By on March 21, 2012


David writes:

Hi Steve and Sajeev,

I’m in high school and I need a car. Before anyone makes assumptions, I actually have a need for owning a vehicle. There is no public transportation where I live, my school doesn’t have buses, and it’d be a long walk especially during the lengthy winter (which sort of rules out riding a bike too). My budget is about $1000 to 2000.I have been searching craigslist, eBay, and other car listings for a few months and now I’m pretty confused. Most of the cars I’ve found either have high mileage, over 150,000, seemingly major problems or are ridiculously overpriced. So far the SN95 Mustang V6, MKIII Jetta/GTi VR6 or I4, SAAB 900 non-turbo 2.3L, and other older Audi and Volvo products seem attractive to me. It has to have a manual transmission, achieve decent fuel economy and be at least relatively fun to drive. Fairly easy maintenance would be nice since I’m able to do some of the maintenance myself.

This brings me to another question, how many miles are acceptable and if the AC doesn’t work, which I’m fine with, how would that effect the value? I know people who have and have had very reliable Swedish, VW, Chrysler, and Ford manufactured products. Many of them took the cars well over 200,000 miles with very few problems. Though wiring and computer problems seem to be a downside of many European cars. I’m still worried about buying a used high mileage vehicle though.

At this point I don’t care too much about appearance since I like classics much better than anything made relatively recently. Are there any other cars I’ve overlooked? I’m not sure I’d buy a Honda since we’ve had several bad experiences with Civics and the local dealership. Toyotas are so irritatingly sedate and uncomfortable. I’m kind of suspicious of 90’s GM products, they seem to be hits or misses, the same with Nissans. I’m open to other makes like Chrysler (manual transmissions appear to be rare), Subaru and Mitsubishi although I can’t say I know too much about the last too.

Steve Answers:

Believe it or not, your criteria does open a lot more doors for you than the average car buyer. Most folks looking for a cheap car can’t…

1) Perform basic maintenance
2) Operate a stick shift
3) Live without A/C.

So where should you start? The owner. The prior owner(s) have a far greater impact on the quality and longevity of a vehicle than the brand. Find what interests you and then follow the used car buying guide we publish here 1 2 3 4.

I will spare you the pointless lectures of “You don’t need a car because…:”. At this point in life you’re old enough to be smart, and young enough to be stupid. Just like the rest of us.

Good luck!

Sajeev Answers:

Thanks for writing, and for stopping the “you don’t need a car” haters in their tracks.  Here are two comments:

1) You are way too picky for what type of vehicle fits a $1000-2000 budget. It’s nice to want things, but the reality is you can have a better car later.  The concern of owning a money vacuum needs to be your top priority.
2) Every car at this price point is a needy machine.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a transmission-eating Chrysler or a cherry Camry. That said, all of the vehicles you chose are particularly terrible when you consider the total cost of ownership.

The European cars can easily need double or triple their purchase in repairs, especially if you can’t fix the problem yourself.  The Mustang, while I love anything remotely Fox-y, is gonna eat you alive in insurance costs.  Stop looking for a home run, look for a double. I was lucky, as I had a cool old car when I turned 16 (a 1965 Ford Galaxie LTD hartop, black on black) as a family inheritance…but if I didn’t, I’d looking for the cleanest, easiest to insure vehicle on the market with as much service history as you can find.  At this age, condition is King.

One more time: Condition is King!

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73 Comments on “New or Used: Condition is King!...”

  • avatar

    My vote would be for the MkIII Jetta with the 4-banger. It is plenty of engine and not as expensive, complex or prone to failure as the VR6. I had a 94 that served me well enough, but it was the only slushbox I have ever made the mistake of buying. The rest of the car was definitely solid and reliable. I’d say get one with cloth and the sunroof and you will be happy with it for many years.

    • 0 avatar

      Again, condition is king. Your 94 Jetta might have been awesome, but my 96 with the 2-point-slow was terrible for reliability. It ate ignition coils every 2 months, almost like clockwork. It had something funky go with the distributor which made it run pig rich (smelled heavily of gas even at idle enough to make me fear a fuel leak) and made it impossible to rev past 5500rpm, 1000rpm short of redline. I know the previous owner took decent care of it, as she is a friend of mine, but I don’t know the owners before her.

      My experience with VWs (a 1990 Jetta and this 1996 Jetta) have both been sub-par for reliability. I’ve had friends with Audis and VWs with equally poor experiences. I’ve also had friends that have taken a golf to 250k miles, without oil changes after 200k because they can’t justify to themselves a new purchase without the old car dying off. They simply cannot kill that golf.

      • 0 avatar

        Perhaps not so much that condition is king, but that buying an older used car is a bit of a crapshoot no matter how well documented things are.

        Some cars are apparently built by better workers than others working on the same line. Some brands have better reputations than others, but as the op implied, even the venerable Honda has its issues from time to time. My Jetta was great, but it was the only VW I have owned. Other’s VWs have been crap from the get-go. I had a fantastic Saab, but other people have had crap ones. My Protege5 had some issues that dictated that I sell it before it went out of warranty (cyl #2 ate a butterfly valve and the transmission ate a fork in seperate events) and then there is the rust issue. My brother’s protege sedan apparently cannot be killed, though it has seemed to be on it’s last legs for half a decade now. My miatas have been perfect, except the time that I had to drive my current one from MA to DC sans clutch because the slave gave out on a holiday weekend return Sunday, and I had to be at work on Monday…

        All to say that though you can do your due diligence, or even buy a car new, car ownership is a crapshoot, and the odds are against you. Sure, stay away from Yugos or malaise Fiats or whatever, but in the end you are better off buying something you like, because it will be less painful to spend money and time on that than a crapbox that was “supposed” to be a good car.

