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Reliable Used Car for $1K to $5K, what should I look for? -- Needed ASAP

I’m looking for a car that will survive an 88 mile daily commute (round trip). I have $1K on hand to either purchase a car outright, or use as a down payment. I can’t afford anything over $5K (to keep the monthly payment affordable), and the job starts in two weeks. I’m from GM country and there seem to be a lot of 2000 - 2005 Pontiac Grand Ams around with between 80K and 110K miles. I know these cars were used heavily in rental fleets, which makes me think they hold up well. I’ve read other posts and agree that scouring the neighborhood for a well-maintained private sell by a senior citizen is likely the best way to find a cheap and reliable car, but given my budget and time constraints I’m not sure that’s an option. Any thoughts on the Grand Am? I hear they are bad in snow, which concerns me as I will be working/commuting in upstate NY.

Any advice would be much appreciated, thanks!

A Grand Am is fine in snow with real winter tires, and a reasonably reliable car overall. NOT all season tires, which are fine in spring, summer, and part of fall in your area.

If the car has been in snow for 10 years, make sure to thorough inspect it for rust.

When I lived in upstate NY I had 2 sets of tires mounted on different rims so that I did not have to pay to have them mounted and balanced twice a year.

In today’s economy, good condition, low-priced used cars are going for premium prices. A $1,000 beater just a few years ago is now a $3,000 used car.

$1,000 does not buy much and will, most likely, need an equivalent amount of money in additional work. Moving up to the $3k - $5k range will give you a much better selection of better condition used cars.

Being at the bottom of the used car price range, you should be more concerned about overall condition and service history than any particular make or model. I’d ask friends, family, co-workers, etc. if anyone knows someone with a used car for sale. Buying from an owner with a service history is better than the car sitting on the “buy here, pay here” lot that came from a repo auction.

Get a pre-purchase inspection and plan to spend an addition $500 or so on immediate work – tires, brakes, oil changes, shocks, etc.

A one-owner Honda or Toyota with low miles is everyone’s dream used car. Unfortunately, there are more buyers than sellers these days and prices are pretty high. Overlooked American cars are probably the best value today – Fords, Chevys, Chrylsers, etc can be good deals. Keep looking until you find what you like.

Given the price range you are shopping in, the Grand Am is a good car to consider. They are cheap, plentiful, and everybody hates them. Plus, they’re not bad cars. My sister has one she bought about five years ago (paid $6500 for a fully loaded '02 GT model), and it has been good to her. She puts a lot of miles on it, and so far her only repairs have been the famous lower intake gaskets, replaced the rear speakers because one started clipping at low volumes (hers has the Monsoon stereo, except now has Rockford Fosgate rear speakers), and driver’s side door glass when a mounting tab broke off it. Other work has been fluid changes, brakes, tires, and a battery replacement. I have done all the work for her and think it has been a good car, so I would recommend one.

If you can spend up to $5k, I would suggest shopping in the $4k price range and be prepared to spend some of the extra grand on a pre-purchase inspection and immediate repairs/updating deferred maintenance. The pre-purchase inspection may seem like spending so much money on something seemingly trivial, but it’s money well spent if it prevents you from buying somebody else’s nightmare.

@twotone makes some very good points.
I’d add, IMHO you should stay away from the four cylinder Grand Ams and other GM cars with that type of four cylinder four valve engine. The sixes are somewhat better. Keep in mind that GM is no longer making Pontiacs. At some point, parts will become harder to get.

One of my favorite cars is the Buick LeSabre. Comfortable, Good ride, and good MPG for its size. Expect 25 MPG at 70 MPH, to 30 MPG (if you keep your foot out of it) during a highway commute. You should be able to get into a good 2000 or so with about 100K miles, for around $5000 with $1000 down.

Good luck in your search.

If you have some time and are so inclined, talk to several car dealerships. A potential customer might be more willing to buy a new car if he were getting the true cash value of his trade in in cash and then bought his new car with cash left over. It can make for a win-win-win.

Thank you all for the helpful advice/suggestions. @MGMcAnick I was wondering about the four cylinder because I read something similar on another forum, so thanks for the input. Much appreciated!

If you can’t afford a car over $5 k, you can’t afford the repair bills. Get yourself a copy of CR buyers guide and heed their suggestions.

We always get these questions…I need a very reliable car for some ridiculously low price.

Are there cars for $2000 that can be reliable…YES…but they are NOT easy to find…and you’re taking a gamble no matter what you buy at that price range. I hate giving advice on what vehicle to buy in that price range. After you search and search and finally find what you think is a decent car for $2000…you then take it to your mechanic and he/she finds so many things wrong with it you abandon this car and start all over again. My nephew just went through this. Took him over a year of looking at well over 500 cars to find one in his price range that wasn’t beat to death. And while it was probably the best vehicle he saw in his price range…it still needed some work.

The 3.8L V6 is one of GMs better engines and was used extensively throughout their lineup for several years. If you can find a Grand Am with the 3.8L, and it’s been taken care of, buy it.


1999+ Grand Ams only came with a 4 cylinder or the 3.4L 60 degree V6.

Regarding the grand am, the one I have has been quite reliable, and excellent in the winter with a good set of winters (I’m from the land of -35 winters and +95 summers). Had to replace the infamous Lower Intake Gasket, though. One thing to watch out for is transmission problems, these are known for weak transmission on the 6 cylinder, so if it isn’t shifting right, don’t buy it. The 2003+ model years had some transmission improvements, so those might be a safer bet.

The Grand Am was never offered with the 3.8L V6. It did have the miniature 3.8 (3.3L) in the early '90s though. I do like the 3.4L V6, though. It seems to be a very durable engine, save for the famous lower intake gasket issue that everyone knows about. I agree with the others though on the four cylinders offered in those cars. I would only take a Grand Am if it had the V6.

Our daughter got a saturn from Grandma when she quit driving, seems to be a good enough car at a reasonable price, new ps pump and ac cooling fan in a year and a half, but worth consideration.

Must be the Grand Prix I’m thinking of then