What should I expect in a used car given a budget of $4000-6000?
November 26, 2007 1:15 PM   Subscribe

What should I expect in a used car given a budget of $4000-6000?

After reading through past posts on MetaFilter, along with poking around the web, I'm pretty set that I want to get either a Honda, Toyota, or Nissan for my first car (I'm a 19 year old college student). I've got a budget of right around $4000 to $6000, and I've been poking around craiglist, autotrader, and other similar sites. However, I really don't know what to expect in a car (i.e. what's a "good" mileage to get, what year). I've looked on kbb.com and edmunds.com, but what I really want to know is what to look for in terms of reliability.

Any thoughts/suggestions? Also, just to note--I'm not necessarily as interested in which make/model to get, but rather what to look for in the car.

Hopefully that's enough info to start the discussion, thanks in advance!
posted by deansfurniture5 to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you're getting an import such as you say, you should be able to do well mileage-wise. Shop around a lot, get to know what's going for what in your region (the market does vary widely by region). Now, mileage isn't everything, so don't buy the cow because the miles are low: highway miles are way better than city miles, which are all better than mud-bog miles (which is still better than wall-collision centimeters). I do recommend running a Carfax if you have the ability to.

Otherwise, find out what maintenance has been done on it, and don't be afraid to run away from a good deal if you get nervous. $4-6000 should buy you a pretty good amount of car. Just remember to take care of it.
posted by General Malaise at 1:38 PM on November 26, 2007

Problem is, it's all relative. Take Nissan for example. Your $5000 might get you a 99 Maxima with 100k miles. Or it might get you a 2002 Senta with 65k miles. You need to lay out some priorities, first. Do you want a small, affordable car? Do you want an upscale sedan? Do you want a sporty coupe? Depending which you choose, you're going to get different results in that price range.
posted by knave at 1:42 PM on November 26, 2007

Make sure you buy a vehicle that includes maintenance records. Not because you'll need to consult them, although you will, occasionally, and not because there's anything magical about 'em in and of themselves, but because the kind of car owner who keeps that stuff nicely folded in the glove box, or in a three-ring binder or something, is more likely to have taken good care of the car.

On the other hand, don't buy anything that's been lowered, or had an aftermarket spoiler attached, or had rims installed, or, yeah, you get my drift, for the opposite reason.

These are generalizations, and there are exceptions to every rule, but it's a good place to start.
posted by box at 1:44 PM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: knave: I'm a pretty tall guy (around 6'2"), so a small car wouldn't necessarily be the best. What I do want is something that's good on gas and reliable.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 1:49 PM on November 26, 2007

It is relative. I have a 2002 VW Jetta with 65,000 miles on it. I'm told it is worth about $6,000. It looks great, but truth be told, it is a mechanical nightmare - it always has been, since I bought it - new. Be careful, and look at Consumer Reports reliability ratings.
posted by R. Mutt at 1:50 PM on November 26, 2007

I disagree with TWF - I think you'd be better off buying an import, specifically a Honda, Nissan, or Toyota, as you mentioned.

An Autotrader Search (hoping the link will work...) turns up several candidates in your price range in Dallas - not sure where you are, but that should give you an idea of what's available in a major metro area.

I'd say look for something with less than ~120k miles, and check to see when the water pump and/or timing belt needs to be replaced, and if it has already been done.

Pay for a Carfax account and run a report on any car you're seriously considering. Depending on where you live and how far you can travel to make a purchase, consider avoiding cars that have spent a lot of time in snowy areas - salt on the roads does bad things to car bodies.

Try to narrow down your search some. Think about what you want/need in a car - 2 doors or 4? Do you want a sedan, something "sportier", a truck, an SUV, etc.?

Also, consider spending less than you can afford to, and saving the rest (say, $1k) for any major repairs you might need to do. Stuff happens, and it's better to get a slightly older car and be able to repair/maintain it when you need to.

