Help me buy a winter beater
August 30, 2011 9:21 PM   Subscribe

WinterBeaterFilter: What do I look for when buying a winter beater?

I currently don't own a car. When my old car finally became too expensive to keep repairing, I went car-less. I take the bus in the winter and ride a Vespa in the summer (and take a cab or mooch rides from the girlfriend when I absolutely need a car).

While I did survive last winter without a car, I live in the vast northern expanses of Canada, in a city that doesn't have particularly great transit. Not having a car in the winter kind of sucks.

I'm thinking about buying a winter beater, but I don't even know where to begin. Do I just treat it like a standard "buying a used car" scenario or are there different things I should look for?

I won't be driving to work, because downtown parking costs are outrageous and I live close to the office, so the car probably won't see daily use. This might mean that I can get away with something crappier than if I was going to be driving it every day.

I'm hoping to spend between $1,000 - $2,000 and I don't really care if the car keeps running in the spring. I'll likely sell it or scrap it once the snow is gone, but I do want something that will at least survive the winter with little or no serious maintenance. Are there particular cars that are known to be good winter beaters in my price range?

I feel pretty comfortable about the general dos and don'ts of buying a used car, but I get the feeling that looking for a good winter beater requires some extra knowledge that I feel like I lack. Any tips on what to look for and how to know if the car will last 4-5 months of cold and snow without requiring any major maintenance would be greatly appreciated.

Also, in the context of this question, "car" can mean a car, truck, or minivan. I'm not eager to drive a full-sized van or a particularly large truck or SUV, but I am open to just about any type of vehicle that will do the trick.
posted by asnider to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
At your budget you'd want to pick a car that has a good battery and decent winter tyres already.

Other than that I guess that the main thing is that it starts easily. A battery charger and engine block heater will help in this regard once the cold comes.
posted by Harald74 at 11:28 PM on August 30, 2011

In that price range you're not going to be absolutely sure that the car won't break down during the winter. You can slant the odds in your favor by having prospective winter beaters inspected by a good mechanic.

Does it really make sense to own a car for only half the year? The act of buying or selling a car is expensive, time consuming and somewhat risky. If you expect to need one again next winter, you'd probably be better off buying a car you can keep.
posted by jon1270 at 3:38 AM on August 31, 2011

I once bought a Dodge Dart for $150, drove it for a year, then sold it for $150. The thing it had going for it was a straight-six engine. Super reliable.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:14 AM on August 31, 2011

>Are there particular cars that are known to be good winter beaters in my price range?

Older Jeep cherokees can be had for that amount or less. I've seen them for around $1000 here in decent condition. They are smaller SUV's that are known for reliable drive trains and cheap parts. On the other hand they are also know for unreliable accessories (interior lights, AC, radio, power anything) and oil leaks. Look for one with 2 wheel drive with the 4.0 liter straight-6 and have a mechanic check it over.

But to be honest, at that price you shouldn't be shopping for specific models. You're literally wringing the last bits of life from someone else's problem car. You'll almost certainly be in the +100k miles and beaters don't get proper scheduled maintenance like timing belts/chains. Just look for something that will run for longer than 6 months without breaking down *much* whether it's a big pickup or a tiny econobox.
posted by anti social order at 6:54 AM on August 31, 2011

I find that a lot of mefi members are always warning about cars with +100k miles. This is ludicrous, especially considering you're specifically asking about a beater.

As mentioned above I would be looking for a car with:

1) A strong start (starter is in decent shape? battery cables and terminals are looking good? -- if not, you can always replace the starter, the cables, and douse the terminals in coca-cola)
2) A strong battery - if it doesn't have one you can get a battery for little money.
3) Decent (winter?) tires.. these make sense to look for already on the car as adding tires to a beater starts to eat into the cheap aspect.

Everything else is gravy. Given that this won't even be a daily driver I wouldn't be too worried about the reliability.

I don't know where in Canada you are but I get along fine in Maine with a front wheel drive and all season tires and we get plenty of snow and I am never afraid to wander out in a storm. I just drive slow and safe.. nevertheless, there is nothing like a set of snow tires to inspire a little confidence.

Good types of cars to look at are front wheel or all wheel drive with skinny tires and good road clearance. Skinny tires cut through the snow better and the higher clearance will keep you from "plowing" snow getting out of driveways and snow drifts during/after a storm. Good examples of this are low-end economy cars (skinny tires are cheaper and less "cool", aesthetically). A friend drove a ~'88 Toyota Tercel with a 4-gear manual for years and it was a beast in the snow.

Here in Maine you'd be able to find something in the $500~$1000 range with no problem.
posted by mbatch at 9:07 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: Yes, it probably does seems weird that I'm only looking to keep the car for one winter, but the reason for this is that I like not having to deal with insurance and other associated costs in the summer. Plus, by the time next winter rolls around, the girlfriend and I will be living together and we'll only need one car between the two of us.

A few other points of clarification: I am in Edmonton, Alberta. And I don't think it's even possible to buy a car without a block heater in this province, so no worries on that point.

Thanks for the answers so far! Keep the good advice coming.
posted by asnider at 10:09 AM on August 31, 2011

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