Ask Bark: Is $6,000 Too Much To Spend On A High Mileage Car?

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

Sophia writes:

Thank you for taking the time to read and answer this email, it’s greatly appreciated.

I have a budget of $6k and would like to buy a used car (automatic transmission). I really like the Scion tC models from ’06-’08 (I’m a fan of its smooth curves). Is it worth spending $6k on a car that has ~100k miles? I live in Silicon Valley and most the Scions I’ve seen for sale are in Sacramento or LA; I wouldn’t mind traveling a bit for the right car. By that measure, I love to drive and need a car that can take me all along the West coast as well as the weekly commute and won’t break the bank when it comes to repairs. Am I asking too much of a used vehicle? My 2001 civic made it through 235k miles, and while I prefer to stick to the Honda or Toyota family, am I missing out on a reliable American vehicle?

Again, thank you for the advice.

Regards,

Sophia

Back when I used to judge high school solo and ensemble music competitions for money in college, I seriously considered buying a rubber stamp that said “More dynamics.” I mean, every single kid needed to use more dynamic contrast (loud and soft playing), so I literally wrote “More dynamics” on every single judge’s sheet. The stamp would have been a YUUUUGE time saver. After about three months of doing the Ask Bark column, I’ve decided to buy two rubber stamps—one that says “Pontiac Vibe” and another that says “Scion tC.”

I say this not to be (entirely) facetious. There are good reasons that people are attracted to these cars — they’re reliable, they’re functional, and they’re attractively styled. They’re also holding their value like a mother. I sold my 2005 Scion tC for about $9000 in 2008. I could probably get close to that for it today, eight years later.

Let’s address the actual question that Sophia has asked here — is it reasonable to spend about $6,000 on a car with 100K on the clock? Well, it obviously depends on the car. In the case of the tC, it’s a definite maybe. Let me explain.

The tC typically attracted one of two types of buyers:

  1. A nice young lady (such as you) who just wanted something sporty, fun, and cute to drive.
  2. A Toyota JDM aficionado who really wanted something like the FR-S, excuse me, Toyota 86, only it didn’t exist yet, so they bought a TRD supercharger and TEIN springs and god-knows-what-else for it. Like this one.

If you find one that was owned by the former, I’d say that 100K on that Toyota 2.4 liter motor shouldn’t be a problem at all. In fact, you should be able to knock out another century of miles and still be in good shape. The tC isn’t a particularly complicated car, and there aren’t many known issues with any of the main components.

However If you find one that was owned by the latter, run away as fast as your little legs can carry you. It’s likely had a hard life. However, since most of the ricer-types preferred stick shifts, I think you’ll be okay.

Now, with all that being said, I did a search for tCs in the Valley, and you’re absolutely right about it being difficult to find one in your price range. In fact, even searching 500 miles out, the options aren’t fantastic — lots of cars with salvage titles, super high miles, damage history, etc. 100K miles might not be to much to ask of a used car, but once we start getting closer to 200K, we’re pushing it a bit.

However, if you bump your budget up to about $8,000, the selection is much better. I would never tell you to stretch yourself beyond what you can really afford, but if it’s only a few more months of saving, you’d be better off with a fresher car. You could also look at some Civic and Accord coupes in that price range, but after several years in a Civic, it sounds like you’re ready for something different.

Are you missing out on something American? Well, unless you consider the Pontiac Vibe to be American (where’s my little stamp?), I’m gonna go ahead and say no. $6K and below doesn’t get a lot of American two-door fun (think Cobalt or unloved-gen Focus). Based on your love of the tC, the only option I’d recommend for you in your price range would probably be a 2005+ V6 Mustang, and I think you’d have better reliability out of the Scion.

So Bark’s final recommendation is that you scrape together a few more bucks and go Scion shopping. By the time you do that, the favorite son brand will be completely dead, which might help drive down prices a bit, as well. I hope you enjoy your tC as much as I enjoyed mine.

Are you looking for some sensible car buying advice? Or, just looking for some justification to spend a lot of money on a purely emotional purchase? You’ve come to the right place! Email Bark at barkm302@gmail.com or get all up in his DMs on Twitter at @barkm302.

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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  • Acd Acd on Mar 24, 2016

    The spread between some low mileage, late model cars and older high mileage cars is getting really small. Example: In Metro-Atlanta you can find a 2013 Jetta 2.5 automatic with 51,000 miles for $8989. If that one isn't to your liking there are 13 others under $9k with anywhere from 37,000 to 114,000 miles. Dropping down to $5-$6,000 and you'll be looking at 2003-2009 with 100,000 + miles in most cases. At some point the number of newer cars will cause prices of older cars to drop but it hasn't happened yet.

