Which car is better?
May 28, 2015 6:26 AM   Subscribe

A car with lower miles that needed many repairs or a car with higher miles that has had one owner and no issues?


The first car is a 2002 Ford Focus. It has close to but less than 100,000 miles. It was sold to a mechanic because the owner didn't want to deal with its problems. The mechanic fixed it up, replacing: all the tires, rotors, tie rods, water pump, timing belt, head gasket, and valves. There are no records for this car, but the mechanic says it has had two owners. He wants 3k for it (before bargaining, so I might be able to get it for less), citing all the work he has put into it. He has a good reputation in town and I hung out in his shop for about two hours yesterday.

The other car is a 2003 Hyundai Elantra with 125,000 miles. No issues that I can tell, but the owner is not a mechanic. Runs, drives, handles with no issues. I like this car a lot better because it's sporty and a manual (I enjoy that for sentimental reasons because I learned how to drive on a manual). This person wants $3,250, after bargaining.

My issue with the first car is that I don't know if it has been taken care of. Probably not, from everything that needed to be fixed. But it costs less and has less miles than the second car. The second car is more fun and has all the records.

Any advice?
posted by Elizabeth907 to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
All cars have issues. You don't buy a car with 100,000 miles on it and expect to run it for years without replacing anything, so the fact that you don't think the Hyundai has any issues should hold only a little weight for you. We had a Huyndai total itself at under 100,000 miles when on an especially cold day the timing belt snapped. (Replace your timing belts, folks, is the expensive lesson I have for you.)

Especially with a new-to-you used car, you should price a couple hundred bucks/month into your budget for unexpected repairs, and carry that over from month to month (so that if something breaks in, say, three months, you have $600 to cover it, not just the $200 you budgeted for that month.)

Having said that, I'd go for the Hyundai over the Ford in this situation because the mileage and price differences are not _that_ great to me, and because, despite the untimely demise of our Hyundai earlier this year, I understand them to be more reliable in general.
posted by gauche at 6:41 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

What are the Kelly Blue Book values for these cars?

You want the second car. No records and a ton of work is NOT worth the 250 in "savings" for the Ford. You can also ask to take the Hyundai to a mechanic to look at it before you buy it.
posted by sockermom at 6:44 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

The difference in cost between the two cars will be eaten up with less than one repair. I'd get the Elantra checked out by a (different!) mechanic and if it looks good then buy that.
posted by gatorae at 6:45 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ugh, I dislike the sound of both, but I like the Focus a bit better as long as the replaced stuff means that it is current on wear items mentioned in the maintenance schedule. I'd be concerned about the timing belt tensioner especially. In slightly older model years they would fail pretty early and the results were exactly what you'd get from a broken timing belt: a done for motor. Otherwise I like the Zetec fairly well.

Older Hyundais are not generally reliable. There is a reason they started offering that 10 year warranty. Their reputation was worse than Chrysler and only slightly above Kia at that time. If it were late 2000s, I'd be more into the Hyundai.

It helps that I still see a fair number of early 2000s Focuses on the road. I see almost no early 2000s Hyundais. Take that for what you will.
posted by wierdo at 6:45 AM on May 28, 2015

Seems to me it's a total guess as to which will run longer without a major problem. My own general sense is that the Hyundai is probably more reliable than the Ford, but after 125k miles it's sort of like all bets are off. So, without any reliable way to know which will run better over time, I say you either go for the lowest price (because neither is going to last that long) or the one you would like to drive best (because perhaps the price difference isn't all that great).
posted by Mid at 6:47 AM on May 28, 2015

Ugh, I don't think either of these are good cars.

With the Ford -- yes, it's owned by a mechanic, but is he YOUR mechanic? He replaced all the Things I had replaced on my Subaru at 100,000 miles AND THEN SOME. Why were the head gasket, valves, and tie rods replaced?

With the Hyundai, has the timing belt been replaced? You do NOT want to mess with that -- you could have a 4,000 pound paperweight if that belt breaks.

