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Ask Stan: Looking for a used car

Saturday, 20 September, 2014

I am seeking a cheap but reliable used car. Because I have no car knowledge, here are my questions:

  • Are there more reliable makes or what variables most impact the reliability of the car (aside from maintenance)?
  • I live in the west valley Arizona-are there certain features to look out for when purchasing a used car in this extreme heat?
  • If the age of a car matters, what range in years is worth buying-meaning if the owner kept good routine maintenance- would still give you overall reliability without a high fixing cost?
  • What sort of mechanical issues (previous or current) should be deal beakers on a purchase?
  • How important is mileage? What is the highest mileage to consider when buying?
  • Any other key points to look out for?

You ask very good questions. Sadly, the answers to all of these vary from model to model of car, and even among production facilities. Because of innumerable ineffable factors the California-built Corollas are heartier over time than Canadian vehicles which are on the same platform.

Are there more reliable makes or what variables most impact the reliability of the car? Climate, especially moist conditions, the quality of the materials used in original manufacture, the actual design, the blueprint essentially, of the car is critical. You are not just buying a car, you are buying a design, the product of a particular factory and a lot of materials which someone somewhere believed would make an acceptable car. These factors are why “car guys” are a bit cultish.

Are there certain features to look out for when purchasing a used car in this extreme heat? The biggest problems are the condition of the paint and interior due to ultraviolet light exposure. The common problems of the Midwest, such as rust or mold growth are unknown in your area. When you test drive watch the temp gauge. The car may not have been maintained well, despite the testimony of the owner, and if the radiator is blocked or has a lowered capacity for any reason, this would be a critical issue.

If the age of a car matters … it does and it doesn’t. Well maintained miles or highway miles, don’t really hurt a car overall. I would buy a Buick-3800-powered vehicle or Toyota from the 80s for daily transportation. (They would not be my first choice.) Other makes do not fare as well over time. Fords develop electrical gremlins over the decades. You don’t want a Hyundai older than 2006, the rule-of-thumb year where they finally got it together. As for cars overall, there is not and cannot be a general rule.

What sort of mechanical issues (previous or current) should be deal beakers on a purchase? The car should accelerate, brake, steer and roll along the road within 80% of the quality the car had when new. Any deviation means this car is not for you. The only dripping which is acceptable is condensation from the air-conditioning condenser. Crankcase oil should be green to beige and transparent. Although fluids which are too new should be considered the sign of a problem which may be covered up.

What is the highest mileage to consider when buying? For Toyotas or Hondas I would hold back after 150K, and only that if the price is right. For anything from America, around 100K. Avoid European badges as if they transmitted disease at any mileage unless you have plenty of money to pour into maintenance and do not need regular transportation. Koreans have become good so recently no rule of thumb yet exists. The condition of the front tires implies the condition of the steering gear; wear should be even side-to-side. The car should pull well off the line else the exhaust or fuel-delivery system may require potentially expensive service. Any thing a car “just needs” means it is too expensive for the present owner to cope with, and presumably you too.

For someone in your position, the general rule is to get the best car called “Toyota Corolla” within your budget. This is the only all-but-foolproof answer. It’s not an exciting or impressive car, but will get you where you need to go without hassle for years. Find or borrow a rednecky guy who is at least a bit of a know-it-all about cars. He will be happy to accompany you with your shopping, and will be familiar with the variables and know how to find the forums discussing problems and critical issues with any particular make or model of car.

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One Comment
  1. bwc1976 permalink
    Wednesday, 25 March, 2015 17:39

    I will just add that GM used to sell their own version of the Corolla in the 90’s and early 2000’s called the Geo Prizm and later the Chevy Prizm, and later their own version of the Matrix (basically a Corolla wagon) called the Pontiac Vibe, all made in the same California factory as the Corollas. I loved my 1992 Prizm, first car I learned to drive stick shift in and first car I drove halfway across the country solo in, but I made the mistake of trading it in for a 1986 Mercedes 300E a couple years later which ended up having weird electrical gremlins. Mercedes from the 70’s and 80’s (especially the diesels and especially 1985 or earlier) are basically built to last forever (except the fancy electrical bits, which the diesels have less of), easy to work on yourself if you or a friend are into that, and all the parts are still made, but I wouldn’t recommend them for Arizona because the air conditioners were very weak by American standards.

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