By on February 4, 2015

Max writes:

After following your and TTAC’s collective wisdom regarding Panthers, I have enjoyed four and a half years of somewhat trouble-free $1000 police-auction 2001 Crown Victoria ownership. The Crown Vic is a wonderful first car and I love it dearly, despite – or maybe especially – because it taught me a lot about the finer points of its drive train, front end etc. as I eventually ended up parking-lot and shade-tree repairing or replacing just about every major component other than the exhaust and transmission. However, it might now be time to look into a successor for my trusty ride.

More specifically, I am looking for a vehicle around $5500 or so that 1). Is generally known to be reliable and have low operating expenses, 2). Gets good highway mileage (let’s set the baseline at upper teens) and is comfortable to drive cross-country – my job periodically entails eating up a lot of miles on the road- 3). Has a four wheel drive or is otherwise off road capable– I need to drive up poorly-maintained remote service roads for work – 4). can tow a small camper cross-country, or a livestock or horse trailer ( for low-speed short-haul work), and can stand up to general farmwork – haul or tow a couple dozen bales of hay or more, manure, rolls of fencing, chickens, calves, half a cord of wood, etc. Ease-of repair and cheap parts are a plus. 5). Is comfortable to sleep in, if need be- also a work possibility- and 6). Front bench seat, and stick shift are preferred.

Even though a pickup might be a good fit, I’m trying to stay open-minded and would appreciate any advice: I am not stuck on any one brand or type of vehicle.

Or maybe I could listen to Sanjeev’s advice and go Mad-Maxize the Crown Vic with a 6″ lift and self-leveling kit, transmission intercooler, towing package, 30” offroad tires and roll cage and keep it forever – what’re your two cents?

Thanks for all of your advice over the years!

Sajeev answers:

Thank you for reading all these years. It’s both exciting and horrifying to hear you’ve taken my our advice to heart!

That said, what kind of Lover considers open-mindedness regarding Panther Love? You, as a Crown Victoria owner, are a stubborn traditionalist with a nearly xenophobic reaction to non body-on-frame platforms.  You remain as “unmodified” as the Panther since 1979: toe the autojourno’s line!

Let’s be serious: anyone needing something for “general farmwork” with a career driving on rural roads needs a body-on-frame vehicle to handle the beating and the towing.  Keyword: Towing.  The truck is almost mandatory, but $5500 makes it hard to get one that isn’t beat to shit, packed with a ton of miles or well over a decade old. Good thing you can get your hands dirty, vehicles at this price need something. Always.

What’s the right move?  Get the cleanest, most well maintained V6 Toyota Tacoma, Chevy S-10/Colorado or Ford Ranger in your price ranger (oops). Good luck finding one with a stick, or lose efficiency and get a full sizer (small V8, automatic) from any of the Big Three for the same price.

The full-size is ideal since you might sleep in there: I slept in my Ranger once, next time I’ll splurge for a hotel.

BUT…there’s nothing like taking a nap in the back of Panther Love. Maybe these YouTube videos are right: stick with your current Crown Vic until you can afford a newer truck with all the things you need (for safe and reliable transport to work) and want (for your hobbies, farm duties, etc).


Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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37 Comments on “Piston Slap: Doesn’t Panther Love do Everything?...”

  • avatar

    Everyone knows the answer is always a brown diesel stick-shift Miata wagon, duh

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    At $5500 I truly wish you good luck, it will be hard to find a vehicle meeting those needs at that price. I am not sure I would even want to try to find a simple 4-cylinder family sedan at that price.

    FWIW, a coworker sold an 11-year old Tacoma 4X4 in pretty rough shape with 250K miles on it for $8000 private party. Took less than a week.

  • avatar

    I was going to say Mustang but yeah Toyota pick-up would be my first choice. Not because of personal ownership but my youngest brother had a well used one and he does not drive gently. After five years of abuse it took another careless driver t-boning him and totaling the truck to stop it.

    An S10 isn’t a bad choice, my dad had one with the iron duke. I think a head gasket and ecu issues were the only big problems but if you get an S10, get that LS swap. It’s only proper to do so!

  • avatar

    OK, I’m confused…the Crown Vic was “trouble free” despite the fact that he had to replace almost every major component? Or maybe he doesn’t feel that working on the car is “trouble.”

    • 0 avatar

      I took “trouble free” to mean “reliable” in this case. He may have needed to replace many wear items, and even a few major bits but the car has never broken down or developed a sudden major problem with no warning.