For me, I'd walk away from both cars, but if someone held a gun to my head and said I had to buy one now, I would choose the Ford.
posted by tckma at 6:51 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

The mechanic probably did a lot of that work without really needing to. If it's easy to do and you're going to be doing half the work for some repair that it DOES need and you're doing it yourself, it would make sense to replace parts that commonly fail before they actually fail.

The lack of records worries me. Doesn't it have a title? A carfax report should show you at least who else owned it.

My gut tells me to go with the Hyundia if I didn't know anything about either brand. In that era, they had a better reputation for reliability (I think they still do but I've been out of the car business for a while). The only major issue I can think of with that car is that, when cars get into the 150,000 miles range, they often start to need some pretty major maintenance that may involve a total engine overhaul and will involve inspecting and possibly replacing some parts that aren't really routine maintenence parts but tend to wear out over time (things like the timing belt, water pump, valves, head gasket, etc.).

However, I sold new Kias around 2005 and the Kia Spectra was the same car as the Hyndia Elantra with different body panels and badges. At the time, I wouldn't have bought anything from either brand farther down than the Hyundia Sonata/Kia Optima (which were and are excellent cars). You should look up the maintenance schedule for the Elantra and call a dealership to ask what the 150,000 miles maintenance would cost or even all of the maintenance checks between 100,000 and 175,000 miles as some of the major stuff might be spread out. The major service intervals should be pretty obvious when you look at the maintenance schedule. That will give you the highest price you can expect to pay for that maintenance so you can factor that into the pricing equation.

So, as someone who has been around the buying and selling of new and used cars their entire life, I'm really on the fence, maybe leaning towards the Ford. When they were new, I would have bought the Focus, no question, and I don't think all of the repairs should scare you. I might have some bias against Ford (they made some real junk for a while) but the Focus is supposed to be a pretty solid car and when they get that many miles on them, the model's reputation for reliability (or it's lack thereof) kind of goes out the window.

If it were me, I'd pull a carfax report on the Ford and then bring both cars to a different mechanic and ask them which one they'd buy (and even leave the price out of it).
posted by VTX at 6:55 AM on May 28, 2015

Is the mechanic owner offering any sort of guarantee on the work? IF he is, and he is a local business owner concerned about his reputation, I would focus on the Focus and try to negotiate for that one.
posted by AugustWest at 7:15 AM on May 28, 2015

Response by poster: The reason he replaced the tie rods is because when I test drove it, I heard something clanking and asked him to check it. He said he'd not driven the car before. Why he listed it before driving it is a question, but from observing his style, I would say it was thoughtlessness rather than crookedness. I mean, anyone was going to hear that sound unless they were deaf. The reason for the engine stuff is because it came to him with an engine problem.

The KBB value for the Focus is $2,200 (in excellent condition, which it is not). The Elantra is similar. I told this to the Elantra owner when we were talking, and he said that wasn't true because the bank would finance it for more. I found this to be true when I talked to a bank, but I don't think that means the car is worth more than the KBB value. The Elantra owner says he just painted the car (he did, the body is very nice). I really don't think the car is worth what he wants, not with 125,000 miles.

Anyway, I'm moving in a week and my car just broke, which is why I am buying a car. A guarantee from the mechanic won't mean much because I won't be living nearby anymore.

Anyway, I'll keep looking! Time is growing short and I thought these were good cars after checking reviews, but from what is here, maybe I can do better.
posted by Elizabeth907 at 7:33 AM on May 28, 2015

The price difference and mileage are not different enough for those to be factors. The Hyundai may not have had any issues YET, but buying a used car... you have to expect there will be maintenance to be done.

You like the Hyundai more, just buy the Hyundai if you were happy with it. Get it taken to a shop to get checked out though, before you go through with the purchase.
posted by lizbunny at 7:46 AM on May 28, 2015

Hey, I get to use my two primary areas of expertise twice on one question! I currently work for a bank in their underwriting department.

