Recommend a family car under $4,000

Hello all,
We haven’t owned a car in 4 years. We’ve had the luxury of a new company vehicle every year. Now the Hubby is switching jobs and we have to buy a car.
I have $4,000 TOTAL to spend.

We have two kids (4yrs and 2yrs) We live in Arkansas, so snow is not a real concern.
I work at home, so no commuting miles, just errands.

So far I’ve found some 15 year old Toyotas in that price range, but they are pretty beat up. I also found a minivan for $3895- just didn’t have the third row seat. Ha! How clean can you actually get a filthy car? Any tips for that, too?

Any recommendations for a reliable car with room for two car seats at that price?

Here is a gem I found in just a few minutes…There are many more similar to this one…For the money, Crown Victorias are VERY hard to beat…There is a REASON the police and taxi fleets swear by them…Comfort, safety, reliability and 20+ MPG…If you break it, ANY mechanic can fix it reasonably…

Here is my NEXT favorite…Room for EVERYBODY…

Thanks Caddyman. Would you still recommend a Crown Vic over 100,000 miles? Fixability is good to keep in mind.

Used to have a Buick Park Ave that was awesome. Plenty of room in that bad boy. My only problem with that is personal property tax and luxury tax here in Northwest Arkansas.

What do they base that tax on?? In most places it’s the actual sales price of weight…

I have owned 3 Vics, two of them former highway patrol cars (P-71 models). I consider them to be almost bullet-proof. And yes I would try real hard to stay below 100K miles…They are basically a F-150 P/U with a nice body…Body & Frame construction, rear drive makes them easy to maintain and repair. Huge trunk…The “platform” is called a “Panther” and is shared with Grand Marquis and Town Car…They have been made 1992-2012. They got a major suspension and steering upgrade in 2005…Avoid the “air-ride” option, expensive to fix…The last Crown Victoria rolled off the line on September 12, 2011. The assembly plant (St. Thomas, Ontario) was then closed…

They have few equals on the open road (they ARE a little cumbersome around town) and they can withstand the pounding that living on a dirt road dishes out…The air conditioning is awesome…And they can be had cheap! Shop carefully!

The make and model are not as important as how well the car has been maintained. You are likely looking at something that is ten or more years old. I would avoid popular brands like Toyota or Honda because they will be a few years older on average than a similar Detroit 3 model for equivalent price. A Buick Regal or LeSabre are possibilities as are the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis. Consider a Taurus or Sable from the early 2000s as well. Gas mileage is lower than a small car, but you aren’t driving much. It’s all about condition in an older car.

My vote is with Caddyman about the Crown Vic. Plentiful, reasonably priced, readily available, rock solid reliable, and easily serviced.
Those cars haven’t been around forever and sold by the jillions, especially to law enforcement and taxi companies, because they’re clunkers.

Sadly, the Vic was killed by the Feds according to FOMOCO because the cost of re-engineering to meet new roll-over and side impact standards was not economically feasible; even though the Vic is outstanding safety wise.

The main thing is to use patience and footwork. The right car will pop up for the right price. The last Mark VIII I bought (kind of a Vic/Thunderbird on steroids) took me 2 months to find and a 600 mile round trip to get but well worth it. Just hit a 190k miles and it runs and drives like the day it rolled off the assembly line.
The last one was running and driving like new at 250k miles when some doofus in a Dodge pickup decided that red lights were irrelevant… :slight_smile:

A few months ago we traveled back east and had reserved a mid sized rental car. We turned down their offer to upgrade for x amount of dollars then they upgraded us to a Crown Vic for free (turns out they were out of mid sized cars). We put 2,000 miles on that car in 2 weeks and loved it…it was comfortable, had plenty of trunk space and the air conditioning was the best I’ve encountered (this was during a heat wave). Decent gas mileage for a V8 engine as well. I had heard from others how much they liked their Crown Vics and I would concur. Used versions depreciate quickly because they are an “old” design but in my book they are a great bang for the buck. I’ve also heard stories about good reliability and longevity (200,000 miles isn’t a stretch).

