Buying a used car
October 9, 2009 8:40 PM   Subscribe

Help me buy a (used) car for the first time!

I just moved to the Big Island, Hawaii (near Hilo) and I am looking into buying my first car. I have been Craigslisting for a while and have had mediocre luck with finding stuff that seems like a good deal, but I feel lost with what sorts of questions I should be asking, etc.

I am thinking it would be really cool to get a car/wagon large enough so I can sleep in it (5' 8"), so I can take some trips around the island with my road bike. I mostly want something cheap and reliable. I am also living up the mountain a ways, so all wheel or 4WD is a plus.

I have been looking at Subaru Outbacks and Foresters, and a few Honda and Toyota wagons have come up. What else might work for me? My budget is around $3,000 (but flexible).
posted by Jsn7821 to Travel & Transportation (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you genuinely need real 4wd, with the ground clearance and crappy mileage and off-road performance that implies:

Pickup, extended-cab and/or with cap. Toyotas and Nissans are my favorites. Alternately, SUVs don't get a lot of love around here, but a small-to-medium one like an Xterra, (pre-1996) 4runner or Cherokee (maybe a hardtop Wrangler, not a Grand Cherokee, and certainly not any other Jeeps) could work well. Look for one that doesn't have a lift kit, KC lights and body damage.

If you don't: Matrix/Vibe, probably some other vehicles I'm forgetting.

Questions: what are the worst conditions you'll be driving in? You say you want to be able to sleep in it, but how comfortably do you want to sleep? Will you put the bike inside the vehicle, or on a rack?
posted by box at 9:08 PM on October 9, 2009

(If I were you, I'd probably buy a bivy sack and a Thermarest and forget about sleeping in it entirely. You live in Hawaii, and you want to sleep in a car?)
posted by box at 9:10 PM on October 9, 2009

There are a couple good looking cars under "The Big Island" heading on Craigslist.
This Subaru looks pretty decent.
This is pretty sweet for $600! For $600, I'd buy it and put zero dollars into it and see how long I could drive it until it crapped out on me. I wouldn't even add oil. Just drive, man!
Another nice looking Jeep...
I think, with space and all-wheel drive as priorities, a Jeep is a good bet. They're cheap and reliable. The 4.0 liter engine is one of the best engines ever produced. It gets decent enough gas mileage, makes enough power, and will probably outlive both of us.
Don't try to get anything really new for $3000, though. If a new car is really cheap, it may be a flood car or have been wrecked at one time.

As far as questions go, just ask about maintenance. Whatever car you're looking at, look up the maintenance schedule. Was the timing belt replaced in a timely fashion? Was the transmission serviced at a regular interval? Do you have records or receipts for any recent repairs?
A good test drive will answer more questions than an owner will, anyway. Just drive the car, listening for any unusual noises. Make sure the steering is tight. Make sure that there aren't any significant and harsh vibrations across a wide range of speeds. Drive the car in every gear. Wind it out, making sure it revs smoothly and makes power. Does it smell bad? Is it really loud? Does the transmission shift like butter or like a sledgehammer? Are there any warning lights illuminated on the dashboard? Do all of the accessories work?
Ask around about a reputable local mechanic. Any car your interested in, arrange for them to look it over before you hand over your cash. Most shops are happy to do this for a small fee.
posted by Jon-o at 9:21 PM on October 9, 2009

I think, with space and all-wheel drive as priorities, a Jeep is a good bet. They're cheap and reliable. The 4.0 liter engine is one of the best engines ever produced. It gets decent enough gas mileage, makes enough power, and will probably outlive both of us.

Better advice has rarely been written. Buy a Jeep XJ (boxy, square Cherokee, not the later Grand Cherokee), or possibly a Wrangler (better off-road, not enough room inside to sleep, and probably outside your price range), and you will be happy. The Subarus and similar are amazing cars, but if you are wanting off-road capability on a budget, go Jeep.

Another possibility is a Toyota 4Runner -- usually they cost more than a Jeep Cherokee, but sometimes you can luck into amazing deals. I'd consider them better built and designed than the Jeep, at the cost of a bit of complexity; I'm not sure which has more room for sleeping in the back.

Honestly, in your price range, I'd look first at the mechanical condition and second at the tires, and only lastly at the brand. New tires can cost up to half of what you are budgeting for the entire car, so look for something that has newer tires, not bald retreads. And look for something that hasn't been beating hard and put away wet -- crawl underneath and look at the skidplates and the bottoms of the differentials (the round pumpkin-looking things in the center of the axles); deep scratches and dents are an indication of hard off-road use, and a clue for you to keep looking for another car. Your ideal vehicle was owned by a nice suburban commuter, not someone who was into off-roading.
posted by Forktine at 10:16 PM on October 9, 2009

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