Cheap, reliable used car or truck with a little character?
May 22, 2013 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I haven't owned a car since 2010, but now it seems like going back to a two-car household might be a good idea. My wife drives a 2004 Volvo S40 daily to work. She often gets home very late on weekdays, and usually takes it to meet her cycling group for the better part of a day on Saturday or Sunday, and I have started to feel like I'm too reliant on her schedule or my friends to get to weekend activities, or to duck out to get another few bags of mulch or can of paint, etc.

We live in north Seattle. This would not be a daily driver, I would continue to take the bus to work, so gas mileage isn't a concern. I would drive it once or twice a week to my sports activities (usually golf and soccer) or the hardware store. I would like it to be at least reasonably reliable and not cost a fortune to maintain-I would prefer a car that broke down more frequently but was cheaper to repair, vs. one that was more reliable but required more expensive repairs and maintenance. If it is a car, I would like it to have four doors. It seems handy to have it be a truck, to do truck-type activities, but I don't know much about trucks. I would kind of prefer that it have a manual transmission.

If possible, I would like it to stand out a little bit-for example, I think C3 Corvettes look awesome and can be had reasonably cheaply, but don't meet my practicality requirements. 'Weird' is maybe closer than 'cool'-if there were some little 80s or 90s thing that met the other requirements and would let me be known as 'That guy with the ____', said with a skeptical eye and a shake of the head, that's maybe what i'm after here. Let's say I'll budget a marginal $500 a year for character expenses-if it's got the right sort of weirdness, I'm ok with spending an extra $500 a year over what a Corolla or whatever would cost in maintenance and repairs.

Let's say I have $10,000 in my budget, but I could reach a little for the right vehicle. If you know what to look for to indicate whether a particular specimen of your recommended used vehicle is a good value, that would be outstanding information to know. Thanks!
posted by Kwine to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
'84 VW Vanagon

I have no idea what it's like to maintain one of these, but it's got some hauling capacity, is quirky and a stick shift. In general I think your desire for quirkiness is at odds with your desire for low-cost repair.
posted by jon1270 at 9:43 AM on May 22, 2013

Well for cheap, reliable and cheap to repair, you're going to want to look at a Toyota or a Honda.

Toyota makes a truck, but you see it more in the third world than you do here in the US. Honda has a CRV and the Element. We love our Element. It's rough and tumble, weird looking and the interior is perfect for hauling. The seats fold up in this really cool way.

I've bought used cars from Enterprise before, and I've had very good experiences with them. Here's a list of what's avaialable. If you see something you like, they'll get it for you in your area.

Husbunny works as an actuary for an after-market warantee company, so he has reliability and repair information for every vehicle sold in the USA. Honda and Toyota.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:50 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Vanagons, hah. Toyota also made a 4x4 van during that period.

But my recommendation is a mid- to late-'80s 4Runner (First Generation). It's a Toyota truck (and an early one with the 22R engine, i.e., simple and super-reliable, getting decent gas mileage), but they came with a removeable top for days you feel like having a convertible or hauling stuff. And most are 4x4. And they're cheap. Parts are also easily had. For example, here's an expensive one in your area because it's been meticulously maintained by some crazy 4x4 rock-climber person.
posted by resurrexit at 9:55 AM on May 22, 2013

I have an alternate suggestion -- look into Zipcar. It might not be the right option if you're really doing all sorts of hauling and whatnot, but for me anyway car sharing was way cheaper (once parking and insurance and repairs and whatnot were factored in) and easier than buying a second car.
posted by brainmouse at 10:24 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If I were you, I would get a 10-year-old Ford Ranger and then bumper-sticker the shit out of it or maybe paint it a weird color (for quirkiness). Ford Rangers are reliable, and insanely cheap and easy to fix. We have an '04 Ranger (manual transmission) that is driven maybe once a month, though it went several months this winter without being started. It never fails to start. I like it better than our Honda CRV, actually.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would get a Jeep Cherokee Classic. If you can get a 2001 model (the final model year), it was the all-the-bugs-worked-out version of that rig.

In Seattle, the outdoorsy hipsters drive Subaru wagons with a constellation of stickers from ski resorts and snowboard companies. Just not having one of those makes you stick out.

If you can get one of the base models as surplus from the Forest Service or the DOT, you can get big gnarly roof racks, rugged rubber mats, and a find-it-in-the-parking-lot orange or green paint job.

I drove a 1989 Cherokee into the ground: starter, radiator, water pump, alternator, idler... I broke the fricking clutch pedal from fatigue by driving it in traffic. But once those engine parts were replaced (did them all myself at 150,000 miles), I sold the Jeep to my buddy for a case of blackberry wine. Dang thing is still his daily driver, five years later.
posted by Kakkerlak at 10:43 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think your "cheap to repair" and "unique" desires are going to be at odds with one another. Cars that are cheap to repair are usually the ones that have a million just like them on the road. These cars can be diagnosed quickly, and have a lot in the junkyard to cannibalize for cheap parts. I was looking for the cheap and easy to repair with the ability to do "truck type stuff" and went with a Honda CRV.

My last car was an old Geo Metro. 3 Cylinders of Raw Power. If you want something truly cheap, I'd recommend it. You forgo most truck type stuff, but you can fit a surprising amount in the back hatch, and it's cheap as chips to operate and repair.

The closest I've found to both of your requirements would be an old VW Rabbit Pickup. It wouldn't be the cheapest to buy or keep running, but given that your definition of cheap is about 5X what mine is, you might be able to swing this one.
posted by piedmont at 10:44 AM on May 22, 2013

Cheap, reliable used car or truck with a little character?

