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The best all purpose cheap car?

I’m a guy in Brooklyn looking to buy a vehicle. No idea what to get. This is the first car I will be purchasing. I’ve driven two other cars for a total of about 5 years.

I’m in a band and often need at least a wagon to haul gear, or haul a 4-5 people, move small furniture, and get my photo gear and an assistant somewhere relatively remote. I also would like to take the car out across the country. I’m sick of renting. The only decent rentals I had were the Toyota Sienna (newer ones are too expensive), and the Ford Escape (this car disguised as SUV seems impure).

What car/truck is the best combination of cargo room, gas mileage, reliability, and cost of maintenance?
And is having an American car truly more important once I am out away from metropolitan areas? I grew up in the Northeast where American, German, and Asian cars all lived harmoniously.

Does the safety of a passenger car for everyday driving cost too much compared to the utility of a van or capped pickup?

I am going to be buying used, around $5k, and most likely purchasing in NYC or on a mini road trip down to warmer climates.

I do not expect the car/truck to be good looking, nice smelling or desirable. I want an auto that I can go on adventures with. Age and mileage can be whatever, as long as there is some life to be had from the car.

I’ve thought of a buying a beat up Ford Taurus wagon, Nissan Quest minivan, Dodge Caravan, boxy old Toyota 4Runners, For Econoline vans. All seem like good choices but they all sacrifice something. Is the Chevy AWD Astrovan my soul mate? Is an old and beat up Honda Element going to cost me extra time and money if I break down in Montana (being a Japanese car)? Is a Subaru Legacy wagon going just keep going like a glacier? Is a giant boat mobile Cadillac that seats 6 the coolest thing ever(yes)? Is a manual rear wheel drive Volvo 240 the car that sees Mount Washington and San Francisco in the same month?

I love driving a manual, had one for years. Maybe a really busted old BMW 3 series wagon?

The best car for a guy living in Brooklyn is a rental car. Could be a four-door sedan today, a van tomorrow or a pick up truck when you need one. I’m a car guy, but would never own one in The City.

I have a similar situation. I am president and play horn in a small chamber orchestra and I also play in a couple of concert bands. I am always transporting people and instruments. I have found the best vehicle for my needs is a minivan. I have owned 4 minivans–a 1990 Ford Aerostar, a 2000 Ford Windstar, a 2006 Chevrolet Uplander and now have a 2011 Toyota Sienna.

When I replaced the Ford Aerostar, I considered a Ford E-150 Econoline van, but it was too large for everyday driving when I wasn’t carrying people and/or instruments. We had a set of 4 tympani donated to the orchestra and I was able to fit all 4 in the Ford Aerostar when I removed the seats. The orchestra played an outreach concert 50 miles away and I had 6 people, 1 French horn, 1 violin, 1 trumpet, two cellos and a flute in the Sienna and we had room for all.

At $5000, you will need to really search for something serviceable. Set aside $1000 for tires, brake pads and other possible repairs. You probably won’t find a manual transmission in a minivan.

I don’t know what kind of gear you are hauling. We also have a Toyota 4Runner. It does not have the capacity of the Sienna. I don’t think I would go for a BMW or Volvo. It is not very likely that the ones in your price range would be reliable.

If you can find a Pontiac Aztec in good shape,. buy it. A butt ugly vehicle, therefore the good prices. Pretty basic GM drive train and suspension, so easy to get fixed. The V6 motor has good power and get decent mpg for vehicle that has cargo capacity.

I think there are some less than 2003 year ford station wagons out there that would seem like a good fit.

Thanks! UncleTurbo: Pontiac Aztec is an interesting idea… Makes me think of “Breaking Bad” TV show. And it was mentioned in a recent episode of “American Dad” as a “…tent on wheels”.

To Triedag, we’re a small, very small rock band. 3 guys, 2 guitars, keyboard, mid size amp, several tom drums, a snare, stands and cables and electronics. We’ve successfully crammed the whole thing in a Lincoln Town car black cab by cramming the trunk and putting stuff in our laps. The manual tranny would be on a Volvo or Subaru.

