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A few months ago, I got the chance to take my own advice and put my money where my mouth is. My daughter needed a cheap but decent used car – something sensible, with back door/seat access and a decent-sized trunk.
Budget: $5,000 max.
Here are some of the cars we checked out:
2003 BMW 320i
I drove one these new – BMW’s E46 model – back in the day and loved it because of its taut handling and braking, and that slick little in-line six-cylinder engine.
However, the years haven’t been kind to this model and its transmission, in particular, has turned out to be highly unreliable. These cars are also terrifyingly expensive to fix.
This particular car had some 210,000 km on the clock and looked good from a distance. But it was afflicted with a check-engine light that wouldn’t shut off, needed front struts and an air conditioning recharge, and smelled bad because the owner had two Rottweiler dogs. He wanted $2,800.
We actually looked at two.
The first, a 1997 model, had a massive front-end clunk, high mileage (280,000 km), and brakes that made a grinding noise.
Plus – and this is the important bit – it was being sold by a “friend” of the owner, who was temporarily out of town. He was asking $3,200. Well, you can ask anything you want but uh-uh.
The second was a 2003, asking price $3,700, with some 180,000 km and, overall, in decent shape. But the car was still registered in Ontario and needed to be safety inspected out here in B.C. before it could be registered and plated.
As well, the owner was just never available when I called and I played phone-tag for several days with this guy. If there’s a textbook way how not to sell a car, this was it.
1998 Volvo V70
Another Ontario car, driven out west when its owner moved here to take a new job, the asking price was $3,200. It had high mileage but with a meticulous repair/maintenance record kept by its school principal owner.
However, it also had a broken power seat adjuster, an erratic automatic transmission, and just felt kind of loose and used.
I loved the maintenance records and it seemed to run okay, but, again, like all European cars, these can be like a runaway train when it comes to repairs. With over 300,000 km under its belt, that seemed to be just around the corner.
Thanks but no thanks.
2001 Honda Civic
I broke my own rule on this one and found it at a dealership. Normally, I avoid these places like a Ben Stiller movie, but by now we were getting kind of desperate and I was considering just getting her a new car.
But parked beside the showroom was a Canadian-made Civic DX that had “just come in” as a trade-in and hadn’t even been detailed yet.
It wasn’t perfect – a little scratched up, and the airbag light wouldn’t shut off. But these are both easily fixed, and it had comparatively low use – 122,000 km – and a spotless interior. It also had air conditioning and an automatic transmission, with wind-up windows.
We drove it around the block and it ran like a clock and felt tight. Most importantly, my daughter liked it.
Price: $3,900 before taxes.
So what did we learn?
First, the used car market is even more of a contact sport than it used to be. It’s full of con artists, smoothies, carpetbaggers, excuse-makers and truth-stretchers.
As well, people are keeping their cars longer. And decent, lightly-used vehicles in this price range don’t last long and seem to get instantly snapped up and recycled by curbers and flip artists. These guys are fast.
And if it isn’t quick-buck artists, it’s sellers who are trying to fob off a car well past its useful life, with a myriad of hidden problems and issues they’re trying desperately to hide.
Unfortunately, by this stage of the game, the usual sources of advice – Consumer Reports, Transport Canada, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, J.D. Power, etc. – are kind of irrelevant. That’s because any used car priced in the $5,000 neighbourhood is going to be at least 10 years old, and has likely been through two, three or more owners.
That means that sometimes, hitting the car lots may be the way to go. If your timing is right, you can get a half-decent trade-in at a fair price.
The Civic was initially marked at much more than the actual selling price but I haggled the guy down, and got it serviced and detailed to boot. As well, you can, for a price, purchase extended warranty coverage, even on a car as old as this one. It’s not cheap but it’s available.
I also discovered that what I may consider to be an appropriate choice won’t necessarily resonate with a 25-year-old female. Rather than fight our way through high-mileage, clapped-out Civics, Corollas, Camrys and the like, I reasoned, why not think outside the box a little and look at models like, oh, the Buick Century, second- generation Honda Odyssey, Saturn Vue and so on. Cars that are affordable with surprisingly good reliability but are often overlooked.
“Nope,” she said, “those are grandpa cars – I’m not ready for that yet.”
Ted Laturnus writes for Troy Media’s Driver Seat Associate website. An automotive journalist since 1976, he has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist of the Year twice and is past-president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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