By on April 5, 2013
Dear Steve and Jeev,

My girlfriend needs a car while in the midst of many other big financial decisions that severely limit her car budget. Here’s the situation.

She has access to a family owned Mercedes 380SL that has what I believe to be transmission issues. It’s dripping dark red fluid from right about where the transmission looks to be and it’s probably also leaking oil.

I’m handy, but I don’t think I’m money pit Benz convertible transmission and rear main seal handy. Then again it might not be so bad and might be a reasonable fix, until the next time it shoots itself in the foot. It currently doesn’t run and last time it was driven apparently exhibited the same problem it has for years, which is that if you don’t take it easy off the line it just dies on you.

So she needs a new car, but she needs something as close to under $4k as possible.

She also has specific tastes, though she’s somewhat flexible. (Oh boy! And here comes her laundry list! -SL)

Completely averse to Panthers (otherwise I wouldn’t have to write this email) and doesn’t want a Taurus ever (her grandmother drives one, it’s been nothing but misery).

Oh also, it can’t be a manual, which means anything remotely – Miata, 2002, Volvo wagon with ls1 swap – fun out of the question. I’ve been looking at Volvo 240s, 740s, 940s, 850s, overpriced Camrys and Accords, Corollas/Prisms and a lot of late 90s early 00s 4th and 5th gen Maximas and i30s. Also G20s and just for good measure the occasional Saab.

I’m very comfortable with the Maxima/i30 as my dad had one for 10 years and it’s what I learned how to work on so I know how to do any repair imaginable and problem areas plus they’re in abundance in this price range. I’m also intrigued by the Volvo option since you could easily sell it for the same you paid for it or more if there’s anything wrong that can be easily fixed.

As I said, I feel comfortable armed with a forum and a Haynes manual to do any reasonable repairs short of transmission rebuilds but I want something that’s easy and cheap to work on as possible. I know that the whole no domestics thing and crapshoot prices don’t help but what should she do? Find out how much the SL will cost to repair? Flush the transmission and hope for the best? What other cars should I be looking for that I’m missing. I assume craigslist is pretty much the only reliable source for these and that I’m buying a car for an owner not the car. Also, should she try to wait out tax season until prices come down, I’ve noticed that even on these sub 5k cars the prices seem higher than normal.

Steve Says:

How does she feel about a minivan?

I would suggest telling her that you want to fill one of those up and your problem should go away real quick. (Childish Giggling – SM)

Here’s the rub on this. Your girlfriend needs to stop looking at the popular cars with the unrealistic expectation of low maintenance and a low price. She wants a cheap Camry? Fine. You will find that the cheap ones are cheap for a reason. I have seen unfortunate souls spending dozens of weekends trying to find a popular car at a cheap price.

Most of them wind up anteing up thousands more than their budget allowed, and buying a popular vehicle with very high miles. Some people are OK with this outcome. The truth is that a better solution is there only if she is willing to adjust her expectations.

I would sit down together in front of the computer and go through the unpopular and orphan brands first. Visit carsurvey, Edmunds, here, there and anywhere else that offers reviews from actual owners. My recommendation is a late 90’s Buick Regal with the 3.8 Liter V6 and about 120k to 150k on the miles. Either that or an Explorer if she wants a bigger vehicle.

Get an older SUV if she doesn’t drive a lot. Or get an unpretentious middle-of-the-road sedan, with a keen eye on the powertrain combination, if her driving will be 10,000 miles or more a year.

Sajeev says:

The Benz might be worth a punt, but that’s only if she doesn’t need to drive very often. My guess is that this conditional statement is rather unrealistic. So the SL ain’t happening.

At this price, tough love is better than proper indulgence. She buys the vehicle with the cleanest interior, newest tires/brakes, the biggest wad of service receipts, and a character that isn’t completely offensive to her sensibility. That said:

“[She’s] Completely averse to Panthers (otherwise I wouldn’t have to write this email)”

Come on Son, don’t make jokes like that! Has she not seen the best Music Video ever made on the face of the Universe?

I simply refuse to live in the real world believe that women cannot embrace Panther Love. And I know my man Lang agrees, he came up with the title! While my advice is true, there’s a good chance that the best vehicle for the price will also be a super tidy Panther.

But seriously, get the cleanest, best maintained, late-model, non-European machine you find…buy what she wants when she has more cheddar. Because getting what you want now only hurts you in the future.

Unless it’s a Panther.