  • Psychoboy Psychoboy on Mar 25, 2016

    Sorry I'm a couple days late to the party, but let me tell you about my wife's 06 automatic tC.... About 6 years ago she decided it was time to trade up from her battered but loved $100 89 crx dx automatic that she'd spent most of the last five in. Despite the fact that I (and all my friends) are Honda guys, nothing in the mid 00's Honda lineup fit her needs. the tC, however....sang to her. she'd loved the styling since they came out, and they were now in her price range. she ended up buying a dark blue 06 with 70-ish thousand miles for 12-ish thousand dollars from a reputable small town domestic dealership. she loves that car. we use it for all of our road trips (since it's far nicer than my collection of beaters). over the last 70,000 miles and six years, it's been a stellar performer..... until this winter. you see, the tC has a fatal problem. google "06 camry overheat", and you'll find pages upon pages of mid 00s camry, rav4, and tC head gasket failures. in the mid 00s Toyota updated the 2.4 4cyl used in those cars, and they screwed them up. in 06, they finally rectified the problem with a new collection of block and head bolt part numbers, but the three previous years of cars are time bombs waiting to happen. put simply, the headbolt threading in the block is too deep for the headbolts used. the head bolts only engage the top bit of the threading. after several years of heat cycles, the differences between the heat expansion of the aluminum block and head and the steel bolts finally add up, and the rear most three bolts lose tension allowing the head gasket to fail. five years after Toyota suddenly changed the block's part number mid year (scion has a five year powertrain warranty...coincidence?), Toyota issued a service bulletin to their dealerships as to how to solve the problem of pulled threads in the blocks of the aforementioned cars. apparently, people complained of overheat, loss of coolant, or poor running, and the tech would diagnose blown head gasket. upon pulling the head (a twelve hour job, by the way), the tech would find the threads of the block would come out with the bolts. Toyota even had the Time-Sert company develop a special insert tool kit to insert six of the ten bolt holes. if you contact Toyota/scion, they'll tell you they have no idea what you are talking about, that your problem does not exist, and that the overheat was your fault. however, their insert kit proves just the opposite. the insert kit actually places the new threads 7-9mm higher in the block than the originals were. when you are dealing with an 11mm bolt, that's a significant change (it's almost double). in reality, the threads give up, the bolts loosen, and the head lifts just enough to allow water out. that water goes into the foam insulation behind the block that protects the plastic intake manifold from engine heat. once that foam is fully saturated (about a gallon of coolant) it will finally start dripping...onto the exhaust pipe, where it burns off before it leaves a puddle on the floor. you'll push almost all of the coolant out of the motor before it starts leaking enough to make a puddle. if you are lucky, it'll happen in the winter, and you might notice a lack of interior heater at idle before you totally cook the motor. I just did the job on my wife's car. it can be done by a shadetree guy (assuming you can get the $450 time-sert kit), but it's not for the faint of heart. If you have your local Toyota dealer do it, it's almost 20 hours of labor above the $250-$300 in parts. a whole lot of the car has to come apart to get to the head gasket, but Toyota's crappy layout is not the real culprit here...their original block design and their refusal to acknowledge the fault is. how this hasn't become a class action suit is beyond me. a couple hundred bucks for a junkyard motor and some time in a shop with a big band saw and a grinder would prove their defect beyond a shadow of a doubt. I can only assume that they can hide behind the overheat and most customers won't know any better.

  • 1995 SC I'll hold out for the VW Tassos
  • Gsc65794753 Volvo parts were rediculously expensive. That's what I remember.
  • Creekrat85 The right to work on your own stuff shall not be abridged. It's common sense. It's unAmerican to be authoritarian. A corporate authoritarian? Isn't that fascism? If the government colludes with a corporate authoritarian to restrict owner's manuals or not to be allowed to show how to make simple repairs or you cannot buy the parts yourself? That's what is wrong. It's benign neglect of the government and it is at the heart of Boeing and their problems, so they let Elon do more of the same over at Tesla ?... The analogy is poor. None of us passengers are going for a wing walk to repair something on a 737 Max. Using John Deere and the farm equipment for the right to work on your own stuff is the better analogy .... Just say no to the corporate authoritarian fascists, wherever they roam...
  • Arthur Dailey Can the auto-shut off feature be disengaged? If not that would be a deal breaker for me. I greatly dislike that feature/function on any vehicle.
  • 3-On-The-Tree I agree those men shouldn’t be enshrined or celebrated. Even my Japanese mother agrees, those men who did those atrocities should’ve been punished. Her father was in the Japanese Imperial Navy, he didn’t do those things. We had guys in Iraq do criminal activities and murder and they were punished. I was in Iraq I didn’t do that. My dad was in Vietnam, you going to judge him from the My Lai massacre? Group punishment as a whole from the deeds of others is wrong.
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