Used car shopping for dummies
July 26, 2007 9:40 PM   Subscribe

Advice for a 17 year old, buying her first car. $4,000 budget.

What advice would you give a 17 year old getting ready to purchase her first car. She has about $4,000 to spend. She wants to get a car that fits her style, but she is still trying to make sure she gets reliable car. She will most likely get a Carfax subscription and will do most of the hunting through autotrader and craigslist.

Here are a few of the cars that have peaked her interest as of yet:

93 Honda civic with body kit

1994 Jeep Wrangler

'98 or newer VW Bettle (Bug)

'98 or newer Mustang

Questions for you:

What general advice would you give an 17 year old try to purchase her first vehicle?

What questions would you ask the car owner?

What cars do you find to be the most reliable for the amount of money that she has to spend?

What should she avoid all together, and why?

Anything else?

Other information about the subject:

She is in Phoenix, AZ.
There is no co-signer/finance options.
posted by B(oYo)BIES to Travel & Transportation (51 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ack! All terrible choices. :) The following are my personal opinions, based on experience.

1. Civic - High miles car with lots of mods, worth maybe half what the guy is asking! Modifications usually, but not always, indicate a car that is driven hard.

2. I wouldn't buy a Jeep because of the reliability. Also, my cousin just got one and he's already sick of driving it because it's really uncomfortable. The excitement wears off quickly.

3. VWs are built like crap. Strong drivetrain that will run forever, but the little things (door handles, windows, dash) will fall apart.

4. Mustang -- dangerous rear wheel drive car for an inexperienced driver.

For $4k, she could get a newer Civic (late 90's) that isn't modified, a late 90's Corolla, or a 99 or 00 Nissan Altima. All of these will be very reliable, and the Civic & Corolla have the benefit of getting close to 40mpg highway. Anything, generally, by Honda, Nissan or Toyota will fit the bill, except the upper models (Maxima, Prelude, Celica) hold value longer, so you'll be looking at older cars (more maintenance). Of course there's the taste issue. Personally, Civic coupes look pretty good to me (I prefer a sporty look), but they're otherwise very sensible first cars.
posted by knave at 9:48 PM on July 26, 2007

she should talk to a good credit union. with 4k to put down, she might be able get herself another 4 or 5k at a decent rate. that should put her into a car with a warranty, like a two year-old bug with low miles. the new beetle is very nice and should make her plenty happy. she can drive that thing quite a long time.

never -EVER- go for dealer financing on the lot when you are a young, first-time buyer with less income. they will do the dance with you so badly you'll be hung over a year from now.
posted by krautland at 9:48 PM on July 26, 2007

also an option: an old volvo. those things run forever.
posted by krautland at 9:49 PM on July 26, 2007

I'd say of the options presented, the Honda seems least likely to create mechanical problems, though going over speed bumps will be tricky with the body kit.

Also, pretty much everyone I know crashed or was involved in a crash with their first car, so the primary concerns should be 1) safety, and 2) safety. I was nearly killed in my first car accident because my cheap used car didn't have an airbag, so I slammed my head on the steering wheel.

A quick look on Craigslist Phoenix turns up this car - newer, more options, and with an, um, "classy spoiler" - for a lot less than $4000. The extra money could go to repairs, or to teen driver safety courses, which might mean lower insurance rates!

Good luck.
posted by mdonley at 9:51 PM on July 26, 2007

Go to the library and look at the Consumer Reports car guides.

There's a new magazine put out by the editors of Consumer Reports called "Shop Smart" and this month's issue (blond woman in an orange t-shirt on the cover, holding some fruit) has a page about "great used cars for under $4,000." She could probably also find that at the library. One of the cars it says to avoid is the VW New Beetle (4 cyl). Some of the cars it suggests are 97 or 98 Geo/Chevy Prizm, 99 Ford Escort, 97-98 Mazda Protege, 99 MErcury Tracer, 97 Subaru Impreza, and 97 Toyota Tercel.

I have a Protege and it is extremely reliable. I can also vouch for the reliability of the Prizm, Escort, and Tercel, as most of my friends who had them drove them into the ground, which is what you're supposed to do when you're a teenager. Those cars might not be as "cute" or stylish as a body kit, Mustang, Jeep, or a Beetle, but they will get her (and her friends) where they need to go.
posted by sarahnade at 9:53 PM on July 26, 2007

Please cross reference your choices with crash test data - I think Consumer Reports and some other places post this data. 17-year-olds are spazzes behind the wheel, make sure she gets something safe. Make sure to buy her a hands free thingie for her phone, other wise she'll be txt'n her friends (LOL!) while going 70mph (OMG!) on the freeway... (NOWAI!)

