4 cyl accords have a lot of space under the hood. this is a benefit for the mechanically "uninclined."
i had a 2000 prizm for 2 years that was extremely reliable IF the motor oil was changed regularly.
i could have the perspective that is imperative to your search since i've owned all discussed vehicles...saturn, cavalier, prizm, honda. i would suggest, if price is a MAJOR concern, to go saturn or cavalier. i think these are all good vehicles, but most used cars need repairs to some degree or another. that said, if you go honda or toyota, paying a premium, and still need to put money into your project...well could be a double wammy!
I like the Chevy Prism for the price, but a lot of the automatics are only 3-speeds. That seriously hurts fuel economy. A Corolla has a 4-speed, but then the price starts to climb. Also, beware of sticking doors in the wintertime. I know 3 people that had their doors freeze OPEN when temperatures dropped to single digits, and no amount of slamming could close them.
A Ford Focus has seats that are not for everyone. I've also heard quite a bit about reliability issues. I don't know that much about the Cavalier or Sunfire. Everyone I know that has ever had a Neon or PT Cruiser says to stay far away from both.
I did manage to buy my Civic for $1,300, and it is very easy to work on and still runs great. My brother-in-law bought one for about the same amount, but his has quite a bit of rust and the fuel gauge does not work.
I'm wondering if a Mazda Protege could be had for $3,000.00.
I'd say a Focus depends on how its equipped. My sister has a 1st gen Focus, base model trim and an automatic and I hate driving her car. My dad has the 2nd gen Focus, the highest trim level, and a 5 speed manual, and I love driving his car. Of course, you won't find a 2nd gen focus in your target budget unless it has some serious body damage.
I need an automatic. I can drive a manuel, but due to a leg problem thats getting increasing worse, i can't drive manuels anymore. I've never been a fan of the Focus, and I mean besides the looks. The seats are not comfortable.
"But Doc, we dont' have enough road to get it up to 88 miles per hour"
I'm a fan of Nissans, Mazdas, and Hyundais. They have Asian reliability without the Honda/Toyota price premium. Nissans have timing chains that won't leave you stranded with bent valves like Hondas will when their timing belts break. I'd avoid Mitsubishis, and Kias prior to the Hyundai partnership.
I haven't been impressed with Saturns and Cavaliers. Neither has decent reliability compared to other compacts. I get high 30s mpg with my SE-R, and if that's all Cavaliers can do, that's underwhelming.