Beyond Consumer Reports
September 3, 2011 6:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be buying a used car soon, for around $3000. Unfortunately, Consumer Reports doesn't have a reliability chart for beaters.

Toyotas and Hondas have the best overall reliability, but how much is that negated by relative age? Craigslist gives me lots of '98-'01 Toyotas and Hondas in my price range, and a few '03-'05 Kias and Nissans.

I intend to drive this car into the ground, ideally for five years or so, with a mix of highway and town. Should I take an older Toyota or Honda, or a younger Nissan or Kia?

For the sake of argument, let's say I'm looking at normal mileage ranges for the ages, no accidents or maintenance red flags.
posted by freshwater to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Once a used car has dropped below about $5000, its reliability has far more to do with its individual history than who built it.

All other things being equal, I would personally prefer to own a $3000 Toyota than a $3000 Honda, Kia or Nissan. But all other things never are equal. So your best bet is just to eyeball any car you're interested in, check the condition of the bodywork and the interior to give you an idea of whether it's been consistently well looked after or merely spruced up for sale, look for lower-than-average mileage and good maintenance records, and if it passes these basic smell tests, pay to have it checked over by a mechanic you've good reason to trust.
posted by flabdablet at 6:51 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would go for a Toyota or Honda. I had 208,000 miles on my '95 Tercel before I traded it in a couple weeks ago. It still ran great, I just wanted something a little bit safer (side airbags! What luxury!). So long as the car is well-maintained, you shouldn't have too much difficulty.

(And a quick Google search brought up this, which may help. I don't know how often the reliability ratings are updated, though.)
posted by kethonna at 6:55 PM on September 3, 2011

Best answer: You can't buy used cars by general brand, age or mileage recommendations. You get good used vehicles, one at a time, just like you get good trophy bucks, by looking at a lot of inferior ones, waiting for the unusually good one to step out, and then taking your shot.

That said, the one consideration that is age based that can make a difference is that, when you buy an older vehicle, you're not only buying that collection of parts and road and maintenance history, but also, a base of supplier technology, design technology, and electronics technology, that may not have been available in older models. As an example, almost any '03-'05 car sold in North America will have stainless steel exhaust components, whereas many late 90s vehicles will not, as the big changeover to stainless steel from exhaust system component vendors occurred around 2000-2001 model years. Newer model years may also come with stock vehicle stability features, courtesy of the increasing load of electronics in modern cars, which were simply unavailable on older cars.

"For the sake of argument, let's say I'm looking at normal mileage ranges for the ages, no accidents or maintenance red flags."

Bu, buh, but, but... BUT!! Some of the things you look for, and try to validate and balance against features and model, as a used car buyer, are low mileage and good maintenance history. If I found a 2001 Camry 4 cylinder, with 90K miles, and a complete, believable dealer service record, in clean shape, for $3K, I'd probably take it over an '05 Sonata with 78K miles and no maintenance records, at the same price. The Sonata didn't have standard ABS brakes, for one thing (but you could have them as an option), and its average reliability is a bit spotty, which would concern me on a vehicle without full maintenance records. Moreover, if you find an even higher mileage, well equipped Camry LE model in that price range, you might even be getting electronic traction control or vehicle stability options of that model year, for "free." THAT"S WHAT I MEAN about looking for a used car, one car at a time!
posted by paulsc at 7:01 PM on September 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can't give you much in the way of general car-buying advice, but I offer a datapoint:

I have a 1998 Honda Civic that's been amazing. I have it serviced once a year, replace what they tell me to replace, and I've never had a thing go wrong with it. I've talked with other owners of Civics from that era, and they've had similar stories. They seem to be a wonderfully-made batch of cars.

I do have low milage, though. (I think it's at about 90,000kms now.)

I don't know what I'm going to do when this car finally gives up the ghost. It's spoilt me with how hassle-free it's been to own.
posted by Georgina at 7:22 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Folks who say you need to look at individual cars, check out their condition, etc.

That said, I'd definitely buy a late-'90s Toyota/Honda over any used Kia.

Check out other AskMe questions about used cars, too--there have been some good ones.
posted by box at 7:27 PM on September 3, 2011

Um, that is, folks who say that are absolutely right.
posted by box at 7:28 PM on September 3, 2011

Definitely want to look at individual cars rather than makes, once you get down to that price point. I had a 1990 CRX that I bought at 140k, but I'd known the car since it had 30k and I knew the guy took care of it. I got another 100k out of it before rust took it off the road.

