College Car Buy


I am currently a graduate student and am in the market for my first car purchase. I have about a $5000 limit and want to know what car can give me the most bang for my buck. I live close to school and work so I won’t be doing much driving, but I do want a dependable car that I could take out of town if the situation arises.

Any Suggestions?




Well, the perennial favorite answer for this question around here is the Ford Crown Victoria. A real grandpa car with a fast depreciation curve, but it gets decent mileage (reported 25MPG highway) and every mechanic and his brother know how to fix them and the parts are cheap.

No, it’s not going to impress the undergrad women over at delta-delta-delta, but it will get you and 4 or 5 friends around with a ton of room in the trunk.


Well, the perennial favorite answer for this question around here is the Ford Crown Victoria.

I think FAR MORE people will suggest a Toyota or Honda over the Crown Vic…From my observation it’s OVER 10:1.


He said the most bang for the buck so that would not be a Toyota or Honda. I suggest a compact size Focus or Cavalier around 1990 or newer. Cavalier for one had been around for a long time before that and the bugs are mostly gone.


In that price range, I’m not sure brand is that important, you are just buying a commodity. Look for something that is in good mechanical condition, not extremely high mileage, and ugly. Ugly; because the less “sexy” the car is the better deals you will find.

You may find a good deal on a geezer-moble like a crown vic, or a buick, but it probably won’t get great mileage. An older honda/toyota would be good if you can find one that’s not run into the ground for that price.

When you find something promising, have it checked out by a mechanic just to make sure it doesn’t have major issues. If it has small problems, negotiate a better price.


Honda or Toyota are by far the most reliable cars and if they break down they are pretty cheap to fix. They also have high resale value.

Stay away from the American and the German cars as there are few of them in your budget range we would trust unlike the Honda or Toyota.

But above all; check the car out before you buy it with a trusted mechanic!!!


You might want to consult the April 2007 issue of Consumer Reports. CR lists used automobiles in different price categories–I think the lowest may be the under $5000 (it may be under $6000) that have shown good reliability. CR also lists cars that should be avoided.

Whatever you do, have a trusted mechanic check your potential purchase. One thing I think you should factor into the cost of maintaining a car is whether or not it has an “interference” engine that requires a timing belt change if the engine is not to self-destruct. Somehow, this gets classified as mainenance cost rather than a repair cost. However, the $400 or so to change the timing belt will buy quite a bit of gasoline. For this reason, the Ford Crown Victoria suggestion may make more sense than many Honda or Toyota models.
I was in your situation, except my limit was $500. This was 45 years ago (summer of 1962). The only foreign make worth consideration at that time was a VW bug. The depreciation was so low on a VW, and the parts were so much more expensive that I bought an American nameplate.


You can’t go wrong with a Toyota Corolla or a Chevy Prizm (same car). Cheap to register and insure and in a few ways, cheaper to maintain than a Honda.


Whatever you purchase, hold back $1000 in a reserve fund for repairs that might crop up, or wear items such as tires, battery, brakes, mufflers, etc.


Good point that you brought up about the timing belt. Most Hondas if not all do have them and many Toyotas do too. Make sure that the car that you buy is not near the need for a new camshaft timing belt or else just had it changed. Some engines crash internally if the belt breaks. Yes, you can buy gas or other repairs with that money if you get a car with a timing chain that normally needs no maintenance.


Strong second here…raised my kids on Chevy Prisms/Novas. Couldn’t ask for a better bang for the buck. My favorite was an 02 I had to sell before it’s time. 40 mpg on highway, excellent PU in the standard, avoid the 3 speed auto unless mostly town use.


You can see that everyone has their own “perennial favorite”. I do, too!

Take a look at the Buick Regal. You should find a 2000 or 2001 in thsat price range. You’d have to go back to a 1998 Camry XLE V6 for an equivalent price (for an equivalent car). You can always save money by getting a car with less equipment, Like a Camry CE or a Buick Century. The Century is similar to the Regal, except that it has drum rear brakes, a smaller engine (still V6), a front bench seat, and squishier suspension. Still, you can knock off $1000 from the price of the Regal.

And the Regal is a very reliable car.


Since you are a graduate student, check the bulletin boards around your university. There may be a car for sale by a faculty member going on sabbatical or a car being sold by a graduate who is going abroad and doesn’t want to keep his/her car. You may be more apt to find a good Honda or Toyota this way–but be certain to have it checked over. University professors are often a good source of “geezer cars” such as Buicks or Ford Crown Victorias. (I’m a geezer and a University Professor, but I drive a Chevrolet minivan. Does this count as a “geezer car”?)


I’m a geezer and a University Professor, but I drive a Chevrolet minivan. Does this count as a “geezer car”?

Yup. (:


Wonderful! I would hate to drive a vehicle where I wouldn’t be able to maintain my image. When I first started my university teaching career 42 years ago, I bought a bottom of the line Rambler that was a 5 month old repossession with 7000 miles. The car cost me $1750 and I got the balance of the 24,000 mile warranty. I bought the Chevrolet minivan last year. It was a bottom of the line “program car” with 15,000 miles on the odometer and it cost me 10 times as much.


If you really want to maintain your image you need an ancient volvo sedan, like a 264. (:


Since it’s a used car, I don’t think there is a “one best” car. It all depends on how it was maintained and driven; in other words, how loose was the nut behind the steering wheel? :slight_smile:

Bang for the buck means a Crown Vic or Buick also. They’re plentiful, reliable, easy to maintain, and get pretty darn decent fuel economy.

Another plus is that a Crown Vic (especially a white one) resembles a detective’s car. The local thugs at the college may choose to bypass the Vic and concentrate their stereo and CD stealing abilities on the Hondas and Mustangs! :slight_smile:


Which specific “geezer cars” are readily available also depends on the part of the country. You are more likely to find one of these crown vic/buick boats in the mid-west than on the coasts (some folks actually still buy domestic sedans in the mid-west). On the coasts you are more likely to find said geezer driving an larger asian car or a mini-van, just about the only crown vics you will see are fleet cars.

As I said, once a car gets to the $5000 point, how it’s been treated over it’s life is much more important than it’s brand. I would take some domestic POS that’s been well maintained over a toyota that’s been abused. Both asian and domestic cars are pretty cheap to repair/maintain, you don’t want a euro car until after you graduate.

When I was in college, there was an endless supply of old VW bugs (and cheap used parts), so that was the obvious choice. I don’t know what todays equivalent car is, probably an old civic or something.


A $5000 Honda or Toyota is likely a well worn car. Case in point sold my wife’s 190k Honda Civic overdue for timing belt, major service, and an unknown source of slight knock/pinging, worn brakes for $3500 telling the next owner.

I 2nd finding a gently used Buick or Ford Crown Vic.


While it’s not particularly efficient, a used school or small transit bus would make a very reliable vehicle. I used to have an 88 Dodge Ram school bus, bought it in 98 for $900, and over the next 5 years, put around 200,000km on it. It wasn’t terribly efficient (about 15-20mpg) but it was very reliable, and fun.