Otherwise, Chrysler/Dodge minivans are another possibility. They depreciate quickly and also offer a good bang for the buck (but make sure when the transmission is serviced that they use genuine Chrysler transmission fluid and not a universal fluid). They may not be quite as reliable as a Toyota minivan but they aren’t that far off and they are much cheaper pricewise. Our Chrysler Town and Country just hit 150,000 miles and has had few repairs. We bought it used 7 years ago for a good price.

No matter what you get have a pre-purchase inspection performed by a mechanic of your choice.

As a testament to the desireability of the Crown Vics consider the following example. Not too long ago the Santa Barbara/Monica CA (forget which) police department purchased 39 brand new Crown Vics from Ford before they discontinued production.

The City and PD mothballed all 39 cars in a warehouse and are going to bring them out a few at a time as needed to replace other Vics which are at the end of their service life. (service life meaning not worn out, just hitting an arbitrary mileage mark at which point the car must be auctioned off)

Caddyman- thanks for being specific on what to look for. Most of my driving is in town, but let me tell you, country roads in Arkansas are insane. Bumpy, steep, washed out. Just crazy.

I looked for a Crown Vic locally. I found only two- both with salvage titles. That turns me off a bit. But, I will definitely keep my eye out.

I’m hoping to take a look at a 99 Buick Park Ave this weekend. The personal prop tax is based on a yearly appraisal based on the initial purchase price. In Michigan it was based on weight- but higher rate than the standard weight for “luxury cars”.

JTSanders, would you likewise recommend a Sable? I looked at a 99 Sable with 130,000 on it. It was at a dealer, so I really don’t’ know about maintenance. It was pretty clean inside (whatever that’s worth).

Also looked at a 98 Olds Sillhouette in very good condition, leather and everything. That had 130,000 miles. Price $3895.

All of these prices give me sticker shock. My first car was a pristine 89 Plymouth Reliant with 39,000 miles on it. That car was fantastic. A couple of giant white tail deer just about ruined it for me. But, it still drove well for a long time.

I am not sure about a Sable with 130K miles. The problem with used cars at the dealerships are that they don’t have maintenance records, usually are other peoples headaches and they got rid of them. I will try looking into senior homes and there bulletin boards for some private sale.

I had an '87 Sable and it was a great car but I think the Crown Vic is a better automobile.
The Sable I had was still running/driving well when I practically gave it away for a scrap price. It had 420k miles on it, had one transmission failure at about 130k miles, was boring as homemade sin, and I sold it when a storm threw a tree branch through the windshield.

That was a good enough reason to be rid of it. (Even at that age and mileage it only used about 1 quart of oil per 600 miles and most of that was due to a leaky rear main seal. I had no desire to pull the transmission on an aged sled like that so I just ignored it and added oil as necessary.

The Silhouette and Sable are probably overpriced. It’s hard to tell without knowing the trim level and options, but they are both probably priced at twice a reasonable level, even if they are in excellent condition. If you don’t negotiate, pass on them. If you are willing to negotiate, take a good look at them. If you still like them and can negotiate a price at about half the asking price, take the one you like best to a trusted mechanic and have it inspected for purchase. If the mechanic says anything is needed, get a price on the work and subtract it from the negotiated price. At 130,000 miles, neither is really considered low mileage.

If you have $4,000 total you need to spend no more than $3,000 on the car so you have $1000+ available for repairs, new tires, brakes, etc. Just go looking at $3,000 cars in your area and ask questions about a particular car you find. For $3,000 make and model aren’t that big a deal anymore.

The world is littered with perfectly good Ford Taurus/Mercury Sables for $3000 or less. They are good cars. Though you can’t go wrong with the Crown Vic either.

The weak link with the FWD/AWD vehicles in the $4000 price range is the transmission…Between 120K-150K miles, these transmissions can be expected to fail, a 50-50 chance at BEST…However, if you can find one that has ALREADY had it’s transmission rebuilt, THEN much of the risk is removed …

I don’t have much to add, except that you should be prepared to buy a car that you don’t find very attractive. If you like its looks chances are others do too, and therefore the price will be higher. A car like a Crown Vic or a Buick Park Ave or even a Taurus is just not that stylish to most car buyers, and doesn’t offer the utility of a pickup or a minivan. That’s why it could be cheap. Also, it might be Grandma’s car, and Grandma is no longer driving, but the car could be fine. Look in Craigslist for communities with a large retired population. It might be worth a trip there to get the car you need.