  • avatar

    I would cruise CraigsList looking for ads posted by the children of seniors who have gotten too old to drive their 12-15 year old Buick or Mercury. Or died.

  • avatar

    Buick, Buick, Buick, Buick, Buick. Yes, the car you’d be looking at is a senior citizen special, has an automatic, and is definitely uncool to someone under 25. Which probably means it’s well cared for, relatively unabused, and low performance enough to be reasonably economical to run and insure. Front drive Buick Century’s are particularly decent if you can get one with a four cylinder engine.

    Bottom line: At 16-18, you can’t afford what you consider a desirable car. Like anyone else, you earn your chops by living with something you’d rather not be caught dead in (this is the same advice I give guys looking for their first motorcycle – it goes down worse in that venue).

    I know they’re coming up shortly, so I’ll give you a caveat: Panthers (Ford big rear drive cars) are overrated by this group. Just the same, it’s not a bad choice if you can put up with something that big and floaty.

    • 0 avatar

      Wholeheartedly agreed. Look for full size ‘old man special’ Buicks and check to insure the engine is the 3800 V6. The 3800 is the value special, decent power, decent mileage (18/27+ in a big car, my GP does 30+), very reliable. Some Buicks in the last 15 years used cheaper Chevy engines (Century/Skylark) which had all sorts of problems with DexCool (3100/3400s all did), I personally would avoid them. Mercury is also a popular choice of the geriatric crowd, generally reliable and floaty, and low resale value to you. Only trouble I would see down the road would be unloading one of these old man specials, although in recent times more and more people are broke needing a decent ride. When I was you age in late 90s, unloading the equivalent mid-late 80s used car was more of a chore.

      I’ve had friends in the past who were able to pull off getting free miles by buying $2K 15-20yo 150K+ 5spd jap scrap, driving for awhile and selling it quick for what they had in it. The problem of course is these cars were late 80s to late 90s strippers often rusting all over (I live in PA) and just generally looking pathetic. Personally I’ll take the clean comfy old man ride, automatic and all, over beat 5spds, which is what I think you’ll find with a $1500-$2000 budget in this economy.

      • 0 avatar

        My nephew had the choice of taking my sister’s family pickup truck to college or grandma’s Buick. He chose the Buick. Fits all his friends, etc.

      • 0 avatar

        i had a 95 olds 88 with the 3800. and it experienced the same dexcool/intake manifold gasket problems at 60,000 kilometers. unacceptable.

      • 0 avatar

        The Century is a good choice. Don’t be afraid of the 3.1 By this time, DexDeath has done its thing. Buy one that has had the intake replaced and the cooling system flushed with real coolant. Which by this time is pretty much all of them. Rust belt cars need a check of the fuel filler neck and the brake lines. Other than that (maybe a busted front sway bar) the car will easily take you to 150K

    • 0 avatar

      I say skip Buicks, they’re from an iffy era of GMs and if something breaks it’ll be hard to motivate the owner to fix it.

      That and 3800s are tricky to work on when they’re transverse.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, you couldn’t be more wrong, at least when installed in the full-sized Lesabre/Park Avenue models.

        I had a 1988 and now have a 2001, and you couldn’t find an easier FWD vehicle to work on. My 1988 was the very first FWD car that I owned, having previously had several 1940s-70s American cars, and I was very concerned about how difficult it was going to be to work on it. It wasn’t.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I second Sajeev. Begars can’t be choosers. Some day when you have money you’ll be able to make your dreams come true.

  • avatar

    Look at some of the recent orphan brands. Isuzu, Pontiac, Saturn and the like. The minute their parents stoped caring, the prices fell. Troopers and Rodeos are VERY easy to work on and used parts are plentiful for them. Some older Saturns can be surprisingly hardy cars. I wouldn’t bet so much on the Pontiacs though.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree the orphaned brands present value, but one needs to do his research before purchase.

      Pontiac is hit or miss from prob about 2005 onward. GM started doing weird things with the models and offered one-offs like Solstice and G8 which down the line may be expensive or difficult to repair. I personally have heard some bad things about the G6, but it was more incidental BS (power windows/electrical stuff) than the tranny/engine blowing up. I think the Bonne and Grand Prixs were pretty solid, I own an 08 GP now with 65K bought used and the only problem I have had in two years is the key fob is junk and I need to replace it. Grand Ams were plagued with the Dex Cool issues in the V6 (I know I had one new) the 4-cyl I can’t be sure.

      Saturn past 2002 IMO is a brand to avoid, lots of problems with the brand and models such as Ion and Vue. There may be some decent value in the last few models like Astra, I wouldn’t chance it. I would also avoid Oldsmobile for the same hit and miss Pontiac had, GM was (again) doing weird stuff to the brand post 98MY to try and save it. The Aurora 4.0 and Shortstar 3.5 were the only mid/large car engines available from 99 on since and they were Northstar derived, I would avoid (Northstar=junk). Aleros and Bravadas seems to have fared better, still see both on the road.

      I would *very* much avoid the 98+ Izuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport there is a known recall on them for massive frame rot IIRC.

  • avatar

    What you need is a Ford Ranger, Iron Block V-6. Industructible, lotsa a utility, and a bit fun mudbogging, if not on the interstate. Cheap on gas, cheap on insurance.

