, Automotive Compromises

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used college priorities automotive compromises


Brenden writes:

Sajeev and Steve,

My buddy is in college and needs a used set of wheels. After 2 years of depending upon Baltimore’s awful public transportation system and the generosity of friends, roommates, frat brothers, and total strangers for car rides, his school work is starting to suffer and he’s decided to buy a car. Unfortunately, his budget is about $2000. His living situation and total lack of mechanical skills rule out anything German, Swedish, or otherwise maintenance intensive.

His criteria for the car are reliable/durable, fuel efficient, and cheap to run. Working AC and heat would be a bonus, but he really only intends to drive the car about 15-20 minutes per day for school. He has absolutely no pretensions about the car’s badge, perceived coolness, sporty driving dynamics, etc., but he probably won’t spring for a total crapcan like a metro or echo. Also, he’s currently unemployed, and I don’t think he intends to find a job due to his course load.

His prior cars have all been automatic Volvos, but he’s driven drunken frat brothers’ manual-equipped cars before, and he’s willing to drive a stick on a daily basis. Any kind of repairs on a high mileage automatic would probably bankrupt him. Personally I would never advise anyone to buy a high mileage automatic; I’d feel like I was telling them to buy a ticking time bomb.

My first advice for him was to budget at least $1000 for future repairs, maintenance, taxes, registration and insurance out of his original $2k. What are your recommendations/advice for finding a sub $1000 set of wheels that won’t kill my buddy with repair bills?

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Saturn S cars – as long as he avoids the DOHC motors, which I’ve heard require head gasket replacements every 70k or so.
  • Geo/Chevy Prizm – it’s basically a toyota with heavier depreciation, and I haven’t heard of any ‘known’ issues with these cars.
  • Corolla/camry/Civic/Prelude/Accord – again, do you know of any issues with these cars for the 90’s models? I checked Craigslist and autotrader and couldn’t find any examples of these within the $1000 price range.
  • Neon – I’ve heard that except for the last few model years, the Neons had head gasket issues, so I’m inclined to tell my buddy to avoid these.
  • Focus – no clue on these
  • Contour – Mondeo FTW! Obviously, the I-4 motor.
  • Cavalier – again, no idea whether these had common problems

So, what advice can you offer regarding vehicle selection? Buying from a dealership would be ideal, since it would be easier to take the car to his family mechanic for a pre-purchase checkup, but I think we’re going to end up on Craigslist and at auctions. Assuming we can’t get any of our mechanically inclined buddies to show up, what checks can I reasonably perform on the cars to weed out total dogs? Offhand, I know to check oil levels and check for oil frothiness/discoloration, check transmission and hydraulic fluids, coolant levels and colors, belts and chains, and to do things like run the AC, wipers, etc.

Steve answers:

I would avoid the dealership like a harsh case of psoriasis. You need to go to the private owner. As for the sub-$2000 car in this economy you should look for…

  1. No A/C: This automatically knocks off $500 to $1000 off the price
  2. The EXTRA car: Folks who already have one more car than they need will sell the leftover ride for cheap. I was able to buy a 10 year old Camry for $500 back in the days when I was getting started. Don’t bet on that happening in today’s times.
  3. Older folks: Owners who are middle-aged and beyond tend to be less abusive than younger folks. Feel free to visit some of the retirement communities in your area and you’ll see exactly what I mean. 4) Gas Guzzlers: Although any vehicle in good condition will do, your friend may actually come out ahead by buying an older vehicle that drinks gas but requires minimal maintenance.

The brand name is completely unimportant at this price point. What is important is that once your friend finds what will work, it is immediately taken to an independent mechanic for an inspection.

Once he buys the car he will want to bring the car back into ‘day one’ condition with it’s fluids. I would buy a Mityvac and replace all the fluids as soon as possible. $80 for a manual pumping Mityvac and about $50 in fluid and filters should be more than enough if his friends are willing to help him out. If not then let the mechanic do the work.

Right now your friends only concern should be to get good grades, great work experience, and a pathway to a good job. Don’t worry about the ‘type’ of car. Just by something that has been well kept and keep focused on the work and grades.

Sajeev answers:

Both your and Steve’s assessment are correct. Quite honestly, you will buy the first vehicle on Craigslist with a smattering of service records and a sub $1000 asking price. And yes, anything European is entirely out of the question, but automatic transmissions are a hit or miss at this price point. I would not rule them out, especially if you stick with slushboxes made by GM or the major Japanese brands.