I've been looking for the same thing for a while. Problem is, a reliable used car holds its value so tends not to be cheap (compared to other used cars of the same vintage).

And not to snark too much, but when you're talking about a C3 Corvette, you're not talking 'cheap, reliable used car,' you're talking about either 'expensive, semi-reliable used car' or 'cheap because the previous owner thinks this is a fucked up, unreliable used car.' (I drive and work on a Chevy that shares components with the Corvettes of its era).
posted by zippy at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2013

Dude, you gotta go Pontiac Aztec, aka the ugliest car ever made, aka Walter White's car. Upholstery reminiscent of your grandma's floral couch, exterior looks like a Prius with a gland disorder. Lots of cargo room.
posted by hamsterdam at 11:36 AM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Take your time. Join a local or online classic car club. Learn and choose an affordable practical classic. You will love it. I dont know what prices are like your way but I have always fancied a Karmann Ghia. I ought to say I think it is beeter to buy the best example of a cheaper car than a tatty example of an expensive one unless you plan to spend more time fixing than driving.
posted by BenPens at 11:46 AM on May 22, 2013

Best answer: My 13 year old Ford Ranger is still truckin' along. I love that thing. If you want a truck, that's the truck to get. A manual one would be well within your price range, but it doesn't have 4 doors.
posted by BeeDo at 12:03 PM on May 22, 2013

Dude, you gotta go Pontiac Aztec, aka the ugliest car ever made, aka Walter White's car. Upholstery reminiscent of your grandma's floral couch, exterior looks like a Prius with a gland disorder. Lots of cargo room.
posted by hamsterdam

Friend of mine searched forever and finally got one with manual transmission, now that's a rare quirky car.
posted by 445supermag at 12:49 PM on May 22, 2013

Best answer: How about an El Camino?
posted by biscuits at 2:29 PM on May 22, 2013

Best answer: How about a Subaru Brat, the car you are issued upon admittance to Hell?
posted by contraption at 3:08 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ahhh, subaru brats are awesome, quirky vehicles that have now become collectible and are starting up the price curve for one you would want to own (good, clean, complete cars are 5-6k), and do require some maintenance and they are kinda weird to maintain. One saw me through post high school and then college and I now kick myself for selling it.

I understand that Volkswagen's are the go to cool car for metafilter, but they suck to maintain. they are expensive to get worked on and are really hard to DIY. In general, German cars are awesome until the inevitably and irretrievably break down. Vanagons are underpowered, top heavy and not real good for hauling cargo (they can fit it, but loading/unloading isn't the most fun).

Get a pickup. Nissans are a little more unusual than a ranger (a great choice) or a toyota (also a great choice but more expensive than the other two). If you want some character get an older american make from say the late 60's-early 70's, with an inline six. A decent example is in your price range and they are tough as nails. They tend to require frequent tinkering to keep running well but if you keep up with that not much in the way of actual expensive repairs. However if you don't want to do the work yourself, get a ranger and paint a mural on it or some such.

Maybe the ulitimate in cool for you is a FJ80 series land cruiser. Really, really competent vehicle. To most people it is just another SUV, but to people who know cars, and particularly off-road vehicles, it is a legend. Never very common in the US (but the choice for bad roads worldwide) they are available if you are patient and willing to travel some to pick it up (and it sounds like you are). They are now at the bottom of their depreciation curves and a great buy. Ones in the PNW are going to be rust free and the rubber will be in great shape. A far better built vehicle than a 4runner, or most of the Toyota pickups in the US, it is just sublime.

(full disclosure-I am restoring a fj40 land cruiser-an earlier, more primitive version that is even more of a legend. Unless you are really serious about wrenching though don't get anything older than an FJ80)
posted by bartonlong at 3:40 PM on May 22, 2013

Best answer: Reliable. Practical. Too damn cool for school. Under 10K.

You got one choice - a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (LJ).

It will run forever with that old 4.0 straight-six.... give it regular oil changes and a new main bearing seal once every hundred miles, and forget about it otherwise. This jeep is fun to drive, fun to be seen in, and can schlep whatever you'd schlep with an SUV, over whatever is in your way on the road. Only with the top down, so you're extra cool.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:31 PM on May 22, 2013

Response by poster: Lots of interesting suggestions here. I'll keep an eye on Craigslist for some of these models and figure out what the market is like for them around here. Thanks everyone.
posted by Kwine at 10:39 PM on May 22, 2013

Hamsterdam isn't kidding about the Aztec. Weird-looking beast, but I stopped teasing my friend about hers the day I borrowed it to move a washer and dryer. Full size. In one trip. Absolutely impressive. But anyway...

how about an AMC Gremlin? Or an Eagle?
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 2:39 AM on May 23, 2013

Best answer: I was in the car biz for years, and my recommendation was, and is still, the latest model Buick you can find with a SERIES II 3800 engine. Buick had the best fit and finish of any GM of that era, and the motor/trans pkg (used) is cheap and plentiful. Also it's the perfect "blend-in" car. Nobody will suspect you're hauling that "package" in the trunk, and the cops are less likely to pinch you for moving violations...
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 7:33 PM on May 23, 2013

Response by poster: Today I bought a 99 Buick Park Avenue with 100k and that Series II V-6 for half what mid/late 90s Accords and Camrys with 40-70 thousand more miles were going for. It's massive and totally solid and thoroughly uncool and my friends and family are suitably horrified. I have named it Bruce and I am already in love. Thank you all for your help.
posted by Kwine at 11:13 PM on June 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

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