What other cars should I look out for?
April 29, 2012 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Which cars to look for? My budget is between $5-7k. $10k is the most I can spend, but I prefer an amount closer to $5k.

I want a 4-door sedan (or a hatchback with 4 doors) that's reliable, has great gas mileage (4-cylinder, non-turbo, non-4WD), reliable, easy to work on (I can do basic maintenance/repairs), parts are cheap, et cetera.

The cars that come to mind are the Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas (Camrys too if they're the 4-cylinder kind). Another question I'm asking myself is what the mileage should be. I'm thinking no more than 120k. Maintenance records would be great too, but most people don't have that.

Civics and Corollas are in pretty high demand, so I just as many riced out Civics as bone-stock ones. So I thought I'd broaden my search and look into other vehicles as well. What other cars would you guys suggest that I look into?
posted by RaDeuX to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
We have a 2003 Camry that fit this criteria and are very happy with it. Bought for $4000 at 130,000 km last year.
posted by saradarlin at 11:13 AM on April 29, 2012

@saradarlin Whoops, I should have said 120k miles. But that's a great deal for 80k miles!
posted by RaDeuX at 11:31 AM on April 29, 2012

I drive a 2001 Toyota Eco with 175000 miles and it's still going strong. It gets 40 mpg highway and is a great no frills vehicle. If it died today I would highly consider trying to find one used with a few less miles. The Yaris is another Toyota model you can consider.
posted by bwilms at 11:51 AM on April 29, 2012

Look for 1998-2002 Chevrolet Prizm (not Geo Prizm) . It is identical to the Corolla except for the radio. They are priced lower than identical Corolla.
posted by caclwmr4 at 12:23 PM on April 29, 2012

The Geo Prizm was just what they called the Chevy Prizm before the Geo brand got phased out. Both are solid cars as they were rebadged Corollas built at the NUMMI joint GM-Toyota plant; the Geos are older and thus more likely to be beaters.

After the Chevy Prizm was discontinued, the GM they built at the NUMMI plant was the Pontiac Vibe, which was a Toyota Echo with different bodywork. I owned a 2003 last year (I sold it after I drove it across the country to NYC and didn't need it here) that I paid $5000 (and then got) for, and it had no problems whatsover. The hatchback/stubby station wagon body is supremely useful, and it gets the same mileage as a Corolla. There are plenty in your 5-7k price range (the Pontiac brand name means lots of depreciation, which is great for thrifty used car buyers).

If you don't need a car ASAP, it's best to wait around until you get one from an owner who's fussy about keeping maintenance records-- a lot of the price comes from just the mileage and model, but regular maintenance can make a big difference in how long a car lasts.

I'm sure you know this, but be sure to get any car you're going to buy inspected by a mechanic.
posted by akgerber at 1:04 PM on April 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Apologies, I made a typo above. The Pontiac Vibe is a rebadged Toyota Matrix, not a Toyota Echo. Awesome car. Since I got reimbursed for driving it cross-country for my move, it had a negative cost of ownership, which isn't something you can say very often.
posted by akgerber at 1:08 PM on April 29, 2012

I think any Geo or Chevy Prizm is going to be WAY below your price range. Unless you find the mythical "Grandma only drove it to the grocery store" one, too, it will probably be fairly high mileage. I was in your boat two years ago and my cap was $6000. I borrowed the current Consumer Reports little digest booklet that compiles all of their ratings for bunches of stuff. It had used car ratings up to that year (2010).

Two cars that don't come up much in MeFi car recommendations that I considered based on their appearance in the Consumer Reports book were the Ford Focus hatch and the Mazda Protege5 (also a hatch). We didn't find any good Foci in our price range, but I did end up buying a 2003 Mazda Protege5 that had 89k miles for $5500. It now has 125k miles and has done quite well on long trips (Charlotte to Milwaukee) and around town. It gets around 29 mpg, has excellent steering and road feel (it's very sporty) and it's very practical as a hauler. The 03 was the last year, though, so now you'd be looking at a used Mazda 3 for probably similar prices.

Try to see if your local library has the Consumer Reports booklet or the issue for used cars.
posted by Slothrop at 1:18 PM on April 29, 2012

@akgerber Pontiac replacement parts won't be costly? I know it's an issue with certain Saturn vehicles because of the discontinued branches.
posted by RaDeuX at 1:49 PM on April 29, 2012

Crown Victoria. Yes, it isn't an I4. But the mileage isn't half bad, especially for what you are getting under the hood (~25 mpg if you drive it like a grandpa, on a V8 with 250 ponies) and working on it is a treat. My previous car, a Toyota corolla, was a nightmare for plenty of stuff, and that's a pretty darn easy car to work on by today's standards. FWD transverse engine means working on it at home sucks. Suppose it would be easier if you had a lift and an engine crane. But how many home mechanics have them in their back pockets? Only thing you need an engine crane for with this car is to replace the engine (duh!). My old Corolla also only got about 30 mpg. I'd trade those 5 mpg for this car any day. Dropping the suspension just to work on the exhaust was a nightmare.

You can get a CVPI within your price range that's relatively "young" too... Of course, it's been beat down, so you'll be working on it plenty to get it back to where it should be, but being a nice RWD live axle with a longitudinal engine will make you happy. It'll also last forever because it's Body on Frame so small accidents and big bumps won't twist it like a tin can. :) Explains why the police love 'em...

Taxi companies typically see 300,000 miles before needing to replace a transmission, and 500,000+ miles before needing to replace an engine.

With some effort, the Factory Service Manual pdfs can be had for these as well. Once you have that you've got God mode enabled and nothing can stop you but tools.

