Cheapest and best 4WD vehicle out there?
August 11, 2011 6:15 PM   Subscribe

What is the vehicle for me at the convergence of cheap, reliable and easy to work on?

I need something with either 4WD or AWD. Wagon, truck, SUV... whatever. I'll be selling my 2000 Honda Civic, so assume I have about $3500 to work with. What should I be looking for? Where in the Baltimore, MD area should I be looking? Craigslist isn't being much help so far.
posted by youcancallmeal to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's a lot of good answers here but I like an older Legacy wagon or Outback. The wagon is cheaper to buy used than the sedan (but yet more useful); the engine internals are rock solid; and because of the boxer layout, the engine accessories are *right there* and easy to work on. (Should you have to do something with the heads or cams, the layout makes it worse, but I don't think you'll have to.) A rough Craigslist scan shows a pretty nice selection too.
posted by ftm at 6:23 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another great thing about Subarus: the engine parts are like fucking legos. It's very easy to find a part you need, even if you have to grab it off of a different model of Subaru.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:27 PM on August 11, 2011

Response by poster: re: Subaru. Are there any models / years in particular to stay away from? (I seem to recall something about late 90s Foresters...)
posted by youcancallmeal at 6:34 PM on August 11, 2011

'99-'02 2.5 liter "Phase I" engines had the head gasket problems. Since Subaru had few engines these are found across the model range. At your price level, though, you might be looking at mid '90s cars and the one you should try to find is a "Brighton" Legacy or an Impreza; these have 2.2 liter engines which are about as reliable and solid as you could wish for (no electric windows and maybe no tach, though).

Rear-wheel bearings on Imprezas and Foresters (same platform) are often bad and the repair expense is not trivial. All these engines need to have their timing belts changed faithfully at 105k mile intervals, and when you add all the stuff on the front of the engine that you might as well change, you're around $700 if you have an independent mechanic do the work. About $400 of that is parts. If the car's been driven over 105k miles without having had the timing belt changed, that's an instant fail because the owner's being a fool, and might also have been a fool about oil changes and the like.
posted by jet_silver at 6:56 PM on August 11, 2011

Not to turn this into a huge Subaru circle-jerk, but ('04 Impreza Wagon aka Outback Sport, 108k miles, over half of that city [in Dallas, and I know you know what that means, yccma])

Rear-wheel bearings on Imprezas and Foresters (same platform) are often bad and the repair expense is not trivial

This is true, and the only fix it I've needed that I couldn't have done myself/bribing a mechanic friend. It takes a special tool to get that bugger out and placed again, and the stock ones are notorious for crapping out. FWIW, I didn't have to have mine replaced until about 88k miles. I got mine done at a sorta-local chain and it cost around $500.

But any Subaru you're going to find within your budget is likely to be old enough and have enough miles on it that it's almost certainly already been replaced. Just ask for records.

If you do go (back? IIRC) to a Subaru, bookmark the NASIOC forum. It's been around for quite a while and I've gotten many questions answered there just by searching the archives (without having to register and ask myself).
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:13 PM on August 11, 2011

I am currently repairing a Honda CRV that I am fairly impressed with. It might be tough to find one in your price range but they are pretty much just like your civic with a lift kit (really, it is amazing how close they are) so parts are readily available and hondas are usually pretty easy to work one. The increased size of the CRV and the ground clearance makes it even easier. The engine bay is easy to access and the first generation CRV (the only one you have any hope of finding in your price range) has a B series engine. The only reliable (unreliable?) dodgy part on Hondas are automatic transmission on these are usually on a problem on models with more power. The first gen CRV is underpowered (not dangerously so, it just is worse in a drag race than most hondas-so worse than most cars) but this is nice in the fuel mileage area, and because the engine is so de-tuned it makes it really, really reliable. Parts are really cheap and readily available at every junk yard.

Subaru's are also very good vehicles. The boxer engine itself is harder to work on but the accessories are easier to reach. If you do have to change a clutch or such it is a little harder than the honda will be. Parts are going to be a little harder to find but not enough to be a factor-I would say go with the one you like better (looks, handling, accessories, whatever you find in your price range and decent condition).

I think you may find you get more for your car than you think you will. Used cars have been going UP in price lately, especially desirable clean Asian cars (and a Honda civic is about the most desirable right now). If you spend the time making sure your car is clean (like really clean, vacuumed and polished with the engine and underside clean) you might get a lot more. I would use a sight called car graph and clearbook to check prices on both old and new (to you) cars.

I would also say check out the RAV4 if you want to, it is about the same vehicle as the CRV but I like Hondas a little more (mostly because I have owned more and liked them and have more experience). The easiest car I ever owned to work and the most forgiving of...deferred maintenance was an 82 Subaru Brat. That thing was tough and surprisingly capable off road, due to its small size. If you are really into working on your own car finding an old 80's Subaru might be fun and entertaining to fix up. YOu can even get lift kits from Australia I think.
posted by bartonlong at 10:10 PM on August 11, 2011

Gonna go a different direction.

