Author Topic: "Unicorn" car under $5000  (Read 9108 times)

livrocentral

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"Unicorn" car under $5000
« on: July 31, 2012, 10:39:26 PM »
To use onehappypanda's phrase, I am looking for a "unicorn car"; in other words, one that is roomy, fuel-efficient, and reliable for under $5000 (and preferably closer to $4k to allow for transaction costs). We are looking to replace our 1995 Volvo 850 GLT sedan, which has over 205,000 miles and is threatening us with higher maintenance costs.

We have 2 kids and expect we'll have 3 within the next year or two. We are open to sedans and smaller hatchbacks, although we did test-drive a Vibe and found it pretty cramped in the back seat and very limited with cargo space once the stroller and medical equipment go in.) The 2002 Accord, which only comes in a sedan, has better, if not bigger, cargo capacity than the Vibe/Matrix.

So, I've been searching Craigslist for sedans and wagons with manual transmission that are near me in eastern Pennsylvania. Ideally I'd find something in-state, because the transaction costs are lower, but I'm open to crossing state lines. My top options at the moment, based on what's currently for sale by private sellers in my area (zip code 17603):

 1. 2001 Subaru Outback - 107,000 miles - $4900 - AWD - est. MPG 19/25 - timing belt replaced at 80k, head gaskets replaced at 50k
 2. 2001 Honda Accord EX - 159,000 miles - $4950 - est. MPG 22/29 - no maintenance records
 3. 2004 Saturn VUE - 100,000 miles - $4200 - FWD - est. MPG 21/26 - uses a timing chain, not belt; one owner w/records
 4. 2004 Honda Civic - 138,000 miles - $4700 - est. MPG 28/36 - don't know history

I think the Accord would be my preferred model, but there are very few specimens available at the moment, and they are pricey. The Outback was fairly enjoyable to drive and I like the look. But the owner confessed it never gets above the low 20s in MPG. That was a real turn-off, especially at the price. Comparatively, the VUE looks pretty good: better average MPG than the Subaru (and the only manual on fuelly.com gets an average of 28 MPG!), and very spacious. It's not a behemoth, either: at 181.3" it's shorter than the Accord (189") and the Outback (187.4") and about the same width as the Accord. Curb weight is lighter than the Subaru (which has AWD) by about 300 lbs.

I should note that all of these vehicles have manual transmissions. I'm struggling with this decision mainly because I don't like the idea of buying an SUV (call it a "mini-ute" or "crossover" if you want, but it's still an SUV). If there were something comparable in size to the Subaru wagon but with better fuel economy I'd be all over it like stink on a monkey. But those cars just don't seem to be out there. So, am I missing something? Or am I foolish in limiting my search to only manuals? Also: how far would you drive for the perfect car?

Thanks in advance for any suggestions. (P.S. I have searched the previous posts somewhat extensively and haven't found a thread exactly like this one, but I hope you'll forgive the unavoidable redundancies.)


« Last Edit: August 01, 2012, 04:15:02 AM by DP »

reverend

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #1 on: July 31, 2012, 11:53:31 PM »
Have you considered a 2003 or newer Volvo V70.  They're front-wheel drive like your other choices (I figure you don't have a lot of snow there) and decent amounts of room and decent mileage, particularly if you get the non-turbo engine. I don't know how easy they are to find with manual transmission - but being somewhat upscale most probably have automatics.

The 850 is a great car and 200K miles isn't bad (read my engine oil analysis on my Volvo 960 at www.robdiesel.com, my engine is identical to yours but one cylinder more). A few swaybar links, half-shafts (FCP has them for what, $70 each?) and a few bulbs in the dash and it'll last. Make sure to run synthetic oil!

I've looked a bit at small cars, but one major drawback they have is crappy mileage (they're hard to make aerodynamic due to their size) and weak engines. I keep coming back to the Prius. The Honda Fit is neat and feel solidly built, but it's very expensive used. The Nissan Versa isn't bad and has great legroom for adults front and back, but is weaker than the Fit and feels a lot cheaper. Still expensive as hell used and both of these get crappy mileage. The Kia Rio and Yaris are on my list to spend time with, but I am not hopeful.

For the (high) price of these cars, I can pick up a 2004-5 Volvo V70 with 100K miles, slap some shocks and swaybar links on it, replace the bevel gear seal and drive it another 100K for no money. It gets 30mpg on the hwy and 21 in the city and you ride in a VERY plush car.

