I need a decent car for super cheap! Help!
August 25, 2010 6:53 AM   Subscribe

What is the absolute best, most reliable car I can get for about $3000?

So, my magnificent 1999 Corolla was rear-ended this past weekend, and they are calling it totaled. I am guessing that, if the insurance company is generous, they will give me about $2000 for the car (it had 180,000 miles on it and was not in the greatest condition cosmetically, although it was perfect mechanically). I have maybe about another $1000 to kick in towards buying another car, but that's it. Other 1999 Corollas are selling for more than that, plus I am expecting a baby and would like to get something with a touch more backseat room if possible. Any suggestions? This car will need to hold up another couple of years, until we're able to afford a car payment.
posted by feathermeat to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I have a used ('97) Toyota Rav4. It's in great condition, and I get the feeling they hold up really well over time. They always have higher than average Blue Book values.
posted by phunniemee at 7:05 AM on August 25, 2010

You really can't go wrong with mid-'90s Hondas... my '95 Civic routinely hauls around two large children (5 and 8) and is like a wee, blood clot-colored tank. That being said: Japanese cars generally hold their resale value REALLY well. You'll be able to get something newer and bigger if you branch out into American cars. I'd spend $30 of your budget on a Consumer Reports online subscription, were I you, and check and see if there are any semi-recent "good years" for, say, Pontiac Vibes (the same thing as a Toyota Matrix!) and Hyundai Elantras (which apparently stopped sucking at some point!).
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:06 AM on August 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I came in here to suggest a Corolla, oops. FWIW I have a much smaller Scion xA and my son fits in it relatively easily (he's still backwards facing in a Britax Marathon). The backwards-facing bucket did limit how far back the front passenger seat went, but again, my car's much smaller than a Corolla. Babydaddy or I sat in the back if we ever needed to take my car somewhere. We're having another baby and keeping my xA - my husband will just have to drive this time if we ever take my car, but I've got the commuter car just for school.

So what I'm saying, is that if it's only for a few years you might just want another Corolla, or Civic, or if a bit bigger, Camry or Accord. I like hatchbacks like my xA or the Matrix because I can multitask and fit in bigger furniture or building supplies.

I once totalled my '96 Pontiac Sunfire that I paid $5k for and owed $3k on and they paid me $5200 on the claim - I'm not sure how they value it, but hopefully you'll get a little more than $2k for that car. I'm not sure they took the mileage or condition into consideration.
posted by kpht at 7:07 AM on August 25, 2010

I lost my 1999 Corolla a couple of years ago, too. It was stolen and torched.

So I decided to buy a Nissan-something car through an ad on Craigslist.
Paid $2500 and it ran for about 2 days then would stall after a mile. Had to sell it (disclosed information about the issue) for $250. :(
So now I don't have a car still. But I share one with my boyfriend.

In any case, the best car you can get is one that an old person is selling.
Or if it has only one or two owners - and they have the records of any repairs/oil changes.

The best car I have had was an old Honda Accord (I think it was an '89 and I had it '97-00. I bought it from an older lady who was the only owner of the vehicle. Unfortunately, someone drunk people slammed into it and it was totaled.

My sister bought a Toyota Camry about 5 years ago for a couple of thousand bucks. I believe it had about 150,000 miles on it. Still runs perfectly. I am hoping she buys a new car soon so I can buy it off her.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:10 AM on August 25, 2010

Agreeing with Julthumbscrew. Used Honda Civics. We have a 1996 stick shift. Despite it being hit (twice!) while parked a year after we bought it in 2004, it runs like a champ. 130k miles on it (we bought it with 50k). We've replaced brake pads once, gotten a tune-up once, and oil-change regularly. And while I know it is some confirmation bias at work here....I 90s era Civics driving all over the streets here in Chicago. There's three parked on our block right now (including ours!)
posted by Wink Ricketts at 7:12 AM on August 25, 2010

Also, not sure about the Scion xA as someone mentioned, but I wouldn't go with the xB. That's what we're driving currently. Boyfriend bought it in 2008. It's a 2006.
It has a lot of room for a car, but... the tires are tiny, doesnt' accelerate well, dashboard shakes, etc.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:15 AM on August 25, 2010

Maybe get a slightly older Corolla for cheaper? My wife's '96 is still good (it was a used rental car we bought it in '98) and my '93 Civic is running well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:16 AM on August 25, 2010

Be careful with the used Honda Civics, though. I mean, the people who are selling them.
A lot of younger kids buy those and pretty much destroy them.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:16 AM on August 25, 2010

I would first suggest the best Honda Civic or Accord you can buy for $3000. Will probably be a mid-90s vehicle.

I would second suggest the best Toyota Camry or Corolla. Will probably be a mid-90s vehicle.

I would thirdly suggest one of the asian "up and comers", Kia or Hyundai. You will be able to get a newer car than Honda or Toyota. Might be a wash in reliability between an older Honda/Toyota and a newer Kia/Hyundai, at least for the next couple of years for you.

I would in general not suggest any American- or European-made car since reliability is a principal motivator for you. Ford has gotten much better in the past few years, but for what you need I don't recommend going that route.

