Stickshifts and safety belts, bucket seats.
July 22, 2008 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Help a terrified consumer buy a first car.

Okay. I've never owned a car. Never really needed a car until this point in my life: i've always owned vintage vespas that i've repaired and worked on myself. The idea of owning something like a car is absolutely terrifying to me (huge initial cost, potential mechanic bills, crazy insurance and gas).

Max budget is 3k. The biggest criteria i need to fulfill is reliability. It can be ugly, guttless or anything else, i just can't afford to figure out how to fix something every week on this vehicle (even though i would love to). Good mileage is important, and the car needs to be a wagon, large hatchback or light truck.

I'm leaning towards early-mid 90's Volvos, just because their wagons are quiet large-ish, and they have the reputation of being bulletproof (are there certain years i should avoid? is this bulletproof reputation true?)

I really have no idea how to approach this entirely foreign world of the car.
posted by furnace.heart to Shopping (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest something more like a corolla or civic. Typically very reliable, and if repairs are needed at some point, it's usually not too complicated and compared to other companies parts are relatively cheap and easy to find.
posted by meowN at 5:58 PM on July 22, 2008

My mom's been driving Volvo wagons for a long time now. The one she's driving now (an early-mid 90's) has nearly 300,000 miles on it, has had no major transmission or engine work as far as I know, and has been through one accident years ago (side impact on the front of the car).
posted by thebabelfish at 6:01 PM on July 22, 2008

Check to see if an insurance company you already have a relationship with (for the scooter, or house/contents, or medical), that also does car insurance, has a vehicle inspection service. Or just pay to have one done.

They may also be able to recommend reliable models.
posted by krisjohn at 6:03 PM on July 22, 2008

I think Volvo's reputation is deserved, but they will cost more to maintain and repair when things eventually go wrong. Just how big does it need to be? Since you're concerned with reliability, my first thought would be a Camry or Accord wagon. After that, I would consider something like a Subaru Legacy, which should also be a pretty reliable car.

Good luck!
posted by knave at 6:04 PM on July 22, 2008

Dad gave me an 86 Volvo wagon when my Jeep was on the fritz. Pretty crazy, those suckers! It has ~185,000 miles and the engine is solid as a rock. It has a huge cargo area, especially when you fold the seats down. It's a four cylinder non-turbo and even with the weight (it's not a light car) it gets ~30MPG on the highway. One thing to note, there are apparently problems with the ECU, but I believe they can be found online for $90 or so. Swapping it out is two screws and a wire connection.

So yes, the earlier Volvos are bulletproof. Late eighties, anyway.
posted by cdmwebs at 6:05 PM on July 22, 2008

I drive an '86 Toyota longbed truck, which is possibly the greatest thing in the history of the entire universe. I paid 2k for it, it gets 26 mpg. If you can find one, I would whole heartedly recommend it. My parents also own an old Toyota truck, and collectively we've found them easy to maintain, and super-reliable.

I also hear great things about the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and Volvo.

As much as I love my car, and beyond any anecdotes about specific models- what I would really recommend is finding a good mechanic who will do a pre-sale inspection. Sometimes an initially off-putting thing during a test drive (a clunking under the hood, perhaps?) will be a cheap fix (hurrah for a new fan belt!). Or vice versa.

Good luck!
posted by aint broke at 6:19 PM on July 22, 2008

Oh yeah, don't forget minivans.
posted by knave at 6:24 PM on July 22, 2008

If you've enjoyed working on vespas you'll probably like working on a Volvo. Volvos are solid and generally easy to work on from my limited experience. I see from your profile that you're in Portland - ipd Volvo parts supply is located there; they would have many of the parts you'd need. Maybe a late-1980's turbo wagon? That would be well within your price range. I've even heard of people putting a Ford V8 engine in Volvos... pretty neat.
posted by belau at 6:25 PM on July 22, 2008

If you feel comfortable working on a Volvo, get one. Otherwise, I'd go for a Civic or Corolla with miles in the low 100s.
posted by lunasol at 6:59 PM on July 22, 2008

