When you wish upon a starion...
November 6, 2010 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Need advice on choosing between two used cars of the same model : is a higher-mileage 80s-era car obviously less reliable than a lower-mileage 80s-era car of the same model?

I am looking to buy a used car to replace my current used car. I am getting my mid-life crisis out of the way early by buying an 80s sports car. I have already settled on buying a Mistubishi Starion (Chrysler Conquest). I am not looking for advice on buying this particular model as opposed to some other kind of car. I am trying to compare two examples of the same car. They are fairly far away from my location, so I will have to take a weekend and haul the one I choose back on a trailer with my father.

Car A has 48,000 miles. It has been owned by the same person since 2000. He stores it during the winter and generally says he "babies" it. By his own admission he is not a gearhead, though, and he has never made any mechanical updates or fixes to the car. When I asked about rust, he thought there might be some surface rust on the underside, that comes with the age of the car, but nothing major. Again, he stores it during the winter. The car was in very good shape cosmetically, but it had a few fairly minor flaws on closer inspection of the pictures. The current owner's goal has been to keep the car all-original. Car A is a 1987. Car A is $4200 obo.

Car B has 99,000 miles. I have not had a chance to talk to the owner yet, but there is more detailed information online. It has had the clutch, brakes and headgasket replaced, with higher-grade aftermarket head studs installed as well. It has an upgraded turbo. It has a short-throw shifter (which I like, as I have one in a Mazda Protege 5 I own). It has nicer paint and a nice interior that is the same as Car A. It is not as original as Car A. The owner noted that there is one rust spot each in two small locations (in wheel wells) and showed pictures of the underside which looked to be rust-free, or to have only minor surface rust. Car B is a 1988, which is supposed to have a better ECU than the previous years. Car B is $4000 obo.

Here is where I stand. I am leaning toward Car B. My thinking is that, even though it has more miles, it seems that the owner has some knowledge of the car and has upgraded or repaired it to some degree (I know that the owner has other examples of the same car). I will be driving the car to work. I drive 18 miles roundtrip, averaging 5 days a week. So, even after 8 years, with 48 weeks a year of driving, I would only be up to 135,000 miles or so. I have not even owned a car for 8 years before. If I still have the car in 8 years, I would probably be in a position to rebuild the engine and otherwise restore the car.

Although I have a few different factors going into the decision, I don't want to choose the car with the higher mileage if it's obviously going to be less reliable. Do the owner's upgrades and (likely) attention balance out those higher miles?

Could anyone offer any opinions on Car A versus Car B?
posted by Slothrop to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
I'd go with car B. You'd probably end up having to replace stuff in car A which would raise the price, and you seem to like the mods they've made to B. 99k miles is nothing for a car like that. If it were 200k miles maybe things would be different.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:33 AM on November 6, 2010

Go with car B. It has more miles, but you're not going to put many miles on this car anyway. Car B has been attended to by somebody who must know at least a little about cars if they upgraded the turbo and did a headgasket on it. In short, it's been driven more because it's been better maintained.
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:42 AM on November 6, 2010

This model of car is pretty well known amongst auto enthusiasts for being unreliable, or at least requiring a "lot of maintenance".

I would not recommend this car as a daily driver.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:49 AM on November 6, 2010

A car that has a short throw shifter and an 'upgraded' turbo says to me "this guy drives his car like I would", I wouldn't necessarily buy a car from me, as I tend to... how shall we say.. get my money's worth from cars.

The first guy sounds like he loves the car but doesn't drive it too hard. Second guy sounds like he uses it as a street racer.

Also, an upgraded turbo generally means one that produces more boost, and this is more wearing on an engine - upgraded head studs is one of the means to mitigate this, but there are other elements, and upgrading the power does have additional loading on transmission and the like. It is likely that major engine wear (rather than component wear that has already been addressed) is more likely in Car B than Car A.

I'd buy Car A.
posted by Brockles at 8:19 AM on November 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Car A = I drive it on the weekends

Car B = I beat the crap out of it

If it's me, Car A no doubt about it.
posted by WhiteWhale at 8:34 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree. Car B sounds like it has been racer-boyed, while Car A sounds like it has a better chance of being in decent shape. Without seeing them in person you don't really know (I've had lots of people tell me "it's in perfect shape" on the phone and when you show up it's out there on blocks with a tree growing out of the hood), but from your description, if I had to buy sight-unseen, I would buy Car A unhesitatingly.
posted by Forktine at 8:44 AM on November 6, 2010

Car A will probably be more reliable. If you need this car to get you to work, this may be key.

Car B will be more fun, full stop.

Do you need this car to be reliable or fun?
posted by u2604ab at 9:15 AM on November 6, 2010

Find a qualified mechanic, take both cars to him, have him check them out for safety and soundness- shouldn't be terribly expensive, and may save you thousands in the short term.
posted by jenkinsEar at 10:05 AM on November 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the feedback so far. I think I will enjoy either car, really, as they both have some good pluses to them.

Fleebnork, I have heard about that reputation in some places, while others say that the car can be reliable if you keep up with it. I plan on doing regular maintenance and generally taking care of it. I am pretty easy on the cars I have, I think.

Brockles, the turbo upgrade on Car B was one step up in a range that has three or four bigger sizes still (from a 12A to a 14G). I do agree that the current owner probably drives the car harder than I would, but I think given the pictures (there are 7 or so large pics online), the car has been kept in better shape than your average teenager's racer.

u2604ab, I suppose I would say... both. If I really needed it to be reliable, I wouldn't buy it at all. I have a 1995 Ford Escort that I currently drive, but the plan was to sell it and put those funds into a "repair the Starion/Conquest" savings account. The Escort's KBB is $1900 and it only has 91,000 miles, so I imagine I could make that in a sale. If I wanted reliable, I would continue to drive the Escort for 15 more years. On the other hand, the plan was for this to be my only car (my wife has a car). We both thought it would be smarter not to carry two insurance policies (on the Escort and the Starion/Conquest). The savings from having one insurance policy for my car(s) would also contribute to the car repair savings.

