How do I select a used car?
December 21, 2018 4:33 PM   Subscribe

We totaled our vehicle thanks to a patch of black ice on a hill. The insurance payment is now in hand, but our budget is limited and we can't afford a vehicle any more expensive than what our old vehicle was worth. I'm now in the market for a used car, and I'd like to know where to go to do my research on what makes/models/years are known to still run well, and which ones are prone to engine trouble and/or won't necessarily last much longer.

I'm primarily interested in web sites with reputable reviews or discussions of used cars greater than 10 years old. For example, my old vehicle was an early 2000's Tacoma, which still ran beautifully and had only a few quirks, and every mechanic I ever talked to said the Tacomas from that period were particularly well-made and would easily last for well over 200,000 miles. Since it looks like I'm not likely to be able to replace my previous vehicle exactly, I'm hoping to find a source for that kind of expert opinion to help me evaluate my options. Information like "2001-2005 Toyota Camrys run well up to X mileage, but should be serviced at Y mileage to avoid Z problem" is the most ideal, but even just general reviews is good.

As an extra, I have my eye in particular at the moment on a couple 2003-ish Subaru station wagons. If anyone has particular knowledge of these cars I'd be interested to hear an opinion.
posted by biogeo to Shopping (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What is your actual budget? That seems like key information.

Generally speaking, Consumer Reports' used car reliability ratings are probably about as good a resource as you're going to find on this stuff. If you don't subscribe, they're well worth it and for more than just the car ratings.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:38 PM on December 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Generally speaking, Consumer Reports' used car reliability ratings are probably about as good a resource as you're going to find on this stuff. If you don't subscribe, they're well worth it and for more than just the car ratings.

I recently learned that our local library system allows users to access the Consumer Reports website, so that may be something to check, too.
posted by lazuli at 4:53 PM on December 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

watch out for head gasket issues on some subarus , if you go that route
posted by elgee at 4:53 PM on December 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Where in the world you are also matters. Because some older cars are great but are prone to damage related to winter salt and slush, and these issues are minimized in warm winter climates.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:01 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really liked for car research and reviews.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:19 PM on December 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

In addition to Edmunds & KBB, we found Car Complaints to be very helpful. It was good for seeing common defects & problems for specific years & models.
posted by belladonna at 5:21 PM on December 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

This article helped me, I ended up with a 2005 Pontiac Vibe 4 years ago that has needed maintenance but has been very reliable and good on gas, I bought it with low mileage.
posted by lafemma at 5:48 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Any more specific requirements? If you're leaning towards a Subaru station wagon, I'm going to guess that interior space is a priority and potentially AWD too. elgee is correct about the statistically higher incidence of head gasket leaks in most Subarus from the 2000s (a repair for which is in the $3K range, so not something you want to have happen), but I do the think the danger of that happening is frequently overstated and becomes much less likely if you're getting a car that has a history of regular preventative maintenance and if you plan on continuing to give it regular preventative maintenance yourself. Other than that, Subaru reliability is effectively on par with the other larger Japanese auto manufacturers. It seems like most people who have it happen report the gasket blowing around 100K-150K miles, so take that into consideration when evaluating a used car. All that said: Subaru's AWD is an extraordinary bit of technology, and with winter tires the increased safety margins it gives you in terms of retaining traction in hazardous road conditions can't be understated.