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73 Comments on “New Or Used? : Large Marge Don’t Want No Land Barge Edition...”

  • avatar

    Did… did you say “Large Marge?”

  • avatar

    You already know what you’re describing: An early-to-mid double-oughts Chevrolet or Ford. For Chevrolets, go with either a Malibu with the 3.5 or an Impala. Since no Taurus, for Fords, you might be able to get a lucky break on a 500 or Montego close to that price range; the Focuses always seem to have really high mileage once they reach the end-of-life price class.

  • avatar

    1998 Ford SUV or cars are EASY to find in my neighborhood. Especially if that $4000 is cash.

    • 0 avatar

      Oddly enough, I was going to recommend the same thing.

      They’re common and maintainable. That makes them a bit undervalued as far as low-cost transportation goes. This is the reason I owned a 2002 Escape. An undervalued vehicle that is perfectly cape able of everything, and I got side-curtain air bags, AWD, and leather seats as a bonus.

      (I really wanted an automatic diesel wagon with a trailer hitch, but this was as close as I could come on my budget.)

      That’s not to say the Escape didn’t some repairs, since these vehicles often need lower control arms (which include the ball joint) between 100k and 120k miles. But its a mass market car with a huge rolling junkyard, so you can keep it going. Mechanics know how to work on it and are comfortable under the hood – which is a luxury that does not come standard with a Mercedes (or the Prius).

      That’s not to say I particularly enjoyed driving it after the first couple of weeks. I’ve had a dislike of SUVs for most of my driving life and, rational or not, I didn’t like being seen in one – and I replaced it with a minivan at then first opportunity. And my minivan gets better MPG than my Escape does. But the Eacape is vehicle was worth owning, and served the purpose of cheap versatile repairable transportation quite well. My Escape went to a family member in Colorado who has a camping habit and a fixed income. This vehicle is definitely the right tool for the job.

      Both the Escape and the older Explorer (same platform the 1998 Ranger that survived my 20s and early 30s) are likely undervalued for the purposes of basic transportation. They’re not the best driving vehicles, nor the most efficient in energy terms, and I don’t like being seen in an SUV that lives on pavement. But they are cheap, repairable, versatile, durable and will get a cash strapped woman through her day.

      And, yes, if she had the cases to buy new and wanted to own the car for a decade, I’d be recommending a Prius. But, if she needs a cheap car to get to work that can last until she gets a raise, the Escape would be a good choice.

      • 0 avatar

        I like the way the first gen escapes look and drive, but I’d have a hard time recommending a used one to someone unless I knew there was a rebuilt cd4e transmission in there, preferably by Jasper (they made the failure prone components stronger).

        2nd gen explorers are a bit of a crapshoot as well: known for front balljoint and transmission problems and camchain tensioner failure, but many people have racked up 200k+ miles on them with reasonable maintenance costs. I think it’s a matter of finding a well maintained one with a solid shifting transmission on the test drive and reasonably clean ATF fluid (but not too clean, i’d be suspicious).

        I recently helped a friend’s gf buy a used car, but with a budget of $2500. She ended up with a 140k mile Toyota Corolla with an airbag light (known defect with side airbags) and some paint fade, as well as an exhaust leak, valve cover leak, and power steering leak. The mechanical issues were easily and cheaply addressed by her bf. I schooled her on the need to look at maintenance records and condition rather than a particular model, and even less so at vanity in general (“but I think VWs look cute!”)

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    Well, I am a bit different. A 380 SL is a valuable car in germany, They are known as the panzer because of the long life and ,great engineering and overall great build quality especially if it isn’t rusty and being a 380 it will have had good rust protection from new . The leaking trans is most probably just a dodgy seal on the pan . With any of the M117 engined cars There are few things that need to be addressed . First ,get the timing chain and upper chain rails checked. Next get the fuel pump changed and a new filter and fuel pressure accumulator fitted. Make sure the ignition is perfect,the cooling system has mercedes only inhibitor ,and the oil filter and oil are changed. Then drive it … My own 380 is a 1980 model,one of the first with high compression euro engine. It will out live me and it will always be a Mercedes. So for those who would recommend that the lady buy into a lesser vehicle, I hope you are around when it dies prematurely from inferior vehicle disease. Then you can help her pay the bills.

    • 0 avatar

      ” So for those who would recommend that the lady buy into a lesser vehicle, I hope you are around when it dies prematurely from inferior vehicle disease. Then you can help her pay the bills.”