      • 0 avatar

        “somewhat trouble free” was a bit tongue-in-cheek. It was pretty rough when I bought it- much rougher than it first appeared, but over the years, I fixed it “one piece at a time” and now it really is just about trouble free.

  • avatar

    Hauling manure, even occasionally, says truck.

    My bias is showing, but a GMT-400 full sizer seems to be the answer. OP said nothing about hauling passengers. Would be hard to find a V6 stick in 4×4 guise, but a 305 can be reasonably thrifty if you keep you foot out of it.

  • avatar

    I am going to throw out a weird one, could a old mini van work for him, I do not know the tow ratings but they are dirt cheap used, and would meet most of his needs, not all of his needs and with his budget, I do not think all of his needs can be meet . I think sone mini vans came w awd,

  • avatar

    First gen Jeep Liberty, or jeep Grand Cherokee should fit the bill. Could even get the 2 gen (WJ) but expensive to maintain. Original (XJ) Cherokee would be good. Almost forgot, 1st Gen Nissan Xterra would be perfect. Suzuki Gran Vitara another good one but towing with it would be bad.

  • avatar

    Yukon/Tahoe/Suburban. Other than hauling manure (get a trailer) it meets every requirement. You can find a relatively low mileage one for 4k-6k all day long.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick 2012

      I would think you’d get a lot nicer vehicle going for an SUV or Van, and applying some of the savings to buying a truck bed trailer. Best of both worlds, and you won’t have your ride spelling like crap (literally).

  • avatar

    Go read Jack’s article about cheap cars being expensive. Then wake up from your dream.

    • 0 avatar

      The cars Jack mentioned don’t exactly apply here. Cheap Camrys, cheap trucks, etc with plenty of aftermarket support and a relatively simple design aren’t likely to murder your wallet the same way.

    • 0 avatar

      Dude kept a $1000 ex-fleet CV on the road for 4 1/2 years. He clearly has some of the “privileges” Jack mentioned meaning he can afford a cheap used car. Beyond that, who wants to make payments on something that’s going to be treated the way he describes?

      • 0 avatar

        Thank you for the good ideas everyone. Sajeev and B&B, I really appreciate your advice.

        I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a good deal on a decent Blazer, Expedition or AWD Astrovan if one comes up, and will keep using the Crown Vic as my pickup in the meantime.

  • avatar

    Funny seeing pic of CV crossing creek. Back in 02/03 we had bad flooding in DC area. Went looking for fun in my Wrangler. Creek flooded out road. I crossed it in Jeep and water was over tires. Behind me is a guy in a Subaru and a guy in a Crown Vic. I try waving off the first (Subaru) driver but he goes for it followed by the CV. Slightly past half way his motor floods and he is stuck. CV is right behind him with headlights underwater. I back up to Suburu (bad ideas as back is lower the the front and water poured inside Jeep) hook up strap to him and drag him and his car out. Whole time the CV is sitting there idling. After I moved Subaru the CV just drove out. So I had CV respect prior to coming to this site.

  • avatar

    4.0L FX4 Ranger bro! Fairly easy to find with a stick shift too. Oh you want to sleep in it? Maybe with a cap…

    If you could haul the nasty suff in a trailer, a Suburban or Tahoe from the late 90s or early 2000s would work.

  • avatar

    I’d throw an Expedition with the 4.6 into the mix. The OP knows how to work on this engine, it’ll tow/haul pretty much whatever you want, and it has F-150 suspension under there to deal with the gravel road pounding. It’s also pretty cheap to fix if something goes wrong, since there are thousands of these buggers at pick-ur-part lots around the country. Depending on how he drives, it *might* achieve efficiency in the upper teens on the highway. And you sure as heck can sleep in one.

    Edit: If front bench/stick are essential, look for a manual Explorer, which are both rare and dirt cheap, and swap a bench seat from a Ranger into it.

    • 0 avatar

      10-15 year old Expeditions are cheap and would fit the bill as well. Just do yourself a favor and skip the ones with the 5.4L 3V (’05+). Either 4.6L or 5.4L 2v are reliable and will have far fewer problems.

  • avatar

    I vote give up the mileage (since you’re asking for a LOT for $5,500) and go with:

    1) A S-10 Jimmy or Blazer – with the reliable 4.3. If you can find a later version with low miles, it will be within your price range, and most of them are 4×4. The Bravada had an AWD system, and though always better equipped and in better shape, is not up to the tasks you’re asking. Manual is available, but only til I think 00, and only on lower trim levels.