    Otherwise and rather morbidly, go to church and ask the family of the recently deceased if they have a recently inherited car they dont want.

    • 0 avatar

      Agree, but not the V6 models though, they drink gas, especially the 4.0L Cologne engine, good motors overall, but thirsty, I know as I had one until it nearly died on me from age and extremely high mileage.

      The 4’s were all good, but the earlier 2.3 OHC 4 I hear is gutless for anything not on the road, but good, stout motors overall.

  • avatar

    Totally agree with both Steve and Sajeev here.

    One good thing about manuals is that they generally don’t need expensive repairs like many older autoboxes, save for the clutch. That can be an expensive proposition, given the car you choose. Also, many cars rely on hydraulics for clutch actuation and that can be an issue as either the master cylinder or the slave can go bad.

    I had bought a high mileaged 1992 Ford Ranger that already had the clutch replaced, had new wheel bushings, the gearbox flushed and refilled with fresh oil and had new brakes installed up front. Almost a year later, on a cold December night, the master clutch cylinder went out and in 2009, the slave cylinder decided to leak, neither were cheap to fix ($670+ for the slave as it was in the bell housing). By then, the truck was, I think over 200K miles.

    Outside of that, the truck itself was reliable up to the very bitter end when the idle air controller valve decided to go and it had been leaking oil badly for a few months (2Qts every 2 weeks) and it was discovered other issues like the cooling system WAS leaking, including the timing cover so that meant it was dying.

    Domestics like it and others from the big 3, along with more modern Japanese/Korean cars should hold up better generally than most European/German cars at that mileage, but as already been said, condition is king and right now it’s not a great time to buy used as cars of all stripes are costing MUCH more than they have, regardless of condition.

    Good luck!

  • avatar

    You seem like you are mechanically inclined up to a point. Therefore, my suggestion is to stick to something made in this century. Anything older than that (even a Honda or Toyota) will start to have issues.

    Here is a small list of stick shift cars (early ’00 era) that should be reliable for you and in your budget:
    – Chevy Prizm (cheaper than the Corolla but mechanicall identical)
    – Dodge Neon (they hold up pretty well)
    – Ford Focus (solid car)
    – Mazda Protege
    – Nissan Sentra

    My #1 choice would normally be the Honda Civic, but today’s used car prices are higher than in the past, and you won’t find a Civic in your price range unless it’s very old or really beat.

    I know you like the VWs, but anything from this century will cost more than your budget allows.

    I recommend that you get something from my list. It will be in your budget and cheap to own. Treat yourself to a nicer, newer (but still used) German car when you finish college.

    • 0 avatar

      Agree so far on the Protege, but again, it’ll probably go for more than a grand for anything over the 2000MY in very nice shape.

      One that’s a bit rougher and a bit older, but in good, solid mechanical shape could be had probably. You can probably find a decent running, but with some minor issues 1999 protege for around that, but expect to put $$ into it to bring it back up to snuff though.

      Protege’s, sans wagons go back to 1993 so you have some leeway there for price and condition and they are fun cars to drive. The wagons only came out in 2002-2003 before the whole Protege line became the slightly larger 3.

  • avatar

    I’ll second (or third) the Mark 3 Jetta (’93-’98) with the 2.slow engine. Be aware that it could very well turn into a giant money pit, as could any car that you pay $1000 to $2000 for. But if you can get it cheap enough and the Carfax results come back okay, you might have a good beater for a couple of years. For the gas engined VWs, the vwvortex forums will be your friend.

    • 0 avatar

      And I will 3rd (or 4th) it. My 96 with the 2.0 and manual has been terrific past 200K miles with little more than basic scheduled maintenance.

      The vwvortex forums can be a crapshoot but are also filled with tons of useful information, and these cars are actually very easy to learn to work on if you drop $50 on the Bentley manual.

      Also, I’m not sure why, but parts for these cars are readily available for not a lot of money. This is not necessarily true if you pay retail price at a shop, but if you do your own work and buy parts online you can get it done quite cheaply. The aforementioned ignition coil, for example, is about $60 shipped and a 5 minute install, and is not nearly as failure-prone as the next generation coil-on-plug ones were. Wrecking yard parts for these cars are also quite cheap now.

      I would also consider the 5th gen Accord, if you can find one with the manual and four cylinder, although they might be above your price range. My friend is not good at taking care of cars, and his Accord is easily pushing 300K miles at this point with very little effort.

      For a car in this price range I would avoid automatics, power windows, and HIDs if possible – too many potentially complicated repairs. And don’t forget the pre-purchase inspection. Well worth the $100, imho. I doubt you’d find a mechanically perfect car in this price range, but at least you will have some warning about what you need to budget for in the future.

  • avatar

    All of the models you say that you are interested in seem to be poor choices for a high school kid with little time and (more importantly) money to invest in keeping them running. The Mustang, even if it’s a dozen years old or more, will kill you in insurance costs. Older European cars have a reputation for “interesting” little problems that will bleed your wallet dry.

    You need to find a plain, simple American car that you can easily (and cheaply) buy replacement parts for over the counter at Autozone. Get a four door so your insurance costs will be manageable. $2,000 will get you a late ’90’s- early 2000’s model Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable, Chevy Lumina/ Impala, Buick Century, or Intrepid with 150K miles or more. A car like that should still have enough life in it to get you through the rest of high school and beyond. Keep it simple and common for now, particularly with the budget limitations you have.