      Glad you’re keeping it positive about people offering friendly advice!

    • 0 avatar

      I had similar thoughts depending on the overall condition of the car (interior not being ratty, body rot, roof age etc). That’s the sort of car you sink $4K+ into, get it to tip-tip condition and just enjoy it. But I wouldn’t say it was a practical DD, especially for a women who isn’t car savvy (or patient as I’m sure this car will have its share of oopsies early on. not being run in years and all).

    • 0 avatar

      Will you be around when the Benz drains her bank account with Superior Vehicle Repair Bills?

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Just for the hell of it, what do you think the cost would be for the maintenance you recommend? Think $4,000 might not be unreasonable? Then there’s the fact that the car isn’t running correctly (the OP says it dies unless you accelerate gently from a standstill), so that sounds to me like any one of a number of expensive diagnostics, not to mention repairs of the fuel delivery system and or the ECM system, including ignition.

      Finally, one of the biggest problems with throughly vintage German machines is that they are not tolerant of indifferent maintenance (viz., your comment about “mercedes-only [rust] inhibitor” in the cooling system. Yet these cars’ rapid depreciation often means they end up in the hands of second or third owners who lack the habit and financial means to keep these cars maintained up to the standard they require.

      So, the final buyer ends up paying for the sins of the previous owners . . . and the bill could be high!

  • avatar

    My wife didn’t care for Panthers until I handed her the keys to one and said, “you drive this now”. Turns out she didn’t know what she was missing, and now loves them. She points out Baruth Edition Town Cars and says, “when are we going to get another one of those again?”.

    So because your woman is appararently a bit high maintenance, I suggest you do her the favor and hand her the keys to a BOF car and say, “here is your new ride”. That’s relationship maintenance.

    Appeasement sucks, and a happy wife is a costly life.

    • 0 avatar

      Um, no.

      Better relationship advice: talk!

      If the poster has an unusual amount of Panther maintenance knowledge, it may be worth pushing her to test drive the car, because he can keep it going for cheap.

      But I’ve driven panthers and never taken a particular liking to them. They don’t offer any advantages over a modern car for my purposes, and I doubt they would be any better for the woman we’re trying to advise. But, if her boyfriend can maintain a panther in the driveway, that’s a distinct economic advantage for that car that exists for her situation. But, other than that, trying to force a grown woman to drive one of those behemoths strikes me as bad relationship advice AND bad car advice.

      P.S. Both my Prius and my Sienna beat the panther hard in the criteria I care about. Except maybe hackability, but I’d probably rather have a Jeep for a tinkertoy.

      • 0 avatar

        “But, other than that, trying to force a grown woman to drive one of those behemoths strikes me as bad relationship advice AND bad car advice.”

        It’s great advice. And works wonders for everyone who has the balls to try it.

  • avatar

    “Specific tastes” and “as close to under $4k as possible” are not really compatible, unless your taste is specifically half-ruined 10-20 year old domestics.

    Sounds like you need to set expectations.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed, five years ago I could find a half decent ride under ten years old for $4K, now not so much.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I can’t tell if it’s because I’m getting to “back in my day things cost…” age, cash for clunkers, the general robustness of the used car market, or tax refund season, but I’m surprised by the high prices on what used to be cheap cars a few years ago. There are cars selling for $10K now that would have never sold for $10K a few years ago. Mr. Lang has discussed this with respect to his BHPH business, so it should be no surprise, but I just took a quick gander at some listings recently, so it’s fresh on my mind.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m feeling like its because cars last longer and we all know it.

        The peak-to-valley dip in the new-car market had new car sales shrinking by about half. I think they’ve largely recovered, but that is a LOT of cars that weren’t made for a couple of years, and really restricts the used car supplies.

        Also, with cars lasting longer and conspicuous consumption getting less respect, it seems like there are good reasons to hold on to cars longer.

        At least that’s my read. But I do live in a culture that didn’t really value conspicuous consumption to begin with, so take it with a grain of salt.

  • avatar

    In all honesty lease something for no money down and use the capital to subsidize the payments (because I assume payments would be an issue), and if you can, snag the Benz for a slow restoration (maybe offer a grand to the lease fund). So if the lease is $225, take $100 from the fund per month and tell her she needs a job that can pay her $125/month, not to unreasonable.

