Sweet Spot for Used Cars

I’d like to get some opinions on what the sweet spot is as far as age/miles is concerned for used cars. I’m looking for a reliable used automatic transmission second car with low operating costs and cold/ac (since I’m in Phoenix) for under $5000. I’m wondering what you think of these scenarios as far as best bang for the buck? Which one would you choose and why?

1) 1987 Pontiac 6000 STE 2.8 liter V6 113,000 miles, elderly father’s car, good shape, power steering fluid leaks from seal, ABS warning light on. $500. or basically any 20+ yr old car over 100k miles that runs but might need some work for under $1000.

2) 1990 Buick LeSabre 60,000 miles, 3.8 liter V6 one senior owner, all maintenance records, garaged, mint condition. $2500.

3) 2000 Toyota Corolla 107,000 miles, well maintained, my daily driver, good condition. above average shape. $5000

4) 2004 small Japanese or American sedan with 80-90k highway miles driven by someone who has a long freeway commute to work. well maintained. $5000.

Let’s assume all the cars have cold a/c.

Are you better off getting an 8 year old car with medium miles, a 4 yr old car with high highway miles, an 18 yr old grandma car that was driven by an 85 yr old snowbird, or taking a chance on a sub $1000 car like the Pontiac?

Is age more important than miles or is neither important and it solely depends on the make/model car? I have a neighbor who bought a 1993 Toyota Camry with 180,000 miles that was maintained every 3,000 miles by the book at the dealership it’s entire life and has a stack of service records over 1" thick, but he didn’t care. He basically said it’s a Camry, was overzealously maintained, I don’t care about the miles.

So I’m curious to hear your opinions. Thanks.

I’d avaoid 1 and 2.
3 and 4 are both good choices.
The Consumer Reports Car Buyer’s Guide, available at any bookstore, will make my reasoning obvious.

There is no sweet spot. 50% of the “probability of being a good buy” pie is whether it was a reliable vehicle to begin with. The other 50% is whether it was well maintained. Then there’s the 50% that’s how it was driven…beat on or babied. And the 50% that’s whether it’s all NYC mileage or all Idaho mileage.

Awright, I know that’s 200%, but you get the idea.

Don’t even waste your time and money on a 21 year old car, I’ve already made that mistake with my Accord. Get the Corolla, 107k is low miles for a Toyota. Or basically 1/3 of it’s useful life i’d say. And this is a fairly recent model. It will also be more reliable and get better gas mileage than any American car you may be considering.

Independent of make/model, if I was looking for the most bang for the buck I would be shopping for something 3-5 years old with about 75-100K miles. I would plan on keeping it for about 100-150K miles, or until it’s repair cost exceeded it value.

A newer car is going to cost a premium, and a older car is potentially going to be a project.

Regarding the make/model, I don;t think it matters much in this price range, just look for something “generic” that is not popular enough to demand a premium price.

If your daily driver is a 2000 Corolla with 107K miles, KEEP IT. You cannot do better than a Corolla. You CANNOT do better. You’d be crazy to trade a Corolla for any of the vehicles you list. If you don’t want your Corolla any more, I’ll buy it (assuming, of course, that your definition of ‘well maintained’ and mine are the same).

If the AC is no longer cold FIX THE AC. But don’t give away a Corolla.

I’d offer 2 grand for the Buick. And invest the remaining 3 thousand. It will probably be reliable enough for a second car.
Do I understand correctly that you already own the Corolla?

If there is any such thing as a “sweet spot,” it’s more a description of the owner rather than the car. The owner who can do his own maintenance and make minor repairs can take on an older car than a person who has to have the vehicle brought in to the shop each time to change a light bulb. Well, you know what I mean.

I’ve always done quite well with cheap cars. I cannot in good faith suggest others do the same. My recommendation to the average buyer is to look for a late model American car. These cars depreciate much more quickly than say, Japanese cars. You can often get a reliable vehicle at an attractive price.

5 years is a good sweet spot for bulk of depreciation(steep curve initially) done and still some good life left in most vehicles. This is assuming driving was 20k/year or less.

A 3.8 Buick V6 with only 60,000 is practically brand new, it’ll run forever.

I like 17,000 miles. Some of the depreciation is removed.

There really is no sweet spot on a used car. Some used cars are begging for the crusher at 25k miles and others are still perfect after 200k miles.

Of the ones you mention, No. 2 is the best IMHO. The 3.8 Buick is a bullet-proof motor and 60k miles is nothing. Elderly owner, low miles, all maintenance records, always garaged, etc. is exactly what you need to be looking for.

The argument could be made that 2500 is too high for a 1990 Buick but the way I look at it is that there comes a point when a vehicle’s condition and mileage make it worth more and the car should not depreciate any more.
Chances are you could look around and find a 1990 Buick on some used car lot for less money but you’re more than likely not going to find one with that few miles, condition, and maintenance history. Any 1500-2000 dollar comparable Buick on a lot is no doubt going to have a lot more miles (probably 150k or more) and have a much shakier history behind it also.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I don’t own any of the cars mentioned above. I just listed them as examples of cars I’ve seen in ads that describe different scenarios. I’m interested in a sub $5000 car because depreciation will have already occured at that price range. I’m not mechanically inclined or a do-it yourselfer, so I’d be paying regular indepedent mechanic rates on repairs or if I’m lucky, I’d search the local classifieds for ase certified techs who do jobs on the side for half the shop rates. It sounds like a late 80’s/early 90’s GM product with the 3.8 liter V6 with low miles in mint condition is the winner. I don’t expect to keep this car for more than 40k miles/4 yrs, or until the a/c unit goes out. I guess there is no ideal age/miles correlation on a used car for a sweet spot.

My theory is that cars suffer from age more than they do miles. lubricated parts dry out, not wear out. I buy nothing but late model repo/lease cars with high miles >20K/yr. One vehicle had 60K and it had been driven less than a year. This allows me to drive a great looking vehicle cheap.

People state the best for the 3.8L yet I know three drivers who maintained with oil changes and were average drivers and still needed engine replacement in the 170k-200k range. 150k is a good life but not sure that range is really considered bullet proof.