CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

High Mileage or New Parts? What's most important when buying a used car?

I have an interesting question about what to look for in a used car. I am currently in the market for such a vehicle with a limited budget of approximately $7000 (I’m a grad student). I have decided that I want station wagon, preferably a Subaru, that also has a manual transmission. Obviously for this price range most of my options have mileage over 100,000. My parents want me to get a car that has less than 100,000 miles on it but I want a car that won’t drain my savings. I found a 2000 Outback for $6,000 with only 63,000 miles and a 2000 Forester with 170,000 miles for $3900. I have test driven and had the outback inspected by a mechanic and they found the tires are bald, a timing belt service is due, the oil pump gasket is leaking slightly, and a tail light is out but the car was in really good shape otherwise. This is about $1000 worth of repair. The Forester I have not yet taken to the mechanic but I have seen it in person. It has many more miles on it but has new tires, brake pads, water pump, timing belt inspection about 100 miles ago AND the owner (the original one) also said he would replace the clutch if I bought the car for the $3900 asking price. I therefore have one low mileage car that I could buy, but would drain my savings by the time I pay the dealer fee, taxes, registration and have the necessary problems fixed or a high mileage car that is lower priced but will start out with many more new parts. I plan on taking the high mileage Forester to a mechanic before buying but if the car checks out there, are my parents’ worries about high mileage justified, despite all the new parts in this car, or do all these new parts outweigh the high mileage? I have heard that Subaru’s can top 300,000 miles but I do not know how common that is. Thanks in advance for the help!

Depending on the car, mileage isn’t a big deal. Usually it depends on HOW the car was used/driven. I once owned a 1988 Plymouth Horizon. And if you know cars, this was thought by many to be a junk car. It had 80,000 miles when I bought it. And I sold it with 125,000 miles on it 3 years later. About 6 years after that, I saw the SAME car for sale near my house with over 200,000 miles on it! And it was still going strong. My advice is to do what you’re doing. Have a mechanic look at it. And ask them for their “brutal honest” opinion. $3,900 sounds great. Until you have to sink another $3,000+ into it because it’s falling apart inside.
On a side note, my current vehicle has 209,000 on it and is going VERY STRONG! (2000 Chevy Blazer.)

If you are on a limited budget, forget anything with All Wheel Drive. For the $7000 or so you can get a low mileage stickshift Hyundai Accent Hatchback, for instance, that will be very reliable and inexpensive to keep running. You parents are right. The hatchback will almost hold anthing a station wagon holds.

+1 for Docnick. Forget the AWD.

There are 2 models of Outback. If it is the base model, it is grossly overpriced, even if it had all the impending maintenance done. A private party sale would be $4000; $5200 from a dealer. If it is a limited, it’s worth $4700 from a private party ad $5900 from a dealer. If you can get it for $1500 less than the fair market value, it might be worth it. You have to figure in extra for your time and hassle to fix the problems yourself.

A Mazda 3 or Ford Focus hatchback would suit your needs. AWD systems, especially those by Subaru can be picky about tires and how much of a difference they’ll handle.
For instance, if you’ve got 20k miles on a set of tires and you get a nail in the sidewall, expect to pay to replace all 4 tires at the same time. The tire shop will tell you this and not likely budge due to liability issues on the AWD system.
You’ll also need to be pretty diligent with rotating the tires as well. And as a grad student, you’ll probably face the “Do I pay to have X done or do I pay to have food on the table” situation.