Hopefully that'll get you started, and give you some stuff to think about. I'll try to come back and answer follow-up questions.

On preview: you might be surprised by what a tall guy can drive - I'm also 6'2", and drive a Miata!

All it takes is checking out a car on a lot to see if you fit. I fit fine in my wife's ~1994 Nissan Altima, which was fairly small.
posted by entropic at 1:55 PM on November 26, 2007

I'm a pretty tall guy (around 6'2"), so a small car wouldn't necessarily be the best.

You shouldn't rule them out entirely--I've known some very tall guys who drove pretty small cars (Corollas, Mini Coopers, etc.) The size of the car and the configuration of the driver's seat don't always correlate. You might want to test drive a few smaller cars and see if they work for you, since those will most likely give you the best gas mileage.

Oh, and I got my mid-nineties Honda Civic for around 4k, with 115,000 miles on it, and I've been extremely happy with it. I mention it because part of that is having a good mechanic who will make only the necessary repairs. If I'd gotten my car serviced regularly at a dealership it wouldn't have been worth the money.
posted by fermion at 1:58 PM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: I should've included: I go to school in Bethlehem, PA (~1 hr outside of Philadelphia), and I live about 45 minutes outside of Boston.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 2:00 PM on November 26, 2007

CR's best used cars.

CR's best for tall drivers.
posted by sisquoc15 at 2:12 PM on November 26, 2007

Get a hatchback. You'll thank yourself every time you lay that backseat down.
posted by mike_bling at 2:15 PM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's an entire Consumer Reports section on this price range in the used car manual. Go to the library and ask to look at the magazine - the paper publication's details are much better than you'll find for free online.

What I was able to get in your price range:
A four-door American sedan, three years old, with good ratings for safety and performance, about 30,000 miles on it, that gets 35 mpg on the highway and 25/28 mpg in the city.

I could have gotten an eight- to ten-year-old European or Japanese car for the same price, with an extra 50,000 miles.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:16 PM on November 26, 2007

Here's what I was looking for:


Acura CL ‘97-98; Integra ’97; TL ‘97
Chevrolet Prizm ‘99-00; Tracker ‘99
Ford Crown Victoria ’98; Escort ’02; F-150 ‘97
Honda Accord ’97; Civic ‘97-98; CR-V ’97; Odyssey ‘97
Isuzu Oasis ‘97-98
Mazda B-Series (2WD) ’98; Millenia ’98; Protegé ‘99-00
Mercury Grand Marquis ‘98
Mitsubishi Galant ‘00
Nissan 200SX ’97; 240SX ’97; Altima ’98; Frontier ’98; Maxima ’97; Pathfinder ’97; Pickup ‘97; Sentra ’97, ‘99
Saturn SL ’99; SW ‘99
Subaru Impreza ’98; Legacy ‘97-98
Suzuki Grand Vitara ‘99
Toyota Avalon ’97, Camry ’97; Celica ’97; Corolla ‘97-99; Echo ’00; RAV4 ‘97-98; Sienna ’98; Tacoma ‘97
posted by sisquoc15 at 2:45 PM on November 26, 2007

(Those are the current CR recommends in the $4-6k range)
posted by sisquoc15 at 2:46 PM on November 26, 2007

I definitely disagree with the "buy american for reliability" sentiment.

My family and I have had nothing but horrible experiences with american cars breaking down way too much (Fixed Or Repaired Daily? You ain't kiddin'...)

Get yourself the nicest Honda Civic or Accord you can find in that price range. Or a Toyota Camry or Corolla. All very reliable cars known for being long-lasting.

Despite their reliability, with any car you should definitely pay a mechanic to have a look at it before you buy it. Once you've narrowed it down to maybe two cars, you should also research scheduled maintenance items and make sure if something's due soon, the owner has either already done it, or at least disclosed to you that you'll need to (replacing the battery every 5 years, replacing the timing belt, etc etc)... Put aside a bit of extra cash accordingly.
posted by twiggy at 2:49 PM on November 26, 2007

I'm 6-2 and have been quite comfortable in a Ford Escort, Ford Aspire (similar to Festiva) and Hyundai Elantra (similar in size to Sentra and Corolla). Don't rule out small cars; many have more front seat room than large SUVs.

