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Choosing between a Nissan and a Toyota used car

I need to buy a cheap car that will run for a couple of years. I’m looking at a '97 Nissan Sentra GXE automatic with 126k and a '96 Toyota Camry LE V6 automatic with 177k.

I will have a mobile mechanic inspect them both but let’s say that they are both in pretty good shape. There are more maintenance records for the Camry, with and older owner. The Nissan only has maintenance records from 2009.

There are a lot more bells and whistles and luxury items on the Camry but I don’t really care about that. I just want something that will run well and not cost much money over the next two years. Obviously, there is no guarantee that nothing will go wrong but which car would you favor?

The asking price on the Nissan is $2600, the asking price on the Toyota is $3600. They both seem fair for this area (Santa Barbara CA). Is the Camry worth the extra $1000 even with the higher mileage?

Thank you so much for your advice, I really appreciate it.

It’s a coin flip, really. Any car that age may give you another five years of dependable service or it may drop its transmission next month. Unpredictable.

There may be statistical records that suggest model A has lasted longer than model B, but these are averages. They don’t apply to the individual car sitting in front of you.

I would lean toward the Nissan because it is $1000 cheaper and it has fewer miles on it. If someone else wants to make a case for the Toyota, he gets no argument from me.

Thanks. I know it’s a toss-up, that’s what’s driving me nuts. They’re both reliable makes/models. A lot will depend on what the mechanic says. That could easily make the decision for me. If he says they’re both in good shape I’m leaning towards the Nissan for exactly the reasons you state. The Camry is fancier but that’s not important right now. Anyway, thanks. I’ll see if anyone makes the case for the Camry.

Similar to SteveF’s reasoning, I would go for the Nissan, for the lower miles and less money.

My vote if for the Nissan not only because of miles and price but because it has a timing chain instead of a belt. The Toyota has a belt and unless records reflect that job was done in recent memory then that’s an expense you would be facing right off the bat.

Keep in mind that a Nissan or Toyota badge on the back of the car does not mean a problem free car. They do break and wear out like everything else.
I might say the Camry if the timing belt issue has been taken care of and if the price is heavily negotiable.

Maybe you could take a trip to Lompoc and pick up a copy of Photo Ad or Trade Express or the third one with a name I forgot. I wouldn’t want a car with 170,000 on it unless I could get it for around $1,000 or less.

At 170,000 miles, you’re getting into the cars that need the worn out parts changed. I can run some junkers because I used to be able to go to Bedlo’s and remove parts myself. Now, not so well because my old body is a lot slower.

Maybe you need a car that has about 60,000 on it. If so; you may have to save more money before you choose your car.

Thanks ok4450, I hadn’t thought about the timing belt/chain thing. That’s a good point. I’m expecting the usual stuff to go wrong on the car, I’m just trying to go with a dependable make/model so that with any luck it won’t be too bad. I’ll check the owner’s maintenance records about the timing belt on the Camry.

Also thanks to you, pleasedodgevan2, I’m afraid that Lompoc is a bit too far for me right now. The prices I listed are the seller’s starting price. Obviously that will be negotiated down. I wish I could wait for another year before buying a car but I can’t. The best I can do right now is to buy a cheap runner and save up for the next couple of years to get something better.

I agree with ok4450. plus I think the nissan is a smaller car and will get better mileage.

Thanks, gdan29. The Nissan will definitely get better mileage.

I’d be put off by the Camry’s having the V6. When I was shoppoing for a used car around 2001 I tried Camry with the 4-cyl and with the 6-cyl. The bigger engine was way more than I needed, so why pay for it? And I think some engine maintenance is harder/more $ than the 4-cyl just because the 6-cyl is more crowded under the hood.

Besides the excellent point from OK4450, I think the transmission could be a pivotal factor. That’s because transmission rebuilds are quite expensive.

The most knowledgable contributors on this forum frequently stress the importance of regular fluid changes (with new filter generally) for auto transmissions every 30,000 miles, which translates into much longer life for an auto trans. You mentioned the lack of service records on the Nissan, unfortunately. At least see if you can find out the history on transmission service for the Camry. If the transmission service for both cars had been about the same (and are there records of that), then you can take that out of your calculations. However, if the Camry has been meticulously maintained with regular trans fluid change, and the Nissan has never had a transmission service, then you might lean toward the Camry. You could also drop in at a transmission repair shop, preferably a locally owned independent one, and see if they have any thoughts about the durability of the transmissions in these two cars.

