By on January 16, 2012


TTAC Commentator Supaman writes:

Hey Sajeev and Steve,

Got another head scratcher for you. A friend of mine was involved in an accident over the previous weekend which totaled her car (2006 Corolla S). She still had a year’s worth of payments left and the money she gets back from insurance leaves her with a smidge of $4000.

She doesn’t have the credit rating to get a financing on a new car which leaves her with under 5 grand to get a used one. She dislikes the idea of anything “used” as reliability is her main concern but after giving her a reality check she’s decided to reluctantly go along (not that she has a choice since she NEEDS a vehicle). Question here is of the cars I’ve looked at (most in the 100k mileage range) which would be best? American? Japanese? I was in a similar situation in 2006 when my car was totaled and after 4 days of relentless searching I found a diamond in the vein of a 2002 Hyundai Elantra with less than 50k miles for $3000. I’m not sure if she’ll be so lucky but if you have any suggestions it’d be greatly appreciated.

Sajeev Answers:

In situations like these, the condition of the vehicle is far more important than the brand on the grille. That said, don’t run off and buy a “creampuff” E38 BMW just because it fits in the price range…that would be quite the mistake!

American? Maybe. Japanese? Probably. European? Not a chance!

Stick with commonplace models with a large following in the aftermarket. Busted marker light? You can easily get a Chinese knock off lense for an Camry on eBay. And more than likely, you always will! Even the oddball Mercury Montego isn’t a bad idea…though the taillights are a little on the unique side.

Stick with a mainstream family sedan with as much service history you can find. That’s always a safe bet at this price point.

Steve answers:

Retail vehicles are priced based on their year, model, and mileage. But they should always be bought based on their condition, condition, and condition.

We have already developed a car buying series at TTAC that the B&B help revise every year. Here is the four part series for your friend: 1 2 3 4 .

Let her read up on that first. As for specific vehicles, what you really should look for are consumer reviews on carsurvey and other sites where consumers offer written feedback on their vehicles. Some older cars are cheap for a reason (Older Chryslers with the 2.7 Liter V6) while others are unpopular but reliable (Regals, 2000- 2006 Tauruses with Vulcan V6’s, etc.)

One other thing. You may want to start with people the two of you know instead of the great wide world that is Autotrader and Craigslist. Prices are already high due to the upcoming tax season and at least in Atlanta, the average $4000 car will be around 10 years old and have around 120k miles. Toyotas and Hondas are a bit more pricey along with luxury cars obviously. Suzukis and Mitsubishis will often be less costly along with anything out there that is dead or dying.

Good luck!

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36 Comments on “New or Used: Condition, Condition, Condition!...”

  • avatar

    2nd Gen Focus ZX4 SES. You’re welcome

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    I can attest to the value on 2000-2006 Ford Tauruses with the 3L Vulcan six cylinder engine. After my oldest son, wrecked one of my cars when he was 17, I replaced it with a 2000 Taurus in 2005 with $140K that I paid $3500 for. These are really solid cars. This one had overhas over 200K on it and uses only one quart of oil per 3000 miles. The biggest problem I had was a bad fuel pump at 180K. It still runs as smooth as ice and the four speed auto tranny is rock sold. When I was shopping, a comparable Camcord was about 2.5 times as much money. So you can affort a major tranny repair and still come out way ahead.

    • 0 avatar

      If we’re going with the 00-06 Taurus, I’d get the Duratec 3.0L V6. It’s a smoother motor IMO. Taurus SES or SEL with all options and the 3.0L Duratec would be a helluva upgrade from a Corolla S, no matter what the year.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes the Duratec is a sweeter motor, but for anvil like reliability, go Vulcan. It is the logical choice. Heck, it even has green blood (coolant)…I have a 20 year old Vulcan powered Sable for train duty and material pickup at the Home Depot…still has original automatic as well.

        The key here is need, not desire. That being the case, a depreciation machine is your best bet. That means Hondas and Toyotas are likely not the choice for your limited dollars. Buy a well rated, reliable model that for whatever reason, was either not a good seller or just overproduced like a Taurus. In time you can buy the car you really want.

      • 0 avatar

        +1, just STAY AWAY FROM AT ALL COSTS a flex-fuel version. With factory recommended maintenance, I had an ’01 Taurus that the engine hatched at 120k. And this was 6 years ago…

    • 0 avatar

      From my (admittedly limited) experience with rental Taurii, their transmissions seem to always feel a bit iffy. They frequently shifts with a clunk, occasionally slipping a bit, and did not give me confidence that they will last a long time. And these were low miles car! Though probably it was just the shift quality that’s poor, and they will simply continue to shift poorly like that without fail for a long time, who knows.