If you want cheap and easy to work on with cargo capacity AND you want 4WD, I would look for a '78-'85 Ford F150 pickup or Chevy Silverado pickup. It will be high mileage, but it will be easy to work on, it will be cheap to acquire and maintain, and practically disposable. Buy two and use one for parts.

The mid-to-late 70s K-5 Blazers might also fit the bill, but they're gaining a resurgence and harder to find in "beater" condition.

You didn't state what you wanted the vehicle FOR - that would help us.

The problem with anything made after '91 or so, is you often have to contend with electronics which can be expensive to deal with, or complicated ABS systems. For simplicity, look to the past.
posted by Thistledown at 6:47 AM on August 12, 2011

When you say 4x4, are you talking snow, or unpaved roads, or dirt trails, or what? What kind of working-on-cars experience do you have now? How much of a concern is mileage, or safety, or parts availability? A pickup might be a good choice, though I don't know what the market's like in Baltimore.

(Also, 2000 Civic? If it's a two-door manual with A/C, I'll trade you my '98 Tacoma 4x4 straight up. I'm only half-joking.)
posted by box at 2:31 PM on August 12, 2011

Response by poster: I'm moving back to VT, so I need something to deal with snow and unpaved roads. I'm sort of considering a '91 Jeep Wrangler. Thoughts? My skills aren't very high yet, but I'm generally good with tools and following directions.

And tragically, it's an automatic. Otherwise, I'd be ALL OVER that shit.
posted by youcancallmeal at 4:37 PM on August 12, 2011

91 wranglers are really good vehicles, if all you want to do is drive slowly over very rough terrain, in fair weather while not getting very good mileage. For actually living with as a daily driver they kinda suck. They are noisy, primitive and ride pretty rough, and my 90 leaks when it rains and the heater/defroster is just adequate in really cold weeather (say below 10 deg f). It is good that they are easy to work on, because you will be. My 90 has the old 4.2 liter straight six that has had fuel injection installed. This fixed about 50% of the problems. If it has the 4.0 or the fuel inject 4 your problems will probably be less. O, and they leak a lot of oil and such. That being said there is not a better stock off road vehicle you can buy and they are a lot of fun out in the boonies and you tend to look cool driving one.

My above advice still stands for a good, reliable awd vehicle that will be competent on dirt roads and be really good in the snow. Actually the subaru and the honda will be MUCH better on snow covered roads than the wrangler, due to various technical reasons mostly having to do with gobs of torque in a straight six motor and open differentials(the limited slip in a wrangler is a really good idea but yet more money and maintenance needed).

The subaru drivetrain and motor are about the best you can get for snow covered roads and ice in my experience, but they will have about the least ground clearance. Still a very solid choice for your needs (I still like the honda better for your price range and model year choices).
posted by bartonlong at 5:13 PM on August 12, 2011

A '91 to '95 wrangler might work for you. In places where rust isn't an issue you can get a rockin jeep for your budget. I'm not sure about places where rust is a problem though.
Those years there's really no computer stuff to worry about, there's no carb, and everything is super accessible. Parts are generally easy to find or can be easily frankensteined from other vehicles. If you keep the tire size within a couple inches of stock you'll have no trouble getting to freeway speeds, but you probably won't be speeding.
There certainly are issues like leaks in wet weather and such, but if you're destined to be a jeep person you learn to appreciate the problems.
Of all the cars/trucks I've had I've found the most help online for my wrangler. Lots of forums with lots of knowledgeable people.
posted by gally99 at 8:58 PM on August 12, 2011

Jeeps have decent heaters, but they're not at all well insulated (from heat/cold, sound, vibration, anything), and, in Vermont in the winter, even with a hardtop, you're going to be pretty chilly until the engine warms up. They're not comfortable vehicles. (Not the safest things in the world, either, though not nearly as dangerous as many folks believe. If you own one, though, get used to people telling you it's a deathtrap and whatnot.) You won't get very good mileage, and they're not great on the highway, but those things are true of most vehicles in their general category.

Echoing bartonlong and gally99, CJs/Wranglers are also very easy to work on--plenty of room to work, widely available parts and lots of information both online and off. The inline six is a good engine. And, if you get in over your head, there are plenty of mechanics both professional and shade-tree to help out.

Couple things to look out for if you're going to buy one: first (this is true of all convertibles), think about new tops. If it doesn't need one now, it'll need one eventually, and they're not cheap. Second and third (these are true of all 4x4s), take a hard look at the tires (they'll wear out sooner or later, you really need to replace all four (or five, with the spare) at once, and they're much pricier than the ones you'd buy for a Civic) and the undercarriage--when buying used 4-wheel drive vehicles, ideally, you want one that's close to stock and has never actually been driven off-road.

(Years and years ago, I had a '78 CJ-7, and I still miss it. I'll probably have another Jeep someday. But, as I mentioned, I have a Toyota pickup now. More practical, not as fun.)
posted by box at 5:17 AM on August 13, 2011

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