James

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #2 on: August 01, 2012, 09:04:00 AM »
I absolutely agree it's a bit of a unicorn car.  I have the Outback wagon and it works for us, we have three kids (13,10,7) and we fit quite well with plenty of room in the back for stuff.  I agree about the mpg, it's definitely not what we want, but we get a lot of snow and ice so the awd was worth it.  If I was in a warmer climate I'd probably opt for something else.

onehappypanda

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #3 on: August 01, 2012, 09:43:47 AM »
Heh, glad my phrase caught on. Though in all fairness, it wouldn't be a true unicorn car unless you wanted it to be under 5 years old and <100,000 miles ;)

I don't think the Civic will have enough room for you, personally. I have an older Civic and it works great for the 2 of us, not so much if you add in kids and stuff. You're correct that Accords tend to be overpriced for what they are- they're one of the most popular and well-recognized names when it comes to sedans so you end up paying for that. Without maintenance records and at the higher price and mileage, I'd avoid that Accord- especially the V6 ones and they're supposed to have a tendency for the transmission to fail at higher mileage.

You could try the Hyundai Sonata- it's very similar (almost twinsies) with the Accord with a slightly less plush interior. Should still have the space you need and the mileage you want. Because the name isn't as well-recognized as the Accord, around here you could get one around 2003-2005 for under $5K. Depends on your market of course.

Going for a manual transmission does limit you quite a bit, since automatics are a lot more common (and popular). But it also means you might get a better deal if the market for manuals is weak enough in your area.

I don't have a lot of experience with the Outback and the Vue, but through the grapevine I've heard that the quality of the Vue is pretty inconsistent- some seem to be really good, others seem to be complete lemons. I'd actually lean toward the Outback since I've heard they're workhorses and tend to last forever. But then again, I don't drive a lot of miles to the MPG isn't a huge factor in ownership costs for me, compared to maintenance.

tannybrown

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #4 on: August 01, 2012, 11:18:27 AM »
Of those choices I'd go with the Outback.  The poor gas mileage is somewhat mitigated by the fact that you're Mustachian and don't drive unless you really need to.

That said, I really like my Matrix.  The back seat is tight for adults but one of the best attributes of children is that they are small and can be fit into small spaces.

palvar

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #5 on: August 01, 2012, 02:49:16 PM »
Of those choices I'd go with the Outback.  The poor gas mileage is somewhat mitigated by the fact that you're Mustachian and don't drive unless you really need to.

What always makes me nervous about Subarus is the additional weight and maintenance of the AWD system.  Isn't that just one more thing waiting to break?

livrocentral

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #6 on: August 01, 2012, 07:57:09 PM »
Thanks for all the comments, folks.

Of those choices I'd go with the Outback.  The poor gas mileage is somewhat mitigated by the fact that you're Mustachian and don't drive unless you really need to.

What always makes me nervous about Subarus is the additional weight and maintenance of the AWD system.  Isn't that just one more thing waiting to break?

Yeah, the Outback station wagon is 300 lbs. heavier than a mini-SUV, so I'd say it adds some weight! I have heard they get excellent reviews for their AWD systems, though. Not like the early 2000s Volvos, which are notorious in certain models for failures.

P.S. The Outback I looked at was in the Philly area, not far off the Willow Grove exit.

Have you considered a 2003 or newer Volvo V70. 

I have definitely considered it--although as I just mentioned, I've heard horror stories about the AWD in certain models. But FWD is fine for me. We do get snow and (more commonly) sleet and freezing rain around here, but I've survived this long without AWD.

Heh, glad my phrase caught on. Though in all fairness, it wouldn't be a true unicorn car unless you wanted it to be under 5 years old and <100,000 miles ;)

I don't think the Civic will have enough room for you, personally. I have an older Civic and it works great for the 2 of us, not so much if you add in kids and stuff. You're correct that Accords tend to be overpriced for what they are- they're one of the most popular and well-recognized names when it comes to sedans so you end up paying for that. Without maintenance records and at the higher price and mileage, I'd avoid that Accord- especially the V6 ones and they're supposed to have a tendency for the transmission to fail at higher mileage.