As far as what to buy, get to know the cars first: Join forums for the cars you are interested in and find out the strengths and weaknesses of the cars to help you not only decide what to buy to learn what you're getting into.

That said, I would advise buying on the lower end of your range- about $4k- and keeping $2k in reserve for maintenance and repairs.
posted by Doohickie at 2:49 PM on November 26, 2007

3 years ago I got a 7-year-old Nissan Sentra with 55K miles on it for $5,500. So far it hasn't given me any problems except for the routine things that have to be replaced after a period of time. It's been a super car.

I'd second the recommendation to use Consumer Reports. Also use carfax.com and edmunds.com to assist your research. And have it checked out by a mechanic before you buy.
posted by matildaben at 3:06 PM on November 26, 2007

6'1" and I'm comfortable in my 2dr Toyota Echo. Admittedly, I rarely have anyone else in the car besides ms. nobeagle in the passenger seat. I bet that it would suck to be sitting behind me, and I definitely can't imagine 5 adults in the car, so it might not be the best car if one of your requirements is ferrying friends.
posted by nobeagle at 4:00 PM on November 26, 2007

Echoing what Doohickie said about joining forums to do research - if you've got the time (i.e. you're not in a rush to buy, which you never should be), this is a great way to research a potential car purchase.
posted by entropic at 4:06 PM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: entropic & doohickie: any suggestions on good car forums?
posted by deansfurniture5 at 4:07 PM on November 26, 2007

You can get a reliable high-mileage Honda or Toyota for this money. Actually, you can get a pretty reliable and very high mileage (100k+) Toyota or Honda for $2500 in the SF Bay Area.
posted by zippy at 4:08 PM on November 26, 2007

In my experience, a Honda or Nissan with 100,000 miles will be more reliable than any American car right off the showroom floor. Go with the import, for sure.
posted by deadmessenger at 5:16 PM on November 26, 2007

Thirding Consumer Reports. They have a table for this, updated constantly.
posted by intermod at 7:11 PM on November 26, 2007

The Automotive Insanity forum over at Something Awful is chock full of knowledgeable people, and well worth the $10 entrance fee. You'd get tons of great responses to a "recommend me a car" thread, just make sure and read the rules about such a thread in the FAQ. The atmosphere over there can be a little strange sometimes (although less so on AI than SA in general), but they know their stuff in general.

That'd be my top recommendation for a general automotive forum. I'm sure there are car-specific forums of varying quality for most models you'll be looking at, so just do a Google search and try to weed out the crappy ones.
posted by entropic at 7:44 PM on November 26, 2007

The Chevrolet Prizm is the exact same car as Toyota Corolla with a Chevy badge, they are built in the same facility in California.

If you are looking for a Japanese car at American car prices, this is your ticket - the Prizm resales for $2,000 less than the Corolla just because of the American badge on the front.
posted by ihyperion at 12:31 AM on November 27, 2007

Great recommendations, especially to stay away from the domestics. I would add to the list: Hyundai. They make great cars these days, with no resale value. So a low-mileage Elantra, for instance, will be well within your price range.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:28 AM on November 27, 2007

Sorry, didn't see your question until now. One good forum is at Edmunds CarSpace. Other than that, my best advice is to plug in the make and/or model of a car you're interested in, plus the word "forum" into Google. So, for instance, try Googling

Sentra forum
Cobalt forum
Elantra forum

....you get the idea.
posted by Doohickie at 2:19 PM on December 3, 2007

and yeah, I bought a new Hyundai (Elantra) two years ago. If you have any questions about my ownership experience, let me know via the email address in my profile or MeFi Mail.
posted by Doohickie at 2:21 PM on December 3, 2007

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