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College student seeking advice for buying a used car! Help!

Well I’m looking to buy a used car and my budget is about $4,000. I know little to nothing about cars, and I was just hoping I could get some advice on what types of cars would be good to buy that I could afford. I’m mostly looking for a reliable car because I used to have a Ford Contour and it was the worst car ever. It constantly had to be repaired and overheated, stalled, and broke down all the time. Now I’m looking for a car thats still a 4-door sedan with automatic transmission, but also with good gas mileage. But most importantly, I need a car that is easy and relatively cheap to maintenance and drive. Something that is reliable and lasts for a long time. Please help me! I could use all the advice anyone has to give. Thanks!

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but pretty much any car will treat you well - if you treat it well. The maintenance has to be kept up.

I used to watch my friends constantly ignore the maintenance schedule because they always had problems. They fix this problem, and then there was another one. During the resolution of these issues, a service would go by and not get done. Low and behold, more problems arose. See the connection there? I did…they didn’t. Most of those cars didn’t make it too long.

If you want something lower in cost to maintain, go for a mid 2000’s Chevy or Ford. 2003 to 2005 if you can find one. There are some sites you can check out, and I’m sure bscar, cigroller or someone will post them for you. I don’t have links to them saved.


Ok thanks a lot! Yeah, I definitely have to admit I didn’t maintenance the car I had before, but it was my very first car and nobody told me anything about taking car of it besides getting an oil change every 2,000 miles. It was an old car to start off with too.

Although I’ve heard that a lot of Fords are either a hit or miss. Mine was clearly a miss, but is that true with newer models?
" . . . my budget is about $4,000. I'm mostly looking for a reliable car with good gas mileage. . . easy and relatively cheap to maintenance and drive. . . Something that is reliable and lasts for a long time. "
That's not easy, even for a car savvy person, and almost impossible for somebody who knows "little to nothing about cars." You've got a beer budget and champagne taste.
You'll need to reserve several hundred dollars of your budget for tweaking and unexpected things after purchase. That doesn't leave much.
Most cars that fit all of your desires sell for several times the amount you're working with here. It's possible to do this (sort of), but it requires help from somebody who knows cars or buying from a friend, relative, or somebody you trust, and some luck. Any used car in that range, even checked over by a mechanic, is a bit of a gamble.
I have purchased a car just like what you're after (2001 Chevrolet Impala 4-door, $4,000, 4 years ago), but the technique is not something I could explain to you. It took me years of working on and learning about cars to pull it off. It still carried an element of risk.
One thing you could do is to be patient. Go look at and possibly test drive several (many) different cars without committing to any of them. This should give you a little better feel for the market you're operating in during your search. Finding the right car requires work, it's not easy.
You want a car that was taken care of and one that the owner can show you some maintenance records. I prefer cars that are licensed and being driven daily. To me this is an indication that the car is roadworthy. Cars that have been parked a while scare me.

Honda, Toyota, Nissan

If you grab a consumer reports from April, you can look at the used car section and it has a comprehensive list of reliable cars to suit pretty much every price range.

I second jeff’s advice.

Everyone wants reliable, cheap to maintain, and doesn’t have much of a budget to buy the car in the first place. $4,000 will get you an older high mileage car, which means some repairs will be needed. Stay away from Chrysler products (nix on a Dodge Neon or Stratus), likewise no VW’s, Audi, BMW, or Volvo. A basic GM, Ford, Honda, or Toyota is your best shot.

Don't Assume That By Looking At A Consumer Report Magazine You'll Be Assured Of Selecting A Reliable Car. Also, Don't Put Too Much Stock In The "Asian Car Myth." Many Used Asian Cars Are Junk.

The car you'll be buying is probably going to be an older car or a high miles car or both. The present condition of the vehicle, combined with the degree of care and maintenance, is going to be way more important than the make and model.

Look for a one-owner vehicle with service records if you can find one. Knowing the car's history is often a good indicator of how well the car was cared for previously.

CSA ya go @chaissos :stuck_out_tongue: ) is a good lace to read up on certain models before you head out to look. Be careful though, you aren’t the only one looking for the cheap-reliable-fuel efficient vehicles, and the prices reflect that now.
Heard from my neighbor that my old Civic had been an unfortunate victim of a hail storm a couple months ago. The insurance adjuster came out, got on his little PDA and looked up the value of it, and cut them a check for $2200(body shop estimate), could have went $2500 if he pushed, but my neighbor just took the $2200. He gave me $2500 last year for the car, and the adjuster valued the car at just over 5 grand; the car is 12 years old.

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but pretty much any car
will treat you well - if you treat it well. The maintenance has to be
kept up.

Good thought, but perhaps you never owned a Ford Contour? My SIL had one in the 90’s, when my daughter married him. He definitely maintained it. He was like that Tool Man guy in the comedy.

