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Old 12-01-2010, 11:00 AM   #1
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Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

Looking for input on a possible high MPG DD vehicle.

Here's my situation: Right now, I don't need an economy car, as I work downtown (where the cheapest parking is $2.50/day) and my employer pays for my transit pass anyway.

HOWEVER, early next year, my office is relocating to the 'burbs. Free parking in a secure location is a plus, but having to drive every day will cost me (I suppose I could take the bus but it would add 1+ hour each way to my commute, which I'm not willing to lose. Right now being downtown taking the light rail actually saves me time.)

Anyway, I'm not going to get rid of my SUV as I actually use it to go off-roading and camping, but there's no need to drive that thing every day, either. So I'm starting to look around for a low-cost, high MPG car to use as my Daily Driver (DD.)

Main reasons I want a DD: Save money on gas, and also save wear-and-tear on my 4runner. Also, I'm absolutely convinced that gas prices are going to shoot up again, probably next summer, to the $4/gallon range and when they do, high MPG daily drivers will be difficult to find.

Even if they don't, less $$ on gas means more $$ to spend on other things, am I right?

I'm very partial to station wagons, and in fact, I've never owned a car that had a trunk. Every vehicle I've owned has either been a pickup, an SUV or a wagon.

However, that's not a deal breaker for me. The only absolute requirements are:

1. Under $1500
2. Reasonably reliable for city use
3. 4 cyl engine (I see no need for anything bigger)
4. Manual tranny (I know there are some autos that get decent MPG but my experience has been that in a straight-up competition, a manual will beat an auto any time. Plus I already have an auto in my 4runner and am itching to get back to a manual transmission anyway.)
5. 96 - later for OBD-II compatibility.
6. AC that works. It gets hot here and I spent enough years without AC when I was younger (lived in NC for 6 years owning a car with no air!)

Being in Colorado, I know a lot of people might suggest Subaru. Now, I've owned a Subaru before, and it was a perfectly fine vehicle, but the truth is, Subarus really don't get very good MPG, and I don't need AWD. If there's 2 feet of snow on the ground I'll either take the 4runner or more likely, just stay home. Even the FWD Subies don't seem to be that good in the MPG department.

Toyotas and Hondas are nice, but IMO they are a bit over-valued in the used market.

After doing several weeks of "research" on CL to see what is available, I've narrowed my choices down to:

- Ford Escort: Lots available in both sedan and wagon configurations. Seem to be quite commonly found with 5 speed MTs, too.

- Saturn SL/SW series. As with the Escorts they seem pretty common and available in my price range, with a lot of 5 speed transmission models available.

- Geo/Chevy Prizm: A lot of people forgot about this one but IIRC it is basically a Corolla made in a GM factory. Toyota quality at a GM price sounds like a good deal to me. Unfortunately most of the ones I see advertised have an auto tranny.

- Mazda Protege: Lots of them around, many manual transmissions. One odd note, I see a lot of them advertised with no mention of AC. Might be an oversight, not sure. One nice perk about the Mazda is that according to Edmunds it's got a 14+ gallon tank where most of the other vehicles in this class have ~12 gallons. Having a 400+ mile range between fillups is a nice feature!

Any others I should consider? What is the reputation/reliability of the Dodge Neon? I remember them as being quite popular in the late 90's but then they just sort of fell off the map.

Would appreciate any input/experience regarding the above choices, too. Any specific years/engines/options to avoid based on problems?

Thanks in advance!

Martin
A/K/A Zapp Branigan
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Old 12-01-2010, 11:17 AM   #2
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

Old Neons seem, in actual usage, to be as dependable as most of their contemporaries. I haven't seen many on this forum though.

What about a Ford Ranger (regular cab 2wd base model)? Abundant, good fuel economy, engine and transmission last forever, severely depressed market value, cheap parts. The only common failures they have are the clutch slave cylinder and the leaf spring hanger, both of which are pretty easy and cheap to fix.

The Escort is good but less common than the Ranger. People are happy with them and I don't hear of lots of problems.

