Used car for my 18 y/o son

Hello Tom, Ray and CarTalk community: Looking for a reliable, used vehicle for my son with the following parameters: Prefers AWD or front wheel drive as he will be living in Colorado and there will be snow
Needs storage for camping gear, belongings etc. Since he does not have consistent housing , he will be doing a lot of car camping and maybe occ sleeping in his vehicle(so far we have been looking at station wagons and SuVs)
Decent gas mileage does not have to be great) he is concerned about the environment and his pocket book;Auto or manual transmission, does not matter

And of course , here is the kicker… , he has $4000 maybe 4500 at max

thanks for any advice or words of wisdom

I would look at something like a 2000 Subaru Forester. These are plentiful in Colorado and well suited to the climate. Just be sure to have any candidate cars checked over thoroughly by a reputable mechanic. Subarus are notorious for head gasket problems, so be sure to have the engine checked for signs of head gasket leaks. Try to find an owner who was diligent with routine maintenance and took good care of the car.

PS-- make sure the previous owner replaced the timing belt at the mileage interval recommended in the owners manual. You don’t want to buy a car that has a past-due timing belt ready to fail, because it can wreck the engine. And you don’t want to be the one to replace an old timing belt, because it’s an expensive job.

In snow country, AWD or not , TIRES will be your best friend.
A used car will have used tires …inspect carefully , planning to invest in, at least, new tires for your used car .

Older used Corolla. Would be able to find a gazillion out there.

While a Forester would work, at that price it’ll be an older one, and they have a history of head gasket problems. How about a Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix?

Be sure to consider a Toyota RAV 4. Not sure how far back you’ll have to go to be in that price range though. I’m not sure if the 2wd version is front or back drive. But if it is front, I’d consider the 2wd version. It will work fine in most cases in the snow, and be more reliable. If he wants to use it to go skiing though, probably 4wd is a better option. But if he’s in the flat part of Colorado — and much of Colorado is quite flat, even the Denver metro area is pretty flat – 2wd front is what I’d recommend.

If he really is going to be just using it for driving about town, and on major paved highways, and not sleeping in it, a Corolla or one of the Honda econoboxes, like the Fit or the Civic, would provide better mpg. And you can buy a more recent vintage I expect for your budget, compared to a Rav 4.

A 2003 Vibe (1st year) will be around $4500 from a dealer. He might get a better deal from a private seller. Higher mileage will equate to lower cost, too. 100,000 miles comes with a $280 premium over one with 120,000 miles. A clean 2005 Ford Focus SES wagon with 100,000 miles will be right at $4000 from a private seller. I’d look at a 2003/2005 Focus wagon. It’s a good compromise between age and cost. The similar Chevy HHR was first produced in 2006 and probably won’t meet your price point. Last, it might make sense to buy a slightly older one to get a lower up front price. It’s bound to need some maintenance or repairs.

OK, this is easy, in a way. Buy the best you can find, with maintenance records if at all possible. Specific brands and models are less important than condition. Older utes were simple beasts and didn’t vary as much (Subaru excepted) . You won’t have a lot of decent choices in that price range. Just buy the best older compact SUV you can find. Preferably Japanese, though an older Ford Escape would be OK and I wouldn’t reject another domestic if it was a good deal. The Escapes may not have fallen to that price point, though they made them for so long, maybe they have. I’d be looking especially at the less popular brands. Mitsubishi used to sell a fair number of utes, but they aren’t valued much now. An old Montero could work. Isuzu used to, also (the tough old Trooper) , though parts availability might be an issue. Maybe not, as they weren’t that rare. Of course the usual Pathfinders, 4-Runners, etc.

These truck-based SUVs aren’t great to drive, but for Colorado would be fun for exploring the back roads. Lots of beautiful National Forest Service campgrounds up in the Rockies. Camping out up there in the summer could be fun.

I had a 2001 Ford Focus hatchback when I lived in Colorado. It wasn’t ideal all of the time, but nothing that chains didn’t fix. In the times that there wasn’t snow, my car handled just fine. The thought that you needed a Subaru to get around any time of the year is bunk.

Although, a Subaru would have been nice.

By the way, Colorado does a gas emissions test yearly when you renew your registration. Make sure that his vehicle will pass or he will face fines!