Auto Illiterate Seeks Cheap Used Car
June 23, 2009 3:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a used car and I'd like one that won't disintegrate on me before I'm done paying for it. I have a total budget of $6k and want to buy from a dealer. What should I be looking for in terms of models, makes, and mileage? My top priorities are price, reliability, and MPG (in that order.) Assume I know nothing about cars. Because I don't.
posted by richrad to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a specific reason you want to buy from a dealer?
posted by mdonley at 3:26 PM on June 23, 2009

The newest Toyota Tacoma with a clean Carfax that you can find in your area. 1999 is an especially reliable year, according to the April 2009 Consumer Reports. 4wd will cost you extra (i.e. put you in an older/higher mileage truck for the same price), so really think about whether or not you need it.
posted by willpie at 3:27 PM on June 23, 2009

For $6,000 you might be able to get a used Kia or Hyundai sedan with low enough mileage to still be covered by the manufacturer's warranty for another year or two, depending on how much you drive.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:29 PM on June 23, 2009

Why a dealer? If you don't have the money, a bank loan will give you more flexibility.

As for model/make/mileage, you're in 99/00 Civic sedan territory, around 100-120k on the clock. Make sure the timing belt has been changed. You should expect to put another 100k down on it, at least. But the Kelly Blue Book is better at telling you how much car you can get for your money.
posted by holgate at 3:34 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

It can be hard to find an awesome car for $6k at a used car dealership. A car on a used car dealer lot with a $6k sticker is likely to be worth about two grand less than they're asking. A car salesman can be killer with their mark up. If they've put any money into fixing that car up, they'll be desperate to get it back. Also at that price, you're not going to be getting any kind of certified pre-owned vehicle and you'll usually wind up with an "as-is" warranty.
For six grand, I would seriously look into a private party sale. You've got more room to haggle and the actual value of the car will be closer to the asking price.

If you're dead set on financing a six thousand dollar car from a dealership, don't go to a strictly used car lot. Lots of shady stuff involving auctions, salvage titles, and shoddy repairs tend to happen on a dirt lot or a strictly used car facility (I've seen it happen).
Instead, go to a mainstream dealer and visit their used car department.
If you want a cheap, reliable, economic car, go to a Hyundai dealership. Their vehicles depreciate pretty quickly, still, so you'll be able to get a lot of car for 6k. Also, they have a 100k mile warranty and you might be able to find a car that still has some life left on that.
I would also recommend Honda or Toyota, but they hold their value too well and you're looking at a car from the mid to late 90s if you're looking to pay 6k or less. At Hyundai, you might be able to get something that's been made in the past 10 years. For instance, Kelly Blue Book says that the suggested retail price of a 2001 Hyundai Elantra with 75k miles is under $6000.

Oh, and avoid German brands. I love them and I work for one, but I wouldn't suggest that you buy an old cheap one. That'd be a big mistake.
posted by Jon-o at 3:36 PM on June 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Most reputable dealers won't sell a $6000 car, because to give them a strong profit margin without tarnishing their reputation, they'll want to focus on newer cars. Generally cars accepted at trade for lower prices will get sold at auction, or moved to a used car lot owned by the same franchise.

The trick, then, is to get a car that's older but not too old, nice and reliable like a Toyota or a Honda, but undervalued for some reason so that it doesn't attract the price premiums that even older Toyotas and Hondas demand.

I respectfully suggest: The Geo Prism. Mechanically, it's a Toyota Corolla of the same vintage, built in a NUMMI joint-venture plant alongside Corollas, but because it doesn't carry the Toyota badge they're always undervalued. Heck, even a brand-new one was a thousand or more cheaper than the comparably-equipped Corolla, just because of the badge. A decent one should be available for far less than $6000, which gives you a budget to fix all the old-car stuff.

If you want to try for something more recent, a stripper Pontiac Vibe might be a good choice; once again, built alongside the Toyota Matrix in a NUMMI joint-venture plant - and the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe are both based on the platform of the (you guessed it) Toyota Corolla. Plus, since Pontiac is being shut down, the price for a new one is lower...and so used prices slide accordingly.
posted by davejay at 3:41 PM on June 23, 2009

A quick search on Carmax shows a 2005 Pontiac Vibe GT (top-line) with 78K for $9600. You *might* be able to find a low-end version of the same year and miles for $6000, but at that point I think I'd go for the Geo Prism and put the rest of the money away for a single catastrophic repair (ie new engine or new transmission) just in case -- because there's no such thing as a bulletproof used car. Think of it as insurance.
posted by davejay at 3:44 PM on June 23, 2009 returns lots of 2003-2005 Vibes on dealer lots throughout the country (I'm assuming you're in the US) for $6000 or less. By comparison, the most expensive Geo Prizms I could find on are $4000 (1996 or older.)