To Twotone, I agree with you, and that’s what I’ve been doing. But I’ve been here long enough without a car that I’m going nuts. I want to drive something. Also how many times must I get into a ZipCar and smell B.O. and pot smoke? It’s just degrading after a while.

Anyone ever done a trip from the Northeast to Mid Atlantic or the South to buy a car?

Your chances of finding a good vehicle at a decent price are better outside NYC. I’d seriously consider heading south because older cars around you are often pretty badly rusted from road salt. Get down to South Carololina or Georgoia and you will see more old cars on the road with sturdy bodies.
What would I look for? Some minivans are OK, others have serious weak spots (such as the fragile transmissions on many Honda Odysseus. Crossovers/SUVs have some of the same problems as minivans since they are often built on the same platforms. For example, the Honda Pilot and Acura MDX are closely related and share some weak points.

Take a look at the Mazda5, a shrunken minivan, practical, simple, efficient and reputed to be reliable. It may not have been made long enough to reach your price point; Mazda has also made some other nice vehicles, including the midsize cx-7 crossover, and the larger, very nice cx-9. A few years back they made an excellent conventional station wagon version of the Mazda6. You mentioned the Element and wonder if it’s too exotic for the backroads of America. Uh, no way. The farm roads of the US are full of Asian import brands. An Element will only stand because of its innate quirkiness. Those roads also have plenty of practical RAV4s and CRVs, both easily recommended. The a/re lesser known models from Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Ford and GM thatcare jut fine. Buyer beware, which just means hit he Consumer Reports Used Car Guide, and Google and search here, too. Have fun on your project and let us know how your hunt goes. If you ask about specific models, the gang here can alert you to weaknesses and suggest questions to ask. Have fun above all!

A 2wd, Toyota or Nissan or Ranger compact pick up with crew cab with an aluminum locking cap or used GMC, Chevy, Ford or Dodge contractor van. The vans are popular with bands in general.

. In city driving, they are upright with good vision and collision repairable having a frame and not unibody. Most models have manual windows and mirrors when older cars with power this or that can be expensive to repair. Find one with air conditioning and nothing more except auto if you’re so inclined. They even look better with dents then cars… :=)


How about going the Blues Brothers route with an old Crown Victoria? Cop Tires, Cop Brakes, Cop Engine, lots of room, big trunk … these beasts run forever. Thirsty on gas, though.

You’ll find lots of boring sedans, SUVs, pickups, vans and odd stuff at the GSA Government Auto Auctions. The one in Bordentown, NJ is quite active. I’ve checked it out a few times. Haven’t bought anything (yet). The prices are good … roughly wholesale.

You can’t drive the cars before bidding, but you can crawl all over them and start them up. They have to be running, or they won’t make it through the auction lanes. :slight_smile:

The Buick Rendezvous is almost identical to the Pontiac Aztek, except that it is not nearly as ugly. You can get a 10 year old one for around $5000. The Aztek is about the same price. You might also look at an early 2000s Olds Silhouette. It’s almost the same as the Pontiac Montana and Chevrolet Venture, except that the seats are a lot more comfortable. We have a 2003 with about 130,000 miles and we have put little money into repairs. Actually, at this age and mileage, I’d say the suspension repairs have actually been maintenance. A 2003 Silhouette will cost about the same as the 2003 Aztek. There are no fold flat seats. If you need extra room, the 3rd row folds forward, but for maximum room you have to remove the rear bench and the middle pair of captain’s chairs.


The CX-7 is too new to be in the $5k price range(2007 was it’s first year), unless its a salvage title. Also, it’s pretty much a 6 wagon that sits up high; You might get the guitars and keyboard in the back, but the drums would be hard pressed to fit with everything else. They MIGHT fit in a 9, but I’m not sure.

Ford Aerostar or Windstar would be great choices for cargo room, but difficult to park; get a back up camera if the vehicle you get doesn’t have one, they’re money very well spent.

