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Good Cheap used car for the DIY'er

I’m looking for suggestions on a good cheap used car that can last for a good long while with nothing more than basic tools and some elbow grease. Doesn’t need to be fast or flashy just reliable and EASY to maintain. I’m thinking a non-interference 4 cylinder engine. Something that can be repaired without removing 100 parts each time just to get to the one that needs fixing. Something with good parts availability. Don’t have a hard and fast budget, cheap is good but $5000 would be the max. Really I’m just looking for suggestions from people who have hands on experience with a model that fits the above criteria, so I can do some more research.

I think it will be easier to provide a list of cars to stay away from, rather than a list of possible cars to buy. Here are my suggestions: stay away from anything European, that means Volkswagon, Audi, Mercedes, etc. Stay away from early model Korean made cars like Hyundia, Kia, Diahatsu. Keep it 1996 or newer, that way it will have the OBDII emissions system, and if it were me, find something with Distributor-less Ignition system (DIS), meaning it will have a coil pack instead if distributor, less moving parts, less to break down. Also stay away from anything with a turbo. With those exceptions, the field is wide open. They made a bazillion Ford Taurus’s, Escort’s, Toyota Camry’s, tercel’s, corolla’s, Chevy cobalt-type smaller cars. I wouldn’t put too much stock in consumer reports type ratings because while it might be good for an overall average, it might steer you away from a well maintained car that would otherwise prove to be an excellent choice for you. You will probably only find cars with over 100k miles in your price range, so I’d try to find something with less than 150k miles, that way you might get another 100k miles before its ready for the boneyard.

I would recommend any GM with the 3.8 v6 (I’m thinking W body’s, which are grand prix, LeSabre, impala). However stay away from any Ford with a 3.8, also early 2000 Taurus had trans issues, but the 3.0 was a great little motor so just be careful. CrownVic if you need space and don’t mind feeding a v8… stay away from 2003-2004 Toyota camarys/highlanders 4cyls, they have head bolt issues. These are just a few, maybe if we had a wish list we could do better??

Not a Honda Civic, unless you have tiny hands. Parts aren’t too expensive, and repairs are infrequent. But, many basic fixes really require small hands otherwise you have to remove stuff just to get access.

One of the easiest vehicles to work on is the Ford Ranger pickup. If you can find one with standard shift, in good shape, it might be just the right vehicle for you.

Psst . . . Keep This Secret, Please . . . Another Vote For A GM Car With 3800 (3.8L) V-6, Well-Maintained, In Good Condition.

Look at 2000 - 2005 Chevrolet Impala LS models with the above mentioned engine. Find the newest one, with the least miles, and the best evidence/proof of being well maintained (especially regular oil changes), one owner if possible, that you can afford.

The engines are fairly bulletproof, roomy car with big trunk (rear seat folds down for an even bigger trunk), deliver decent MPG (up to 30 hwy), the cars are tough with generally no bad or weak areas and these machines will usually roll right past 1/4 million miles without major problems and usually without using oil. Parts are easy and inexpensive to get, repairs are pretty straight forward. They utilize a short timing chain that will go the whole distance, no stupid timing belt. Brakes are large, discs front and rear, will stop you on dime, leaving nine cents change, have stainless steel caliper slides, and are easy and inexpensive to service.

Close to five grand should put you in a decent one, possibly with a spoiler and leather chairs, premium sound, etcetera. You’ll be farting through silk !


P.S. We’re still running one I bought 4 years and 100,000 miles ago, a 2001 3.8L LS loaded for $4200 ! It’s on its second teen-age driver right now.

Great Suggestions so far, but I’m looking for something with a good solid 4 banger that doesn’t get screwed up if the timing belt goes. Something with good parts availability. I don’t much care who makes it as long as the maintenance is easy enough and it doesn’t require 4 hours of work every week.

My vote goes for a Geo Metro if you want it to be cheap to purchase as well as operate. I recently got into one of these for the fuel mileage and had to swap the engine as the old one had been neglected and was burning enough oil to cause people to pull over behind me from the smoke.

The engine swap took about 4 hours in my front yard and I was able to do it all by myself. I lifted the engine out of the bay without any help from a hoist. Just about anything else is easy to change without the complete removal of the engine. This includes the water pump, timing belt, among other items such as seals and gaskets. I changed all these just in case so I wouldn’t have a rear main go on me which is a little bigger deal or get stranded by a water pump or timing belt failure. Although these are small cars, there is plenty of room to work under the hood and everything is exposed and right there. Tuneups take 5-10 minutes if that.

I have the 3 cylinder model although there is also a 4 cyl option on these cars. Both are non-interference engines. I have to say that the 3 cylinder is more than adequate for most of the driving I do and gets a few more MPG (50+ for me).

If you look at one, be sure that the body isn’t too rusted, especially where the front control arms bolt to the car. This is a known trouble area on these cars and has been the death of many otherwise good Geos. They were made to be a cheap car and rust proofing wasn’t the best aspect on them. I treated mine with a frame protectant to prevent future rust.

Another pitfall is that parts are not always available locally. You can get them through any parts store but may have to wait a couple days so don’t count on being able to fix the car if it were to break down on a long trip. This is one reason why I put a new timing belt and water pump on the car. I have the old ones which were still working in a box with other spare parts in the car.

Others mention any GM car with a 3.8L which is a great engine to have. The GM 4.3L is also a great and almost indestructable engine if you want to get into a truck or SUV like the S-10 or Blazer. Ford also has made some good and bad engines in the past. Most Ford engines also seem to be non-interference in design. As for the Chryslers, I have never been impressed with them. It seems they are pretty hard to work on and they need work more often than other brands. It took me 8 hours to change a thermostat on one.


Great Suggestions so far, but I'm looking for something with a good solid 4 banger that doesn't get screwed up if the timing belt goes. Something with good parts availability. I don't much care who makes it as long as the maintenance is easy enough and it doesn't require 4 hours of work every week.

If you can tolerate a 6 in place of the four, get a older (96 or earlier?) F-150 with the 300 straight six. It meets every other criteria: easy to work on, room to play badmidton in the engine bay, indestructable enginge–provided you keep oil and coolant in it–with timing GEARS.

You could probably get matching “his ‘n’ hers” for that $5k budget. Plus, being the most popular vehicle in North America (many years running), if something breaks, you can find replacement parts both new and used, now and for a long time to come.

If possible, get one without the M5OD Mazda MT if you plan on towing or hauling at GVWR a lot. If it’s just a “glorified grocery getter,” the M5OD would be the most economical option re: fuel.

Hey Mean Joe, that’s a great option, except I already done that. I have a 1982 (Ford 300, C6), I’m currently completing. Solid truck, easy to work on and parts are easy and cheap. Heck, I’ve even made a few from scratch for those that can’t be easily obtained:-) I’m thinking small 4 cylinder for gas and as a runner for errands and what not. A running around town car that I can work on and spend little on. It’s not even for me really it’s more of a concept at the moment.

Ford Ranger with a 2.3 if a truck is not out of the quesion.

chevy cavalier with the old school 2.2 or the ecotech 2.2 both are good. mine has 267000 miles on it and parts are cheap & easily obtainable. personally i dont like the cobalts they are one big rattle trap noises everywhere after a few miles on them.

sorry you said you wanted a non interfernce engine