The Civic looks atrocious and I wouldn't trust the previous owner who slapped all that ill fitting fiber onto the car to have really taken care of it mechanically.

I'm a big Jeep fan and the Wrangler you link too looks fine, although I would ask to see the receipts for the engine work and speak with the mechanic before buying it.

A '98 or newer VW or Mustang is probably going to be out of her price range for something reliable... although there are lots of ~98 and ~99 Jettas and Passats out (prior to the 2000 redesign, gen III?) which are fine, reliable cars and possibly in her price range.

For the money she has to spend a ten year old, responsibly used Honda would be a good start.

Have her take $100-$200 of her budget and set it aside for a trusted mechanic to do a complete checkup on any care she is very serious about buying.

And make sure she knows that any sub $4000 car will usually need at least some expensive work done in the coming year (timing belts, etc) to keep it reliable, so she should budget accordingly.

Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 9:54 PM on July 26, 2007

Do not buy a 93 Honda with a body kit for $3900. That thing is covered in flashy plastic and screams "steal me" and also "the guy who owns me right now drove the living shit out of me."

Do buy a Honda of some sort though. I've owned three over the years, and they have stood me in good stead as far as reliability goes. I bought a 95 Civic CX hatchback for $2500 in 2003. It wasn't pretty or fast, but it got me to work and back every damn day for 8 months without a single problem.

I really, really loathe Ford cars for reliability. Their trucks seem better in that regard, but my parents have owned Fords for years and had endless stupid problems with them. My Dad's 2004 Ford Focus needed the whole steering system replaced, my Mom's various Taurus wagons had numerous electrical issues, etc. A Mustang in this person's price range will come from the years when they were particularly crappy.

If it were me, I would go on Craigslist Phoenix and search for "Honda" in my price range. Right now there seem to be a few listings that I would check out.
posted by autojack at 9:55 PM on July 26, 2007

Oh and krautland makes two good points regarding getting her budget up in the 9k to 10k range and going with an old Volvo... Christ, those old things will just go and go...
posted by wfrgms at 9:56 PM on July 26, 2007

Hondas, Toyotas are good bets, as always, as well as Nissans.

I personally wouldn't be crazy about the one with the body kit, simply because I would wonder if it was souped up and driven hard. And I don't think a Wrangler with 143k and a rebuilt engine would be a good bet. I don't have the data (check Consumer Reports) but I don't recall them being very reliable.

This may not be what she thinks of as her style right away, but I always recommend at least looking at some Cadillacs and Lincolns. They tend to be well cared for and many of them end up on the used market simply because the owner gets a new one.

On the downside, gas mileage isn't great, and of course she may just hate the styles. On the other hand, she might be surprised. Something like a 96 Eldorado Coupe would be in the price range.

Of course, if she sees it as an Old Person Car instead of a Classy Young Lady's Car, she won't even consider it.
posted by The Deej at 10:02 PM on July 26, 2007

On preview, I'm a parrot, but in my experience Hondas and Toyotas are the best high-mileage used cars. You may pay a little more for them, but maintenance and gas are cheap, they retain a high resale value, and if you do your part to keep them going they will run forever. Avoid modified Civics, for all the reasons noted above. Substance over style!

Also, I'd consider recommending that she budget $3000 for the car, and save $1000 for repairs and insurance, assuming she hasn't factored that in. Keeping whatever she buys reasonably well maintained will make that last $1000 go a lot further than buying something a year or two younger.
posted by JohnFredra at 10:07 PM on July 26, 2007

Response by poster: Wow.. great advice so far. Love hearing what you guys think about the cars she has looked at so far and it is really helpful to get suggestions of other cars. Keep 'em coming.

I see a couple people have actually searched CL and came back with some cars. Major points to anybody that finds the car she chooses, but we are very happy just getting the advice.
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 10:07 PM on July 26, 2007

I would avoid that Civic with the body kit like the plague. Seriously -- 'boy racer' type cars are bad, bad business. Talk about 'ridden hard and put away wet.'