I was going to mention The Vics…You see all those identical yellow cars that say Taxi on them? How about the identical black and white cop cars that define “abused vehicles” The taxi fleets get 350K miles out of them before they give up on them…A NYC squad car? No…But a New York State Thruway patrol car at say 110K miles, is just broken in…Five Large will put you in one…Mileage is 16/25. They seldom break, but if they do, anybody can fix them, quickly and cheaply…

What about a used Mazda 5? Not as big as the Sienna, but very flexible interior and easy to maneuver. A cheaper option would be an early-00’s Ford Taurus wagon; I’ve seen tons of these on the used car market (albeit in CA) and they’re not exactly sought-after by any enthusiasts (so they’re real cheap for their condition and mileage) and I’ve know several to be very reliable.

Cop Tires, Cop Brakes, Cop Engine, yes.
JAKE: I’ll have four fried chickens, and a Coke.
ELWOOD: And some dry white toast, please.

I know nothing about these Mazdas. I will investigate.

I’ve been told by a professional that the answer to my question is “…sadly Minivan.”

The two minivans I trust are the Dodge and the Nissan Quest (the early 00’s one).

Was the Nissan Quest also a re-badged Mercury Villager? Nissan made them, right?

Oh and the Jersey Auto auctions are a great find. Thank you MPGomatic! I will be attending one at some point this summer.

Ford Taurus Wagon will be the backline option.

First I will try to find a minivan used or work van from an auction.

Oh and the Jersey Auto auctions are a great find. Thank you MPGomatic! I will be attending one at some point this summer.

Unless you are skilled with examining used autos, and skilled at buying at auctions, and are open to the risk of being taken, then you may want to avoid auto auctions.

Skilled at examining used autos: yes
Skilled at buying at auctions: no
open to risk: yes

Trying to find a car to live life with, it won’t be perfect

I have heard sworn testimony that the Taurus wagon is the toughest and more fun than a minivan.

I like the auction Crown Vic idea proposed by MPGomatic. I would try to find one outside of the rust belt though. Bordontown is not far enough south. Been there, done that. Anything mechanical can be fixed, but once the rust monster gets hold of a car it just keeps eating.

I saw five black and white ex-cop Crown Vics sell at a government auction yesterday. '04s to '06s, 74K to 102K miles. Prices varied from $200 either side of $2000. All of them needed tires and of course some added black paint. They were originally all black, so that would be the easy way to go. A friend bought one several years ago. It was a rural county sheriff’s patrol car. 160K mostly road miles, some on gravel. He drove it to 256K and gave it to his daughter and son-in-law. Last I knew it was pushing 300K.

Look on ebay or Purple Wave Auctions for cars in the south and southwest. Search for car haulers on google. I got one brought from Bordontown half way across the country for $400 because they had an empty slot on a portable parking lot. Another time I sent one to the Pacific Northwest for $500. Deals are out there if you look.

Some questions:
1.Where will you park it? What will your insurance, taxes, and annual fees be, and are they based on the year or original cost of the car?
2.I can understand your frustrations at Zipcar, but life is tough and frustrating, so maybe don’t just trade one frustration for another that may be even worse (unless you have some extra money to burn).
3.You sound like you enjoy driving, so factor that into the decision too.
4.One of the most enjoyable cars we ever owned was a beat-up Boston cruiser we bought for $800 after our newer car was stolen in Cambridge (Our Fair City). It was safe and inspected, but we wouldn’t have cared if it was totaled, it looked like the project car for a paint shop, and not even a lunatic would want to steal it. We put a “Porsche” stripe on the bottom, which amused everyone. Except the Porsche drivers. We took it many places where we never would have taken our newer car (including anywhere in Boston), and we never worried about it (I think that was why it was so much fun, and why we have been skeptical about too-expensive cars ever since).
4.Whatever you decide to do, be comfortable. Sounds like you have already done that in one of the replies you made. Good luck.