    Dealers here in Pittsburgh were offering Impreza for $199 and Legacys for $209 NMD. Acura here is offering Civic cloned ILX for $260 for 720+ credit (the sale model is roughly equivalent to a Civic EX-L), Honda on the other hand advertises $189 with I believe $2500 down / 36 months (or effectively $258 a month for 36 months with downpayment)

    I suspect a 20-30yo Benz is going to nickle and dime a little and may not offer her the reliability she needs/desires.

    • 0 avatar

      Around here in the Milwaukee area, 2013 Civic LX sedans can be leased for $167/month NMD (36 months, 12K miles/year) and Accord LX sedans for $197. My 2010 Accord LX lease was for $189 and it’s coming to an end in late May. Thinking of going for a used 2010 Camry or maybe leasing again. It’s pretty attractive at those rates.

      • 0 avatar

        Evidently leasing rates in Pittsburgh suck. I wonder if it would be worth flying up and driving home.

      • 0 avatar

        I was curious so I googled Honda dealers in Milwaukee, Wilde is offering $169 with $2500 down and David Hobbs $179 with $1999 down leases. There’s one in Minneapolis called Luther offering NMD on Civic LX and base Fit for $219. Looks like you had the deal, friend and its been rescinded.—financing-offers.htm

  • avatar

    She sounds alot like my girlfriend with a laundry list of “wants” and “do not wants”. However, all you have to do is give her a car with 4 wheels, decent reliability, and get it in a color she likes, then she will love the car no matter what.

    Might I recommend a 2004 Chevrolet Impala with the 3.4L. Cheap-cheap-cheap, but a decent car none-the-less. These cars were never in demand brand new except if the buyer was a senior citizen which means leisurely drives and on-time maintenance. Case in point- my Dad purchased one for my Grandma brand new, out the door for 14K with a little negotiating.

  • avatar

    I would find out exactly what is wrong with the benz first. If it is a cheap fix (and no one seems to know), problem solved. Will the Mercedes break again? Yes, of course. But so will anything else you buy.

  • avatar

    When my (at the time) fiancee was looking for a car to get to grad school, she decreed it must be less than five grand (so as to pay cash), automatic, reasonably reliable, less than ten years old, and less than ~150k kms. I tried suggesting domestic mid-sizers, but those were all quickly ruled out. At least in our market, that pretty much left GM J-bodies and Hyundai Accents – the Korean won out because she didn’t like not being able to see the edge of sloped hood on the Cavalier/Sunfire.

    So, as long as your girlfriend is just looking for something that will run (the only qualifiers I’m seeing are not Panther, not automatic, and not more than four grand), find the most basic car she’s content with, for virtue of having less to go wrong. That said, given your history with the Maxima, you could do worse than one of those. Again, just find a number of potentially suitable options and show them to her, just to see what she reacts to.

  • avatar

    Make sure it’s a grandpa car. Buick Park Avenue, LeSabre or the last generation Olds 98. Otherwise, bite the bullet and go Panther all the way, regardless of whether one likes it or not.

  • avatar

    If you want something reliable and easy on the pocket, a non-European machine is just the ticket? Sad but true. I know from bitter experience that a decade old ultimate driving machine is always scheming up a new and spectacular wallet-busting way to break down.

    Quite an indictment on those clever Europeans. They cleverly engineer their cars to last 120 000 miles, but the Top gear fan bois can’t get enough of their latest road burners.

    • 0 avatar

      “They cleverly engineer their cars to last 120 000 miles”

      Please visit the link below:

  • avatar

    You are an adult and this is another adult we are speaking of here? How did you get selected to deal with this issue? Has she volunteered to guide/Svengali/life coach you through any major challenges, starting now and continuing through the remainder of the relationship, doing most/all of the heavy lifting in that challenge?

    She has a long list of likes and dislikes…I would suggest that she is the one to navigate that minefield, not you.

    This whole conversation sounds like a father getting a car for a daughter…not one regarding two adult contemporaries, or at least two members of the same peer group.

    Steer her to a good lease on a base-model Camry or Accord, like others here say. Then stay out of it.

    • 0 avatar

      I like to excercise this approach, and I find it to work well. I avoid “the list” by simply buying a car that roughly meets the practical requirements at hand for a screaming deal, and and her the keys.

      Once you let her make “the list” NOTHING else will do.