The Jeep is kind of an oddball car for that list. It won't get the mileage that the other cars will, and might have more mechanical issues (although, I've owned Jeeps that have ticked along forever, I think it really depends on whether they're maintained well). But the factors that would make that a nice car are very different from any of the others. A Jeep is a nice vehicle if you want something you can hang a hitch-mounted bike rack off of (or if you want to be able to tow a light trailer), or want something that would be good in snow (where does she think she'll be headed to college?), or if you have a dog. (You can pretty much hose out the interior in some models...they have drain plugs and everything.)

But they have rollover problems and can be dangerous. I'm not sure I'd recommend one for a young driver unless they were REALLY responsible. Take one of those around a corner too fast, particularly with a few passengers in it (making it even more high-centered), and it's going to roll. I've seen some really horrible (multiple fatality) accidents in them due to bad teenage driving + overloading + speed (mostly with unrestrained passengers being thrown/crushed).

The Mustang just seems impractical for a young person, not to mention being a challenging car to drive (RWD), and also expensive to insure and requiring a lot of responsibility not to do unsafe things with it. Handing a 17 year old a muscle car just seems like a bad idea. But I don't know the person in question; maybe they're not like that. If she wants a sedan, point her to a Ford Taurus or something. :)

I'm personally very big on VWs. I've owned a bunch of them, and I've always had good experiences. They do tend to have weird fit-and-finish issues, but mechanically they're sound if they've been taken care of, they're safe, and they strike a nice balance (IMO) between economy and being fun to drive. I once owned a 1998 diesel Beetle with the manual trans. and loved it. In fact, it's on a short list of 'cars I wish I still owned.' (With the AT the diesel is a dog, though.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:09 PM on July 26, 2007

As most have said, steer clear of all those vehicles. The Jeep in particular. I don't know what engine the Wrangler has but that fact that it was rebuilt is not a good sign. The 4.0L for a number of years had rear main seal problems. My brother's Cherokee had it fixed at least twice but it would always fail again and start leaking oil. It's an expensive job to replace the seal as well.

Late 90s and Japanese is a good advice. Also, Oldsmobiles seem to run a long time, though GM reliable is somewhat spotty in general.
posted by 6550 at 10:13 PM on July 26, 2007

Supporting all previous posters suggesting an old Japanese import. My $2000 (in 1999) 1984 Cressida was a trouper that kept going mechanically, even when body damage from 3 accidents eventually necessitated a trade in. The $3000 (in 2000) 1986 Camry which replaced it is still going strong. So advice #1 - look to pay less than your available budget, so that you can personalize and ameliorate accordingly (i.e. - fix the problems that WILL exist on the old car, and maybe throw in the sound system that will make driving it more enjoyable).

Also, and this is the main advice I want to give you - try and find a used car that is/has been worked on by a local reliable mechanic. Then get the seller to introduce you to the mechanic along with the sale. You will know the mechanic is good, since you will be getting the car inspected before purchase (right?). Since the mechanic is both local and good, and knows the car already, you are way ahead of the game in terms of upkeep - which is crucial to the long term driveability of your vehicle. Also, since you will then know roughly how much the repairs have costed over the time the previous owner drove your vehicle, you'll get a sense of how much to budget for things all cars eventually need.

Finally, get a membership with AAA, get a cell phone, and a car adaptor for it, so you can always call for help if you happen to need it.
posted by birdsquared at 10:13 PM on July 26, 2007

When I was 19 (1994) I bought a two-year-old Ford Tempo for $6000 that had been totalled in an accident and rebuilt. Doing such thing is not for the faint of heart, but mine served me loyally for 100,000km and seven years - and would've longer if I could've afforded to keep it.

The amazing thing about getting a Ford is - once you get over the nerd factor, parts are everywhere and cheap, and anyone can fix them. Not so for imports like the VW. She may want a flashy sportscar but you've gotta convince her that it's way cooler to have a car that she can rely on and feel safe and comfortable in than some lame macho sportscar.
posted by loiseau at 10:18 PM on July 26, 2007

One additional thing: I recently bought a used car and as such have spent an inordinate amount of time on Everything I've read there says that, in spite of their reputation for quality, the gas-powered cars made by VW in the last ~10 years have awful reliability ratings. Embarrassingly bad. Their diesels, on the other hand, fare really well. mysterious.
posted by JohnFredra at 10:26 PM on July 26, 2007

Sorry - change every "you" to "she/her" - don't know why I assumed you were the prospective buyer. Also, costed=cost.

