Best family car for DIY? (Preferably affordable - used is OK)

Hi everyone,

Our 1994 Saturn and 1986 VW van are showing their age. We will keep the van going another year or two to get some camping trips out of it, but after that, will need to replace it with a family-friendly car. Our experience with the VW has been, shall we say, love-hate.

We LOVE that we can camp with it (it has the poptop camper package) and it’s roominess. We HATE having to work on it. The parts are ungodly expensive (even tires!) and anytime something significant needs replaced (like a slave cylinder for the clutch), it involves incredible feats of gymnastic contorsion, not to mention tedious hours spent twisting flat wrenches an 1/8th of a turn at a time, because nothing else will work in the tight spaces available… Well, you get the idea. This van was NOT designed to be worked on! So much for vaunted German engineering…

Also, we’ll have to replace the Saturn someday, though it’s less clear how far in the future. It’s still a great commuter car at 30mpg and not too expensive to fix. We thought we might replace it with a newer version, unless there is something better you all would recommend?

OK, so given that we are trying to be frugal DIYers, what’s the best car (or cars) for us? I’d love to hear your opinions…

- Jen

I respectfully submit that you are taking the wrong approach in selecting your next car. In terms of DIY repair, every modern car has both its easy procedures as well as those that require a contortionist or an engine removal.

A common example is fuel pump replacement. Some cars require the drainage and removal of the gas tank while others provide easy access through a top hatch. Jen, should this be your major requirement for purchase? I hope not.

Narrow your choice to two or three models that suit your needs and fit your budget. Then you can visit the specialty forums to chat with owners about repairs.

I respectfully submit that you are taking the wrong approach in selecting your next car. In terms of DIY repair, every modern car has both its easy procedures as well as those that require a contortionist or an engine removal.

I think it’s very reasonable to buy a car based on DIY repairs. I don’t have 3 hours to waste once a month chaning the oil on a car which I’ve done before. And I REFUSE to take my car to someone for something simple like a tune-up or oil change when I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself.

So quit being contrary just for ornery’s sake. Give the nice lady the name of the car you once owned that required an oil change once a month that took you 3 hours so she can avoid it. Then we can move on and get helpful advice from everyone else.

“In terms of DIY repair, every modern car has both its easy procedures as well as those that require a contortiniest or an engine removal”.

This was true of automobiles in the 1950’s and 1960’s as well. My Rambler was a good example. The engine repairs were easy to make. I could practically stand under the hood beside the engine. On the other hand, in order to remove the transmission, the entire rear end had to be dropped, because of the enclosed drive shaft. On some of the Studebakers of this era, one had to pull the engine in order to remove the oil pan.

On our 2003 Toyota 4Runner, the owner’s manual gives a good description on how to do some maintenance items such as replacing light bulbs and fuses and changing the cabin air filter. On the other hand, a Mercury Sable we once owned required one to remove the battery in order to change a headlight bulb. My brother cut his own top hatch in the trunk to replace the fuel pump. I remember cutting a hatch in the innter fender wells of my Ford Maverick (a very simple car) to install grease fittings for an upper control arm bushing so that I wouldn’t have to do major work to eliminate a squeak. I have a 1978 Oldmobile Cutlass on which I had to change the heater core. This was not a difficult job, as the heater core is in a box under the hood. On my Ford Maverick, I had to pull out part of the dashboard, discharge the airconditioner and go through all kinds of contortions to replace a heater core.

Look for the vehicles that fit your needs and has a good repair record.

Actually, I think it’s quite reasonable to include DIY considerations in buying a car, when we know we will keep it a LONG time. We typically buy a good car in good condition and then try to keep it running as long as humanly possible (i.e. ideally until the body simply rusts out - this was the case with my 1980 Toyota Corolla. We finally got rid of it when the body sagged on opening the driver-side door! Oh well, nothing lasts forever, especially thos unibodies…)

I’m not saying the DIY issue is our ONLY consideration. But when you buy a car for the longhaul, it’s a substantial one. Why SHOULDN’t it be? Obviously we want something reliable, that WON’T break down a lot. But it IS in the nature of cars to eventually wear out their parts, especially the brakes, exhaust, and then of course various pumps and eletrical stuff (batteries, starters, alternators). Car today can last 300,000 miles if cared for properly. That’s a lot of repairs along the way, even for the reliable ones.

So, come on, don’t any of you have cars that you have known and loved for ease of working on?

  • Jen

I’m a tightwad also. Looks like I’ll be the first to actually make a recommendation. Honda Accord. I own a 1992 and a 1998 and do a certain amount of work myself. Bought both new. The Accords’s reliability and value record speaks for itself. My cars have 230,000 miles (92) and 186,000 miles (98) and I plan to drive both them a lot longer.