    A better option is “inheriting” a cast off car from an older relative who either can’t/ doesn’t need to drive anymore or who is willing to let you take their 15 year- old Buick with less than 100K miles on the clock for nothing or next to nothing simply out of love and fondness for you.

    Your first car doesn’t need to be cool. It needs to be a piece of crap that inspires you to strive to obtain the means to get something cool someday.

  • avatar

    Stay away from the European makes, especially a Volvo or Saab; unless you want a car you can’t drive because you can’t afford to repair it, and trust me, nothing is cooler with the young ladies then a dead car in your parents driveway…… or not.

    Personally, I’d go for a older S10 or Ranger because they’re dead simple and cheap to work on and keep running. Parts are plentifully cheap, and the utility can come in handy later in your life. If not one of these, then as stated, find that senior-citizen special.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure, my little avatar will mark me as a fanboy, but Volvos aren’t necessarily as costly to repair as other European cars, particularly if you get your parts used or from the right aftermarket suppliers. RWD models were dead simple and reliable for their era, although only the 240 came with a stick shift in the States after ’89 or ’90 (and then relatively rarely). Earlier FWD cars can be fine, too, if reasonably maintained – my new daily driver is a five-speed non-turbo 850 that had minor nose damage when I bought it; a couple hundred bucks in used parts and an afternoon’s work has it back together. That said, a newer Volvo that *hasn’t* been maintained can easily become a money pit, particularly without diligent research as to each model’s weak points.

      And yeah, it’s hard to go wrong with a Ranger, too.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Hyundai Accent (2000+) or Elantra (2001+). These were the first cars to come out after Hyundai got religion, and they’re old enough now to fall into cheap-but-not-dead territory. The manuals sold reasonably well and they get decent fuel economy for their time. Hyundai paid a lot of attention to the ergonomics of maintenance, so that will help when it comes time to replace sensors and change the oil.

  • avatar
    A D H

    Helped a buddy’s brother with a similar choice in this price range. After looking at MkII Jettas, old 900s and a couple of sweet Audis he landed a MT Honda Accord. A 94 with 170k, he ran it to 240k while selling Cutco to pay for college before finally upgrading. He gave it to his younger brother. It was the cheapest car he looked at, and by far the cheapest to own.
    Any mid 90s Accord can be found, pass on the Civic. Those Accord were built like tank. They were surprisingly rust proof (in MN, the inventors of road salt rust), with the MT can be fun, get good mileage, etc. You want some extra swagger, dig deep and find that wagon gem. You will find it fun because it will actually get you where you are going and back, which is a plus, and you will have good road trip memories.

  • avatar

    A $1-2000 Sabb 900 or Jetta?

    You don’t want to do that. My first car was a $500 Saab. Want to know why I had no money in high school despite a decent job?

  • avatar

    I will be selling my 1973 Pinto 1600 in a few weeks that I owned for 7 years. It is in excellent mechanical condition except the transmission drips slightly at the driveshaft yoke seal. (It has done that for 7 years!) If you find a smooth yoke or a sleeve the yoke it would be an easy fix to change the rear seal.
    I have a record of every repair, modification, and maintenance since 22,000 miles.

    Fly into DTW and drive it home anywhere in the USA. All maintenance is up-to-date and everything works. Mobil-1 oil since 22,000 original miles and it now has about 83,000 miles. Body rust is starting to appear, hence my low sell price. However the frame and floorplans are good It was Ziebarted.

    Link:[email protected]/6157429036/

    The discussion would be the safety of a small classic car. It does have the gas tank kit recall kit installed.

  • avatar

    Admittedly venturing into “you don’t need a car” territory:

    “There is no public transportation where I live, my school doesn’t have buses” — This is strange. How did you manage BEFORE you had a license? How do the younger students manage? I don’t understand why the acquisition of a DL suddenly translates into “I now NEED a car”?

    Also: “effect the value”? No.
    “affect the value” Yes.
    “about the last too”? No.
    “about the last two” Yes.

    Anyway, I would recommend a Neon – look for one with badly faded or peeling paint. It tends to drive the price down considerably without affecting the drivability.

    • 0 avatar
      I've got a Jaaaaag

      I just want to echo the case for a car with bad paint, I bought a Renault Alliance Convertible in high school with terrible paint, a few days sanding and priming and a quick trip to MAACO for their cheapest coat of gloss white and I had a nice looking car.

    • 0 avatar

      I can field that one– before he got his license his parents were likely driving him everywhere because, well, they had no choice. Now that he’s got a license, they’re probably (suggesting/insisting) that he get his own car since theirs won’t be available all the time. I was in exactly those shoes when I was his age.

      Being an enthusiast at that point in your life is a bitch. He’s discovering that when you are shopping at that end of the market, fun and reliable are pretty much mutually exclusive (*Your mileage may vary).

      I know it’s cliche around these parts, but the only sporty AND reliable option I can think of in that price range is the Miata. This will undoubtedly kill him on insurance, and a lightweight RWD roadster might give him problems in an area with actual winters, so the practical choice is probably to bite the bullet and buy a grandma special. That would put him in a better position for his next car in a couple years. And as we all know, teenage boys are renowned for making practical and responsible choices.

      David: Sporty beaters give you lots of driving pleasure but also lots of downtime. “Old faithful” grocery getters aren’t sexy or interesting, but look around your school parking lot– most of those cars aren’t sexy or interesting. Faced with that choice, I went the impulsive route and it bit me in the ass. You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do, but just be aware of what you’re facing.

