What truck should I buy?
June 11, 2011 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I am slowly accepting that a motorcycle is not reliable year-round transportation in wintry rainy Ohio. What kind of cheap, light, dependable pickup truck should I buy?

It's becoming clear that at some point, I will have to buy a car. That point is probably soon. Right now I'm thinking about a small pickup- I have to haul things around fairly often, but nothing heavier than a motorcycle. I don't need 4WD. I don't need a crew cab or anything fancier than air conditioning and a radio. I just need a cheap little truck.

I'm pretty handy, and although I don't have much experience with cars, I can do basic to intermediate repair work without much trouble (I just did the head gasket on my motorcycle in a pinch). But I'd rather the thing were easy to work on if it needs worked on, and hopefully it doesn't need worked on too much at all.

I see a lot of '80-90 light trucks- Toyotas, Fords, a Dodge- going for $800-1500 on Craigslist, which is pretty much my ideal price. Are those things going to turn into moneypits? Is there a Truck Gold Standard? I know nothing about trucks and brands, so help me out here.
posted by aaronbeekay to Travel & Transportation around Ohio (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, dammit, I knew I forgot something. Fuel economy is another deciding factor, which is why I'm looking in the "very light" class. I know older trucks probably won't get such great mileage, but if there's a truck with a reputation for great mileage, that'd be good to know too.
posted by aaronbeekay at 9:53 AM on June 11, 2011

There have been a few questions about Toyota pickups and some people consider them the gold standard of small pickups. One question is here and mine is here. Fuel economy is better on newer trucks - a '90 truck is 22 years old at this point and there have been a lot of advances in those 22 years but with a budget of $1,500 of course your options are limited.
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:06 AM on June 11, 2011

The old Toyota Tacomas are pretty close to a Truck Gold standard. They got mentioned a couple of times in the "cheap but bombproof" thread.

On preview: what ChrisHartley said.
posted by zabuni at 10:08 AM on June 11, 2011

Before I moved up to a 150, I had two Rangers. Loved them.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:09 AM on June 11, 2011

If you can find anything from the third through the sixth generation of the Toyota Hilux under 300,000mi in that price range snap it up and hold it dear. Those are your Gold Standard light pickups.

Now, I drive a 1999 Chevy S-10 with a 4 cylinder engine that's maybe just a wee bit underpowered, but I get ~20mpg in the city and pretty much everything can fit into the back of it. It was lightly driven for about 7 years until I got it, and has about 75,000mi on it. At this point I'm pretty sure it'll run forever.

I see a TON of these light trucks driving around town, mostly by people hauling yardwork equipment. Nissans, Toyotas, Fords, Chevys, and some Mazdas and Isuzus too. I imagine most of them are like mine—two seats, a radio, maybe AC, and a steering wheel. Look for either low mileage or a recently rebuilt engine, rust-free body, and a straight frame and you pretty much can't go wrong.
posted by carsonb at 10:15 AM on June 11, 2011

Man, this thread is pure gold. Thanks.

$1500 isn't a hard cap on the budget, and if it's a Plain Stupid Idea to buy a $1000 truck with 150K miles off Craigslist, I can deal with that. I just tend to be a "well, I can probably fix that" sort of person ("cheap").

Okay, I'll shut up now. Keep it coming.
posted by aaronbeekay at 10:15 AM on June 11, 2011

Toyota compact pickups are indeed the gold standard, but the problem is that everybody knows it. As such, they're overpriced in a lot of markets.

Second-best in your price range would probably be a Nissan Hardbody.

One piece of general compact-pickup buying advice: if it's been either lifted or lowered, take a long hard look at the mechanicals, because there's a good chance that a previous owner was rough on it.
posted by box at 10:54 AM on June 11, 2011

I would nth the 80's - 90's toyota. I've got an 86 hilux (4x4 xcab). Motherfucker is bomb proof.

That being said, I spent 3 months trying to find my truck. I ended up paying 2400 for it - a good deal, as she only had 160k miles and is in great shape. I could turn around and sell it in a day for 3000+ (don't tell her I said that. I'll never sell.)

Two things: 1) You get what you pay for. Don't buy a cheap truck and try to fix it up. I've done this, and it really really sucked. Now I have a reliable truck and I would drive her anywhere without a second thought. 2) Bad grammar in the ad = bad truck. This is weirdly true. Never buy a truck from someone who posts an ad with bad grammar, all caps, or poor formatting. If someone isn't willing to take the time to put together a decent craigslist ad to sell a two-thousand-fucking-dollar item, then it's guaranteed they didn't take the time to treat their truck properly.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 11:08 AM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Toyotas are great. The problem is that everyone knows this, and so they tend to be priced high for their condition, relative to other brands.

