Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

First Car

I’m moving to Texas for grad school and looking to purchase my first car. Budget is about 5K. I like the 2003 Passat, but wondering if there is a better option.

We seem to be getting a lot of old Passat questions. They’re a bad bet as a used car, with frequent expensive repairs a distict possibility. You might go buy the Consumer Reports car buyers guide, it’ll have a lot of info. Unfortunately, at $5000 the choices are limited as far as reliable economical cars. You might ask around with friends and family, most import thing for buying a used car (especially a $5000 used car) is that it’s been maintained correctly. You’re more likely to find that out through personal contacts.

Are you planning to drive from your present location to Texas? If so, what is the distance?
If you intend to buy a car after you arrive, look on the campus bulletin boards. You might find a beater that will get you around town.
On the other hand, if you will be driving some distance to campus, begin doing some careful shopping. Look and Consumer Reports car buyers guide. If you know a mechanic, ask him what cars are easy to repair and seem to be reliable.

If you want to save expensive trips to the mechanic, stay away from German or Swedish cars. Stick to the US or Japan or Korea.

Your best option might be a Crown Vic. They’re reliable, plentiful, a nice one can be had for far less than 5k dollars, easily serviceable everywhere, very good fuel mileage, comfortable, and plenty of room for moving that college stuff around.
What more could you ask for.

“Your best option might be a Crown Vic”.
ok4450 has given you very good advice. Since you will be in Texas, all wheel drive or front wheel drive is not necessary. I might add that the Mercury Grand Marquis is essentially the same car with a different nameplate, so this gives you another option.

With a budget of only 5K, you will want whatever car is in the best possible condition. Make & model are practically irrelevant. Certain cars have a good reputation, but if you go by that alone you may find yourself stuck with one that has been abused. Also, you may be passing up some creampuffs or other bargains.

It is more important for you to know HOW to buy a used car. First ask around for a trusted mechanic. Then ask potential sellers if they will permit you to drive the car to the shop for a checkup.

I live in Texas (Houston area) and had several Crown Vics. All were maintenance headaches. My epiphany was when we bought a first car for my oldest daughter - a Honda Accord with about 100k miles - and it was a better riding, more reliable car then the newer Crown Vic with the same mileage. For my next daughter, we bought an older Honda Civic with 100k miles ($4k purchase, $1500 preventive maintenance, total $5.5k) and had this car through two daughters and a subsequent friend with little to no additional maintenance. I can’t say enough about a well maintained, older Honda; they have served us very well. (As a family, we now have a 1994, 2001, 2003, 2007, and 2008 in various styles/models - but they’re all performing extremely well.)

Also, don’t buy a car that is not common to the area. I had a Rambler when I attended graduate school and the town didn’t haver a Rambler dealer. I had a transmission problem and the parts had to be brought in from 60 miles away by express and I had to pay the freight. At that time, I wished that I had owned a Ford or Chevrolet.
The only foreign car agency was the VW dealership and there were a couple independent VW shops. There were no Toyota or Datsun (Nissan) agencies. I just retired from a University located in a city of about 60,000. We have Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Hyundai agencies, but no VW dealer.

“I like the 2003 Passat, but wondering if there is a better option.”

There is not “a” better option, there are LOTS of better options. You don’t want a 2003 Passat as your first car, trust me. If you buy a <$5,000 Passat you will grow to hate it, because it will always be needing some expensive repair, and you will never want to own another VW as long as you live.

Find something more reliable and less expensive to maintain. Think Toyota, Honda, Mazda, or Ford. Boring, I know, but reliable and inexpensive to own.

I’ve never heard of a grad student with money to spare.

If someone is having trouble with a Vic then it’s because:
They bought someone else’s flogged beater.
They’ve flogged it themselves.
They bought an anomaly which just happened to be a problematic car.

Not much too add except avoid European built cars and purchase Asian or Domestic branded.

Try private sales first and hopefully with some vehicle history.

The key in your budget range is finding a maintained version. Otherwise you can be quite sunk…If you know little about vehicles ask around for a trusted mechanic to bless your purchase (~$100) before finalized. A $100 can save thousands of dollars.

People have good intentions in recommending a specific vehicle however those vehicles in your price range can be rolling junk.

all three of my Vics came from my mother and I got them with less than 20k miles on each - never flogged by either of us. They were all dealer maintained and the maintenance progression on each of them was nearly identical. By 100k miles I could count on several $1000+ repairs each year.

Other posters have given you good advice. I’ll add my .02.

As a fellow grad student, I would not touch a used volkswagen with a ten-foot pole. An ex girlfriend has one, and it’s a money pit.

Here are some things I’d keep in mind:

  1. High mileage (around 100K) is fine, provided the car was well-maintained. Personally, I think your ideal car would be something that a dutiful owner used for long-distance commutes. That means the car probably isn’t super old, and most of the miles are highway miles. My dad took that approach with a Subaru he bought a couple of years ago, and the car has been great.

  2. Know as much about the vehicle’s maintenance history as possible, and as others have indicated, see if you can have another mechanic look it over for any problems.

  3. If you can drive one, seriously consider a manual transmission. A high-mileage vehicle with a poorly maintained (no fluid or filter changes) automatic tranny is a nightmare waiting to happen. You don’t want that. Manual transmissions certainly aren’t immune to problems either, but a poorly maintained automatic transmission is always on borrowed time.

Some people keep meticulous records of service and repairs along with receipts. If you can find someone like this that’s selling their car you could get a very good idea of what all has and hasn’t been done to the car and a good mechanic could probably tell you if that particular model car has any other common problems that may need to be addressed in the future. If the car has been giving lots of problems previously it’s likely to continue to give problems. Buying a car from a middle aged or older person will usually (not always) be an indication the car has been repaired/serviced more regularly and not just driven without any thought to maintenance. I’ll agree that unless you know about cars yourself a $100. inspection from a mechanic would be money well spent.

I would also suggest a full size FWD GM vehicle, like a Buick LeSabre/Park Avenue or Pontiac Bonneville. These are very nice, very spacious cars which are popular with older folks, so they tend to be gently driven and well maintained. They also have one of the best engines GM ever built under the hood: the Buick 3.8L V6, which is very durable and quite powerful. It also will get you around 30 mpg on the highway. Since they are domestic brands, they are frequently ignored by the used car market and tend to be priced lower to reflect that. If you want a reliable, powerful, comfortable, stone quiet car with seating for six and a giant trunk, this is the car for you. I will add, however, the the Crown Vic/Grand Marquis also fits this criteria, in my opinion. I never saw a lot of repairs on any of these cars during my time as a mechanic, and the ones I did see were reasonable and tolerable.

I’d like to hear the full story behind problems with 3 Crown Vics in a row.

The Vic’s oustanding reputation speaks for itself due to it’s long successful history and countless millions of them being sold.

They’re such outstanding cars the Santa Barbara, CA police department I think it was bought 39 brand new ones and mothballed them in a warehouse for use when their current Vics start reaching the end of the line.

You can also figure that a 100k miles of police use is equivalent to about a quarter million miles of “normal” use; maybe more.