You could try the Hyundai Sonata- it's very similar (almost twinsies) with the Accord with a slightly less plush interior. Should still have the space you need and the mileage you want. Because the name isn't as well-recognized as the Accord, around here you could get one around 2003-2005 for under $5K. Depends on your market of course.

Thanks for the suggestion.

livrocentral

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #7 on: August 01, 2012, 08:47:23 PM »
Any opinions on this bad boy?
http://delaware.craigslist.org/cto/3169096468.html

2005 Hyundai Elantra GT - 4-door, manual, hatchback, 82k miles - $5000

Looks like it might get a little more cargo room than a regular sedan. Not sure about the long-term reliability of the model however.

palvar

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #8 on: August 02, 2012, 12:25:51 PM »
2005 Hyundai Elantra GT - 4-door, manual, hatchback, 82k miles - $5000

Hyundai was already offering their 10-year/100k mile warranty, so it should be a quality car (not that you could qualify for the warranty).

AnDaLe

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #9 on: August 04, 2012, 10:28:17 AM »
If you're ok with a Civic, look into a Nissan Sentra.  I got my 2002 Sentra for $3000 with 108k miles, and it's be amazing car since I got it.  I average 35mpg with it.  It should easily find one under $4000 IMO.  Good luck.

livrocentral

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #10 on: August 04, 2012, 02:37:52 PM »
t
I can pick up a 2004-5 Volvo V70 with 100K miles, slap some shocks and swaybar links on it, replace the bevel gear seal and drive it another 100K for no money. It gets 30mpg on the hwy and 21 in the city and you ride in a VERY plush car.


Do you know if the newer Volvos still require (recommend?) higher octane fuel? For my current 850, 92 is recommended and the minimum is 89. So I pay $.10-.20 more per gallon. I'd like to avoid that, obviously.

grantmeaname

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #11 on: August 05, 2012, 09:20:28 AM »
If it's a turbo, it'll still probably require premium fuel. Is your 850 a turbo?

If you have a specific car in mind you can look it up on FuelEconomy.Gov to see what it uses.

reverend

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #12 on: August 06, 2012, 07:14:30 AM »
Yep. In theory you could run them on lower grades as the knock sensors dial back the timing, but I wouldn't do that in a turbo.
Picking up an older Sentra/Accord/Sonata/Elantra is probably going to be the best bet for you.


t
I can pick up a 2004-5 Volvo V70 with 100K miles, slap some shocks and swaybar links on it, replace the bevel gear seal and drive it another 100K for no money. It gets 30mpg on the hwy and 21 in the city and you ride in a VERY plush car.


Do you know if the newer Volvos still require (recommend?) higher octane fuel? For my current 850, 92 is recommended and the minimum is 89. So I pay $.10-.20 more per gallon. I'd like to avoid that, obviously.

livrocentral

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #13 on: August 06, 2012, 07:22:23 AM »
If it's a turbo, it'll still probably require premium fuel. Is your 850 a turbo?

If you have a specific car in mind you can look it up on FuelEconomy.Gov to see what it uses.

No, not a turbo. Thanks for the link.
Yep. In theory you could run them on lower grades as the knock sensors dial back the timing, but I wouldn't do that in a turbo.
Picking up an older Sentra/Accord/Sonata/Elantra is probably going to be the best bet for you.


t
I can pick up a 2004-5 Volvo V70 with 100K miles, slap some shocks and swaybar links on it, replace the bevel gear seal and drive it another 100K for no money. It gets 30mpg on the hwy and 21 in the city and you ride in a VERY plush car.


Do you know if the newer Volvos still require (recommend?) higher octane fuel? For my current 850, 92 is recommended and the minimum is 89. So I pay $.10-.20 more per gallon. I'd like to avoid that, obviously.
Thanks

mindaugas

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #14 on: August 10, 2012, 11:22:44 AM »
I have two matching 2002 Outbacks with the H6 motor and I get 27mpg on the highway and low 20's in city. I live 20 miles (round trip) from work and a full tank will last 2 weeks easy in stop and go traffic. As for reliability, one has 150k and I don't feel any difference in power compared to the other with only 85k. everything still works flawlessly in both included all the heated things like mirrors, seats, windshield wipers. I had a legacy before that had 220k+ and the transmission was finally starting to slip, but only if I accelerated too fast :)

livrocentral

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #15 on: August 10, 2012, 12:10:50 PM »
I have two matching 2002 Outbacks with the H6 motor and I get 27mpg on the highway and low 20's in city. I live 20 miles (round trip) from work and a full tank will last 2 weeks easy in stop and go traffic. As for reliability, one has 150k and I don't feel any difference in power compared to the other with only 85k. everything still works flawlessly in both included all the heated things like mirrors, seats, windshield wipers. I had a legacy before that had 220k+ and the transmission was finally starting to slip, but only if I accelerated too fast :)