Consumer Reports Used Car Buying guide is a great resource that relies on real field data, so that's a great recommendation as well. You can pick one up at a book store for about $10 or $15 I think. Money well spent.
posted by mcstayinskool at 7:18 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

My '97 Civic had some major transmission issues about 2 years back, but other than that (and admittedly that was an expensive "that") it's still going strong. Right now it has about 140,000 miles on it; it's lived through punishing northern climates, city driving, and frequent 7+ hour trips with no problems - I'd get another one in a heartbeat (but don't expect to need to any time soon!).

I paid about $6k for mine back in 2001 so I'd imagine that by now it must be in or close to the $3k range ...
posted by DingoMutt at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2010

You should be able to pick up a Subaru Forrester or Legacy wagon of 97-00 vintage for right around $3000. Of course you'll be looking at vehicles that already have 150,000+ miles on them. I know some of the Subaru engines in that time period had problems with the head gaskets failing, but if they've had the head gasket replaced you're going to have a car that will easily last another 100,000 miles with routine maintenance. On the American side of things you might be able to pick up a 2001-2003 Chevy Impala LS (the one with the 3.8 L V6, not the 3.4L) with under 100,000 miles. Pretty good cars there, and the 3.8L V6 is bulletproof. Sold my 2000 Impala LS last year with 135,000 miles for under $3,000 FWIW. If you got that route, just be warned they have some weird electrical quirks, but generally its nothing too serious to worry about.
posted by ganzhimself at 7:27 AM on August 25, 2010

I bought a used Toyota a couple of years ago for a bit more than that. I found it through CARFAX. It was definitely worth paying for CARFAX. I got a great car that had only had one previous owner. it had some very minor scratches on it which brought the price down.
posted by mareli at 7:37 AM on August 25, 2010

Nthing Honda Civic or Accord. I've had my '96 Honda Civic for 10+ years. It's been totally reliable and great gas mileage to boot. Just had it thoroughly checked over by my mechanic -- at 140,000 miles, he thought it had another 100,000 to go. I have had several other friends who are loyal to their late-90s Hondas, and per Blue Book prices, you should be able to find a pretty good used Honda for about $3000. Of course, buying from a responsible person is the next obstacle. Good luck!
posted by sk932 at 7:44 AM on August 25, 2010

Some pretty solid recommendations on cars here...

Since you seem to be on a tight budget, check out edmunds.com and do their True Market Value assessment to see what you can expect for your car thereabouts.
posted by jerseygirl at 7:56 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

What about a pre-Ford Volvo*? Those things are pretty much bullet proof and you should be able to get one for around three grand.

(* - Ford bought out Volvo in '98, so I would look at any Volvo made before then.)
posted by NoMich at 7:57 AM on August 25, 2010

At that price range it is less about the make and model of the individual car and more about the condition and history of the individual car you're looking at.

You don't want to exclude certain cars because of their average reliability when they were new but on that individual car's reliability history and the condition it is in now.

I've seen cars that have horrible reputations run with no problems for well over 150,000 miles and cars that are considered bullet-proof that have nothing but problems and not make it to 100,000 miles.

Just as the Toyota factory can sometimes produce a really low quality Corolla if the tolerances stack in some weird way (every individual part is just within its limits but they all add up to produce problems) the Ford, GM, or whoever else factory can produce a car with every part is right on the specs or some other random combination of variables combine to make a low quality car bullet-proof or a high quality car into a lemon.

With the mileage that a $3,000 car will likely have, the car's character should have emerged by now.
posted by VTX at 8:01 AM on August 25, 2010

Most libraries subscribe to Consumer Reports, so you may be able to go there and browse the paper issues and the Used Car Buying Guide to see recommendations. If you want detailed information about a specific car, they have an online service that you'd have to pay for.
posted by CathyG at 8:26 AM on August 25, 2010

Someone mentioned Korean cars - you do not want to buy a pre-2000 Hyundai.

I learned this after three of them.
posted by downing street memo at 8:27 AM on August 25, 2010

how badly damaged is your car? can it safely and effectively (if not cosmetically) be repaired? ask your insurance adjuster about retaining salvage, if it's not in that bad of shape. Insurers total vehicles when the cost to repair exceeds the market value, but with older Japanese cars, market value and real value are not always the same thing.

If you want to keep the car (and if they let you do it), they'll give you the car and the settlement, less the salvage value of the car (what they'd get at auction). You can frequently have the car functionally repaired (find a body shop, not the dealer) for about the remainder of the cash settlement (give or take), and then you have your own reliable car back, with plenty of mileage left on it (180k? a mere break-in for those toyotas).

you'll get a salvage title, so forget about reselling the car when you're done with it.