BTW, the first car I ever owned - at age 28! - was a Corolla. It was the perfect first car.
posted by lunasol at 7:02 PM on July 22, 2008

Read the question. Civic and Corolla are great little cars, but don't meet the asker's size requirements.
posted by knave at 7:17 PM on July 22, 2008

If you can work on a Vespa, you can work on a car. You will need a few more tools, but the same approach of reading the repair manual, scratching your head, and chatting with the people at the parts store will work fine. Very late model cars are much more complicated (but are outside your budget), and unusual brands (including Volvos) are much harder to source parts when you are traveling or if you live in a small town, and a lot of mechanics won't know their intricacies.

For $3000 and your criteria, I would buy a Toyota pickup. You have a choice of 2wd or 4wd, regular cab or extended cab. Don't worry about the age as much as the condition -- your ideal truck will have been owned by a suburban family who drove it for light commuting and the occasional Home Depot trip, whereas a truck that was used by a landscaping contractor for ten years will have led a pretty rough life. They are reliable and incredibly easy to work on; because they were made for so many years with few changes and so many were sold, parts are easy to find anywhere and every mechanic will know how to work on them. If you can't find a Toyota in your price range, a Ford Ranger or a Mazda B-series truck is a pretty decent substitute -- not as efficient, but almost as easy to work on, and usually a bit cheaper for what you get.

Minivans depreciate fast, so can be great deals. But they are sometimes a real pain to work on, with everything shoehorned into too small a space. And again, many will have led hard lives as kid shufflers, and will have received pretty minimal maintenance because no one really loves their minivan and thinks about keeping it forever. Buy with caution.

Subarus: check back issues of Consumer Reports for year-to-year reliability ratings; Subaru had some bad years in the early 1990s. But before and after those dud years, their cars are super tough and reliable. Harder to work on than a truck, but not impossible for the DIYer, and they are common enough for most mechanics to be comfortable with them.

Honestly, I think that Volvo gained their reliability reputation on the 240 series, because those were over-engineered cars with underpowered engines that tended to receive a lot of maintenance and upkeep, which is a great combination. The old boxy ones are easy to work on, if a bit quirky; you either need to have a Volvo specialist mechanic, or embrace the idea of doing your own work. A lot of their more recent cars are much more 'normal,' without the weird and endearing quirks (and over-engineered design) that made the old ones so great. The trick to buying one would be finding one that hasn't been beaten to hell and back, and instead was lovingly maintained and just has a lot of miles.

Old Mercedes sedans and station wagons fall into that same category: strong but with minimal engines, a reputation for lasting forever, but a need for specialized attention. The diesel ones go for lots of money right now because everyone wants to do a biodiesel/WVO conversion on them, but the gas engined ones can be found really cheap.

Lastly, if you can find a Ford F150 with the six cylinder engine, you won't give up much in fuel economy compared to a smaller truck, but with the benefit of a much more useful cargo capacity. And those have to be about the easiest vehicles in the world to work on -- parts everywhere, every mechanic grew up working on them, easy access to parts, simple, etc.
posted by Forktine at 7:24 PM on July 22, 2008

I'm seconding Forktine. Please don't be afraid of the idea of working on a car. If you have the mechanical skills to work on vintage Vespas, you can handle car repairs. It's exactly the same process (especially for early 90's cars, which is what you can afford). Get the repair manual, scratch your head a bit, talk to the guy at the parts counter, then get dirty!

I can't tell you if Volvo's of the early to mid 90's are bulletproof, but I can definitely tell you to stay away from mid 90's Volkswagens, except the diesels. Don't be tempted by a Passat wagon!
posted by no1hatchling at 9:03 PM on July 22, 2008

For the love of all that is holy, buy a Toyota truck.

But don't take my word for it.

Watch as Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond attempt to destroy a Toyota pickup and fail:

Killing a Toyota, Part 1

Killing a Toyota, Part 2
posted by mark242 at 9:12 PM on July 22, 2008

Max budget is $3,000 US dollars?