While I am mea culpa-ing, one last piece of advice for her, get as much third party liability insurance as is offered in Arizona - one split second mistake, leading to an accident with a car full of med students or the like, and the damages could be in the millions.
posted by birdsquared at 10:28 PM on July 26, 2007

I'm currently looking in the $3000 range right now (Bay Area) and I've been pretty disgusted with what I've seen the Hondas and Toyotas going for. If she can get a Honda or a Toyota with 150,000 miles or less, she should snap it up, but if what I'm seeing here is any indication, she'll be lucky to find one in that pirce range that has fewer than 200,000 miles on it. Likely she'll only be able to get another 50,000 miles on an engine that old. Hondas and Toyotas are indestructible, but even they have limits.

I never thought I'd say this, but consider an American car. She won't get anything cool or stylish for $4000, but if she looks hard she'll be able to find a late 90's/early 00's auto with less than 100k miles on it.

I'm driving a '99 Pontiac Sunfire right now and I love it. It's my first American car, and I was prejudiced against it from the outset, but it's won me over. It's every bit as reliable as my old '78 Civic and better than my 87 CVCC ever was. I'm looking to get a second car and I'm leaning heavily towards a second Sunfire. I'm seeing them on craigslist going for $3000 with 80k miles.
posted by lekvar at 10:34 PM on July 26, 2007

also an option: an old volvo. those things run forever.

No kidding. Not only do they run forever, they're build like fucking tanks. ON TOP OF ALL THAT STUFF, they're hip because they're old Volvos. :D
posted by secret about box at 11:00 PM on July 26, 2007

posted by secret about box at 11:01 PM on July 26, 2007

the civic (most stolen car in america) and the mustang (bought by the young, driven fast by the dumb) will be highly expensive to insure relative to their value. caveat: i live in NJ, where insurance cost is no doubt a bigger source of anxiety than in other states.

the civic is likely to be one of the better choices for the money, i still see plenty of 15+ year old ones on the road. very reliable, great gas mileage.

everyone i know who has bought used vws have had problems with them... actually new ones as well. not cheap to fix, either. i wouldn't buy a vw under any circumstances.

wranglers are very reliable, will run forever, and are inexpensive to fix. however, they offer PISS POOR gas mileage and a really harsh ride. also those soft tops are drafty and leaky.
posted by tremspeed at 11:03 PM on July 26, 2007

volvos are indeed a good choice, i see ones with 500,000 mile badges pretty often.

the mileage on that civic linked above makes me retract the comment, no way is it worth it in that instance.

assuming i had a short commute, which i actually i do, i'd go for that wrangler actually.
posted by tremspeed at 11:07 PM on July 26, 2007

Nothing American and nothing modded by some punk trying to be a street racer.
A Toyota or Honda would be my choice. I drive an '86 Accord that gives me no trouble beyond standard maintenance.

Check out the Consumer Reports guides, your library will probably have them.
posted by jjb at 11:26 PM on July 26, 2007

I guess your mileage may vary on the VW's. I've had zero trouble with my '03 Passat.
posted by ctmf at 11:48 PM on July 26, 2007

Mid-90's Camry's will run forever. My dad's 96 has something around 170K miles on it, and I think the repair and maintenance costs have been low (he's had to replace a collapsed radiator, and some belts -- that's it).

Failing that, a Corolla will be a reliable car.

I'd be weary of Nissans, for the same reason I'd watch out for the souped up Civics. Nissans generally go fast, and so people drive them hard; their transmissions obviously don't last too long when pushed like that.
posted by spiderskull at 11:52 PM on July 26, 2007

First of all, you're talking about Phoenix. Meaning you've gotta drive long distances to get almost anywhere. This means that fuel economy is going to be a paramount concern. If her car is getting 18 mpg, she's going to get sick of those gas costs very quickly.

Next, this is her first car. One thing she is going to want to do is drive it - not sit around waiting for it to get fixed again. This pretty much rules out the options listed in the post. That 98 Mustang might be a neat car, but it's also 10 years old (it was probably built in 97 even though it's a 98.) Domestic car reliability at 10 years old is not exactly the greatest. And the Jeep... neat but it's gonna need to be worked on fairly often. Civic? That particular one has probably been beaten to hell. And the VW... they haven't been that reliable for a while now. Expensive as hell to fix too.