  • avatar

    “…I like classics much better than anything made relatively recently.”

    I may catch all sorts of grief for this but you can buy quite a nice 60-70s vintage vehicle perhaps not unlike Sajeev’s Ford Galaxie in your price range as long as you are not looking for show car potential. These vintage cars are super easy to work on, dirt cheap to license and insure, and might appeal to your sense of style as well.

  • avatar

    It’s difficult to get reliable transportation these days for under $2500; and then once you buy, you find out what needs fixing, and this involves additional money. In order for this to work, you want your monthly repairs to cost less than a car payment. My best recommendation for reliability would be a 1998-ish Honda Accord 3.0 V6 with 150K for about $2500. I would not be afraid of the miles on this vehicle, it will go 225K-250K depending on how you take care of it. If it has an automatic, take it easy and it will last longer, this is the vehicle’s weakest link.

  • avatar

    Before you buy anything, and I mean anything, phone the insurance company (or broker) you’re likely to be dealing with and find out how much it’s going to cost to insure each of the cars you’re looking at. Each one! The differences in rates of insurance for different vehicles can be quite shocking sometimes (even for vehicles that might appear innocent or innocuous), and you absolutely have to include this in your overall budget. The difference in insurance rates could actually be a determining factor in which car you end up buying.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, insurance is a big deal and can be tricky. A neighbor was told that a Dodge Omni was a “sports car” because it had a standard transmission. It pays to cross-shop insurance too.

      • 0 avatar

        The power-to-weight ratio can make a big difference, so don’t just call up and ask for a quote on a hypothetical vehicle.

        I worked in insurance for 7 years and people would be upset that their actual premium was so much higher than their quote; turned out when they called the first time they quoted out a base 4cyl but brought home a 6cyl instead.

        Have one or more VINs ready when you call and work out how many miles you think you’ll put on the car each year. Many companies will give discounts if you have a 3.0 or better GPA so ask about that as well.

        One last thing, be aware that there comes a point where older cars get more expensive to insure due to the lack of ABS and airbags (again, for discount purposes) — a 1995 Taurus will usually be cheaper to insure than a 1985 Taurus, all other things being equal.

        I second the suggestion for looking into an older, well cared-for Buick sourced from the family of a recently deceased.

  • avatar

    I had a ’92 Nissan Sentra E in college that was mechanically very simple and probably could’ve kept going forever. Great engine, though the engine mounts, shifter, interior, headliner, steering, and paint were crap. It did the job though, and I ended up having fun with it. 2nd tier Japanese brands are still pretty reliable without the price premium you get with Hondas and Toyotas, and parts are easily available. I’d consider including them in your search.

  • avatar

    My recommendation is the Toyota Celica. They are the forgotten member of the Toyota and the ’90s sport compact families. It is much more fun than anyone gives it credit for, and not nearly as boring as the Toyota nameplate would have you believe. Parts are really common and cheap. Insurance is minimal, gas mileage is good, and they are reliable. They are not sought after by the Honda kids, so the purchase prices are lower than Accords or Integras.

    I had a $1000 ’91 ST in college. 13″ tires were $50 each. It got 33-38 mpg. The ’93-’99 generation is pretty depreciated at this point too, and they’re quite solid as well.

    A Ford Escort ZX2 is another good candidate, though I have no personal experience.

  • avatar

    Whatever type of OldsmoBuick shows up in the newspaper classified section, driven by a little old lady who always took it to the dealer for service. The C (98/Park Avenue) and H (88/LeSabre) cars seem quite durable (unless they have the intake manifold defect).

    And if you find a B-Body Roadmaster…lucky you.

    Any car in this price range will likely have some issues; OldsmoBuick parts are at least cheap and widely available.

    • 0 avatar

      You said it, as did somebody further up.

      You can get a pretty decent Buick for $2000. Nobody wants them.

      The 3800 is easy on gas – I’m getting 22-24mpg in my 2001 Lesabre in mixed driving.

      Log onto the internet forums such as and this one which discusses the intake manifold fiasco:

  • avatar

    Here in Texas ANY pos running car with cold AC is worth $1000.

    ps I’m not a big fan of rap but I always liked that Hooptie song.

  • avatar

    Before you sign the papers on anything know what your insurance agent is going to want in $ to insure it. I would actually go and talk to him or her in person, hoping to establish an image of reliability and maturity ( remove your piercings, cover your tattoo’s and dye your hair a boring monotone. No, I’m not joking.) Take your latest report card if it’s good.

    In this case the cost of ownership can equal or exceed the cost of the car over a year. Insurance will be a big hunk of that, but so will tires (if you don’t need AC where you live you probably WILL need a set of snow tires and a $2K car usually needs tires at the first inspection. Then there’s the unpredictable. I had a rock shatter my driver’s door window on Monday. That’s on a car with no foreseeable mechanical problems that’s under full warranty. However it still found a way to get into my wallet. I have a $500 deductible and a window cost just under that installed.

    Of course THAT won’t happen to you but SOMETHING will. I think I would go with the dull reliable old domestic vote here. Ol’ faithful Buick or Pontiac on the theory “GM cars run bad longer than most cars run at all”. Generally the stuff that goes bad on them will annoy you but won’t make the car undrivable.
    The Ford Ranger falls in the same category. I’d avoid European as they can get crazy expensive over 100K miles. In that mile range the good ones get kept and the bad ones gets sold…to you. It’s also usually easier to find a cheap mechanic for a domestic than for a foreign make. I like Japanese cars, but still think in your price range a domestic is the way to go.