Oh, and it's Geo Prizm, not Prism. Sorry 'bout that.
posted by davejay at 3:52 PM on June 23, 2009

Seconding the Prizm/Vibe recommendations. Ignore the GM branding; they're essentially Toyotas that hold their value like a GM.
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:15 PM on June 23, 2009

Response by poster: My financing is through a bank loan. I don't want to buy from an individual because it complicates the process and I need to get a car fairly quickly (as my current ride is weeks or days from falling apart.) Thanks for the comments, guys! I'm still reading through them, I just wanted to address that question.
posted by richrad at 4:18 PM on June 23, 2009

Response by poster: Prizmites: The newest Prizm in my area is a 1997 with 130k miles for $3500. While I'd certainly like to walk away from this whole thing with the smallest loan I can, is it reasonable to expect that a $3500 car won't immediately need repairs?
posted by richrad at 4:41 PM on June 23, 2009

For price, you'll almost always get a better deal by buying privately. Besides, you can check,,, etc - just do a google search on used cars to see the top sites.

For reliability, you should look at the annual Consumer Reports car issue. You may have to go back a year or two if you want information about older years. And regardless of who you're buying a car from, you should have a mechanic look at it, even though this might cost you a couple of hundred dollars. (If you don't know of an independent mechanic you trust, look at the ones approved by AAA.) What you don't want to do is buy a used car that will need several thousand dollars of repairs in order to keep running for more than a few months.

For mileage, keep in mind that if you drive (say) 10,000 miles per year, a car getting 25MPG will cost you $1200 per year in gas (400 gallons at $3); one getting 33MPG will cost you $900 (for 300 gallons). That's a difference of $300 per year; not that much. And if you plan on driving a lot less than 10,000 miles per year, then the difference is much less, and so the MPG should be even less of a factor.

As noted above, it's not clear what a $6,000 "budget" means. Are you planning on paying cash? Or is that based on what you'd expect monthly payments to be? If the latter, you probably should share what you're thinking about (number of monthly payments, where you expect to get the loan from, how much you can put down). If the former, you might consider buying a much newer car (say, a 2007 Honda Civic with 36,000 miles, for $12,000, as my sister did last week in Chicago) and financing part of that (from a credit union, $6,000 borrowed, payable over 3 years, is around/under $200 per month). You'll take a lot less risk that the car turns our to be a lemon, and you'll get a lot more years out of it.

Finally, since no one else has mentioned it: you should check and/or to get a sense of what you should pay for a used vehicle, though - as always - the market (supply and demand) will determine that. So once you've settled on a one or just a few models, you should spend some time on the web, finding out what sellers in your area are asking for those models.
posted by WestCoaster at 4:44 PM on June 23, 2009

When you get the mechanic to check the car over as WestCoaster advises, ask him (the mechanic, not WestCoaster) about the cost of spare parts compared to other brands.

I'm the 'administrative goddess' for a mechanic workshop, and the difference in parts pricing between vehicle brands can be dramatic. You seem sensible enough to not want to pay $100 for an air filter every time you have the car serviced.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:02 PM on June 23, 2009

We have a 2000 Honda Accord with about 60-70k miles on it, and we're expecting to get in the neighbourhood of $6k. It has a new timing belt, the 60,000 mile checkup, never had a problem. A few dents in the doors but no rust and the interior is in good shape for its age (no cracking, seats have a few stains, non smoking its whole life). It was driven in the South - no ice, salt, big weather changes. We're expecting to get about $6000 (or just under) for it.
posted by barnone at 5:31 PM on June 23, 2009

As I just went through the same process, with pretty much your requirements, I can give you the results of my research. I did not confine myself to dealers, I used CL, but ended up buying from a dealer because he had the car I wanted at the price I wanted.

In my view, top quality Japanese cars are definitely overpriced for the value in the used market (Hondas in particular). So I'd stay away from Hondas and Toyotas even though these are excellent cars as far as reliability and economy.

European and U.S. cars - forget 'em. To me, the best choice was a Korean car - a Hyundai. In the last few years, Hyundai has really moved ahead in quality narrowing the quality gap with the top Japanese (Honda and Toyota). However, it is critical to get the year and model right. Hyundai is in the opposite value position from Hondas - they are cheaper than their quality would indicate.

Model choice: Elantra. Year: nothing older than a 2004. In fact, that's a good year. It is the year where the quality really took off according to Consumer Reports - it gets "above or much above average" on most reliability categories, and crucially the key ones of engine and transmission.