If you want a conventional sedan, then the excellent advice above should be your guide. However, someone has also pointed out the idea of a minivan, which offer more versatility and space than a sedan…consider vacation trips, etc.

I’ve been extremely pleased with my Dodge Grand Caravan, it’s comfortable, smooth, and quiet, V6 engine running beautifully at over 292,000 miles, though the engine is definitely tired. But it still does 22mpg highway, and not bad on oil. I recently spoke to someone with a 5 year old Caravan, she said it gets 27 mpg on the highway, and it was their third … they like them a lot, mentioned the fold away rear seats easily making a flat floor for hauling cargo. She also mentioned that their previous one had some sort of built in child seat which she really liked. In the 90’s and a bit later the longer wheelbase version got the “Grand” designation…three rows of seats. Now I think they are all the longer size, not sure when that changed.

A post on another thread elsewhere on this site from one of the experienced mechanics said that the engines are generally quite good. But as Caddyman mentioned, the transmissions are a different story, so look for one that’s just had a new trans installed. Alternatively, keep an eye peeled for one with a failed transmission for very cheap and investigate the price of rebuilding the transmission…roughly $1500, at least that’s about what I’ve heard locally. You might get more for your money that way… maybe a newer car for the same total price. The downside it that you won’t be able to test drive, which is significant. In a case like that, look VERY carefully at how the car looks inside and out, in the engine room, and even underneath, listening to what your instincts tell you about whether it was cared for or abused, and ask for maintenance records. If this route appeals to you, visit a a local independent transmission shop before purchase and get their thoughts on the concept, and judge if you’d like to deal with that shop. Then you’ll have comfort in knowing that the transmission should be good for over 100,000 miles.

Since you don’t have much concern about snow, avoid the all wheel drive versions as they impose problems and extra expense if you damage one tire and have to replace all four. You could probably find a very nice one from late 90s under $3000. Keep an eye peeled for one with a new transmission, then pounce on it …before someone else does.

Thanks again for all of the advice. I will skip the Mercury and Silhouette.

Fortunately, we’ve got access to fabulous Bella Vista Arkansas - a planned retirement community. I’ve got until the end of the year to find something, maybe the perfect Buick is just around the corner. We used to have a Park Ave, and I loved it (except for the luxury tax).

I never would have considered a Crown Vic, but it sounds like it is a solid bet. I JUST saw one about an hour ago at the lot on the corner. It’s a 2002 with 126,000 miles for $3500. It has a Missouri sticker on the windshield. I am going to drive it tomorrow morning, and if that’s good, I’ll have to check out the title. We are very close to Joplin MO and a lot of the totaled cars from the big tornado have made their way to the local auction place. Which brings up another subject…

I get the impression that most of the used cars we’re seeing came straight from the auction (not even cleaned up, pop bottles in the back and what not) so they’re priced pretty low. On Tuesday evening we saw a lot of cars the dealers had “just picked up” that morning at the auction. Any thoughts on that?

Thanks Uncle Turbo, that’s why I’ve been trying to stay under $4000 - especially since I’ll need tags and everything else.

JTSanders, oh, I can negotiate. I pinch pennies til they cry. However, I have the distinct disadvantage of being a 20ish female.

Thanks WesternRoadTripper. My folks have a Grand Caravan that they use for EVERYTHING. I tried to buy it off of them, but they’re giving it to my smartalicy 17 year old brother. I hope they put a governor on it, because that thing is surprisingly fast.

“My folks have a Grand Caravan that they use for EVERYTHING. I tried to buy it off of them, but they’re giving it to my smartalicy 17 year old brother.”

What’s the deal with the brother? What adolescent male would be seen in a CARAVAN??!!?? It’s the opposite of cool and macho. Sheeesch! I get grief for mine, and nobody ever mistakes me for being cool. I’m betting he’s already scheming to sell the thing, take the money and run.

Tell the kid you’ll give him cash for the van so he can buy himself a pocket rocket Honda, or a pickup truck or something more appropriate for a “man of his position”…convince him that he’ll never ever get out from the ridicule of having had a minivan as his first car. Enlist his friends, they’ll agree, THEY won’t want to ride anywhere with him! Should be a piece of cake to get this for yourself if you can’t sway your parents. Go for it! You can do it!