Banks use NADA values to figure out how much they're willing to lend on an auto loan. NADA's numbers don't at all reflect real sales prices. We at the bank know this but use NADA anyway because it's close enough for underwriting purposes and the check boxes to come up with the value are pretty straightforward. When being able to finalize an application on the same-day vs. next day can mean the difference between your bank closing the loan or losing it to another bank, efficiency is key.

Secondly, our lending standards allow for up to something like 120% of the NADA book value. We don't actually care how much the car is worth if/when we reposes it and sell it, as long as it covers our loan and costs, we're good. So we weight that against the actual likelihood of default which is generally pretty low.

So the amount a bank is willing to lend absolutely nothing to do with what the car will sell for. Okay, maybe not quite nothing, the two numbers are usually around the same magnitude but the maximum lend-able amount does not and should not be a consideration for the sale price of a car.

KBB.com and Edmunds.com are both pretty solid on their values. FYI, a lot of NEW cars don't meet KBB's standard for "excellent" condition. Unless it's a fully restored classic car ready to be judged at a car show, it's in "good" condition at best.
posted by VTX at 8:01 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Elantra owner says he just painted the car (he did, the body is very nice).

Wait. Why did the owner repaint just before trying to sell? Was there body damage & he wanted to make replaced parts match? Lots of rust? This just sounds weird to me; I don't know anybody who has repainted a car (other than a vintage show car) just for the heck of it. Especially not something at this pricepoint. Was the paint job done professionally or did the owner (or a buddy) do it?

This AskMe from 5 years ago has some info on the price to repaint a car.
posted by belladonna at 8:31 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree with belladonna. Repainting seems extremely odd. I had a 2003 with more miles than that (nicer car overall) and it would have never occurred to me to repaint it. Did you run the CarFax on both cars to see if they've been in accidents? I believe tires and rotors should have been replaced by now on the Hyundai anyway so you'll incur that cost.
posted by desjardins at 9:12 AM on May 28, 2015

Response by poster: I just figured he wanted it to look nice! But now that you say so, I asked him how much it cost to paint and it was over a grand. I guess you wouldn't do that for nothing. Good thing for you all...

Thanks for the information, VTX, and everyone.
posted by Elizabeth907 at 9:21 AM on May 28, 2015

FWIW, I just bought a used car this weekend (06 Corolla). The minimum auto loan Wells Fargo will do is $5000. I suspect if you get much below that you are dealing with sub prime lenders who will charge credit card rates. So if you are planning to finance, you might be well served by buying a little better car.
posted by COD at 9:41 AM on May 28, 2015

If I had to buy a high mileage car I would skip both of the ones you mention and look for a Honda or Toyota.

My usual advice in your case, since you say your car broke, is to think about whether repairing your car is going to cost less or more than what you are looking to spend on either of these cars. You don't say what kind of car you have now but I bet you could spend less than $3250 for the Hyundai and get it up and running again.
posted by eatcake at 1:03 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, the theory is that, by the time you've gotten to 150,000 miles, all the ones with problems have been weeded out or fixed. So even the cars that were considered unreliable when they were newer are reliable by the time you get to that kind of mileage. Ford might not have made very many Focuses (foci?) that hit all the tolerances just right and made for a bullet-proof car but all the ones that they did and none of the ones they didn't made it to 150k. More of them will be Hondas and Toyotas but all of them with that mileage that are in good condition are probably okay.

Or so goes the theory. I don't know that I totally buy it but I don't think it's totally wrong either.
posted by VTX at 6:09 PM on May 28, 2015

3,000/3,250 American dollars for either of these cars, with 100,000/125,000 American distance units on them, seems grossly overpriced in both cases.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:30 PM on May 28, 2015

I wouldn't buy either of those cars at those prices.

Well, the theory is that, by the time you've gotten to 150,000 miles, all the ones with problems have been weeded out or fixed

That has not been my experience, at all.

Of the two, the only one I would consider is the Ford -- the repainting alone would make me avoid the other. But it is overpriced for the miles and I'd guess that it has more issues than what has been fixed already.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:53 PM on May 28, 2015

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