From there I can only guess: any GM sedan, a non-Z car Nissan, or some other non-Honda and non-Toyota from Japan (i.e. resale value) is a good idea. In theory. Or maybe an ex-cop car Panther, in reality. Because, why the hell not?

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. In a rush? Don’t be shy about asking to cut in line.

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3 of 50 comments
  • Mr Carpenter Mr Carpenter on Jul 15, 2011

    Athos has a great point and one I was going to make anyway. Try to find a Daewoo Nubira or Daewoo Leganza (mid-sized). They are "orphans" (but parts can be had and Suzuki sold versions of them after Daewoo was yanked out of country by then new-owner GM in 2003). We bought a "new" (25 miles) used Daewoo from a huge car dealer in 2003 for quite literally 1/2 of retail (it's a long story) and knew we were taking a chance. Oddly enough, it was one of the top 5 cars we've ever owned for reliability, etc. The engine is a proven GM Holden, the automatic is a proven ZF automatic. The a/c will probably even work. HOWEVER the cam belts MUST be changed at 70,000 miles and so if the car has more miles than that, either ensure the job was done or immediately schedule the job (at the cost of about $600). The only other thing I can think of is that the soft vinyl dashboard top on the Leganza WILL have cracked. Deal with it. Go to or and I bet you'll find some within range of a bus ride. Another reliable non-orphan is the Suzuki Esteem compacts and Aerio compacts - both very good. Given his low miles per year driven, he might also try to find any Isuzu at all (especially good are the rebadged minivans actually manufactured by Honda). This was the Oasis, built from 1996 to 1999.

    • Athos Nobile Athos Nobile on Jul 15, 2011

      Some of the Daewoo cars share parts with the Aveo, and most of the electronic stuff is usually std GM fare. Agree on the belt change. The engines on those things snap them and bend valves

  • Signal11 Signal11 on Jul 15, 2011

    Where does he go to school? There are several German and Swedish specialty shops right around the Hopkins Homewood campus. Big surprise. What is a surprise is that most of them are fair and honest.

  • Kwik_Shift I like, because I don't have to look at them. Just by feel and location while driving.
  • Dwford This is the last time we are making these, so you better hurry up and buy (until the next time we make them, that is)
  • FreedMike @Tim: "...about 40 percent of us Yanks don't live in a single-family home."Keep in mind that this only describes single family **detached** homes. But plenty of other house types offer a garage you can use to charge up in - attached single family homes (townhouses, primarily), or duplex/triplex/four-plexes. Plus, lots of condos have garages built in. Add those types of housing in and that 40% figure drops by a lot. Regardless, this points out what I've been thinking for a while now - EV ownership is great if you have a garage, and inconvenient (and more expensive) if you don't. The good news if you're looking for more EV sales is that there are literally hundreds of millions of Americans who have garages. If I had one, I'd be looking very closely at buying electric next time around.
  • Matthew N Fanetti I bought a Silver1985 Corolla GTS Hatchback used in 1989 with 80k miles for $5000. I was kin struggling student and I had no idea how good the car really was. All I knew was on the test drive I got to 80 faster than I expected from a Corolla. Slowly I figured out how special it was. It handled like nothing I had driven before, tearing up backroads at speeds that were downright crazy. On the highway I had it to about 128mph on two occasions, though it took some time to get there, it just kept going until I chickened out. I was an irresponsible kids doing donuts in parking lots and coming of corners sideways. I really drove it hard, but it never needed engine repair even to the day I sold it in 1999 with 225000 miles on it, still running well - but rusty and things were beginning to crap out (Like AC, etc.). I smoked a same year Mustang GT - off the line - by revving up and dumping the clutch. Started to go sideways, but nothing broke or even needed attention. Daily driving, only needed the clutch into first. It was that smooth and well-synced. Super tight, but drivable LSD. Just awesome from daily chores to super-fun.To this day I wish I had kept it, because now I have the money to fix it. It is hard to explain how amazing this car was back in the day - and available to people with limited money - and still the highest quality.
  • Cprescott Well, duh. You will pay more to charge a golf cart than an ICE of the same size if you charge externally. Plus when you factor in the lost time, you will pay through the nose more than an ICE on lost opportunity costs. Golf car ownership savings is pure myth.