      • 0 avatar
        Rental Man

        No one liked those Taurii when we handed them the keys. Some Gold members profile would show X-Taurus meaning “I will trash your surveys if you gave me one”(That is why Ford built Sables)
        P-Taurus ADDED to profiles of Gold Members who kept asking why does Hertz keep on buying Tauruses while being very aware ofthe fact Hertz was owned by Ford at the time and that is we were given.

        Thing is they did not really break down and leave customers stranded. They got decent MPG. They have better leg room in the back seats then Impala and do not get stuck in light snow. It was like a minivan image. No one admits to wanting one, Everyone appriciates the value.

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely DO NOT BUY an early 2000 Taurus. If you do then definitely get the Duratec. The transmissions are unreliable at best, seats are terribly uncomfortable for long journeys, and the plastic intake manifold/valve covers leak like a sieve. Brake rotors warp easily, alternator went out, even the coolant tank cracked and started leaking all before 90k miles. I like Fords, you can’t beat how cheap or easy to work on they are, but don’t go for this vintage Taurus. From a former owner of a 2001, just don’t.

  • avatar

    In the $4K range I like the Koreans but only if it’s a private party purchase from the original owner who has lots of service records. Grandma’s car kind of situation. Too many of them were purchased by folks with no money who tend to make, ahem, bad decisions about deferring maintenance needs.

    If purchasing a car with an unknown background, I think it comes down to Honda or Toyota.

    If she’s not fussy about small stuff being broken, well, remember the old saw: “GM cars run bad longer than most cars run at all”.

    Also note that if she has $5K she’s looking at a $4K car as there will be taxes, etc, and -on a car in that price range,-something that needs to be taken care of immediately.

  • avatar

    2002 Mazda 626, last year of that era, common to find for sale with around 100k miles.

  • avatar

    I’d be leary of an older Korean car. Their new ones are a different story, but remember why people are so shocked at their newfound quality…because not to long ago they were making the least safe, least reliable cars on the road. From what I’ve seen from friends in these vehicles you aren’t guaranteed replacement part costs in line with the vehicles cheap purchase price (applies to some but not all).

    That being said, forget brand or national identity. Each car, and each drivetrain, needs to evaluated independantly if you want to give the best advice.

  • avatar

    Taurus and Focus are both good suggestions. Here in WV you can get 8th gen Impalas for next to nothing. I don’t have much experience with them other than riding in one a couple times. However, they seem pretty decent and the sheer number of them I see daily points to some reliability.

    While new financing might be out of the question, a trip to a credit union with $4k in hand may yield some very positive results. I’ve known many with wrecked credit who were able to get financing for a used vehicle. If she can get 10k on loan with 4k down, she’d have a small payment and be able to look at some CPO cars.

    • 0 avatar

      This. Somebody will qualify her for a loan. The rate may not be the greatest, but she’s got a down payment and enough credit history that she was making payments on another vehicle as of a week ago. She ought to be able to get a car that’s at least as good as what she had for the same payment or less.

  • avatar
    Carl Kolchak

    One word. Panther. No P71’s but rather a blue hair special Grand Marquis or civilian Crown Vic. If you need front wheel drive, go Buick LeSabre

  • avatar

    Carl Kolchak is right. The main rule is that whatever you buy has to have AARP and AAA Plus stickers on the back. In other words, buy something from a nice elderly person. You can find a really nice, older Grand Marquis or Buick LeSabre in this price range. Look for a pristine car. You want a prior owner who took care of his stuff. Plus, many older folks are still scared of cars once they hit 100K. To them, a 100K car is not worth much.

    My son just bought a 47K mile 89 Grand Marquis that is gorgeous. After changing the oil and all of the hoses, he has put over 2k on the car since Thanksgiving, including a trip across 3 states. Your friend will likely want newer, but a late 1990s Grand Marquis will be right up her alley. Make sure that the plastic intake has been changed. But if you follow my rule, your fastidious elderly owner will have taken care of this long ago.

    And don’t buy it unless it drives completely right. There are lots of good ones, so don’t settle. And don’t buy it from the relative who has driven it for 2 years and done nothing to it. Get it right from the source. You will be happy you did.