I am definitely leaning in the direction of getting a Subaru. This week I found 3 more Outbacks for about $3500 each: a 2000 with 81k, a 2001 with 91k, and a 2002 with 130k. Sounds like a great price for a great car--

But have you had any experience with the head gasket issue common to this era of Subarus? I've heard horror stories about a very expensive repair and obviously want to avoid (or at least accurately anticipate) such problems if I buy one.

Posthumane

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #16 on: August 13, 2012, 03:08:59 PM »
I just bought a 2001 Subaru Outback. I had stretched my 1993 Escort to about the limit of its useful life (I bought it as a beater for $900 and drove it for 100k km / 5 years) and finally settled on getting a replacement. The subaru cost me $2500. The head gasket issue has been a consideration and I'm keeping an eye on oil/coolant levels, but I do all my own work and feel comfortable about replacing it myself if I have to. If you aren't able to do your own maintenance then head gasket replacement could turn out to be quite costly. They are also known for issues with various engine sensors which, again, isn't a big issue if you do your own maintenance, but could be a hassle if you have to take it in.

The fuel economy is quite poor in my opinion (I'm averaging 9L/100km so far, or about 26 mpg(US) on the first few tanks), but I'm used to driving small cars and motorcycles. This car has so much room that I can't ever see needing anything bigger - in fact I was looking for an impreza wagon but got the outback simply because it looked like a good deal compared to other subbies. If you don't need AWD, I would suggest looking at other cars with better fuel economy.

Disclaimer: vehicles are my hobby and probably one of my biggest anti-mustachian money sinks. While my car purchases are cheap, I also have spent many thousands of dollars on tools, I have a motorcycle that I use regularly and several others that I got cheaply/free to fix up, an aircraft that I'm in the process or trying to lease out or sell, and am in the process of building a Locost (sports car) from "scratch" so take my vehicle advice with a big grain of salt.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2012, 03:12:44 PM by Posthumane »

mindaugas

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #17 on: August 22, 2012, 10:44:45 AM »
Quote
But have you had any experience with the head gasket issue common to this era of Subarus? I've heard horror stories about a very expensive repair and obviously want to avoid (or at least accurately anticipate) such problems if I buy one.

I have the H6 (6cy boxer) in both my Outbacks and I believe this doesn't suffer from the same issue. From what I read it was mostly the 4 cylinder boxer motors. This seems to have all the info on it. http://allwheeldriveauto.com/subaru-head-gasket-problems-explained/

Quote
This week I found 3 more Outbacks for about $3500 each
seriously? $3500 would be for a salvage title or 150k+ here in CO.

The utility of the Outback is also another reason. It's a wagon and has a huge rear area + folding seats. I have a car seat in mine for an infant and I'm still able to stuff my bike and dog in there with the baby.

Welmoed

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #18 on: August 27, 2012, 07:00:22 PM »
We've been looking for a "unicorn car" for our son (it's his college graduation present) and wanted to stay close to $5K. But everything in our price range was either extremely high mileage or really old or had body issues. But just a few days ago we stumbled on a real gem: a 1999 Toyota Camry LE with -- get this -- only 32K miles on it! And it was just a little bit over our price point ($5500), but with a nearly flawless body and interior. I can't believe we lucked out. How'd we find it? By posting on Facebook that we were in the market for a car. A friend of a friend contacted us and that was all it took!
So take heart... The good deals are out there.
--Welmoed

livrocentral

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Re: "Unicorn" car under $5000
« Reply #19 on: August 27, 2012, 08:33:15 PM »
Update: We decided to go for the 2001 Outback, which I bought about 1 month after the initial test drive. The original asking price ($4900) had been reduced, and the seller agreed to go down to $4200 by the time I bought it. All around, both buyer and seller were happy, and I took it on its inaugural drive this weekend: a camping trip, with the wagon full of Boy Scouts and gear. Great car so far!

Now, anybody want to buy a '95 Volvo 850 with 205k+ miles?