Piston Slap: The Budget is Tight, the Ranger is Right?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap the budget is tight the ranger is right

Ryan writes:

I have a friend who just got her PhD and is moving to Texas for her post-doc. She has never owned a car, but now needs to get one so she can go out in the field to do research. I’ve agreed to help her find something used, probably a small manual-transmission pickup truck. Needless to say she’s not a car person at all, just wants something inexpensive (under 5k), that she won’t have to worry about too much. I’m recommending something after 96 or so, to get the R134A A/C and maybe a few more airbags and safety features.

I have owned a couple Nissans (Frontier and Rogue), and a Toyota Tacoma, and my brother owned a Nissan Frontier, all were mostly problem free. I also had a 91 Ford Explorer before that, which also gave me few problems up to 200k miles.

Given my experiences, I’ve been thinking Tacoma or Frontier for my friend, I think they will be more reliable at the high mileages she can afford. But looking in the local (Phoenix, AZ) Craigslist – By Owner section, I see that Tacomas are relatively more expensive, older Frontiers are cheaper but less common (many are also heavily modified), and there seem to be lots of less expensive Ford Rangers available.

Do you agree with the 96 or later idea? Or do you think something older could work? What about the Ranger’s reliability as opposed to the imports? Also, are there any other models with a proven track record she should consider? And finally, given that a 10+ year old truck with over 100k miles is going to need maintenance no matter what, what about parts availability and ease-of-maintenance between the brands?

Sajeev answers:

1996 and newer is definitely the way to go: any modern mechanic can diagnose and repair an OBD-II vehicle, and you do get the benefit of better equipment…usually. Now there was an all-new Tacoma for 1995, and rumor has it that they received OBD-II like their 1996 brothers somewhere in the middle of the production year. From a Piston Slap standpoint, the Tacoma had the nicest motors and are generally regarded as the best in their class in design and fit and finish. From a “New or Used” standpoint, they are ridiculously overpriced and the Ranger is good enough.

I’d recommend all three: Ranger, Tacoma and Frontier. In that order. Rangers are stupid cheap, unquestionably reliable (especially the 2.3L and 3.0L models) and there will be plenty of cheap spares for decades to come. The Tacoma is great, except for the asking price. I never liked the Frontier as much as the other two, especially when the Ranger received all the interior and suspension upgrades from the 2nd Generation Ford Explorer.

But honestly, how far off-road will she travel? I think the original Ford Escape or Toyota RAV4 with AWD and slightly knobby tires will be more than adequate, and might be a better all-around vehicle for her.

Then again, the original RAV4 wasn’t especially refined in my book…so maybe a truly honest pickup is right on the money. The budget is tight, so the Ranger is right.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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2 of 27 comments
  • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Sep 13, 2011

    Sajeev made a good comment on the Escape, but the only more outrageously overpriced Toyota than the Tacoma is the RAV4. If you can even find one with less than 150k miles, it will be way over her budget. You would think they are made of gold! But Jeep Cherokees and Explorer Sports can be found in that range all day and will work as well as a pickup.

  • Sidehike Sidehike on Sep 16, 2011

    Does she need to buy the car in Arizona? The state of Texas buys Rangers in droves. You can find scads of them up for auction from time to time at lonestaronline.com. And at the very least you know they've kept up with a regular maintenance schedule.

  • Namesakeone If you want a Thunderbird like your neighbor's 1990s model, this is not the car. This is a Fox-body car, which was produced as a Thunderbird from MY 1980 through 1988 (with styling revisions). The 1989-1997 car, like your neighbor's, was based on the much heavier (but with independent rear suspension) MN-15 chassis.
  • Inside Looking Out I watched only his Youtube channel. Had no idea that there is TV show too. But it is 8 years or more that I cut the cable and do not watch TV except of local Fox News. There is too much politics and brainwashing including ads on TV. But I am subscribed to CNBC Youtube channel.
  • Jeff S Just to think we are now down to basically 3 minivans the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna. I wonder how much longer those will last. Today's minivan has grown in size over the original minivans and isn't so mini anymore considering it is bigger than a lot of short wheel based full size vans from the 70s and 80s. Back in the 70s and 80s everything smaller was mini--mini skirt, mini fridge, mini car, and mini truck. Mini cars were actually subcompact cars and mini trucks were compact trucks. Funny how some words are so prevalent in a specific era and how they go away and are unheard of in the following decades.
  • Jeff S Isn't this the same van Mercury used for the Villager? I believe it was the 1s and 2nd generations of this Quest.
  • VoGhost I don't understand the author's point. Two of the top five selling vehicles globally are Teslas. We have great data on the Model 3 for the past 5 years. What specifically is mysterious about used car values?