Ask Bark: Which Beater Should She Bet On?

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

New-to-TTAC reader Kobe writes:

Hi Bark,

I’ve only begun to read TTAC and your email responses are a great read, so I figured I’d give sending you a question a shot.

Two of my wife’s friends are looking for reliable, used cars. The parameters I’ve been given were $4,000 or less (as she will need to save a little for maintenance repairs I figure), a hatchback (preferably four-door), automatic, front- or all-wheel drive, and decent gas mileage. Her friend has lived around NYC most of her life, so although she has her driving license, she has rarely driven.

Now, I went about scrolling through all the makes and models that are listed on Autotrader and came up with this possible list:

  • Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe twins (my recommendation, best bang for buck of high reliability and little notoriety so hopefully a better deal)
  • Mazda2
  • Mazda3
  • Mazda Protege5
  • Honda Fit (first generation)
  • Honda CR-V (first generation)
  • Scion xB
  • Saab 9-3x
  • Subaru Impreza/Outback
  • Acura Integra (third generation, not a four-door, but sporty and dead reliable — only problem is they’re often stolen!)

Given the price limit, almost all will have 100,000 miles or more, which means almost all will need some regular maintenance to replace parts that have worn out. Do you have any suggestions on which might be more reliable (and require fewer parts to replace over time) given what you know?

Thanks,


Kobe

Times are tough for Kobe, what with this being his last season and all. I can see why he’d need a beater. Okay, enough of that joke. Time to get serious.

I noticed something about your list, Kobe — they’re almost all Japanese imports. While standard wisdom seems to suggest that you’re smart to consider these makes and models as reliable options, you’re also likely to pay a Toyota/Honda tax on almost all of the cars you suggested (outside of the Subarus, which I’m just going to give a big fat NO). Might there be a domestic option that could provide similar reliability yet also get you a little bit more car for the dollar?

Eh, not really.

My 20-minute search of third-party classified ads didn’t turn up more than a whole boatload of Chrysler PT Cruisers, the occasional Dodge Caliber, and a few 2000-2003 Ford Focus ZX3 hatchbacks. The Focus wouldn’t be a terrible option, but since your heart appears to be set on something JDM, let’s turn our attention there for a moment.

We’ve only been doing Ask Bark for, like, a month, but we’ve already done the whole Toyota Matrix/ Pontiac Vibe thing to death. Some people like them, some don’t. You can find a Vibe in your range (if you don’t mind having a relatively high airbag failure rate, as pointed out by one of our more astute commenters) and be done with it, if you like. Honestly, I think you can do better. So let’s press on.

The rest of the cars on your list that fit in your budget don’t just have 100,000 miles. Most of the examples I can find in your price range are closer to 200k or more. Honda CR-Vs and Scion xBs, in particular, hold their value extremely well. Anything sub-$4,000 looks to come with a host of disclosed issues — and just imagine what isn’t being disclosed! There’s a few unloved second-gen xBs in your range — but they, too, are rather high mileage.

I found exactly one Mazda2 in the country at $4,000, and it has 170,000 miles on it. No. Just no. And Mazda3s hold their value very well, so any example of a Mazda3 that’s in your range is going to be in rough, rough shape.

Same goes for Honda Fits. Any sub-$4,000 Fit looks to be an “as-is” car. And Integras under $4,000 are virtually guaranteed to be complete shitboxes that were run to death by teenagers. DO NOT WANT.

How about some other options?

If you want something Japanese, I’m surprised that you didn’t come up with the Scion xD. With that brand being so recently orphaned, there’s a good chance that Scions will start taking a price dive in the near future, and xDs can be found in that range with some regularity. I’ve always been a fan of the little Scion hatches (they have a little more panache than Yarises of that era) and they should be just as reliable as anything else of similar vintage.

If the friend can bump up her budget just a tad, I’d consider a Kia Soul at around $5,000. You should be able to find a 2011 or so vintage in that price range, and I’m not aware of the Soul having a ton of mechanical issues. I’d probably trust a 2011 Soul over a 2001 CR-V any day of the week.

I’ve got to bring the Focus hatchback up again. There are clean examples of cars in your range that are as recent as 2005 model year, and they’ve got decent reputations for reliability. Plus, if they do break, they’re so cheap to fix that it’s a wash.

But, if I were your friend, I might give the private seller who listed this car a call. It’s a pretty nice example of a 2008 Saturn Astra. There aren’t many of them out there, so finding one close to you might be a bit of a pain, but the Astra was one of those cars that was highly regarded by nearly everybody but came into existence at just the wrong time. (I even own one. —MS) Less than 20,000 Astras were sold in America, so I don’t know how great the parts availability on these will be. (Not great. —MS) That being said, however, the 1.8-liter Ecotec motor has a solid reputation for being bulletproof, and there just isn’t a whole lot that can go wrong with one of them. You’ll get a lot more car for the money with this Little Orphan Astra than you will with a comparable Japanese hatch.

WWBD? In order: xD, Astra, Focus hatch. I know that you want her to have something a little cooler than that, but the reality is that even Hondas and Toyotas start to break around 200,000 miles.

[Images courtesy of manufacturers.]

A note to the readers: I want to thank all of you for sending in your Ask Bark questions (and please, keep doing so). The reality is that I’m swamped by them at the moment, and we only have room for two questions per week here on TTAC. If your question requires an urgent answer, please let me know when you write to me. I might not be able to publish your answer immediately, but I can reply to you personally with my recommendation via e-mail at my earliest convenience. That way, you get your answer in a timely manner, and I don’t feel awful for not publishing your question ASAP.

Secondly, please give me a rough idea of where you live when you submit your questions. The used car market in Detroit, for example, is much different that the used car market in Miami, or Colorado, or California, or upstate New York, etc. A Subaru that costs $5,000 in Alabama might cost $10,000 in Vermont. A Jeep Grand Cherokee RWD might be a great suggestion in Hilton Head, SC (Hi, Dad!) but a miserable one in South Dakota.

Thanks again for sending in your questions, and please keep sending them to barkm302@gmail.com or find me on Twitter at @barkm302.

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

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  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Mar 02, 2016

    I've often thought that a new car for 5k would meet real consumer need, but by the time it gets through the system, it becomes a 17k car. I hope this person has money for repairs, because a 4k car will eat a 1.5k tranny and become a 0$ paper weight, but still have a note. Also, try to get out of the NY metro area. No place is tougher on cars.

  • 09box 09box on Mar 03, 2016

    I'd pass on a Soul. They have a crappy amount of cargo room and the hatch doesn't have a wide opening. HHR is going to be your best bet in that price range. You could find a later Ford Focus Wagon in that as well. A Nissan Versa hatchback might be the sleeper choice here. The only drawback is the back seat folded down doesn't line up with the floor so it creates a little hump. The Focus Hatchback is becoming the new beater hatchback of choice.

  • Geozinger Put in the veggie garden (Western Michigan, we still can get frost this late in the year) finished the remainder of the landscaping updates and hand washed both my beater Pontiac and the Town and Country! Going to the beach today...
  • Rochester I wouldn't obsess over the rate of change, it's happening whether we want it or not.
  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
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