  • avatar

    Can I put a plug in for the Volvo option? I was in a similar place about three years ago and was able to find a reasonably clean 850r wagon for about $2500 with about 186K miles. Now, it has needed some work — I’ve probably dropped a couple of grand in items that needed help or replacement over the time. That said, I still ended up close to the $4K mark and I probably could sell it tomorrow for what I paid. The 850 was a generally well-engineered car. Yeah, Volvo parts aren’t cheap, but it’s not too complicated to play with, if you’re handy, and I have found a few good mechanics who know what to do if I get into trouble. If what you want is good performance, reasonable reliability for a Euro model and safety features that were way ahead of their time, you would do well to take a look. They’re getting up there in years and mileage, but a surprising number of 850s are around here in MN where the climate does no car favors.

    • 0 avatar

      Unconsumated love:
      People tend to fall in love with those old 850s. My sister used to have a 1995 manual turbo 850 that I was dying to drive. At the time she bought it I was going through a variety of beaters (92 Cutlass Supreme, ’93 lumina), and the chunky European look and fancy interior of that sleek black Volvo was like water in the desert. My sister knew of my rapacious leanings and refused to let me anywhere near the wheel. She even hid the keys from me when she left town and left instructions with my other siblings that I was not to touch the car.

      My fortunes rose and fell over the years and eventually I needed to buy a cheap car again. I wanted to consumate my love for the 850 and called my sister, asking if she was willing to sell it. I knew her OCD control freak husband had maintained it like a swiss watch.
      So we agreed in principle that I would buy it from her, although I was not confident her husband would actually let it get into my greasy hands. There was considerable passive-aggressive resistance from them, despite the fact that it just sat in their driveway 350 out of 365 days of the year.
      Well, a few weeks before I was to go pick it up, a storm came through the area and blew an old oak tree onto the Volvo, smashing it into a million pieces.

      In the end, like many a man before me, I settled on a Panther and have been happily married to it ever since. Panther is faithful, strong and reliable, rarely troubling me with anything other than the most inexpensive repairs. But every now and then I see a pretty old black Volvo go by and my face turns wistful as I think about what could have been.

  • avatar

    It’s like chicken and egg. Which comes first? Living beyond your means, or being poor?

    If a person has only $4000 budget for a car, I would classify the person as being poor. Poor people should drive Toyota Corolla. If a used copy is too expensive and not worth it, then buy a new one. $4k down and $100 something per month gives you reliable transportation. If you want to drive something fancier, go get a real job.

    • 0 avatar

      Totally agree. She needs a better job or a wealthy husband.
      (I would add a Vibe to the shopping list.)

    • 0 avatar

      You may be generally right in assuming poor on a $4,000 budget, but for a select minority it may not be poor, but “cheap” or “smart” since all used cars sub-15K generally need things put into them so you budget for it.

  • avatar
    Lynn E.

    Fordson (above) is absolute correct. “stay out of it”

    I ruined 2 marriages and lost an incredibly beautiful girl friend by playing hero. I thought and worked hard to solve their problems. (I am a slow learner.) Women do NOT want a comic book hero – what they want is someone who listens. Sit back, shut up, and listen to her. When you get tired of listening to her problems get a new girl friend. If you do come up with solutions she will start feeling stupid, then angry, and leave you anyway.

  • avatar

    I had a colleague who found the best solution to this problem. Every two years she would find the absolute cheapest vehicle to lease (a manual, Ford Focus was typical)with the smallest up-front money possible. I particularly recall one car that cost her $69/month in lease payments. She never had any repair bills and got a new car every two years.

    So, chalk one more up for the cheap lease option. When your fiend has enough income or cash to break the cycle, she can just wait out the end of the current lease and move up to something nicer. Forget the MB 107. Sell it and direct the proceeds toward the replacement vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Thinking of doing this for my wife. Her 2000 Jetta will need replacement in the next 1 to 2 years (or maybe even this year, it’s all up to her). I was looking at a local Honda dealer’s site and they’re offering a 2013 Civic LX automatic for $79/month on a 30 month lease with $2500 down. Even the LX is surprisingly well equipped and $79/month is pretty good for 2.5 years to have a brand new car. If she hates it at lease-end we could safely dump it and move on to something else.

  • avatar
    spreadsheet monkey

    If you know your way around a Maxima/I30, why not stick with Nissan? Something like a Sentra or G20, maybe?

  • avatar

    I don’t think “reliable, automatic, not a Panther, $4000” is a “laundry list”.

