Older Foreign or Newer Domestic?
June 21, 2008 9:48 AM   Subscribe

I need help buying a used car, and I'm on a budget.

My old car ('91 Buick Century) is ready to be put out to stud. As such, I've been looking at buying a new (used) car. I would prefer reliability over anything else.

I've found that in my price range (essentially less than $10,000), I have two options. I can either buy a used older foreign car with a lot of miles on it, or a newer domestic car with fewer miles on it. While I understand that Toyotas and Hondas are more reliable than Dodges and Chevys, is an '01 Toyota with 111K miles on it going to last me longer than a '05 Dodge with 50K miles on it?

I would prefer something compact or subcompact, due to rising gas prices.

I obviously have to make some kind of trade-off, so which direction do you suggest I go?
posted by King Bee to Shopping (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You may have to shop around a bit more, but you can likely find a slightly later-model Toyota or Honda than you mentioned (in the '03-'05 range), with about half the miles you mentioned, for less than $10,000. Look for cars being sold by a private party, as those owners are more likely to be flexible with the price.

I know this is possible, 'cause after shopping around online last summer, I found my used '05 Honda Civic Hybrid (~49,000 miles) for $12,500 (bargained down about $1,000 from the listed price). Before I settled on that one, I came across several normal automatic Civics in the same model year/mileage range for right around $10,000 (list price). This only took about a week's worth of searching online. So if you were looking for a normal automatic Honda Civic or similar, you could doubtless find one in that mileage/price range—you just, again, have to be willing to look around a little bit. (And if you can drive a manual, you're even more likely to find one in that mileage/price range—they usually sell for about $1,000–$2,000 less, from what I saw.)

The reason to get a used Toyota or Honda in the 50,000-mile range? Those cars will easily make it to 100,000–200,000 miles, given proper maintenance, and parts are super-easy to find, making maintenance costs even lower for you. It's questionable whether the Dodges and Chevys will make it to 100,000 without significant maintenance costs.
posted by limeonaire at 10:09 AM on June 21, 2008

You may want to browse eBay Motors and sort by distance from your location. One trick: do a completed search (sorted by distance) and look for cars that did not sell or did not meet reserve from private sellers.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:46 AM on June 21, 2008

What limeonaire said - you should be able to find a 1995-ish Honda or Toyota with 60k miles for $5k. $10k will get you a more desirable car (first-gen Priuses go for around $10k, last time I looked).

Speaking as a shade-tree mechanic and car owner of the "drive it until it's dead" bent here. My last four daily drivers were 3 high-mileage Hondas and one high-mileage Chevy.

A reasonably well maintained Honda or Toyota will give you, on average, much less grief than a lower-mileage American car at the same price point. They're designed and built with more of a focus on reliability.
posted by zippy at 11:07 AM on June 21, 2008

Hondas are really wonderful and with due care they will go 200K miles. My '84 Civic did 280K. I cannot speak from experience about Toyotas but they have that reputation. The up-and-coming marque is Hyundai. If you are simply looking for a transportation module you might consider the Sonata. It competes with the Camry and Accord, and a craigslist search in my area (SF Bay area) turns up several 2004-2005 Sonatas in your price range.

Since I need AWD on my long gravel road I buy Subarus exclusively, now. Subarus are long-lived. My first one has done 250K miles, engine never apart, on the original clutch and with very few problems. You pay for the AWD with lower fuel economy.

You're buying at the optimum point for three- to four-year-old cars that sold new between $18K and $25K. At that point, you can probably verify most of the service done to the car if the original owner kept the warranty in force. Care and diligence in preventive maintenance trumps mileage. You won't have to buy a car with 100K miles on it to meet your price point.
posted by jet_silver at 11:08 AM on June 21, 2008

Note - Chevy Caprices (1990-1996) and Ford Crown Victorias are often used as taxis, and are known to go to 300k - 500k miles under abusive conditions. You can find ex-Police cars with 100k miles at government auction for $1500, and on eBay for around $3000. These won't satisfy your high-mpg requirement, and will be less reliable than a Honda Accord, but then again the Accord will cost several thousand more.