    I’d wait for the second car to get what you want. You’ll have more money and an insurance track record to show your agent. Don’t waste money on your first car prettying it up -save that money for the second car. The first one is just ‘school-shoes’ to get you back and forth.

  • avatar

    Let’s face it, any vehicle in your price range will need regular repairs if not when you buy it then certainly soon after. Stick to vehicles with easy to find, inexpensive parts and plentiful online repair info. You may well find a beautiful Saab for $2000 but spending $300 on a fuel pump and waiting a week for it to arrive isn’t much fun.

    I would look for a full size, single cab, domestic pickup with a v6: decent fuel mileage, plenty of room in the engine bay to work, and you will avoid the premium that small cars are commanding in current market.

  • avatar

    If you don’t do interstate driving, I’d go with the original version of the VW Beetle.

    If you do a lot of interstate driving, get the Mustang.

    • 0 avatar

      an air cooled beetle? honestly??

    • 0 avatar

      Nice idea but nope. I own a 63 Beetle and it is an interesting car, not transportation (see below). Compared to a modern car it requires a lot of tinkering to keep running, and there is no longer a supply of locally available used parts. With a 2 day delay to mail order parts I wouldn’t depend on it daily.
      Also the insurance issue comes up again, lots of companies won’t insure an antique for daily use and they are not cheap if they do.

      • 0 avatar

        People are soft these days. The old 40hp would go 60mph of course the speed limit was 55 so it’s not like today when pickup trucks can go 80 mph hauling tractors. You might be right about parts. I had a spare engine and would swap it out in a hour and be back on the road. You are only getting liability so insurance is not a problem. Come on man you’re spoiling my old hippy car.

  • avatar

    88-91 Civic. They’re really fun to drive and impossible to kill. My CRX had over 250k miles and it’s still on the road with its new owner. Also had a sedan with like 170k. Still ran great and was fun, even as a sedan.


    • 0 avatar

      +1 a Civic hatch was my high & college school ride, just the previous generation (’83). Put 160K on it, great mileage, low insurance, fun to drive with the 5 speed and double wishbone suspension. Plenty of aftermarket support, easy to find cheap parts, etc. Really the ideal “first” car.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Ranger, son, Ranger. Dead reliable, cheap to fix, 4 cyls. are easy on gas, esp. with the 5-speed manual. Cheap to insure. Also, as you keep it, you will want to upgrade….many catalogs and websites with aftermarket parts and replacement body panels to upgrade your hooptie as you earn spare $….

    Not only that, but for a teen, a small pickup makes a great activity vehicle. Beach, mountains for biking, hanging with friends, etc…. a small pickup is a great vehicle for a young man.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 on the 4 cyl Ranger. My base trim Ranger saved me from the hell of owning the world’s worst RX7 and allowed me to get to work regularly so I could earn a living. If you need more seats think Buick as others have said, or Escort / early Focus with 5-Speed.

      Regardless of what you buy, draw a line in your mind between interesting cars and transportation. This is transportation, do not modify, upgrade or attempt to impress anyone. Let your pride come from taking care of your own reasonably reliable safe vehicle, and your money go toward your education. Interesting cars come later when you can afford to do it properly. (This is another do as I say, not as I do moment). Best of luck, you sound like a smart kid.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve had a base 4 cyl Ranger. It could not be killed. I gave it to my mother in law who didn’t change the oil for 3 years. Still runs. A Ranger is like a parrot, it will annoyingly outlive its owner.

  • avatar

    My advice is dare to be different. Before water was invented when I was your age, I didn’t want the Trans Am, Camaro, en vogue car. I wanted an AMC Gremlin. I found one configured very much as you describe. A solid car that could be had cheaply because few people wanted them; I was an exception.

    This year I needed a winter runabout, and guess what I found? A 1981 AMC Eagle Kammback, 6 cyl 4 spd and again, configured pretty much as you describe. It’s got a little rust but it runs great, and it will get through just about any kind of weather made.

    In short, look outside the box a bit.

  • avatar

    Not really much of a budget.

    I just looked at Seattle Craigslist with a max price of $2000. The first 20 vehicles listed disclose some kind of problem.That’s a bit daunting quite honestly.

    Although you are willing to work on the car, it doesn’t seem that you don’t have much experience so avoid those European sedans. They often need special tools and breaking stuff on them is $$$.

  • avatar

    I disagree with Steve Lang on just one thing: I think brand DOES matter, even among (perhaps especially among) older cars. If the car was badly made, it’s not going to stop going downhill when it gets old.

    If I were you, for any car of a particular year I was interested in, I would go to the library, and get the latest Consumer Reports Annual Auto Issue (April of every year) that had frequency of repair graphs for the year of that car (probably the CR from when the car was six years old) and look at how it was holding up at that time. (I did that with the first car I bought, an 8 year old Toyota, back in 1985, and I was not disappointed. I got a lot of good, inexpensive service out of that car.) You should also check, which has a moderate amount of info going back into the late ’90s, adn possibly the mid-90s. That can give you a more specific idea of what sorts of problems you might have.

    I would not avoid Hondas. Just avoid your local dealership. Hondas are among the most reliable, and with a stick, they are fun. It’s the only brand I’ve ever bought twice.

  • avatar
    Tree Trunk

    Buy a nice mountain bike, studded tires for those winter rides, a new iPod and listen to this while you bike to school.

