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Used, attractive, reliable cars under $5k

I am hopefully about to start a new job and will need to have a vehicle for work due to its location and also for occasional business use. I’m an architect and feel I need something professional. In order of importance: For now I want to spend less than $5k, should be attractive/professional (not tacky looking like the older Hyundai), reliable, prefer something environmentally friendly. Eventually I’ll buy an EV but I want to wait until more come on the market and they are tested a bit (second or third generation). I might consider an old Mercedes diesel I could run on biodiesel, but even though people say 150k miles is nothing, I hesitate to buy something with that many miles on it even if it is clean/good looking and has all repair records. I know they sometimes need engine rebuilds at 200k or less… Thanks for your input!

I should also note I’m hoping for something without a ridiculous amount of mileage regardless of the year. Over 110k miles is probably out of the question for gas engine even if it is a Honda. I know some vehicles last a very long time, but I just don’t want to risk it. You don’t hear about the bad ones - people only brag about the good ones. Correct me if I’m wrong.

You need to either lower your expectations, or raise your budget. $5K doesn’t get low mileage cars with the other criteria you list. $10K will get you in the ballpark.

For $5K you go shopping in your area and see what you can find. Craigslist is a good source of cars offered by private owners. Autotrader and Vehix give listed cars from dealers and some private sales.

Stay away from European cars like Volvo, BMW, VW, and MB unless you are OK with high repair bills. Old MB diesels are expensive to maintain unless you DIY.

A Honda Civic, Accord or Toyota Corolla, Camry are your best bets but you won’t get a nice one with low mileage for $5K.

Any used car is for sale for a reason, and that usually means an expensive repair or maintenance is due and the previous owner bailed. Any car with 90K miles likely has a timing belt that needs replacing, new plugs, and other expensive maintenance. Of your $5K you need to hold onto $1 to 2K to fix your “used” car in the first year or so.

Before buying any used car pay for an independent mechanic to inspect the car. This might save you from buying a car with a major problem like a blown head gasket. The biggest issue with many used cars is the condition of the automatic transmission. Many owners don’t do transmission service and a new trans is $2K. No way to really assess the condition of the trans, you buy it and hope. These are the reasons you hold back some money and don’t blow your whole budget on buying the car. Any used car is going to cost you some money in repairs, even more likely in a $5K car.

Attractive is a matter of personal opinion. My attractive may be dirt ugly in your mind. You need to make that decision yourself.

Reliable is mostly determined, not by the make and model of the car, but rather which car got the recommended maintenance.

While I drive a diesel and like it, you need to consider that any repair on a Mercedes is going to be costly. I believe the old Mercedes do well with bio fuels but not so much with the new ones. (That last bet may be subject to correction.)

As far as life, if you (and any prior owners) have done all the recommended maintenance, it should last a long time.   What year are you considering?  Any car will become more of a problem as they age and finding parts and experienced mechanics will become a bigger problem. Since there were not that many of them sold, that could also cause problems.

I’d avoid the Merc. They’re cost of ownership is like having another mouth to feed.

As an architect, you may want to consider if you’ll have to go “on site” in construction areas. Soft, sandy, and/or torn up construction areas should dictate your needs. Perhaps it’d be a good idea to look around at the other architects and see what they’re driving.

Go get a copy of Consumer Reports recent “Auto Issue.”

It has a list of reliable used cars listed by price range. It also has a list of “used cars to avoid.” Make sure you read that one.

You’re not going to get a status symbol for $5,000, but you can get a reliable used car. An old Mercedes diesel is not a good idea on your budget. Not even on twice your budget.

A mid-size domestic such as a ford Taurus, or chevy Impala maybe your best bet. A wild card, possible a manual transmission PT Cruiser.

I agree with the others who have posted so far.

A used car that is selling for $5k or less is rarely going to be truly reliable, unless you happen to stumble upon a car that is selling for far below its true value. That might happen, but it rarely does. Additionally, the quality of attractiveness is so subjective that nobody can really tell what types of vehicles you might consider to be attractive/professional.

For $5k or less, you will be looking essentially at cars that are 9-10 years old, and the reality is that any make of car that has been in service for 9-10 years is going to have some reliability issues. These issues will be exacerbated if the car has not been maintained flawlessly.

However, all of that being said, below are some suggestions in your price category, based on the Consumer Reports list of “Reliable Used Cars”:

Acura CL, '01, '03
Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis (mechanically identical), '01-'03
Hyundai Sonata (V6), '03-'04
Infiniti G20, '02
Infiniti I30/I35, '01-'03
Lexus ES, '01
Lincoln Town Car, '01
Toyota Avalon, '01-'02

However, no matter what make or model you are considering, if you buy one that has not been exceptionally well-maintained, you could well wind up with a repair time-bomb waiting to explode in your wallet. So–I would suggest that you limit yourself to cars that come with full maintenance records.

An absence of maintenance records almost always indicates that a car was not maintained properly and/or that the seller is trying to conceal something from you. A seller’s claim such as, “the car has been well-maintained” is almost always an incorrect characterization that should not be believed unless it is backed up with maintenance records.

Be sure to have any candidates for purchase inspected by a mechanic of your choosing prior to purchase. A pre-purchase inspection can frequently detect incipient mechanical problems, as well as collision damage. Even if you have to pay ~$100 for this type of inspection, it is well worth it to avoid a money-pit of a car.

Also–be sure that your budget includes at least $1,000 for maintenance and unforeseen repair issues in the first year. If the car in question is due (or overdue) for timing belt replacement, you will need to double that first-year maintenance/repair budget.

Good luck!

Thank you all for the info! I think I have my answer. I see this as more of a bridge car for two years or so until I buy a really nice EV. I’m okay with spending an extra 1-2k right away to fix hidden problems and I’m okay with high maintenance costs financially but don’t feel its sustainable. Our only car right now is a 2000 BMW 740i and we figure up to $5k/year in maintenance. But where I’m ok with maintenance I’m not ok with lack of reliability. But based on all the info presented I think we’ll probably just buy a new car or lease one. Thanks all! No need for off-roading as most of my jobsites are clean or easily accessible. As a matter of fact I’ve been using our BMW along with Zipcars/Flexcars for the last 5 years.

Any car that’s reliable and under $5K is, by definition, attractive.

Anyone seeking something specific in good shape for under $5K is, by definition, being unrealistic. Anybody who finds it is just plain lucky. Or connected. Have you checked with your relatives?

An old Camry/Avalon or Accord in good condition will do the trick. The problem is finding one.

$5000 is the wild west of cars.