  • avatar
    Downtown Dan

    Just went through a very similar scenario with my mom. A Nissan Sentra (of the 2001+ generation) is a pretty good bet in that price range. We found one for $5k exactly (with 48k miles!).

    Grand lesson from the experience– at that price range, there is a lot of junk, and the private sellers can be unscrupulous. We looked at three different Civics that turned out to have a salvage title. None of the owners volunteered that fact. One in particular was shocked, just shocked, when I pointed out the salvage notice on the title.

    Be persistent and be willing to drive outside your immediate area. We spent an entire weekend browsing dealer lots in the city before finding the Sentra in the boonies, 90 miles away.

    Will echo the suggestions for old-school GM iron — Centurys and Regals were plentiful and cheap.

    There was also a gem of a Lincoln Continental, $4995, clean as a whistle. Mom did not bite, but I damn near pulled out my checkbook.

  • avatar

    Was it fubar totaled or technically totaled? She may still be able to buy her Corolla S back from her insurance for pennies on the dollar and considering how little physical damage can total a car (technically) and the outrageous price of newer used cars, it might worth buying it back and using a the remaining settlement to fix it at a side street body shop. I mean given in her predicament.

  • avatar

    1999-2002 Infiniti G20. Under-appreciated yet a perfectly fine car. I think it shares a lot of parts with the Sentra and Altima, so parts should be easy to find, yet the build quality is said to be much better than either of those cars. Consumer Reports always recommended it, too!

    Other than that, a midsize or full-size sedan with a long production run and high depreciation like the Regal/Century, Taurus/Sable, or Panther would likely be the most economical choice.

    Service history is the key!

  • avatar

    She doesn’t have the credit rating to get a financing on a new car

    Are you sure? Even if she’s gone through bankruptcy and/or foreclosure, being able to put 25% down should mean Toyota Motor Credit would be willing to finance her.

  • avatar

    4k cash in hand? I would say a ’94-’97 Accord Sedan. A friend of mine picked up a 96 V6 EX – leather, sunroof, everything – for $1200 off a Mexican guy that was leaving the country. There were absolutely zero problems with it. Deals can be found if you know where to look!

  • avatar


  • avatar

    I think a low mileage Buick from an elderly person would be ideal.

    You can definitely find on with under 60k miles for that kind of money.

    Not prestigious by any means but great cars to drive and to own.

  • avatar

    LOL @ those suggesting cars older than 00ish model years. A non-enthuaist isn’t going from a 2006 Corolla to a 1990’s anything, and frankly, neither would you.

  • avatar

    Forget sensible. As seen at my local police impound auction: 1982 Monte Carlo $800.00. Look behind all trim pieces to ensure no hidden narcotics. $3,100 can cover a lot of bus fare and cab rides. The remaining $100 will pay for all of the scented green trees she will need to obscure the odors of the previous owners.

  • avatar

    A fifth generation Honda Accord. I inherited one from my brother who upgraded to an ’04 Civic (in this case, a ’97). Best car i’ve ever owned.

    Had a few minor oil leaks, and needed rear brakes. Total into the car (including title transfer), $250.

  • avatar

    Go for the Mazda3, hatch preferably. It doesn’t have the used value of the Civic or Corrolla, but it is a much better car. Equivalent 5cylinder Rabbits/Golfs are also a good choice, but tend to cost a bit more.

  • avatar

    “As for specific vehicles, what you really should look for are consumer reviews on carsurvey and other sites where consumers offer written feedback on their vehicles.”

    I have to disagree with looking for reliable information from consumer reviews. Consumer reviews are one of the worst sources for reliable information on products. Reviews of this type can be grouped into two camps: “I have owned my car for 1 month and it is awesome, look at how smart of a consumer I am” or the “ZOMG what a piece of $h1t this crappy car is, I was screwed over by company X.” You generally won’t get many nuanced reviews because people are only writing the review to toot their own horn or brand loyalty or they are disgruntled.

  • avatar

    Protege5 as long as its not rusted out. I know I got mine for $4900.

  • avatar

    The last-gen Escorts seem to be overlooked and underpriced. They’re getting pretty long in the tooth since 2002 was the last year for them, but there’s probably a few low-mile creampuffs left. The legendary Blue-haired Panther may be your best bet.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Actually I’m pretty sure it was the ZX2 that was made until 2002, I think the other body styles were discontinued in 1999. The questioner could get lucky and find a 1997 model like I did in 2001 that had only been driven 21,000 miles before the orginal owner passed away in a local retirement village.

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