If you buy one at auction, be prepared to do anywhere from $0 to $2000 worth of deferred maintenance.
posted by zippy at 11:11 AM on June 21, 2008

Assuming you drive a car until, well until you can not stand it any more, and are not concerned regarding resale value I would strongly encourage you to look at a 2003-2005 Hyundai Sonata--reliable,well appointed and relatively inexpensive to repair. For about a year my wife drove and delivered high end autos to motor journalists. While the Sonata is not "high end" my wife swears by Hyundai as best value and I agree as the now owner of an XLG 350. Good Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 11:41 AM on June 21, 2008

This is easy. For $10k, you should be able to get a 2004-2005 Corolla with maybe 60k miles. The car will get 35mpg and last forever. Alternatively, you could get a 2002-2003 Civic, since Civics are a little pricier, and get 38mpg and have it last forever.
posted by knave at 11:48 AM on June 21, 2008

I also recommend Hondas. As ridiculous as it sounds, I'm on my third Accord (I didn't buy any of them, they were all hand-me-downs). The first one was an '85 and I sold it with 180,000 miles on it in about 1999 and it definitely still had some time left in it. Then I had an '89 Accord for several years. That one I drove 'til it had about 230,000 miles on it and it definitely still had some time left on it. Now, I have a '94 Accord and it's got about 160,000 miles on it. It runs great. I'm really good about preventive maintenance, though. I plan on keeping the car for about two more years and I don't think that will be a problem at all. Every so often I get antsy and want a new car, but when I do the math, I find that I pay way less in maintenance every year than I would be paying in a car payment for a new car. So I just can't justify getting a new one. They really run forever if you take good care of them!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 12:01 PM on June 21, 2008

Around her the Honda Accords and Toyota Corollas are hugely overpriced because everyone downsizing from an SUV is buying one blindly based on internet threads like this. Most modern cars will go 150K and you can get much better deals on things like the Matrix (Pontiac Vibe is the the same car I think), Hyundai, VWs, Mitsubishi, Kia etc.

Consumer reports is a good place to start. Asking a mechanic who works on used cars a lot (ie not a dealership) for recommendations is another good idea.

For $10K you should be able to get a nice smaller car with less than 70K on it as long s you stay away from the trendy resale models.
posted by fshgrl at 1:24 PM on June 21, 2008

note: most used hondas and toyotas will need a new timing belt/water pump ($500+) at 80K miles.
posted by geos at 1:58 PM on June 21, 2008

Just 2 thoughts to add to the mix:

As fshgrl alludes to, don't overlook the American versions of Japanese cars (Pontiac Vibe vs. Toyota Matrix, for example.) It can save you a lot of money for the same basic vehicle.

Also, fuel economy is a bigger and bigger factor lately. This can actually work for you. You may get a great deal on a car that doesn't get great mileage. So, don't automatically rule out a vehicle that gets lower mileage than you might have in mind. How much gas will the difference in price buy you? Just something to think about.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:29 PM on June 21, 2008

It's not what you pay for it, it's what it costs you.

Honda, Toyota, Subaru are excellent. I have never so much as run out of gas in one. They are worth a premium because they are well engineered.

Jaguar, Audi, Saab, VW, Volvo, Mercedes anything Italian... the maintenance costs alone offset any price you might get. You can spend $1000 getting a tune up on a Mercedes. Volvo is a fine car, but things fall off. Around here, people literally give away servicable Saabs. They always have rust, internal decomposition, missing pieces.

As for Dodge, if someone offers you one free, you paid too much. I wouldn't ride in one to the hospital if I were having a heart attack.
posted by FauxScot at 6:41 PM on June 21, 2008

Seconding rmhsinc and recommending a Hyundai. If you want a compact or subcompact, I wouldn't recommend the Sonata (which is what I drive and is a decently big sedan) but rather the Accent, which is a tiny little car. Looks like you can easily get a 2005 model with not many miles on it for well under $10K. Check out cars.com to get an idea of pricing and availability in your area.
posted by pluckemin at 8:39 AM on June 22, 2008

A couple of years ago, I bought a used Pontiac Vibe on ebay. It was a 2 year old model with 31k on it, and I paid $11,200. As was said above, the Vibe has the same engine as a Toyota Matrix. I'm sure you could the same sort of thing that's three years old with 50k on it for under $10,000.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:08 PM on June 22, 2008

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