I would point her to mid-late 90s Hondas or Toyotas. (I know a lot of people will say Nissan; heck, I drive a 91 Nissan. But Nissan is the least reliable of the three.) A Civic or Corolla will get damn good gas mileage, and they've got a long history of reliability. She might be looking for a "cool" car, but she does need to learn that repairs A) suck to wait for and B) cost a hell of a lot of money. Also remind her that she's buying her first car and not her last. Have her keep an eye out for late 90's Saturns as well; they've been fairly reliable cars, are easy to fix, and they also have a timing chain instead of a belt. (My mechanic loves Saturns because everything he needs to get to is right where he can get to it easily.) She could probably easily find a 97-98 Saturn SC2 in her price range - those are pretty neat cars. (The plastic body panels are not overrated. Our 03 Saturn has escaped many parking lot dents thanks to them. Besides, it's not the bodywork that protects you, it's the frame.)

Whatever you buy - Carfax it. Carfax is no guarantee, but it can help you. I've found cars with two salvage titles in their past with them while car shopping.
posted by azpenguin at 1:07 AM on July 27, 2007

Pretty much, no matter what your first car is you will end up loving it. I drove a 1989 Chevy Celebrity for almost 7 years before it died on me, and I would trade my new Saturn in a heartbeat to get that car back. All of the people from my high school that I still speak to have similar stories.

I'm just saying this because while I can't help too much with picking out the car other than saying all of those choices seem like a bad idea for a 17 year old, I can say that she shouldn't worry about trying to fit her "style". What she wants is a car her she and her friends can cruise around in, that will take her on her first trip to college, and hopefully will take her on her last trip from college. Look for reliability, safety, and gas mileage in that order.
posted by Loto at 3:26 AM on July 27, 2007

Do NOT buy the modified civic. It HAS been driven hard and abused and it WILL experience expensive mechanical failures in the near future.

Whether or not any of these facts are true for this particular modded Civic, they are true frequently enough to make buying a modded Civic a bad plan.

I've had a '90 Camry for about 7 years and it's served me very well. It's had a few maintenance snafus along the way and will probably need some work done on one of the brake shoes sometime soon, but its really a marvelously solid vehicle. Friends of mine have also had good luck with Corollas and decent luck with Tercels. None of these will be sporty cars, but they will get you from Point A to Point B quite reliably.
posted by Alterscape at 4:26 AM on July 27, 2007

Avoid any VWs of that era, especially if they have automatics. Volkwagen automatic transmissions are utter crap. They are sealed-units that VW claims don't need service for 100,000 miles. However, if you search, you will quickly find a scary number of owners with transmissions having to be replaced anywhere from 20k to 50k miles.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:07 AM on July 27, 2007

Mazda Protoge. For some reason Mazda is not always mentioned with Honda/Toyota and not as popular, but this is a good thing, you could get a 2000 Protoge for about 4k. Same Japanese tank of an engine.
posted by distrakted at 5:29 AM on July 27, 2007

Pretty much echoing whats been said here... VW's are poop. They have electrical problems up the wazoo. Avoid anything that cost more than $25k new (ie, a 1990 Audi 90).

That being said, a 4cyl will last longer than a 6cyl generally. A $4k Honda Civic or Toyota Camry (or Accord for that matter) isn't the most exciting ride ever, but mine have been 100% reliable and easy to work on.

Like anything, be EXTREMELY skeptical. Look at the distance between body panels and make sure they are all equal (ie, run your finger along the lines of the trunk and make sure it isn't off on one side). This is a great way to find out if a car has been hit, as its pretty hard to fix body panel alignment 100% (and if it was fixed 100%, probably was a good repair!).

Avoid rust!

Look for well maintained, well serviced, older imports with higher miles (I bought my camry at 110k miles, still runs at 180k).
posted by SirStan at 5:31 AM on July 27, 2007

For some reason Mazda is not always mentioned with Honda/Toyota

Excellent point! I love Mazdas, and I didn't even mention them. Similar quality... less money, at least on the used market.
posted by The Deej at 6:43 AM on July 27, 2007

Heh... my first car was a Plymouth Horizon (aka Doge Omni), but I can feel you loiseau and Loto... my next two cars were a Celebrity and a Tempo.

And I have to say I had pretty decent luck with American cars... it meant that I could get things repaired on the cheap by the "good old boys" my family knew who fixed cars on side for extra cash.