    All that does is limit you to almost every old, good-condition FWD sedan on the road.

    From Nissan alone:
    -Sentras from 1995 to 2005 or so
    -Altimas from 1994 to 2005 or so
    -Maximas from 1991 to 2003 or so
    -G20s from 1991 to 2000
    -I30s from 1996 to 2002

    Go out there with a list of cars to avoid (Ford Contours, 2.7 liter Chryslers, Volkswagen MkIII and MkIV watercooled), and buy on condition and taste from the remaining 20,000,000 candidates. If you’re in rust country, you need a long weekend in San Antonio or Dallas.

  • avatar

    I can second the i30.

    In 2007 I got a 97 i30, 115k for $3900 in great condition. Ran flawlessly for over a year, til I sold it when I left the country for a while. It was quiet, comfortable, quick, and got 23mpg average, with mostly town driving. It also has a timing chain versus belt.

  • avatar

    Because it’s an orphan, you can find a good number of Oldsmobile Intrigues for between 4 – 5K with less than 100K miles on them. As long as you are religious with maintenance, you shouldn’t experience too many problems, except the occasional knob or trim piece coming loose.

    Also, they were arguably the best and sharpest-looking midsize sedans coming out of GM at the turn of the century. Mine went 95K miles before I sold it to my sister, who then took it another 95K miles before it gave up the ghost (which I attribute mostly to lax upkeep on her part).

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with your premise but I am personally wary of the Shortstar.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Yeah, the Intrigue’s definitely a solid choice, but only with the 3.8-liter V6…

      Pretty much any modern car in this price range is going to have problems—possibly recurring ones—so make sure you’re *absolutely* committed to fixing them before you entangle yourself in this…

      • 0 avatar

        The only year 3800 was available in Intrigue was MY98.

        • 0 avatar

          Actually, for trivia’s sake, the 3800 was also available for MY ’99, but only on the base “GX” trim.

          I had a ’99 “GL” with the Shortstar, and never had problems with it. My biggest headache was diagnosing a bad fuel pressure regulator, but the powertrain itself was pretty solid.

  • avatar

    I vote for the Maxima/I30 and I’m speaking from experience on my 96 I30 which only got parked at 270k miles because the engine was leaking oil all over the belts and causing them to slip off due to being soaked in oil. Otherwise, while the car needed work, it still ran fine, and that was after years of abuse at my parent’s hands (they do no preventative maintenance, and even used the poor thing to tow a 3000 lb boat). It was an automatic and was still on the original transmission. And they drive great. I was average 24 mpg in mixed driving, the vq30de is a brilliantly silky smooth engine, way nicer than the 3800s you’ll see in a lot of the domestic cars you’re getting pointed towards, the ride was smooth and quiet, the bose stereo sounds excellent, really have nothing bad to say about the car except the handling was typical fwd premium sedan mushy. I still think sometimes that I should’ve just replaced it with another one.

  • avatar

    It’s too damn bad she’s rejected the love of a good Panther. I bought mine 10.5 years ago for $7,000 and have averaged $700 a year or so in maintenance costs. 160,000 miles and she’s still going strong, and looks great. People who aren’t familiar with the breed don’t believe she’s 17 years old (build date 12/95). Amazing what 3 hours with an orbital buffer and a good car wax, once a year will do for a car’s finish.

    As to the lady in question, I don’t know much about early 80’s Benzes, other than the fact that when I was young (also in the early 80’s) they had a very good rep for longevity. If the one she has access too is free (very important) and otherwise in excellent shape, I might be tempted to try to find an independent mechanic who has familiarity with the breed and maybe spend a couple hundred bucks on diagnostic time and see if he can work up for her a list of repair issues. Sometimes a leak is just a seal, and sometimes stalling is just a matter of changing plugs or wires and cleaning the intake. If she’s just needing an in town, back and forth to work car, that might just be the ticket, and she can maybe add to her savings and get something newer in the future.

    I had a coworker in the late 90’s who solved this problem with an affinity for $600 cars. He would buy the first $600 car he came across that drove out ok and then take it down to jiffy lube and have them change the oil and filter, then buy a couple quarts of whatever they’d put in it. He would then proceed to drive it as long as it would go, checking the oil and adding as needed, but never changing it again. When it would break down, he’d call the local scrapper and have them come and get it, and roll the money into the next $600 car. He said he would generally get 8 months to a year out of them, once nearly 2 years. I’ve always kinda wanted to try this, and my town even has a dealer that specializes in the $500 to %1,500 car, but I’m also a very conservative, safety minded individual and am kinda scared to drive such a dodgy machine.