I now drive a 1994 Del Sol. I bought it at 180,000 miles, for a grand over the blue book, which sounds ridiculous, except: The guy who was selling it was upfront about what bodywork had been performed (due to accidents), and there was a giant stack of maintenance receipts, going back to the original owner. THe car's never gone more than 4000 miles without an oil change. I plan to drive it until the wheels fall off, which is likely gonna be another 100k miles.

Point being: you don't buy older used cars based on makes (well, up to a point you do - you couldn't pay me to drive a 90s GM small car), you buy them based on the qualities of that car - maintenance, appearance, etc.
posted by notsnot at 7:32 PM on September 3, 2011

Best answer: Go for the ten-year-old Toyota Corollas. I miss mine. I did the recommended maintenance and really a bit less. It hit 130k and showed every sign of heading to 200k easy before it got hit by a bus.

Again, you have to search car-by-car, but you'll get better results with 98-02 Corollas IMHO.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:11 PM on September 3, 2011

Given the prices for Toyotas and Hondas in the current market where used cars are at multi-year high prices, with those leading the pack, I would look for value here: first, station wagons like Ford Taurus. Americans don't like station wagons. An Accord wagon might do if you don't mind the nosebleed prices. You'll pay $750 less for a wagon than a sedan in equivalent condition. Second, domestic classics. The Ford "Panther" series (Crown Vic, Mercury Marquis, Lincoln Town Car) are insanely durable, and cheap to fix, if you can stand the fuel consumption and you don't mind RWD. Next, Nissan Maximas which are exceedingly robust. Three of my friends have 300k+ on these cars with original engine and transmission. I'm a Subaru partisan myself, but if you live in Denver as your profile states, half the cars there are Subies anyway and people tend to know what they have.

Check The Truth About Cars, particularly Steven Lang's articles, about used cars and he will give you a good feel for what's good and what's crap.
posted by jet_silver at 8:59 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I definitely know to look at a car's history -- this is more a question regarding which cars to look at further -- do I want to take the time to look over a younger Kia, or stick with the big two. I have a partiality towards Corollas, but especially with regard to what paulsc said, I don't want to miss five years of better technology just because of a name.
posted by freshwater at 9:35 PM on September 3, 2011

When looking for my new car, I ended up going to Edmunds -- free info on pretty much every car - year, style -- it's got a huge list of well known/common problems, the estimated values and such. I recommend it as a good resource to at least start with.
posted by symbioid at 9:41 PM on September 3, 2011

I spend a lot of time looking through the reliability ratings in's auto section. If you select a make, model and year of car that you're interested in, they report common problems that have been reported for that car. I've found the reports to be remarkably consistent with the problems that people I know have with their cars (though I don't know the magnitude of their network of participating mechanics).
Here's a link to the reliability report for a 1999 Toyota Corolla
Nothing major consistently goes wrong...pretty safe choice.

Here's a link to the reliability report for a 1999 Honda Accord.
Yikes, lots of transmission trouble reported.
and so on.
But also nthing the individual auto approach. A few weeks ago a mechanic saved me a buttload of trouble by pointing out about three thousand dollars in various repairs that I would immediately need to do on the "great deal" '98 Maxima I was poised to buy.
Still looking......
posted by Carlo at 9:47 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go buy a car from a farmer. That's right a good ole American farmer. Bonus if he's wearing overalls. You can get a car from some city doofus who changed the oil every 40,00 miles - or you can buy a car from a man who - in his blood - knows the exact day that car will hit another 3,000 miles. The oil in a farmers car gets changed more often than you go to Starbucks. Farmers know that in order to properly own something, you need to maintain it. Can't grow corn without water - can't own a car that's not had everything greased, oiled and treated like a second member of the family. Ever see a tractor break down during harvest? Hell no you haven't. They're maintained to the highest degree. They treat all their vehicles the same way. The path to a great beater is through a farmer.

(In other words - I've had really good luck buying good used vehicles from farmers)
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 9:50 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hyundais are up near Honda as far as reliability, yet they are far less expensive.

