I Need A Really Cheap Car! What Car Should I Buy?


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Image: David Tracy/Jalopnik

Samuel lives in NJ and works from home. However, he does have the need for something cheap, durable, spacious, and all-weather capable for when he does drive. It also needs to be the right size to fit in his garage. Those are a lot of requirements for only a $5,000 budget. What car should he buy?

 (Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

Here is the scenario:

My wife uses our main car to commute to work. I work from home, but I need a car to get around periodically during the week. It doesn’t have to be much more than a beater, but I have a few requirements. First, we recently bought a house, so I want something that can transport items from the hardware or furniture store better than our current Lexus IS350 F-Sport. Second, the roads where we live are both hilly and terrible, and I’ve scraped or bottomed-out the Lexus on several occasions, so good ground clearance would be great. Third, the winter weather can also be challenging, so AWD/4WD is highly desired. Fourth, our driveway includes a gate which is rather narrow, so the vehicle cannot be wider than 73 inches. Otherwise, I can’t get it to the garage. Finally, since it’s going to be beater, I’d like it to be on the more reliable end of cars that are older with higher mileage.

Quick Facts:

Budget: up to $5,000

Daily Driver: Sort of

Location: Bergen County, NJ

Wants: Cheap, durable, spacious, AWD/4WD

Doesn’t want: Something wider than 73 inches

Expert 1: Tom McParland – Stay In Your Element

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Image: Craigslist

Samuel this is certainly a challenging combination of requirements especially given the $5,000 budget. Beater cars are tricky and my colleague David says that you need to reevaluate your notion of “reliability.” Though I don’t necessarily agree that your beater should be a rolling pile rust.

Fortunately, there are a few decent options available. The one that stood out the most was this 2005 Honda Element. This big box checks all of your boxes. It’s got the taller ride height of an SUV, is super spacious with flexible seating, and is equipped with AWD. This car has 190,000 miles which are getting up there, but if these Hondas are well-cared for you should be able to squeeze a few more years out of it. Best of all, the boxy Honda measures a width of 71.5 inches, so while it may be a tight squeeze it should fit into your garage.

Expert 2: Collin Woodard – Stay in My Lane

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I wanted to come up with a different answer for you, Samuel. I really did. Maybe something like a GMC Envoy XUV, you know, for the times you buy furniture or tools so large, a regular SUV just won’t do. But in addition to it being too wide for your gate, I don’t think I could ever actually recommend someone buy a GMC Envoy. Even an XUV.

Instead, I’m going to recommend something I actually have experience owning: a Subaru Forester. They’re cheap, relatively durable, less than 73 inches wide, and ridiculously practical. Plus, you get all-wheel drive and a decent amount of ground clearance. There are several in your area that may be worth considering, but this one looks a solid place to start for $4,500.

Expert 3: Erik Shilling – Stay in My Lane

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Hello, Samuel, I fear that you put yourself into a Japanese-SUV-from-the-late-aughts-or-early-’10s-sized box. And for $5,000, you’re not going to find much that is on the interesting side of things. If you want it to be reliable, that is. So I say lean in to being boring, like with this 2010 Nissan Rogue, which is on offer for $4,800 and is in East Brunswick.

These Rogues are 70.9 inches wide not counting the mirrors, according to the internet. The mileage — over 175,000 — is high, but this era of Nissan is pretty reliable. I am a little curious as to what part of Bergen County you live in in which the roads are hilly and terrible and have you bottoming out, but that is a question for another day. (My guess is Mahwah.) Good luck!

Expert 4: Raphael Orlove – But You Knew This Already

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Samuel, I’m sorry about my other coworkers who, on this god-given website, told you to buy a bunch of 2000s Japanese crossovers. As if you didn’t know! I’m sure you sent your email while standing at a used car lot full of Elements, Foresters, and Rogues.

You need something to stretch your mind. You need Jalopnik! Well, I’m here for you. Normally I’d say that you should just buy a Jeep, nothing all that great popped up when I checked the local Craigslist. If only there was something that had all of the desirable qualities of a Jeep — a durable straight-six engine, durable four-wheel drive, lots of ground clearance — without the brand name attachment or price tag that goes with it.

Oh right! There’s the AMC Eagle!

For reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, AMC stuffed all of Jeep’s trusty tech of the 1980s into its midsize family car called the Hornet. Sold as a sedan or wagon, this became the original crossover, the Eagle. This one is right near you in rather hip Saugerties. Show up with cash and it shouldn’t be hard to get it down to the usual Craigslist 60 percent of asking.

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