  • avatar

    2004 or 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix with the NA V6. You just might be able to find a rental grade stripper for that kind of Cheddar.

    • 0 avatar

      Shyster lot near where I grew up has/had a clean blue 2008 stripper, 55K, listed at… 10,900 [!] and this is the nicest one around here on autotrader that I have seen. Most stuff is 2004-06 as you describe with 100K+ listed at 6-8 depending on private party vs dealer. Buick dealer has a GT2 with 113K listed at $6400 (apparently reduced!), seems to go up from there.

      http://www.autotrader DOT com/cars-for-sale/searchresults.xhtml?zip=15222&endYear=2014&modelCode1=GP&showcaseOwnerId=0&startYear=1981&makeCode1=PONT&listingType=used&listingTypes=used&searchRadius=100&mmt=[PONT[GP[]][]]&sortBy=distanceASC

      • 0 avatar

        Wow – had no idea that ye ‘ol W-bodies are having a strengthening of the basement.

        I guess in the used market people are wising up that the last 10 or so years of W-bodies have proven out to be rather reliable.

        As I’ve noted, PlaySkool interiors and so-so design, but reliable. Hard to kill the Gen III GM 3.8 and the 4-speed auto.

        • 0 avatar

          I think whats happening in the used car market is buyers who traditionally buy used and hover in the $5,000 range are being pressured from a very high used car market and very high new car prices (relative to 2008 lets say). So cars that in reality are worth 4 in tip-top condition (say a 2004 W-body 90K), do 5 or more wholesale and list for 7 or more retail (or 6-8 private party). What these buyers are being forced into doing is becoming subprime and deep subprime buyers (as Derek wrote about) and being put into fodder like Daeworolets, Hyundais, Kias, Mitsubishis, Dodge Avengers, and pickup trucks who all seem to run at least 30K with 4WD. This is all directly correlated to (1) a steep car production dropoff after 2007, limiting used car supply from 2008-2012 (2) foolishly destroying used cars in Obama’s CFC program (3) significant commodity inflation combined with ongoing wage stagnation (since about 2001) and fewer jobs since 2008.

          I have a friend who last May consigned his 2004 GP GT1 (leather, roof, wheels, no SC or TC) 119K to a dealer we both know for 5, and the dealer sold it for $6250+tax in about a month. I at the time was trying to buy it for my brother and I offered him $4500 prior to the consignment and well didn’t get it (which may have been a blessing since this guy didn’t beat it but didn’t take care of it either).

          I see very few deals in used cars lately, the only “deal” I can see is the 2012+ W Impala you can have < 25K on the clock for 15K. Seems the "good 5K car" of even five years ago is now the "good 10K car" with the 5K cars being the 1,500-2,000 dollar very beat ones I was buying in 2004-06.

  • avatar

    Take the Benz to a reputable independent German car mechanic and pay $100 for a thorough analysis and opinion on the car’s condition and predicted future reliability.

    If the results from the mechanic are less than encouraging I would start looking at 8-10 year old Chevy Cavaliers. These are the ultimate budget cars: easy to find with less than 100k miles for under $4000, easy on gas, and cheap to repair.

  • avatar

    W-body the newest nicest one you can afford, nothing with the 3400 V6.

    Next question.

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    I am quite astounded that such a common recommendation for someone in a cash crunch is to go out and take on a pile of debt in the form of a new car lease. It is no wonder America is going through a seemingly neverending series of financial crises.

    Here’s a thought: she has $4k for a car, so she should find a mechanically sound but cosmetically challenged econobox for no more than $3k and keep $1000 set aside for necessary repairs. Get minimum liability insurance only and start saving for a proper car when she can afford it.

    There any number of decent old Fords, Chevies and Saturns that would fit the bill. You could even find something like an Olds Alero that is not that much of a penalty box.

    And no, a 30 year old gas guzzling V8 Benz is not cheap, practical transportation in any sense of the term.

    • 0 avatar

      Good advice. If you look and are patient, you can find a good car for $3K.

      There was an ’89 Ford Probe LX 5-speed last week on the local Craig’s List for $1500, 73K original miles, garage kept. It showed. It was in need of a clutch. I was less than two hours too late to buy the thing. Normally I would haggle, but I was ready to toss the $1.5K down right there. $500 for the clutch, another %500 for plugs, wires, bodily fluids filters and an oil change (records be damned). Car would be good for an easy 100K miles.