The other best thing my mom made me do when I got my first car... learn how to change a tire, change the oil and filter, and jump start and/or replace the battery. Back then we were pretty poor, and a lot of this was for economy's sake. I can't really imagine changing my own oil now with all the cheapo places around. But they are good skills to have... especially as a woman.
posted by kimdog at 6:46 AM on July 27, 2007

Could you clarify what she plans to do with the car? Would she be staying and using it to get around Phenoix? Would she be moving to a big city for college/job? In the latter case, I'd down-weight fuel economy (college kids don't drive that much) and get a more spacious car to make moving easy (college kids tend to change housing very frequently).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:59 AM on July 27, 2007

don't underestimate european cars. I've got an ancient (1990 is ancient i suppose) bmw convertible, and its not only fun to drive, its also very easy to drive. it's also not very fast (a good thing for teenagers)

cars in that generation are getting more expensive because of their rarity (that would be the E30 generation), but the next gen after that (E36) are a dime a dozen and can easily be had for around 4k, look for a 92-95 325i coupe or sedan, or if you really want a 4 cylinder, look for a 318.

good things:
1) the classic bmw inline 6 cylinder engine will last you until the end of time (the 4 cyl will too). on, people talk about their original engine going to 340k without needing a rebuild. the engine in the E30 generation (m20b) and to a slightly lesser degree the one in the E36 gen (m50) are designed such that they are easy to work on, for example on the m20, the timing belt (which is a $350 job every 60k or so) is on the front face of the engine, and as a result it's easy to replace (if she bought the repair manual for the car, and had some adventurous tendencies, she could do it herself)
2) they look great
3) if you understand the general principle of how to drive a RWD car (i.e. prone to rear slide, so dont drive like an asshole), they are good handling cars. they also have far superior suspension to the mustang

1) if you are a "checkbook mechanic" it sucks to fix german or other european cars
2) despite the tanklike build of my car (and its really smart bumper system that has a big chunky shock behind the bumper so fenderbenders dont ravage your frame), it's a convertible, so if i get hit hard enough, i'm done, down for the count (this is not a problem in a coupe or sedan).
3) if the one you buy is not well maintained, it will suck something awful to repair (so look for a car that comes with maintainance records)

i'd look at a 318ti hatchback. well built, small, 4cyl (so easy on gas), great suspension, small engine, and looks cool.
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 7:32 AM on July 27, 2007

What's her personality like? It might be an interesting exercise to find an older car that is structurally and mechanically sound (lots of good suggestions so far), but is cosmetically boring or worn (ie, faded paint).

Then encourage her to make it into an Art Car to whatever degree she is comfortable. This might be an especially good thing for the stealable Hondas...

This way the fun really goes into making it her own.

Mustangs? Too much power. I don't know her personality, but if you have any inkling that she might lead-foot it a little bit or let her boyfriend do the same, think twice.
posted by plinth at 7:47 AM on July 27, 2007

Oh man, I'm glad you asked. From my POV, some rules (as based on experience).

1. Your choices as American or Japanese. Don't buy a friggin volvo. Parts and labor on it are going to be murder.

2. Never buy a rear drive car for a casual driver. No mustangs.

3. Never, ever, buy a modified car. Not only will it have been driven into the ground, it will have a lot of DIY repairs. This is a huge mistake.

4. DO not buy a wrangler when gas is almost 4 dollars per gallon. Its also a rough ride and offers no security. Its an unsafe design too.

What general advice would you give an 17 year old try to purchase her first vehicle?

You will get into 5-10 accidents in your lifetime, most of which will happen under age 21. You need a safe semi-disposable car. Cars need their oil changed. Cars need to follow a maintence schedule. Cars are expensive. Driving is the most dangerous this you will ever do in your life, and you will do it everyday. Someone you know will be killed or crippled in a car accident.

What questions would you ask the car owner?

How many owners. Any accidents. Who does repairs. Where are the receipts. etc.

What cars do you find to be the most reliable for the amount of money that she has to spend?

You dont just want reliability. You want reliability AND cheap repairs. Sure there's a hipster guy in your neighborhood with a 1982 Volvo that runs great, but hes put 5k or repairs into it. Or he will soon. Shoot for the 'American Honda', the Saturn. They're all good. Or go for a real Honda. I'd rather get a Saturn with 60k miles than a civic at 100k. Dont expect a modern car to go much farther than 100k. Assume that is where it will die or where multi-thousand dollar repairs come in.

What should she avoid all together, and why?