Lower miles are better. I ended up buying a 2004 Elantra, with 62K miles for $5000 dollars (car advertised for $5900, I bargained down to $5000, take it or leave it). Add taxes and fees etc., I got it home for $5700 (in California). From a used car dealer. It had a 90 day warranty, and I also did a buy where I could return the car for an extra $75 after driving it for a week (you can do that in CA). During that time I took it to two different mechanics to have it thoroughly looked over. I have not had a lick of trouble. I bought it at the beginning of February of this year.
posted by VikingSword at 5:43 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

That same CR article I cited above singles out the 2001-2004 Toyota Echo as one of the most reliable used car buys. In fact, the vast majority of cars on their most reliable list are Toyotas or Lexuses (which are Toyotas). A few Hondas, but they're 2006 or newer, so out of your price range.
Echoes weren't that much more than $6k when they were new; I'd imagine you should be able to fit one into your budget quite easily.
posted by willpie at 6:06 PM on June 23, 2009

richrad> is it reasonable to expect that a $3500 car won't immediately need repairs

Does it matter? Say it needs $500 in immediate repairs (which your mechanic will tell you about, since you're going to have a mechanic look the car over before you buy it, no matter where you get it from)... Pay $500 to fix those things immediately after purchase, and you've got a $4000 car, plus you've just replaced some of the wear items. A '97 Prizm can easily go 200,000 trouble free miles.

davejay> [Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix built at the same factory, the way Corrola/Prizm were.]

Almost. While the Vibe is a badge engineered version of the Matrix, they're made in different factories. NUMMI makes the Vibe, and formerly made the Voltz (which was a RHD Matrix/Vibe-alike exported to Japan), but they have never made the Matrix. All north american Matrices were built at TMMC, in Ontario, Canada.

But yes, the Vibe does generally combine Toyota reliability with GM depreciation.
posted by toxic at 6:39 PM on June 23, 2009

Best answer: Another suggestion is to ask around to your friends. You don't always know when someone you know is selling their car. And it's always easier for them to deal with selling to friends than it is to list things up on CL or in the paper. That's how I snagged an awesome deal on the car I just bought.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:56 PM on June 23, 2009

I recently bought a very low mileage (as in, under 60K low) 1999 VW Passat from a small dealer. It took a lot of hunting around, looking at dealer listings, and accepting that some non-mission critical things (like the power locks and the sunroof) simply don't work. We ended up paying almost $2K below sticker (and $1K) over blue book simply by test driving it, making it clear we wanted to buy it, and then showing up with an estimate from my local mechanic of what it would take to fix those broken things. I told them I'd pay them $XXXX, take it or leave it. They wouldn't take it, so I walked. By the time I got home I had a message on my answering machine saying they'd reconsidered and would accept my offer.

Times are tough. Find an $8K car you like, and talk them down to six or below.
posted by anastasiav at 7:35 PM on June 23, 2009

You can get a pretty decent Toyota Corolla (early 2000s model, like 2001) for $6,000. I've seen some with right around 100,000 miles selling for $5000 + state sales tax in WA. Assuming regular maintenance a corolla with 100k on it will easily run to 250k miles.
posted by thewalrus at 11:20 PM on June 23, 2009

In the not quite as good mileage area, you can't beat a Ford Crown Vic, or a 94-96 Chevy Caprice or Buick Roadmaster. there is a reason they use these types of cars for taxis, and police cars. I get 19 around town in my Roadmaster and 24-25 on the highway. Its got loads of room, tons of power, and is nearly invisible to police attention.
posted by midwestguy at 5:52 AM on June 24, 2009

We bought a 2000 Honda Civic for $2990 from a dealer, and looked at six or seven other cars of the same vintage at the same price.

We put $700 into it (new timing belt, cleaned valves, etc.) and it runs like a dream. Gets 40 miles per gallon on highway trips, too.

Most reputable dealers won't sell a $6000 car

Does this vary a lot by region? Because where I live (metro Boston), there were lots of very solid cars available from reputable dealers under $5,000.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:16 PM on June 24, 2009

Here is one no one has recommended yet. 2000 Ford Escort. Very highly rated that year and I own one. Absolutely invincible car with a standard trasnmission. Easily gets 40 MPG when driven conservatively which still amazes me. Bought with 85,000 miles now has 135,000 and has never required a repair. Paid $3000.- I was incredulous when dealer recommended it but read reports and car is one of the most relaible for that year. Car had been maintained properly by previous owner. When I test drove the car it felt and looked new.
posted by Muirwylde at 11:21 AM on June 25, 2009

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