    1000 Dollar Car Lyrics
    The Bottle Rockets

    Thousand dollar car it ain’t worth nothin’
    Thousand dollar car it ain’t worth shit.
    Might as well take your $1000,
    and set fire to it.
    $1000 car ain’t worth a dime,
    You lose your $1000 every time.
    Oh why did I ever buy,
    a $1000 car.
    $1000 car is gonna let you down,
    More than it’s ever gonna get you around.
    Replace your gaskets and paint over your rust,

    You’ll still end up with something that you’ll never
    $1000 car’s life was through,
    ‘bought 50,000 miles ‘fore it got to you.
    Oh why did I ever buy,

    a $1000 car.
    A $1000 car ain’t even gonna roll,
    til you throw at least another thousand in the hole.
    Sink your money in it, and there you are
    the owner of a 2,000 dollar 1,000 dollar car.
    (guitar solo)
    If you’ve only got a $1000.
    You ought to just buy a good guitar.
    Learn how to play it it’ll take you farther,
    than any old $1000 car.
    If a $1000 car was truly worth a damn,
    then why would anybody ever spend ten grand.
    Oh why did I ever buy,
    a thousand dollar car.

  • avatar

    Reliable transportation for $2K of less? Here are some thoughts:

    (and my daily is the almost 19 year old car of my avatar)

    Avoid “high performance” cars. Avoid all European imports at that price point, esp. Saabs and VW group (including Audi) products. Avoid everything and anything US-made in the 80s.

    Don’t look at the mileage look at the car and +1 the owner.

    I think that the 90s will probably be your sweet point.

    +1 for the 3800 Buick engine GM cars (Pontiacs like the Grand Prix and Oldmobiles had that engine as well)

    You might find some Corollas or Civics or Madza 323s at that price point, but if you see any weird modifications in those stay away.

    The Madza-derived Escorts of the 90s are reliable so are the Festivas if you can find them and you can deal with the lack of space.

    Jeep Cherokees with the 4.0 and the Command Trak 4×4 (partial – not the “Select Trak – full time) with under 200K miles are another possibility; these engines live forever, their transmissions are good, they are peppy (but they cost a lot in the pump – think about 18 mpg mixed driving,) and if you live in a place you need winter traction, you cannot beat them.

    That’s pretty much it…

  • avatar

    To repeat: Condition is key. Consider that almost any car in this price range is going to need some immediate work to catch it up on maintenance. Don’t put the maintenance off. It is a good way to avoid problems, or spot things before they become expensive problems. Consider that even 4 cheap new tires are $300 mounted and out the door. A DIY oil change is $20. Coolant is another $20. Brake pads (don’t forget to flush the fluid!) are $30-$40 per axle. Gear oil is another $20. Then there are belts, hoses, bulbs, etc.
    You may need to purchase tools to do this…budget for them. You’ll also want a repair manual (factory is best. figure $30-$50 used on Amazon) Depending on where you live, you may need to get it inspected to tag it. Some states (MD) won’t pass a car with panels that are rusted through.
    Now to find your cheap car. My recommendation is to find something that sold fairly well, as you will be able to find parts for them in salvage yards. It is also easier to find cheap new aftermarket collision parts like tailights and mirrors for mass-market cars. As a previous poster noted, something with crappy paint will drive the price of a better car into your range. Minor dents and dings are your friends. Forget Carfax. At this price range, you are using your eyes and a good test drive to check for problems. I don’t care if an engine has been replaced..the key is how it runs. Plan to get dirty on your inspection. Cars in your price range in the DC area are mostly from the nineties. I like the early nineties Hondas and Toyotas for good build quality and easy availability of parts, but don’t overlook the domestics (Neon, Ranger). Finally, read up on the owner forums on the net on any car you are considering before you go see it. You can learn problem points, and gauge the difficulty of repairs as you assess the car.
    I just bought a $100 Honda Accord with 82K miles that is mechanically sound, so I know they are out there. This car is seriously ugly with faded paint, some rust, and a very smokey interior, but everything but the radio and A/C work. Even with the cheap entry price, I’ve aleady put about $400 into it, and it isn’t inspected yet.

  • avatar

    “Thanks for writing, and for stopping the “you don’t need a car” haters in their tracks.”

    You can’t stop me with that pansy excuse! Winter doesn’t actually rule out riding a bike unless you want it to. I rode a bike to school almost every day through high school and university, and it’s normal to see -40F here a couple times a winter. I didn’t even have studded tires back then! I do now, but I only ride when it’s above 0F since I’m old and lazy and have a car. Below that, you’ve got to cover up your face so it becomes harder to breath and therefore far less enjoyable.

    But I’m not a “you don’t need a car” hater anyway, even if you don’t. Just admit that you want a car. You sound like far more of a car guy than I was at that age. They can be a lot of fun, and they can teach you a lot about mechanical and electrical things if you’re willing to learn. I’ll just recommend good tires for the winter. Preferably winter tires since you suggest you have significant winter weather where you are. Preferably studded winter tires if you experience real winters.

  • avatar

    Is it actually possible to find a decent running car for <$2,000? I see all kinds of non-running cars on craigslist asking that much. Lots of nice ideas in theory here, but whether or not they will work in real life depends heavily on your local auto market. For example:

    -A '92 civic? You're talking about a 20 year old car at this point. Even if you find one in decent shape for that price, civics and accords tend to have higher insurance rates than their peers due to theft.

    -Ford Ranger. I think it would be tough to find one for less than $2k. Pickup trucks hold their value extremely well. Despite all the people you see commuting solo in them, they are vehicles designed for work. People can use them to make money (landscapers, roofers, etc). Any vehicle that can actually make money is going to hold its value.