But it sounds like you can’t get any info on the Nissan for the first 12 years, so look at it this way. If you assume that you’ll put nearly 40,000 miles on the car, you might never encounter a problem with the Nissan since that would get you to around 165k. But add the same 40k to the Camry, and you are starting to verge into the time when a transmission may have problems.

I am inclined to think that the Camry is being priced higher just because it’s a Toyota, and to some extent because of the bells and whistles which you say don’t matter to you.

You seem more focused on reliability and value, and for that reason, the Sentra sounds like a better value for your criteria.

It all comes down to the condition of the car. Forget the nameplate and go with what the mechanic says when he checks the cars.

Art1966 adds another key point. Good luck!

Thank you. The info on the Camry is complete from day one of the car. This is the second owner but they bought it from a friend so have all the records. The Nissan has records at the local Nissan dealership for the past three years. I’ll be sure to double-check any transmission maintenance/repair and go over it with the mechanic doing the inspections.

The point about the mileage and when the cars can be expected to run into major work is a good one. I don’t think I’ll put 40k on it over the next two years. I don’t do that much driving, averaging about 6k a year. If I can get this thing to last for a couple of years I’ll be thrilled. And no, I don’t really care about the bells and whistles. They’re nice, but reliability is crucial right now.

I really do appreciate all the great advice you folks are giving me.

Thanks, Art1966, that’s a good point about the engine. I don’t do a lot of heavy-duty driving anyway so I don’t need the power. I basically just scoot around locally with the occasional trip from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.

I love Toyota’s and have driven quite a few. Buy the Nissan. For a grand less you are getting a car with fewer miles and better gas mileage. The design life of most cars is now 150,000 miles. If you buy the Toyota you are already past that and, despite the fact that it is a Toyota, is going to need some attention. Unless the mechanic disagrees for obvious mechanical reasons I believe that the Nissan is the better bet. Remember that used cars are ALWAYS a gamble. I have bought used vehicles that are dynamite and one or two that were forgettable. Good luck!!!

I think that era Sentra is about as “bulletproof” a car as you are going to find. So, I vote for the Sentra.

I have a '2000 V6 Camry (son’s car at college) with about 150K on it and it is a great car. It does have a timing belt, but mine has a non-interference engine - meaning if the timing belt breaks the motor isn’t destroyed as a result. The rear 3 spark plugs are no fun to replace and is a tough job to DIY.

You are really looking a 2 very solid cars.

The design life of most cars is now 150,000 miles.

Maybe the cars you buy…If the cars are well maintained…then 150k miles isn’t even near it’s half life.

It’s the years I’d be more concerned with.

In Santa Barbara, you can use the power of the V-6. Once you get off that coastal highway, it ain’t flatland anymore. 1996 was probably the best year for the Toyota Camry. Customer satisfaction surveys were the most positive for that year Camry. In fact that year Camry set one of the all time records for new car customer satisfaction. The 97 Camry didn’t fair nearly as well and some believe it has been downhill ever since.

1997 was not the best year for the Sentra, but its not a bad car though. Unless your mechanic finds some serious problems with the Camry, I recommend it, you will love it. I think the Sentra will be a little too underpowered for your area.

@MikeInNH - I get over 220,000 from every vehicle I own. That doesn’t change the design life. I agree that , with proper maintenance many vehicles can go 300,000 miles or more.

I get over 220,000 from every vehicle I own. That doesn't change the design life. I agree that , with proper maintenance many vehicles can go 300,000 miles or more.

Every vehicle we’ve owned in the past 20 years had no problem going over 300k miles. 2 Honda Accords and 2 pathfinders. If all Accords and all pathfinders were maintained as well as I maintained ours…then I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority (over 95%) would have been able to reach 300k miles. So I’m very secure in what I said that 150k miles isn’t even half life of many many cars on the road. And when I buy a new car I EXPECT it to reach 300k miles. If it doesn’t then I’ll be buying from another manufacturer next time.

Design life of 150k is used in the auto industry. Not sure of years. A friend designs specialty seals for auto/truck manufacturing applications. They use 150k as a design point. Another friend works in transmission end of things and same 150k point exists for design life.