If you decide to follow my advice, the best year to get is 2004. Avoid 2001-2003 at all costs as the timing chain guides are plastic and are guaranteed to be trashed if they haven't been replaced. Review the engine on older models to ensure the coolant crossover (just behind the alternator) is the updated steel design--the plastic ones WILL crack and give you a very bad day. 2005 and up got ETC, which isn't terrible, but sure takes a lot of pep out of their step.

Many parts (not all) will cross over between Crown Vic and Lincoln Town Cars (they are, after all, basically the same car). Between Crown Vic and Grand Marquis everything will cross over between similar models (unless it is a cop car, in which case some but not all items would). The police models have a little more "oomph" due to some changes in intake and exhaust design (about 40 hp more), but mileage suffers a little. Parts tend to cross over multiple years (about a decade now for plenty of the parts), although there are certainly some exceptions.

That means fixing them is cheap (lots of junkyard parts and lots of third-party parts) and you're not going to go fishing about for parts.

FWIW, you can also convert these to CNG and/or propane without too many headaches. In fact, a few older CVs some with CNG from the factory.

And no, it's not hard to drive. After a week you'll get used to the size and you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. In fact, you might come to wonder why anyone wants something that isn't a boat on wheels.

Last note: Engine size doesn't really determine fuel usage all that well. The weight of the car, how well the engine matches that weight, the gearing of the rear end, and the transmission are better indicators. As an example, I6 Jeep Grand Cherokees get WORSE mileage than the significantly beefier V8 option gets. Yes, worse. Because the I6 engine is being overworked to move that hulking wind-wall around.
posted by shepd at 2:47 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take a look at either the Hyundai Accent or Elantra, depending on your size desires. Hyundais have been scoring very high in long term reliability for many years now.
posted by azpenguin at 8:41 PM on April 29, 2012

Also, keep in mind that a lot of cars in that vintage might have costly repairs approaching. In fact, most owners decide to ditch their cars because of said costly repair, thus saddling the new owner with the burden.

Example: I consecutively owned a 1993 Honda Civic and then a 1999 Honda Prelude. I bought each with around 80,000 miles on the odometer. Both recommend a timing belt change around 60-70k miles if I recall. That job at a mechanic can run anywhere between $600-$1000 for all the labor involved. The timing belt shows little to no symptoms of wear, and when it fails, it often causes catastrophic damage to the engine.

The Civic I mentioned above also needed tires, a battery, and a new muffler within the first year of ownership, so as you can see, I was saddled with a lot of financial burden that I wasn't expecting. All that said, both were great cars.

So, whatever you pursue, do some research on what the scheduled/recommended maintenance schedule for that particular car is, and then see if you can get record if those maintenance items having been done (or prepare to budget for them/use as negotiating tool). I know that for the timing belt, most mechanics apply a sticker under the hood, usually on the air filter box indicating the date and milage of the last change.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 6:37 AM on April 30, 2012

FYI - regarding the above mention of timing belts, all Toyota Camrys and Corollas now have timing chains which (AFAIK) never need to be replaced. See this list from Toyota for specific model years.

I'm up to 177k miles on my 2007 Camry (4 cylinder - bought new) and have had no problems with the timing chain.
posted by exhilaration at 9:34 AM on April 30, 2012

teriyaki has a good point. Budget to buy a new battery and tires. It is unlikely a car in the lower end of your budget has either of them in good shape. $1,000 would be a reasonable amount. In other words, shop at $4,000 and have $1,000 for maintenance.

Many batteries do have a year on them, and I wouldn't trust a battery over 5 years old. Tires are similarly easy. Feel between the grooves for the wear bars. Most all tires have them nowadays. If they are level with the tread, the tires are toast (probably won't even pass safety). If there's plenty of meat above them, the tires will last a while yet.'

Most engines do have chains now. And many engines are interference engines, so when a chain or a belt breaks you're in it for pretty much the cost of an engine. Chains do tend to last the life of the engine, but the parts they are connected to or rub on are another matter... ...they are supposed to last forever, but not all manufacturers are great at that.

There's a lot of hidden items when buying a new car that most anyone won't think about, but if you are willing to get dirty, and get some bruised knuckles, many can be dealt with at home. I'm thinking of most steering/suspension components, CV joints/U joints, brakes, etc. There's lots of other stuff, too. I bought a vehicle that needed $6k in repairs (according to the mechanic). I did all but $1,250 worth of welding that the frame needed at home with no more than about $500 worth of tools, all in -10 deg C weather.

Best bet, if you don't want to be me, is to tell the seller you won't buy unless you have it inspected by a mechanic first. Do tell them that small stuff won't dissuade you, because, to be honest, there's nothing wrong with a car if all it needs is a brake job and a set of tires. Sounds like you'd do the brake job yourself, anyways. It's the other stuff that should worry you. :)
posted by shepd at 10:47 AM on April 30, 2012

Camry. I've had my '99 model (bought used in 2003) for 9 years. Highly reliable.

Keep in mind that many cars need major maintenance (timing belt, water pump, etc.) at the 90K mark. If you buy a car with less miles, find out what it will need at 90K, you might be looking at $500+. Alternately, if you buy a car with 100K, 110K, etc., make sure you get that major service was performed.

Also: when you find a car you like, do two things:
- Run a CARFAX report on it
- Get a pre-purchase inspection from a good mechanic

These steps are totally worth the cost, and even if you burn up half a day driving around and waiting, you're spending thousands of dollars on this, so find out what it needs.

Agreed with above poster, tires, brake job, radiator flush, etc.--this kind of maintenance shouldn't discourage you from purchasing a car. Most used vehicles will need something.
posted by 4midori at 2:09 PM on April 30, 2012

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