If AWD isn't so much of a requirement though, I'd skip a Subaru all together and go for a Mazda3. The first generation models (up to MY2006 I believe) had significant rust issues, but I never saw any tendency towards frame rust in my 2007 Mazda3 even though I drove it in an environment with humid summers and snowy winters for years. Besides that, it is among the highest-rated in its class in terms of crash safety, and has for basically a decade been the best bang for the buck in its class in terms of nice interior accoutrements and especially driving feel (Mazda, I think, are hands down the greatest masters of handling in the industry, and it's been a priority for them to implement that in the Mazda3 since its inception). With the 2.3L engine that comes with the s trim, you also get a car that, while not remotely a speed demon, gives you all the acceleration potential you need to safely operate on the highway at speed. The downsides are really limited legroom in the back seats and the fact that even that 2.3L engine will feel pretty sluggish if you've got the AC on and more than two people in the car, but not dangerously or particularly annoyingly so, unless you're used to larger, torque-ier engines. Reliability is top-notch, IMO; this seems to be supported by population-level data, and I also found my Mazda3 to have maybe 10-20% of the maintenance burden than my friend's 2007 Civic (although to be fair I am much more diligent about sticking to the maintenance schedule, so take that as you will). If the downsides aren't dealbreakers, it's really a great choice, and the 2007-era models can be had for very reasonable prices.
posted by invitapriore at 5:49 PM on December 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I personally own a 2003 Subaru Outback, purchased in 2012 or 2013, and it's great. It's a low-mileage car for its age at about 115,000 miles. For what it is, it's been a really good car to me. It's functional and reliable and while it's certainly had issues (I mean it is a 16-year-old car at this point) they've never been anything remotely close to making me regret my purchase. It's excellent in snow and sand, has great cargo capacity for a car of its size (the roof rack is pretty key, and don't underestimate the value of a roof rack that is actually low enough that you can easily reach it), gets OK gas mileage for an older 4WD vehicle (4-cyl, low 20s, mixed driving), and is just an all around do-anything car that's done me right. I do notice that many of the Outbacks of its generation that I see on the road have significant rust bubbles around their rear wheel wells; my car spent the first half of its life in Georgia rather than Massachusetts and does not have that problem. My only complaints are that it's a bit dopey-looking and it's not particularly engaging to drive, but honestly it's so functional and reliable that I can't complain. I plan to drive it until it finally just dies, which I hope is several years from now. If that's what you're looking at then it certainly gets my vote, although of course I can't speak to how reliable they are in general.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:05 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's also worth asking your mechanic
posted by quince at 6:49 PM on December 21, 2018

Best answer: Yes, mechanics have opinions about the reliability and serviceability of various vehicles based on lots and lots of experience with seeing vehicles show up in their garages needing work. They also have their biases, but they are experts in their fields and a good resource. Especially if you have a regular mechanic that you like to go to, getting something that they have a good opinion of and don't mind working on will be to your advantage, all else being equal.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:59 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I owned a 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe and it was a fantastic vehicle that never had any problems. Hyundais are on the same reliability level as Hondas and Toyotas, yet they don't get as much love. This makes them good values as used cars; don't overlook them. The Santa Fe was a pretty capable vehicle. They made a larger version called the Veracruz for a couple of years too.
posted by Ostara at 8:56 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

You haven't posted your budget, but it seems like 4chan's (no really!) guide to US used cars under $5,000 might be useful (direct link to the image, which you can also find as a sticky post on the 4chan cars board, /o/).
posted by caek at 9:21 PM on December 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If I were in the market for a car that age (and likely mileage), I'd narrow my focus only to a few very simple models from Honda and Toyota -- maybe an older Fit, Civic, Corolla, Camry, Matrix/Vibe, etc. All cars will be more of a hassle to own after 100k to 150k, but those will be most likely to rack up a few more miles before needing major service like head gaskets, transmission, etc. I've owned Subarus, Jeeps, Volkswagens and other more complicated vehicles after 100k and will never do it again. Subarus, in particular, while being really capable and nice cars to drive, need lots of expensive love as they age.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:21 AM on December 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Follow-up: We ended up getting a 2003 Toyota Matrix. It gave us a bit of a scare shortly after driving it off the lot as a bushing on one of the struts had worn out, causing an ominous rattle that we didn't hear during the test drive, but it turned out to be fine and a relatively inexpensive fix. We miss our old Tacoma, but the Matrix is fine.
posted by biogeo at 11:10 AM on March 6, 2019

« Older Because I knee-d your opinion.   |   Which deductible earthquake insurance Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.