I personally think that DIY capability is a valid consideration for those who want that feature.

Let me suggest that the things to look for to accomodate that are:

  1. high reliability. If you don’t have to fix it much, and when you do it’s a minor peripheral component, your DIY chores are considerably less.

  2. a longitudinally mounted, rear wheel drive 4-banger with few options. It’s far easier to do almost everything on such a vehicle than on a transversely mounted FWD vehicle. And a transversely mounted 6-banger is almost sure to be a pain for a DIY’er. Doggoned rear banks can be impossible to service, and changing something like a timing belt can require disassembly of 1/4 of the car and lots of cussing and torn knuckles.

As I said in an earlier post, some things that are easy to repair on car A may be difficult on car B and those easy to repair on car B may be difficult on car A. For general maintenance, the Ford Maverick was a snap. The oil plug was on the side of the oil pan and the filter was easy to reach from above. I could slide a drain pan under the the car, remove the drain plug, replace the filter, re-install the drain plug and pour in the new oil in less than 10 minutes and I didn’t have to get under the car. The 1978 Cutlass that replaced this car is much more difficult to change the oil. I have to put it up on ramps and go under the car. The filter is in tight quarters. On the other hand, it was much easier to replace the heater core in the Olds where it was right under the hood than the Ford Maverick.

The 2003 Toyota 4Runner has the oil filter right on top the engine where it is easy to remove and replace. On the other hand, I haven’t even seen the spark plugs on the engine, although I haven’t looked very hard.

Back in 1978 when I purchased the Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2 which I still drive, I bought the factory service manual and became familiar with making some repairs. Changing the alternator is a snap. Replacing the heater core was not difficult. The factory service manual was money well spent for me and I recommend that whatever you purchase, obtain this manual. When I can’t make the repairs on this old car, I’ll get rid of it.

One experience I had was changing the muffler on the Oldmobile. It is right at the back of the car. I bought a replacement muffler at NAPA and spend a couple of hours replacing the muffler. The next time it needed a muffler I was pressed for time and took it to a local exhaust system job. The total bill for muffler replacement was less than what I had to pay for the muffler from NAPA.

I’m finding that there are fewer and fewer repairs that I can do on today’s products whether they are household appliances or automobiles. I repaired our tube type television set as long as we owned it. With today’s televisions, you usually just replace it–there isn’t much that can be repaired. I like the idea of maintaining my own equipment, but on many things today, there is a limited amount that I can do.

I have to say, my buddy has a '92 Accord 4-cylinder 2-door, and I have probably never seen another car that easy to work, on in my life (and that includes my '70 Chevy pickup.) It is a no-options DX car, 5 speed, no AC, crank windows, etc. Parts aren’t exactly dirt cheap, but there are enough in used circulation that they can be had at a reasonable cost. Good little car.

Gee, I hate to say it, but if you’re complaining about the servicablilty of an 86 Vanagon, you’re going to be disappointed with practically anything newer. I mean, yes, the parts are freakin’ expensive and they need a lot of them and they can be a bear to get running right, but in terms of how hard it is to do actual repairs, Vanagons are pretty simple to work on compared to most modern cars.

Truck-based vehicles tend to be easier to work on simply because of generally roomier engine compartments and often simpler components. I think you might be happy with a late-80’s to early-90’s 4runner with the 22RE 4-cyl engine-- they’re very basic to work on, have a roomy engine compartment because they also come with a larger 6-cyl and are very dependable and give gas mileage that will probably be comperable to your vanagon.

If you want a passenger car, it gets a little more complicated. I think Honda Accords are great, but I don’t quite agree with Josh and Lars’ assesment that they’re DIY friendly cars-- they have very cramped engine compartments and many repair procedures that involve removal of unrelated major components for clearance. Not that that’s at all unusual for cars these days, but I don’t think they particularly stand out as DIY-friendly. Some of the GM mid-size cars of the not-too-distant past weren’t too bad to work on, such as the Buick Century or LeSabre (and their various other nameplates), but I don’t really know if this is still the case.

Oh, I had one other suggestion, although this is more of a prediction because it’s too new for anything to have gone wrong with it yet, but I drive an '06 Scion xB for work, and it has a wonderfully roomy engine compartment. Everytime I check the oil, I marvel at how accessable everything looks-- I’d bet it’d be pretty easy to work on, and if you don’t mind that they’re slow and not especially safe (I’m assuming as a Vanagon owner, you don’t) they’re pretty nice little cars.