The Saturn is great except for their issues with rings (is that kinda ironic?). Search this forum or a Saturn forum for details.

The Prizm ought to be ok, and the smaller Metro is a fuel economy champion.
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Old 12-01-2010, 11:32 AM   #3
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

RE: Ranger: Actually, when I started my MPG quest, the Ranger was at the top of the list. After all, I'm a "truck guy", not a car guy. Also, I'd owned a 2wd Ranger before and had a very good experience with it (although it was an extended cab/V6 model.) The upside is that it's a simple, RWD design, abundant, cheap and reliable.

The downside is that it's a pickup with limits the versatility in terms of carrying passengers. It's also not that common to find a simple, RWD, 4 cyl regular-cab model with AC.

Initially I thought a truck would be nice to have for the versatility of being able to carry my motorcycles, etc, but then I got a utility trailer at a bargain price. My 4runner + the utility trailer can pretty much do anything that a small truck could do.

I'm still a few months out from pulling the trigger so I'll have time to look around. I won't completely eliminate the pickup option but for my needs a car would actually work better.

Honestly, a mini-van would be a decent all-around vehicle but my observation is that most of them get mediocre to poor MPG, which would defeat the whole purpose of my quest!
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Old 12-01-2010, 11:56 AM   #4
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

The hardest part about minivans, IMO, is that most aren't available with a manual transmission. The Mazda5 is one of the few that is.
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Old 12-01-2010, 12:48 PM   #5
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

i vote the saturn. dirt cheap car and dirt cheap parts. the ring thing is the only real problem with these cars but it just means to add oil or give the motor a cleaning.
I had initially wanted an escort or a neon and just couldnt get a nice clean one. The beauty of the saturn is for the most part it always looks brand new with the all the plastic parts on it. never any dents or rust.
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Old 12-01-2010, 02:56 PM   #6
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

i wouldn't rule out hondas and toyotas. my boss just sold his civic for $1500. to meet your requirements w/out a/c will be tough tho--hope you're not in a hurry. you could always buy a car w/out a/c(they typically sell cheap), and struggle thru next summer while you save for a/c replacement/repair.
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Old 12-01-2010, 03:42 PM   #7
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

I'd suggest looking at a Chevy Cavalier. They're reliable and long lasting provided you don't treat as a disposable vehicle. If you can find a well maintained Cavalier go for it.
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Old 12-01-2010, 06:10 PM   #8
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

Jay and Bowtieguy both have good suggestions. I picked up my rust-free VX for less than $1,500 in 2008, at the height of high fuel prices. The A/C worked at the time, too (it was never used, and the refrigerant leaked out over the next year or two). There are a couple of guys on the site who get 35+ mpg out of Cavaliers, and the parts tend to be cheap. When properly maintained, they can last for 200,000+ miles, too.
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Old 12-01-2010, 07:46 PM   #9
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

I'm a honda guy, reformed toyota guy, and a volvo guy. I have never once been a ford guy.
All that being said, buy the escort. I've got a friend who owned an escort (95', I think) we named the "racecourt." He drove it for about 35k. At that point it had around 200k and was needing a clutch. We replaced the timing belt at that time. Since then, there has been nearly zero maintenance done. Another friend bought the car and has been driving it without really doing anything to it for 2+ years. It has still never had a clutch. It still feels like it wants one, but if you drive it gentle without a lot of load you'd never know it.
Only issue I recall was a rust issue on a floor board.
I think it's around 225k now.
I don't remember exact fuel economy numbers but it was in the 30's I think without trying. It came with a/c that did not work. He only paid like $500 for it though. You could spend $250 or so and have the a/c working.
I hearsay the 96' and newer ones are just as good.
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Old 12-01-2010, 09:36 PM   #10
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Re: Thoughts on a low-buck high-miler?

For $1500, your best bet is a Cavalier. They have timing chains, unlike most of the others, and that will save you $600 every 60,000 miles by not replacing timing belts. Nissans and Toyotas have chains, too, but their used prices will be much higher.
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