We own a Honda Civic and a Hyundai Santa Fe. The Honda's starter went out before it hit 30,000 miles. The Hyundai is at 105,000 with no problems. You might want to look at a Hyundai. The main drawback is that resale value will be less, but if you plan on keeping the car for a while this isn't an issue.
posted by Ostara at 10:28 PM on September 3, 2011

do you have the tools, space, knowledge, patience etc to replace parts on your own? possessing these will greatly reduce the cost of owning a beater. if you don't, at the very least buy like $100 worth of a mechanic's time to check the car out.

another thing to think about is climate. if you live in a place where it gets snowy and cold, make an effort to find something from a warmer climate. this not only cuts down on rust, but also all the other non-metal parts will be in better shape, too.

when you check one out, carefully examine as much rubber and plastic as you can. these items age sometimes badly, depending on how the car was used. they can often be the easiest and cheapest things to replace, yet will be your most often cause of breakdowns outside of outright mechanical failure. replacing an upper radiator hose can cost you $20 and maybe 30 minutes of time, but it goes bad out on the road, you're waiting for a tow.

second The Truth About Cars and Steven Lang. There are some real trade secrets in there.

my little brother is driving a late 90s corolla with like 230k miles on it. it routinely gets close to 40mpg. it is the definition of a beater, but it does the job. last week he made some wisecrack on FB about having to ride his bike to work, and I had a feeling it was because the car broke. the problem was a mangled front axle. a common problem for an old front wheel drive car. for someone with tools and a a little knowledge, it was a $50 fix and could be done in under an hour. in a shop, a mechanic may charge you $200 parts/labor. and that's fair. this was, btw the second time the car had become completely disabled. the first time, we had to tow it home with my truck, with him thinking it was a completely blown transmission (it wouldn't move in any gear). we found it to be just a broken fluid line; something that cost less than $50 including new ATF.

these are the kinds of things that can nickle and dime you to death, if you don't know what you're doing. however, your other option is finding a shop you can trust close to home. take the car to them routinely for fluid changes, etc when NOTHING is wrong. get them familiar with the car. in time, they'll appreciate your business, be there to tell you that clunk is just a worn bushing and can wait on replacement for a while or whether its an axle about to fail. my brother should have been on top of that axle, as it had been making noise for a long time. your trusty mechanic would have found and replaced that item BEFORE it failed. saving you the tow fee at least..

oh, and I hate to say it buy unless you do find that meticulously maintained outlier, brand absolutely matters. a 2011 ford focus is built as well as a 2011 corolla. the same cannot be said about both cars from 1998. before the japanese started ruthlessly cost-cutting their suppliers, the parts were just better quality. they lasted longer and performed better under stress, etc. there's a reason these brands command a premium on the used market. the Koreans are starting to catch up on build quality, but in your price and age range they just weren't there yet.
posted by ninjew at 10:54 PM on September 3, 2011

Response by poster: This is all really helpful. Keep it coming.

For some reason, I am not seeing Hyundais for sale, but they're on the list.

My husband is willing to do some maintenance on any car I buy, and I will not give money to any seller before I give some to my trusted mechanic.
posted by freshwater at 11:03 PM on September 3, 2011

Not a suggestion, but most of this is trial and error. Had to replace my ride in February of this year. Did the Craigslist thing, mostly. Looked at about 5 cars altogether, and ended up getting a 1995 Ford Probe for $1300. Other than changing the oil and car stereo, I've done nothing to the car. It runs like a dream and gets about 35-38 mpg.

As others above have mentioned, it's more about the "feel" you get from the car and the owner, rather than THIS model or THIS manufacturer. Trust your gut, keep an open mind (i.e., not all American manufacturers are shit), and "play the field."
posted by kuanes at 5:25 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a 97 Geo Prizm that I bought in 2000. It has been the most reliable car I've ever owned. They're the same as Toyota Corollas, but tend to sell for less because people aren't as familiar with them.
posted by belladonna at 8:12 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

At that price point, and at almost all price-points for used cars, I would preference Japanese cars => German cars => Korean cars => American cars => other European cars. Japanese cars generally have a better repair track record than any other, and the price of repairs, when necessary, is usually less expensive. Honda and Toyota seem to lead the Japanese, with Nissan and Mazda a slight step down. Subaru is good, but as they are all 4-wheel drive, they are a bit more expensive and repairs can by a bit more pricey. Korean cars have been getting a lot better, but I don't think you will see any of the higher quality ones in the $3000 range.
posted by rtimmel at 12:29 PM on September 6, 2011

Response by poster: So I am a Corolla lover, and I went with a low mileage '96 Corolla for $2500. No mechanical problems, dinged bumper but otherwise great exterior. I am quite happy.
posted by freshwater at 4:57 PM on October 6, 2011

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