Other good options are the Ford Ranger (which was sold in almost identical form as the Mazda B-series, too), the Nissan trucks, and, with slightly worse gas mileage but much more capacity (and cheaper parts), the Ford F150 with the 4.9 liter inline six engine. Around here I can easily find any of these in 2wd form for between $900 and $2000, depending on options and condition. And if you are lucky, you might find someone selling an early T100 Toyota for cheap -- they don't have the cachet of the smaller Toyotas, but they are solid trucks and were built on the same chassis as overseas Hiluxes of that era.

Be careful, though -- sometimes cheap can get expensive in a hurry. Tires cost the same on a $900 truck as they do on a $19000 dollar truck, for example. And in the midwest, you have to watch carefully for rust; there's a fine line between "ugly but solid" and "uh oh, it just folded in half." In other words, buy by condition, not year or brand. Look very, very carefully at expensive things like tires, engines, frame rust, etc. And never buy a truck that someone has beat to shit (hint: crawl underneath and look for big scrapes and dents on the skidplates; walk away if you see them), modified by raising or lowering, or where someone has done a bunch of racer boy engine modifications. There are too many clean, all original trucks out there for cheap to bother messing with the hassle of those problems.
posted by Forktine at 11:33 AM on June 11, 2011

my exgf and i have, she has, a 93 toyota pickup. for most the house stuff we did, landscaping stuff, lumber, etc., it was great. decent mileage. reliable. i really like toyotas.
posted by rainperimeter at 12:27 PM on June 11, 2011

Small pickups are the best e.v.a.r!

Had great luck with the used Mazda pickup we had--over 200k miles with very little repair or upkeep. Our 2004 Nissan Frontier is a champ, too. Nearly 100k, and still going strong. Getting time to look at clutch and timing chain, but we'll drive it till it dies. Good gas mileage on both. American trucks--Ferds and Cheevys sometimes have more leg room, but I've never heard of anyone getting the mileage we've gotten with our off brands. The four-banger has plenty of go to get around with, unless you do a lot of highway driving. That said, ours doesn't embarrass us on the Interstate back and forth to Boise the 100 plus miles most weekends.

Don't buy one from a kid, and if you get the impression the owner likes to ramrod around, the truck's probably beat. People who have oil change receipts in the glove-box or a maintenance book are great. My husband does all his maintenance and repairs, and the only problem with a small truck is big hands, small places to work in, and lots of stuff under the hood. Unless you're proud, go for what's under the hood and never mind dings and an icky paint job--but no rust, if you can help it. Paint these days doesn't wear for suck. Lots of shade tree mechanics take good care of the running parts, but don't pay much attention to the body. Truck bodies just get more wear than cars.

If you could spring for $2500 you could get a really nice little truck. Spending $1500 and shopping around will still get you something that will work for you. My best advice is to hold out for an extended cab. The one problem with small trucks is room for crap. We can haul a dog, camping stuff when it's raining, put groceries behind the seat, etc. Having a jump seat in ours means we can even haul a grandkid if we get a sudden urge to grab one for a weekend. You don't always want to leave stuff in the bed of the truck.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:25 PM on June 11, 2011

I used to own a mid-90's GMC Sonoma that I loved to death. It had the ├╝ber-dependable Vortec V6 and 4WD. It was a great, trouble-free daily-driver and weekend hauler. I wish I still had it. I'm pretty sure you can get one for cheap.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:25 AM on June 12, 2011

I've had two Toyota Tacomas and loved them.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:38 AM on June 12, 2011

I've got a 2000 Tacoma (4x4) with the 2.7 liter 4-cylinder engine that has a bit over 300k miles. I've changed the oil, plugs and filters, done the brakes twice, and replaced a tie rod end. That's about it. It's ridiculously good.
posted by Red Loop at 7:48 AM on June 12, 2011

Thanks, everybody. I'll follow up if and when I finally get the thing.
posted by aaronbeekay at 7:40 PM on June 13, 2011

Hey! If anybody finds this question later, I paid $1600 for a 1996 Ranger, 2WD, extended cab, five-speed, with 183k miles on it. I call it "the eunuch of trucks" - there is nothing powerful about this thing - but I like it, it goes, and it cleared my mechanic.

I spent a lot of time trying to find a Tacoma or a Hilux in my area (Columbus, OH), but there were almost none to be found on Craigslist, and all of the trucks being sold at dealers or used-car places were post-2000 Tacomas and out of my price range. I found a lot of S-10s, too, but a lot of them were either obviously damaged or hideously modified (one guy had taken up the entire extended cab with a box for his subwoofers and added a flip-out DVD player to the console, and wanted $1k extra for the "improvements").

Thanks, everybody, for your advice. If it strands me in the middle of nowhere this winter, I'll follow up and whine about it.
posted by aaronbeekay at 12:40 PM on October 13, 2011

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