Buy: Honda Civic.... Toyota Corolla, maybe an older Honda Accord. When I was between cars I bought a 1992 Accord wagon for $2800 and then sold it again 4 months later for almost as much as I paid for it. It had 200,000 miles on it and was still running fine.

Do not buy: Anything US domestic, anything with an engine larger than 4 cylinders / 2.0 liters.
posted by thewalrus at 9:17 PM on July 22, 2008

Oh and DO NOT BUY A VOLVO. Not in your price range. Unless you live in sweden parts for Volvos (I'm assuming you're looking at 740/760/850 series) are twice as expensive as the same parts for early-90s Japanese cars. Labor for a mechanic that is familiar with the quirks of volvos can also be more expensive.
posted by thewalrus at 9:19 PM on July 22, 2008

For the love of all that is holy, buy a Toyota truck.

That was great! I'd also recommend a Toyota or NIssan pickup truck. They're easy to work on, they made millions of them so spare parts are available in abundance (for peanuts), and anyone with even a passing knowledge of cars will know how to fix one should anything go wrong with it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:14 AM on July 23, 2008

Since reliability is a key criterion, once you find a likely car make sure the seller allows you to take it to an independent inspection service (basically any full service mechanic will do this). Don't go to a chain, go to an independent guy. One of your friends is bound to have a mechanic that he swears by. If the seller won't let you get it tested, don't buy the car. "100 point inspection certificate" talk is bullshit if they won't let you test it independently.

As far as where to find a vehicle, I have found great used cars at Saturn. Their sales philosophy is a dream, the cars are reliable, they allow you to get it tested independently, and they have used cars (both Saturn and other brands) like those you describe, in your price range.
posted by nax at 6:25 AM on July 23, 2008

A good rule of thumb is to assume that a used car will last you about a month for every $100 worth of KBB value. So, a $3k car should last you about 2.5 years before going totally kaput.

Repairable failures increase over the life of the car, and there's usually a point that the frequency increases dramatically. You never really know when that is for a lot of models, so the best advice I can give is buy a car that's as young as possible. Remember, cars are typically sold in the year prior to their "model" year.

Use KBB to check whether the dealer is offering a fair price for what you're getting. If the price is low, and the deal looks "too good to be true", it probably is.

Also, don't forget to check the odometer! Cars typically accumulate from 12k to 15k miles per year. Less miles than that is less wear-and-tear, and more miles is more wear-and-tear. Don't buy a car that has more than $15k miles per year on it, unless you're getting a really good deal (somewhat better than KBB value, without being too big a discount). Even then, be wary.

Also, I re-second having a mechanic that you can trust look over the car before you buy it. It's hard to put a price on the experience and knowledge that you don't have, and mechanics are paid to have it. If you need to pick a new mechanic, try to use a neighborhood guy who knows that you're in the neighborhood, and believes that he will get your oil-change and inspection business.

And, I also believe that you're better off avoiding any American makes. They, more than other cars, are built with "planned obsolescence" in mind.

Use Carfax. If the dealer doesn't want to give you the VIN number to check it with before buying, walk away. (This is illegal in a lot of states, anyway. In NY State, you need the VIN to pre-insure your vehicle before you can buy and register it.)

Above all, realize that in buying a used car, it's always possible to roll snake-eyes, and have your transmission bottom out after you've driven one block in your new car. All you can do is play the odds as best you can.

Good luck!
posted by Citrus at 7:02 AM on July 23, 2008

Check out Consumer Reports ... for a small subscription fee ($5.95 for one month) you can get a lot of info that will help you figure out what make/model/year is right for your needs.
posted by Koko at 7:14 AM on July 23, 2008

Save yourself ten dollars- public libraries almost always have a full subscription to Consumer Reports, including a hundred million years of back issues.
posted by aint broke at 8:06 AM on July 23, 2008

Volvos are amazing...I had an '86 when I first started driving (only about 8 years ago). It did extremely well, especially considering that I had no money/ideas about car maintenance. It also carried me through a couple of fender benders without any issues. Plenty of space and solid.
posted by gracious floor at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2008

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