What about a small or midsize 2WD SUV? Maybe you might like another minivan. You can buy a tent or two to take along. That’s a lot less expensive than buying a small RV. You can get a Hybrid Ford Escape for less than $30,000 or a Hybrid Toyota Highlander for less than $35,000. They sell less expensive models without the hybrid motors, but you need to cmpare the high end trucks, not the low end ones to get an idea of what the hybrid option costs. If you do mostly highway driving, don’t get a hybrid.

I’d go, as was said, for a four cylinder rather than a V6 and also something that uses a timing chain or timing gears rather than a timing belt. You can likely change a timing belt and the required water pump on some models but why set yourself up for that task? Since you are DIY people, you might not mind a manual transmission which will save a little gas. You probably don’t do automatic transmission overhauls but can change a clutch.

That is a great idea, to cut a hole in a trunk bottom to access the electric fuel pump. I will keep watching for suggestions and will think about locating the pump so that the hole is cut in the right place.

In addition to the advice posted here on Car Talk, I would poll several general repair mechanics who work on any brand for their opinions.

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country with the 3.8L OHV engine. No timing belt to replace, lots of room to work under the hood, including the rear bank spark plugs, oodles of interior room, and fairly decent fuel economy.

This post made me think back to what was the last really easy car to service and repair. IMHO, it had to be the Studebaker Scotsman sold in 1957 and 1958. I don’t remember these cars as having head gasket problems which seems to be common today. However, if the head gasket had to be replaced, it could be done in an hour or so with the flathead 6 cylinder engine. The heater was the recirculating type and was a box that hung down under the dashboard. A heater core replacement was about a half hour job. The Scotsman had a manual choke which had been phased out at this time in most cars and was replaced by an automatic choke which was often troublesome. The Studebaker utilized an open driveshaft, unlike some cars of this period that used a closed shaft which necessitated dropping the rear axle when removing the transmission. Therefore, a clutch repair on the Scotsman wasn’t all that difficult. You wouldn’t have trouble with the factory equipped radio, because these cars didn’t come with a radio from the factory and the dealers weren’t permitted to install one. You had to buy an after-market radio from someplace like Sears or Western Auto. The only feature that would have made servicing easier was that the Studebaker didn’t have suspended pedals, so the master cylinder was under the car rather than under the hood as it was on most cars by this time. The shift linkage for the column shift was somewhat troublesome, but, for $19.95, you could purchase a floor shifter from J.C. Whitney and install it yourself in an afternoon. The wiring was also pretty simple–no switches to turn on the dome light when the door was opened, no glove compartment or trunk compartment lights. There was no clock, no security system or any other accessory to draw curent when the car was off. I’m certain that electrical system problems, if they occured, would be very easy to solve. As I remember, the specifications called for inexpensive non-detergent motor oil and I don’t believe taht there was an oil filter that would be a potential for a leak. The cars came in three industrial colors for the 1957 model year–grey, green and blue. It wouldn’t be an overwhelming job to touch up a scratch.

The Studebaker Scotsman really was a DIY dream. If you wanted a windshield washer, you could buy an accessory kit that consisted of a foot operated pump and operated much like a kid’s squirt gun. There was no electric pump to go out of order. I, for one, appreciated the simplicity of this car which provided adequate transportation for a family of 5 or 6 people. I think we have lost something over the last 50 years in DIY simplicity.

Is that much different than the 3.3L that’s in the 2001 Grand Caravan? Cause mine looks reeeeally cramped when I pop the hood…very uninviting to me to do any work unless I’m dealing with something at the very top of the engine. Maybe I’m spoiled comparing it to my 85 Oldsmobile Cutlass?

“So, come on, don’t any of you have cars that you have known and loved for ease of working on?”

Sure, I have two 80s vintage benz diesels that are very simple and easy to work on. Parts are not cheap, but they are a very straight forward design and they last a LONG time. Completely mechanical design, no computer, no ignition system, they will run with no electrical power at all (once they start). Timing chain, no timing belt; mechanical fuel injector pump run from timing chain. Manual valve adjustment (every 15K miles), no hydraulic lifters. Simple v-belts to run the accessories. Lots of room around the engine, like a 60s domestic (no silly plastic covers on anything). Very minimal emissions controls (vacuum controlled EGR only). The only circuit boards in the car are the cruise control and the climate control “black boxes,” each can be replaced for about $300 if required. No air-bags, ABS, traction control, or other BS; but they are built like a tank. Excellent parts support from the dealer and after-market (just about anything you need in a couple of days, at most). The vacuum systems take a little getting used to, but they are not rocket science. Overall, they are more fun to work on than just about anything I’ve owned.

Yes, I recently tried doing the plugs in my 3.3, after lots of research on the net and taking the whole wiper crawl off I still could not see much. Took it to a shop for the rear 3 and felt good about the $100 I spent. The tech told me “I see why the front 3 are done!”.