      Patience can pay off – if there is a town/community nearby where older people tend to live troll the estate sales. When a loved one passes on the family usually doesn’t want to dink around with the Buick sitting in the driveway – and they fire sale the darn thing. That was the case with the Probe above (and I saw another screaming deal about a month earlier on a VW – same situation, estate sale of older relative who passed on)

    • 0 avatar

      @Kevin Jaeger

      I am generally in agreement with your line of thinking, but from what I can assess you are being coerced into that debt by a number of factors: (1) limited used car supply (private sector mismanagement post 2007), (2) CFC destruction of used cars to further limit used car supply (WH ignorance and/or complicity), (3) inflation spurned on by too much cheap money for too long (Shortsighted Fed money cartel policies).

      I agree with APAaGttH that deals can be found, but depending on your situation you may not have time to wait or the car you buy may just end up eating your alive in years old neglected maintenance. For a “kid” his example of an ’89 Probe is a great choice because what do kids do? Drive to school, see their friends, go out on dates and maybe work at CoGos. What happens when your 24 just out of school and you HAVE to get to work everyday for your measly 30K? ’89 anything just might not cut it. Then there’s the whole pretentious thing at alot of new jobs where the ’89 Probe gets you negatively judged by peers or even bosses. As someone who as owned and driven old Fords, Chevys, Saturns, and Oldsmobiles, I was generally in a financial position to repair them or trade/acquire a newer one should they have catastrophic issues such as a blown rod or the tranny died (which fortunately never happened until very recently at age 31). I can remember back in the day living at home having $400 to my name in 2000, I think alot of people over the age of 18 are in this position and if they can’t turn a wrench or are not car/deal savvy a lease may be the best choice for a few years.

  • avatar

    “I simply refuse to live in the real world believe that women cannot embrace Panther Love.”

    It’s a problem for women who get car sick, too floaty. Years before I found out why we always took her car instead of my Panther…

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Oh how reality kicks in. THE LIST will be toxic to you. Any car not meeting the THE LIST will be horrible in her opinion. If car meeting THE LIST has problems; it will be your fault. However, time is on your side and yes my friend spends lots and lots of taking her to look at 4k cars. Slowly but surely she’ll start to understand what 4k buys today. You might even get hit with non-buyers remorse; “I should bought that one we looked at two weeks ago.” In the end; she’ll get a car and you’ll get about a buh-zillion good karma points.

  • avatar

    Someone mentioned Ford 500, but they are not down to $4K yet. It’s the 2010’s not the 1990’s, when $4000 bought a 7-10 year old mid size car.

    The pre-2002 Maxima or Altima would work, or a 3.8 v6 W body. Or, a 2000-01 Focus with Zetec.

    Avoid Mitsu’s, Suzuki Forenzas, SOHC Ford I4’s [base Focus] or Saturn L series.

    • 0 avatar

      “It’s the 2010′s not the 1990′s, when $4000 bought a 7-10 year old mid size car.”

      In the early 90s, $4000 wasn’t far off to get a 2.5-3 year old mid-size car.

      I’ve seen some low mileage (100K or less) 9-15 year-old Buicks with the 3800 for around 5-6K, but 4K is probably tough for a older low-mileage mid-size.

  • avatar

    W-Body 90s Regal with 3800V6

    H-Body 90s Pontiac Bonneville/Oldsmobile Eighty Eight/Buick Lesabre with 3800V6

    C-Body 90s-00 Buick Park Avenue with 3800 or 3800 Supercharged

    For the best mix of all of these cars, I’d go straight for the Lesabre. They’re indestructible, comfortable as fuck, and easily had with less than $4000 and low mileage.

  • avatar

    GM or Ford is your best bet. give her a 96+ Chevy Cavalier or Chevy Corsica with the 2.2L ohv. The 2.2 ohv lasts very long, and is easy and cheap to maintain, and gets 30 mpg. You can find a clean 1996 corsica (2.2L) for around $1500-2000 with just over 60,000 miles, or a 95-2000 cavalier (2.2) for around $3000 in the same condition.
    Or if youre not into chevy look at maybe 2000 Ford Escort or 2001 Focus, will cost just a little more though.
    But stay away from imports, most are gonna have high miles and beat the crap out of

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