That car was in the shop all the time. My daughter one day drove him in to the shop, and the salesman came running out, recommending she buy a nice, new Ford. She told him she couldn’t, she needed her reliable Saturn, so she could pick him up at the shop all the time when his Ford needed fixed.

The wiring harness even cracked and had to be replaced.

So, that Contour would not have done well for OP no matter how much maintenance he did to it.

Another case of Ford or GM treating customers so badly, he doesn’t care if they make good cars now, he is done with them. Two Odysseys in the garage. He changes the transmission fluid himself, and does it often.

My mom had a 96 Contour and it treated her well, despite her treating it like an appliance. I had a 95 and it turned me off Ford for a long, long time.

“If you grab a consumer reports from April, you can look at the used car section and it has a comprehensive list of reliable cars to suit pretty much every price range.”

I do recommend you take a look at it, but remember no survey is perfect. Consumer reports are primarily based on the responses to their annual questionnaire.

It is comprised of those people who bought the car AND who responded to their questionnaire. They will not be a true sample. It is not going to include people who don’t trust Consumer Reports or and those who hate VW’s even if they never were in one.

I would not ignore them, but I would not put too much trust in them.  They might be good at spotting possible weak points. 

In any case, good luck.

I don’t, in fact, know anyone who’s ever been polled about their car. No one. Including more than one good friend of ours, who actually have one of those subscription things they do.

Which doesn’t mean to ignore them, just take the information with a grain of salt, trust your mechanic, and get the car inspected (by said mechanic) before you lay down your hard earned cash.


I Have Had A Subscription To CR For Decades And Every Year They Send Me The Auto Survey Stuff And Some Lottery Tickets And Every Year I Don’t Fill It Out And Never Sent It Or The Lottery Tickets Back.

There car advice flat out doesn’t match with my car experience and I refuse to participate in it. I do use their information for purchasing paint, vacuums, treadmills, Mr. Coffees, and stuff of that nature. They actually test these things, not rely on surveys from foreign car owners.

I will say I do take a look at the evaluations they do on particular car models that they feature. They point out useful information about cup holders, trunk room, noisy interiors, etcetera.


With a budget of $4,000, buy something you can find for about $2,000. That gives you $2,000 for new brakes, new tires, and whatever else is wrong with the car. Folks sell cars for a reason and usually that reason is an expensive repair.

The vast majority of problematic cars are suffering those problems because of abusive owners and/or neglect but try to tell someone who has neglected a car that the problems can be found in the mirror. No way, they will say.

That said, how about a Crown Vic or Grand Marquis? These are good, reliable, safe cars and they do very well on fuel mileage. They also have a lot of room which can come in very handy for lugging stuff back and forth to school.

With that kind of money and doing the proper amount of footwork you should be able to find a nice one for less than 4 grand. Maybe a low miles car that belongs to a senior citizen.
An elderly neighbor of mine bought a new Grand Marquis (same as the Vic) some years ago and he was as proud as a peacock of that car. He even insisted one weekend I go for a ride with him while he showed it off and that I drive it on the way back. It was a very nice ride and when he passed away about 5 years later that car only had about 30k miles on it.

The old lady who lives across the street from me right now sold her Crown Vic and bought a new Impala about 7 years ago. That particular Vic only had 32k miles on it and she sold it for 2900 dollars. In all seriousness, that car could have been placed on a dealer showroom with other new cars and no one would have known the difference.

In that price range I would look for a low mileage Mazda Protege. These are sturdy little cars, and if well maintained will have a lot of life left in them.

I haven’t owned a wide range of cars as many here have. But, over the years, the problems I had were almost always noted by CR as problem areas for that year and model.

I just went through this exact process…and I think I ended up with an oil-burning lemon.

ABSOLUTELY make sure to get a car (which will be older, with that budget) that has been well-maintained. ABSOLUTELY.

And then if you still have a few choices to narrow down, check out cars that are clones of other, more well-known, perhaps known-for-reliability cars, because those will be a bit cheaper. Just because the previous owners probably never changed the oil in the whole 120K in MY new Chevy Prizm doesn’t mean that the Corolla engine is a bad idea – it just proves my previous agreement with others who are saying it MUST be well-maintained.

Pontiac Vibe of a certain year is a clone, too. There are a lot of 'em out there.

$4k will not get you a reliable car. What you can hope for is a car that’s perhaps more reliable than most other $4k cars. Though maintenance is important, how a car was driven is equally important to the subsequent owner. A standard transmission will work in your favor in two ways. First it gives you more options. Secondly, the number of clutch jobs will indicate how the car was driven. Lastly, for this price, look for a car with as few bells and whistles as possible, to not only keep the price down, but later repair bills. Failing power windows in the open position in the winter can be just as trying and expensive to deal with as many mechanical issues.
As a regular contributor to CR, I feel they are a good resource for information on makes To look for and car buying strategies in general.