    2) An early 00’s Tahoe/Yukon with the GM Vortec 5.7, which runs for ages. They ride well enough if you get one with AutoRide (is this on the Tahoe models or only with Suburban, I dunno). They’ll run pretty much forever – plenty of room for a’haulin and a’sleepin. Manual availability is n/a.

  • avatar

    I’m kind of partial to S10s; I owned a ’99 and liked it a lot. I did a quick search on auto trader in my area and that price range seems to be getting you a 4×4 ’99-’01 with mileage in the 100-150ish range. Certainly won’t be a trouble free vehicle, but if the OP is handy enough to maintain a $1000 ex cop car, I bet he can handle the S10. The 4.3/4L60 combo is pretty good IMO. My 2WD truck got about 23MPG on the freeway; not sure how much that goes down with the 4×4. Parts certainly won’t be hard to find. Of course the only proper thing to do, as already mentioned, would be LSx-FTW.

  • avatar

    If you look at long term reliability indexes, the ford expedition, chevy tahoe/suburban, and gmc yukon are at the top. Look up trade in index for 20 year old cars. Those ladder framed v8 SUVs just keep going and going. No Nissan Armadas though, they do not hold up. Obviously the Toyota Sequoia is great but it keeps too much value to be a good used deal. I own a 2005 Tacoma with 148,000 miles and KBB still shows it as $10,500 private party.

  • avatar

    How about a Durango? Pretty much the same benefits as the Exp but maybe a bit less room and slightly better mileage (not much, esp with the 360) but plenty of them pop up in my area even under $4000, so they seem to be dirt cheap. It came to mind as a yard sale customer came by my house with a nice one he said he got for a couple grand plus new tires and a thorough cleaning (they served as minivan stand-ins sometimes, and kids are hard on interiors).

    Can’t speak to the reliability, so the less miles the better probably.

    • 0 avatar
      Ian Anderson

      A $5,500 budget certainly brings Chrysler products into the arena! (Don’t yell at me, I own two Dakotas).

      I’d have to recommend a second generation Dakota (preferably with a 5.2/5.9L small block, not the 4.7L V8), a first generation Durango (with the same engine choices) or a second generation Durango with the 5.7L Hemi. shows about 10 of the latter in my area under $6,000 with less than 125K on the clocks. The 4WD front ends aren’t the most durable (“durable” and “4WD IFS” don’t belong together), but the OP shouldn’t have a problem with that if he’s done similar work on his P71.

      The only downside would be the transmissions behind the 5.2L and 5.9L V8s. While they can be made to live, it required maintenance to and beyond what the book called for. Good luck finding that. And avoid the Durango R/T since highway mileage will be abysmal (full time AWD), and they can only operate in AWD or 4WD-low. The 5.9 was an option on Durangos and 4WD Dakotas up until 2003. Avoid the 4.7L since they’re not tolerant of low maintenance, and even with great maintenance histories they still tend to drop the occasional valve or nuke a timing chain tensioner (just like the 4.6 Mod Motor in the OP’s P71).

      The 5.9L Dakota will be the better tow vehicle, and the 6 1/2′ beds or extended cab seats are perfectly sleepable (don’t ask me how I know).

    • 0 avatar

      I drove one with a surveying crew about a year back. Sturdy, more or less reliable, and hard to get stuck. It did suck down gas though. One in decent shape wouldn’t be a bad buy.

  • avatar

    Ranger…and don’t shy away from a clean first or second gen one. They are simple beasts and hold up well. Honestly I keep kicking around a 2.3 with a turbo motor swap for kicks. Maybe my next project but I want a first gen.

  • avatar

    I bought a 2002 AWD Ford Escape V6 with leather and a towing package for around $5500 about 3 years ago. With a Harbor Freight folding trailer, you’re set.

    It meets all of the OP’s requirements. It a good vehicle. I didn’t love it, but it was so good that I gave it to my mother when I bought a minivan, and she’s still driving it.

    The things I didn’t like about it: The V6 was growly and overpowered, and the transmission made me wonder why I wasn’t driving an electric car. The MPGs sucked high teens around town, which is within the OP’s spec – but I need to do better on principle. Also, it just never felt like “my car” somehow — completely subjective, I know, but I’m just more of a minivan dad and Prius geek than SUV kid.

    I bought it because, in my opinion, it was undervalued it the used market, and that there’s a huge rolling inventory of spare parts available. And nothing much has changed in the last 3 years.

    Those old Escapes check every box – and they’re even relatively comfortable on road trips!

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