/ former commercial auto insurance adjuster.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing Honda Civics and Hondas in general. They are nearly indestructable. My ex-husband had a Civic that he never did even the most basic maintenance on (he bought it used, and honestly, he never changed the oil even once in all the years he owned it) and the car outlived him.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:55 AM on August 25, 2010

I'll toss in Saturn. Those old SC1 and SC2's were something of an American Honda, except repairs were cheaper. I'd much rather get a SC1 with 80k miles than a Honda with 180k miles and at your price point, that's the kind of mileage you'll find on Hondas for 3k.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:12 AM on August 25, 2010

I have a 2001 Mazda Protege that I got for about $2500. It was Blue Booked a little higher than that, but had some dents, so we got it a little cheaper.

I love it. It's the first car I've loved since my zippy little VW Golf.
posted by elmer benson at 9:22 AM on August 25, 2010

ps: here's my response on another "how to buy a used car" question, since retaining salvage isn't always an option (nor should it be).

once you decide what make/vintage you want (all the consumer reports suggestions upthread are great), then go look at the car *and the seller.* I've never bought anything but used cars, and I've only bought a lemon twice, and both times it was my fault. I wanted the car so much I ignored what my own eyes were telling me about the seller.

good luck!
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:38 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can drive stick, do it. It'll shave off sometimes more than $1000 off the used purchase price and you'll have far less problems. I picked up a 5spd 98 camry in good shape two years ago for an even 3000.
posted by BishopFistwick at 9:49 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Honda. Toyota. Porsche 944.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:08 AM on August 25, 2010

seconding toodleydoodley, with a caveat.

You can save a lot of money if you're willing to get your car fixed physically but not visually. Unpainted bumper, for example. However you do not want to skimp on the proper repair of your bumper if you're going to be carting around an infant!

If the Corolla of that vintage is similar to the Civics then the bumper is built in such a way that there are shock-absorbing pillar contraptions which the plastic bumper attaches to.

On the Hondas it didn't take much to bend those out of true. You'll need to get that stuff properly repaired even if the bumper they attach to it isn't very attractive.

But don't hesitate to ask your adjuster about getting that car back on a salvage title. It's not unusual and they have procedures for dealing with it.
posted by phearlez at 10:18 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Civic, Corolla, Accord, or Camry. When I met my husband, he was driving a 1989 Accord, which we finally replaced in 2004. That car had more miles on it than the average distance from the earth to the moon, and the engine was still perfectly sound. (We replaced it because the turn-signal lever broke off inside the steering column, and it would have been a surprisingly expensive fix. Also because a failed break-in attempt had ruined the waterproof seal around the door, and we didn't realize it, and all the interior carpet rotted while we were gone on vacation.) We replaced it with a 1999 Camry, which has about 140K miles on it and still runs like a top.
posted by KathrynT at 11:01 AM on August 25, 2010

Just another Camry vote. I drive a '93 Camry with 209,000 miles on it. Small problems here or there, but I also am not the best at taking care of it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:16 PM on August 25, 2010

Consider a Geo Prizm.

It's a rebadged Corolla, but people think Geos are junk, so sometimes you'll find a great deal. Simularly with the Pontiac Vibe, except that those are new enough that they're probably out of your pricerange, and the mid-'80s Chevy Nova, which you don't see too many of these days.

And strongly seconding whoever said that a Honda in that price range is likely to have been beaten half to death. If it's been lowered, if it has an aftermarket exhaust or ground-effects (or any of a bunch of other things), if it's been the recipient of a paint job that someone cheaped out on, stay far away.
posted by box at 1:16 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your most reliable cheap car would be a truck. Something like a mid 90's ford f150, two wheel drive with the 4.9 liter six cylinder engine and a manual transmission. Full sized trucks are built to last, they're relatively simple (at least the older ones) and being on a full ladder frame means they can with stand lots of miles. I have an '89 f150 with almost 350,000 miles on it with only two clutches, and a starter last year. It still gets low 20's gas mileage. Of course its not a sedan, but durable is durable.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 1:21 PM on August 25, 2010

Not a lot of backseat room in a truck unless you get an X-cab, though, chosemerveilleux.
posted by KathrynT at 1:42 PM on August 25, 2010

Buy anything Japanese that is equipped with antilock brakes and airbags. There's no reason to skip those options and, since the mid 90s, the reliability contest between the Japanese brands is a pretty close race. Visit lots of cars in person and make sure to get the car checked out by your trusted mechanic before purchasing.
posted by Jon-o at 3:04 PM on August 25, 2010

Do not get a 98 Subaru. I had a horrible one and heard a lot about the model year being bad. When I got rid of it, I got a 95 Honda Accord with 88,000 miles for 3200. It has been great for the last two years.
posted by sulaine at 7:26 PM on August 25, 2010

I asked this question of a very used-car-savvy friend recently, and he emphatically recommended the Toyota Corolla.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:22 PM on August 25, 2010

Toyota Camry. I have owned the same one since 1987! It is a tank of a car-the best car I have ever had. Someone recently hit mine too--it is driveable. They totaled it (of course) and I had to fight tooth and nail to get them to understand what good shape it was/is in mechanically. They really did not care and it has been an ordeal because they valued my car with junk cars. Anyway--the Camry is a great car. I can't say enough about them. I have a feeling with the proper maintanence it will never stop running!
posted by naplesyellow at 11:47 PM on August 25, 2010

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