Cars with a lot of miles. Cars modified. Cars that have been in serious accidents. Cars that burn oil. Cars that have tranmission slips. Cars that are flashy and have been driven hard. Cars that get crappy milage. Cars that are made by ford. Cars that are too good to be true for the price. Cars from the suburbs have 'easier miles' on them than cars in the city. etc.

Anything else?

Be smart. Buy a cheapish safe car. Your first car is like the first draft in a novel. Its going to be a bit crappy and will get a whole lot of abuse. Foreign cars cost a lot to buy and maintain.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:05 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd like to second the old volvo. It was the car I drove when I was that age. It's nearly indestructable, and ran forever (with regular checkups). It is more pricey if something goes wrong, so be sure to have a good "Volvo" mechanic look it over before you buy.

I was hit once, and the other car was totaled, my volvo barely had a scratch.
posted by Freen at 8:22 AM on July 27, 2007

Based on my personal experience and anecdotal experience of friends and family, I recommend a used Jetta or Volvo. Take it to a local mechanic (tried previously if possible) and ask him or her to test-drive it or at least look under the hood for you.
posted by theredpen at 8:27 AM on July 27, 2007 wife and I have gone through two Nissan Maximas. They proved to be extremely bullet-proof, especially the engine. The first one was still running strong after 310,000 miles. The second one is still with us after 225,000 miles.
If you can find a clean one with low-ish miles, I would highly recommend one (with the one caveat that the manual says to put premium in the tank. Ours runs just fine on mid-grade, though)
posted by Thorzdad at 9:00 AM on July 27, 2007

Volvos are great, but only if you are going to do the work yourself or if you have a local Volvo specialist shop. Otherwise, something common like a Saturn, Honda, Mazda, etc will be easier and cheaper to keep running.

For a young driver, underpowered (eg Volvo) is better than overpowered (eg Mustang with the big engine). If she buys a stick-shift, it is less likely that her friends will borrow it and drive it into a powerline, because most of them probably can't drive stick.

Thinking outside the box, what about a pickup, like a Ford F150 or a Toyota Tacoma? The advantages are that a) it's not a hotrod, so unlikely to be driven so fast; b) cheap and easy to fix; c) less passenger space, so less likely to be the party car. Disadvantages are that pickups are easier to crash and roll, especially in the rain, usually worse safety ratings, and worse gas mileage.
posted by Forktine at 9:04 AM on July 27, 2007

To echo a lot of other posters, well cared-for Civics are great cars. But run far, far away from anything modified.

If she feels like a stock Civic is lame, there are always a few things she can do to make it a little cooler - like a new stereo that can play her iPod (doesn't have to be fancy with iPod controls, a < $200 unit with an auxiliary plug-in will do), tinted windows (maybe every car in phoenix has this already, though...).br>
I drive a 1996 Civic coupe that I bought new. It's been great through its first 175,000 miles, and I'm hoping for many thousand more.

ABS was an option in on the '96 Civic EX, so look for one that has that.
posted by altcountryman at 9:05 AM on July 27, 2007

I'm in a similar situation; though older, I'm a new driver and don't have a lot to spend, and for 3 or 4k one can't buy as much Honda or Toyota as one would like, I find.

I'm positioning for a Saturn. They're reliable, cheaper -- and those lovely plastic panels are easily replaced if you forget to check your blind spot!
posted by RobotHeart at 9:15 AM on July 27, 2007

I have a '99 Ford Escort, bought four years ago at the recommendation of the Consumer Reports Used Car Guide, and even with the extra 100,000 miles I've put on it, it's still going strong.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:15 AM on July 27, 2007

Ignore anyone who tells you to get her into debt. Buying cars on credit is a sucker move and the fact that most people do it doesn't change that. (cf. "if your friend jumped off a bridge...")

Even aside from that, getting a 17 year old who should be entering the most carefree period of her life - when she should be trying many things so she can decide Who She Wants To Be - roped into a 3 year loan payment borders on criminal and abusive.

The Car Talk guys have a booklet you can order called "How to buy a great used car" which includes, among other things, a worksheet you can take to a mechanic to have them work up a car before you buy it. It may not be necessary, however, as many mechanics do this on their own. Pick up the phone and call a mechanic you trust (or that someone here suggests, or it listed on the car talk mechani-x files) and tell them you're looking to buy a used car, what kind of service do they offer in the way of a pre-sales checkup? What do they check? What kind of report do they provide?