As for having a mechanic compare them - part of my problem is that I am dealing with a moderately rare model, so good ones aren't present everywhere. These two are within 2 hours of each other, but they are at least 12 hours from me. My dad is 4 hours from the closer one, but he is willing to pick up either. He has some street rods, so he has a car trailer and can pick it up and tow it back. He's also retired, so he has a somewhat flexible schedule. He has been very kind to help me with this, but I don't want to send him driving all over just to look at cars. I'd like to try pick the better bet between the two and send him to that one. We've agreed that if he doesn't like it (most likely due to mechanical issues), he won't pick it up.

Anyway, I think I may reconsider and lean to Car A. I suppose I can install my own tasteful mods at a later date. Thanks again! (More opinions will be read, by the way)
posted by Slothrop at 11:24 AM on November 6, 2010

I have been thinking about this, and to my logic the mileage issue is actually the wrong way round to make this any kind of decision.

If you were choosing between a low mileage (but had been thrashed and modified) car and a higher mileage but babied (winter garaging and long time owner) it'd be a harder decision. As it is, I can't see any justification for getting car B. Getting the high mileage (which increases standard reliability concerns) PLUS the performance modified (additional loading and reliability related concerns fro operating at the edge of the performance envelope) is worst of all worlds.

B is a very high mileage car that has had, from all evidence, a hard life with upgraded fast road or race equipment fitted. You don't do that sort of thing to get more reliability and economy from a car. You do it to get more performance, and if you do so, you drive it to use that extra performance.
posted by Brockles at 11:31 AM on November 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am assuming that we are talking about the same turbo'd Mitsu Starion that was sold in Australia in the '80s as a 'hot hatch'. Very popular, then died out quickly... for very good reason.

My first inclination is to say 'run away'. Unless you like spending money on cars, or better still doing lots of work on your cars, this is not the car for you. Car A may be tended more carefully than Car B, but I would only buy either as a 'never ending work in progress'. You know what they say about Jags, always buy two so that you can drive one while you fix the other. That seems to apply here, without the up side that a Jag has.

Then I see that you are planning on working on/spending money on the car. Nevertheless, I still say walk away, there are many better fun cars, even 20+ year old cars, than a Starion. Actually, now that I think about it, just about anything would be a better fun car ...

BTW, by no stretch of the imagination is the Starion a sportscar. Hot hatch yes, but never a sportscar.

Regarding insurance, here we can buy cheaper policies for cars that are only driven low kms/year. Still a policy to be paid for, but might be worth checking if something similar is available to you.
posted by GeeEmm at 6:10 PM on November 6, 2010

I would go with Car A. I had a similar choice to make some years ago (also a well known Japanese sports car), and went with Car B. It ended up spending more time in the garage than on the road. I also spent more repairing it than all my other cars put together.
posted by Sutekh at 7:00 AM on November 7, 2010

Response by poster: GeeEmm, yes it's the same Mitsubishi Starion that was sold in Australia. The Starion overseas had the 2.0 4G63 that is still in the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO. The one in America had the 2.6 4G54, that is sometimes referred to as a tractor motor (it favors torque over horsepower). I did say I was looking for an 80s sports car, but I probably should have written "hot hatch" as that much better describes the kinds of cars I like.

A couple of people have recommended I don't buy the Starion/Conquest at all, and I hear you. I think my reasons for buying it have some basis in my own preferences... I have ruled out some cars from the 80s because I don't like them (Camaro, for instance). I have ruled out some because they are only two seaters (RX-7, which I've had before, and which has a similar rep for being unreliable). I have ruled out some because they have collectors which have upped the price, or because most every example you find has been "drifted." The 80s Corolla GT-S/AE86 is a runner-up for me, but all the examples have been "hooned" to use the Jalopnik parlance. 80s Corollas also have what I have seen referred to as an "Initial D" tax, and my investigations have born that out.

So, cars that would be on my list (small four seaters, angular 80s styling, 4-cylinder turbos, affordable to me ($5000ish)), leaves me with Starions, Mustang SVOs, Corrados and Golfs. Each of those have some reputation for an unreliable nature. I think some of that is owing to American owners who expect the car to be a Chevy 350 that they can beat on endlessly.

Of my list, the Starion is the only one I wouldn't want to visually customize, so that saves me some money right there. I have had an SVO before. I never had any major system failure, but I did have a few weekends set aside to do projects to get it back on the road... I didn't really mind that. Actually, I got a sense of accomplishment out of knowing that I had fixed up my car. I sold the SVO when I moved overseas for a time.

I appreciate everyone's perspective quite a lot. I know that I am being stubborn about sticking with this model, but I think... I am going to stick with this model. Again, the only cars I think I would be close to being as happy with are the Corolla GT-S, the Corrado and maaaaaybe the Golf. If I had a Golf or Corolla GT-S, I would definitely have to customize it to be happy with it, and I am sure that would cost more than the Starion. Over time, I imagine both of the German cars would have similar or greater costs of repairs compared to the Starion. The Starion's major failure point was the cylinder head, which can be picked up in a junkyard near me off of a Mazda B-series truck.

posted by Slothrop at 7:55 AM on November 7, 2010

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