    For a <$2,000 budget, I see little hope. Anything in that price range is certain to need work immediately, and probably more work sooner rather than later. Unless you have another $2,000 set aside for repair, I think you should wait a bit and try to save and increase the budget. Used car prices are too high to get anything decent in that range. The only chance I see is looking into the most undesirable vehicles possible – minivans with bad paint.

  • avatar

    If you want something cool at that price, be prepared to do alot of work on it. For all you naysayers that say you can’t find reliable transportation for under 2k, I can prove you wrong. Couple months ago we bought a base model Ranger for 1500, it only needed a timing belt as a precaution. Also bought a 96 Subaru for 2k last year, great condition, only needed a CV joint. That being said it takes alot of time and some luck to find something good, that and being able to read into a CL ad.

  • avatar

    The problem, really, is that used cars just aren’t that cheap anymore. 5-10 years ago you would have had your pick of $2000 beaters that didn’t require emergency surgery to be put on the road. Unfortunately, yesterday’s $2000 car is today’s $5000 car.

  • avatar

    I know I’m late to comment on this but I think you can find something reliable and fun in or close to your price range. Consider scoping out work locations where people commute long distances to get to work and have high mileage cars for sale. Ask around. Almost all cars are capable of 200K nowadays with reasonable maintenance. Several years ago I sold my Contour SVT (5-speed) to a young guy for $3k because it had 160k on the clock due to my 80mi per day highway commute. It ran as good as new, averaged 28mpg on the highway but suffered from some road rash on the front end. The Duratec V6 has a timing chain (no rubber belt to change) and a rep as a solid reliable engine. Parts and repairs are generally cheaper than Japanese cars. That being said, plenty of my co-workers drove Civics, Jettas, Mazda 3s, etc ., with the same issues. Look for cars in the 120K range and make sure it has a timing chain or the belt has been changed. Other than tires (and the afore mentioned road rash), very little else wears out or is damaged just from miles on the highway.

  • avatar

    Another vote for a Ranger. S10s are in the same league only in features and performance; they are significantly less reliable.

    I’ve had twenty-something cars now, spanning most of the possibilities available at the time: American, German, British, and Japanese. A few interesting ones, like an Austin-Healy Bugeye Sprite, a 67 Mustang GT fastback, a BMW 2002tii, and a brand-new 87 Acura Integra. Of the twenty-something, only three of them have had automatic transmissions. After my first ride on a fast motorcycle, performance cars suddenly ceased to make any sense to me whatsoever. Four-wheeled vehicles are strictly for utility now in my book.

    So I drive a Ranger. It has been, hands down, the most reliable and easy-to-work-on vehicle I have ever owned. I don’t quite fit in the standard cab and I don’t need an F150, and the best supercab model I could find had the Vulcan (3.0 vs. 4.0 or “Cologne” engine) and a 5-speed. The price was so right that eight years and 60,000 miles later, it has lost only about a thousand dollars in retail value and that’s held steady for the last six. The Vulcan is Ford’s analogue to the 3800; it’s stupid reliable and less thirsty than you would expect. It has given me less trouble than either of the Toyota pickups that preceded it, and it does trucklike things considerably better too. A set of Bilstein shocks and a Hurst shifter make a big difference from the stock units.

    Two other advantages you will find for a supercab manual Ranger: you can get four bodies in it, but two of them won’t be happy for more than a few minutes. That will cut down on the number of friends pestering you to drive them en masse, which is unfortunately one of the biggest risk factors for crashes in your demographic. It will also cut down on the number of friends who want to borrow your truck, because the number of folks your age who can drive a stick is absolutely minimal. This is becoming an anti-theft feature as well.

    If you go the Grandma/Grandpa car route, the Vulcan does duty in the Taurus as the base engine. These are 300,000 mile engines, though the ancillary components will probably need to be changed before that, and the crank angle sensor (goes where the distributor used to) is prone to failure after 100K miles. Tauri are cheap to buy and cheap to maintain.

    My girlfriend inherited a ’93 Bonneville with the 3800 engine. Ultra low miles, 18,000 in its first ten years. We ran it up to almost 60K and happily sold it as a still-low-miles car. Stuff broke regularly, though nothing that would put you off the road for more than a couple hours. But it never impressed us with a sense of reliability. It was a good engine and transmission wrapped in a thoroughly mediocre shell. But the same can probably be said for anything in this class.

  • avatar

    I totally agree that condition is King. Though everyone needs a starting point and when it comes to price there are certain features that tend to be much cheaper in the maintenance category.

    My own experience with buying an inexpensive ride that was both reliable, fun to drive, and practical led me to forgo the sex appeal factor. I ended up with a 1999 Nissan Altima 5spd. They have terrific engines that both produce enough power to not be boring and mileage to be thrifty (avg 27mpg with a heavy foot). Using a timing chain means that they can be very long lived 300k plus miles are easily achieved if oil changes are regular. The shifter does have a very long truck-like throw, but it’s still fun and there are short shifter kits available. Access to the engine is very good and all the parts are easily available. The interior holds up surprisingly well even if they aren’t exactly pretty. I only sold mine on a crazy whim to go after something sexier (a BMW convertible). I look back now and see that was a mistake, but one that I learned a lot from. BMW used some pretty weak plastic back in the 90’s.

    It sounds like you’re really just looking for a set of working reliable wheels. Good luck with your search!

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