Anyone who won't let you take the car to the mechanic to have it checked (on your dime, of course) should just be told "okay thanks anyway, bye." There's a TON of used cars out there now because of all the incentives and cheap debt available over the last four years. You don't have to make any compromises.

Those mechanics are also a good source of cheaper old cars. The mechanic I use here in the DC area for work I decide not to do myself sometimes buys cars and does restoration & repair work on them to resell - it's a way for a mechanic to make a few bucks and keep busy in the shop between customers. When you ask them about pre-sales checks ask if they or any of their customers have vehicles they're looking to sell. Any used car has some risks but at least this way you get a bit more pedigree.

My main guideline I'd suggest she follow is nothing older than 1996. She'll be able to hit her price goal easily in those ages and that way she gets both driver and passenger airbags. Toyotas and Hondas are good choices but many other cars will likely be fine. Anything made in the late 90s and beyond is past the darkest years of American iron.
posted by phearlez at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2007

She wants to get a car that fits her style... yet the four examples you listed have absolutely nothing in common that would suggest the shopper's "style." Heh.

Anyway, others have covered all the safety and reliability bases here, but one more thing to note: nobody worth knowing will ever change their opinion of you because of what you drive. I know this is impossible to get across to most teenagers, but perhaps it's worth a mention.
posted by Tubes at 11:21 AM on July 27, 2007

Possibly the best website I found while searching for a used car was the Car Talk Survey. Car Talk is a radio show broadcast on NPR that is all about (yup, you guessed it!) cars. They did a survey a few years ago where people could fill out detailed information about their cars and submit them to the program. The results are all available online.

I enjoy this site because it's experiences by real owners of the cars: some of whom have had them for quite some time. Hope this helps.
posted by talkingmuffin at 11:24 AM on July 27, 2007

Here's my best advice:

#1: listen to what Tubes says above; at this age (and price point) defining yourself and your sense of style by the car you drive will lead you down a painful and expensive road of high insurance premiums, major repairs and nothing to show for it but a car that looks nice in theory but like crap next to the rich kid's car in the parking lot;

#2: look for deals through relatives, especially parents -- whose dad isn't eager to move up to a nicer car if they can justify it by saying "well, I'll just sell my good, reliable X to my daughter?";

#3: don't spend all the money on the car, because some repairs are inevitable. Avoid the expensive ones by having a reputable mechanic do a compression test, the condition of the fluids, see if there's overthick oil being used to temporarily improve the compression, stuff like that;

#4: at your price point a manufacturer's warranty is out of the question, and extended warranties are worthless, and something WILL break (even if you buy it from parents or other trusted folk, that's just the way cars are) so make sure you have a way to get it fixed (like, if your mother drives a Chrysler minivan and trusts the mechanic they use, perhaps a Chrysler product will be a good fit for you.)

#5: YOU WILL GET IN AN ACCIDENT. Doesn't matter how good a driver you will eventually become; at this age, you're new to this, and YOU WILL GET IN AN ACCIDENT, either your fault or someone else's (because you won't be good at identifying and avoiding high-risk drivers sharing the road with you.) So make this first car safe, boring, cheap to insure and fix, and don't sweat small dents and dings.

Good luck. By the way, I know you're posting for a friend, but it's easier to type these out if I just pretend it's you asking for you.
posted by davejay at 12:08 PM on July 27, 2007

Oh, yeah, and if you can find a car with dealership repair records and no modifications, you'll be much better off. "Honda with body kit" is probably the worst possible idea for purchase, but "Honda with full dealer maintenance records" is probably the best (except for insurance payments.)

By the way, a really reliable car (I know this from firsthand experience) that's undervalued is the Ford Escort GT/Mazda Protege LX from 90-94; both are the same car, designed by Mazda, and the Escort GT/Protege LX models have a terrific, reliable engine (I don't recommend the Protege DX model as highly, and absolutely not the Escort LX, as the engine is crap.) If you can find one that isn't abused, you'll do well, and likely for less than $2000 (leaving lots of repair money.)
posted by davejay at 12:19 PM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

davejay's family suggestion is a pretty good one. I'm driving a 2000 saturn with a stick that was lightly driven by my aunt for 6 years before she sold it to me cheap.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:58 PM on July 27, 2007

Nthing everyone's comments about avoiding the flashy Honda (for the stealability/crashability and previous owner beating the hell out of it) and VW's for being of incredibly poor quality (I own a 98 Golf).
posted by jkl345 at 2:53 PM on July 27, 2007

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