Reader Question: Best Forever Car?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Ed asks: What car is the best car to own long term? Given initial cost and repair cost. I love your writing, major long-time fan. Keep up the good fight!

My reply: This can be answered several ways. First, the general way.

Almost any used car that you buy for say $5k or so that gives you even five years of service without a major repair needed is a great car. At the end of five years, assuming the car is still serviceable, you could probably sell it for at least $2,500 or so and thus your actual cost to own over the five years is about $45 per month, less fuel and incidentals. Or, keep on driving it; the more you do, the less it costs. Even after another three or four years, it will still be worth around $2,500 – because that’s the baseline these days for a mechanically sound car, regardless of mileage or age.

There’s still some risk, of course, when buying any used car. Even given what seems to be a clean bill of health. Things can go wrong. The odds are they probably won’t – but the fact is they might.

If you want a near zero-risk proposition, here’s my specific recommendation:

Buy a new Toyota Corolla or Camry. These cars are popular for a reason. It is because they are the vehicular equivalent of a shoebox full of gold and silver coins – literally, almost.

They hold their value amazingly well – which they do because they can be counted on for Biblical prophet longevity. 15-20 years and 200,000-plus miles with few, if any, major repairs during that time. Toyota offers the worst new car warranty in the business – three years/36,000 miles – because it doesn’t need to warrant these cars.

Toyota is also very conservative in terms of engineering and gadgets. For example, it has only recently begun adding direct-injection (rather than PFI) and several current models still haven’t got DI.

Nor high-pressure turbo’d engines.

You could also combine the general – and the specific – and shop for a used Corolla or Camry. My pick would be one from the mid-late 1990s through the early 2000s. Even with 100k-plus miles, these cars are as close to risk-free as it gets with something that has moving parts.

They aren’t exciting cars.But they are cars that have more durable virtues.

Thanks for the kind words!

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Well, we have still running the following:
    1988 Cherokee
    1989 K1500
    1991 Suburban

    Thirty years isn’t forever but I guess those are doing okay.

  2. 1st and 2nd gen Xterras/Frontiers are a plenty. You notice it is always the imports that seem to last longer?

    Anyways, I can’t speak for the 1st gens of the X/F but I see a ton of them throughout Houston. They went to second generation in 2005 so that means these little suckers are 15+ damn years old and still driving Houston highway speeds. Now for 2nd gens, if you can get one past 2010 or one before but with a replaced radiator you will be golden for 100k miles. The timing chain has been known to fail also but if you want to drop $2000 on replacing it you have a new car basically for 200k miles and dealer work warranty. Some owners have driven them past 300k. That is kind of 3rd 4th place to the Accord/Camry durability but I am giving you an option outside of that.

    Another option are L Engine Code GM vehicles (tahoe, silverado, suburban). These generally have good lifespan and resell value. Various things can go wrong with these also but judging by the number of them still on the road they have good longevity.

    • I always see an occasional Xterra when looking for manual vehicles and then frontier’s and tacos as well

      Next time I see one, showing my buddy, as his current Jeep is a bit of a heep and figure let’s show him something different

  3. Hands down without any competition the best forever car is the Mercedes 240D and its siblings (300D, 220D, 200D, 190D pre 1990)- especially with the formerly common manual transmission. The last W124 240D rolled out in about 1984- and they are still prowling the highways and ninterlands of the globe. Their only real enemy is rust- and that takes decades to kill them.

  4. If you don’t mind wrenching your own a bit, look into some of the older TDIs, especially 1999-2003 in the US. These were made worldwide 1999-2010, so spare parts are plentiful and cheap. Typical lifespan of these are in the 300,000 to 400,000 mile range if cared for. The on-line knowledge base is huge and working on them is usually straight forward. Plus, you’ll get 40+ MPG while driving 80 MPH.

    • Those are very nice cars. I have driven a couple and they are great. Not a bad choice at all.

      But.

      Expensive parts and far more complexity that the 1998 and prior. The 1998 VW diesels were much simpler and DIY friendly, IDI not DI, though not as refined. The pre99 cars were fairly basic, the after99 cars were so integrated that many parts were serial numbered to the car and would cause the computer to freak out if changed. Putting you in the clutches of your local VW stealership.

      My choice would be a 1998 Golf diesel 5speed. Hatchback makes it far more practical than the Jetta.

      • You’re probably right on that, but I can find a 1999-2003 TDI much easier than I can find a ’98 and earlier. I’ve found the dealerships prices not too hateful either, at least compared to others – I paid $35 for the master power window switch bank from a dealer.

        • Yeah, most of the the older ones are gone or are rolling basket cases. Occasionally I do see a well cared for <200,000km come up for sale. Unfortunately they are always Jettas or autos and I like Golfs with a stick.

          For me a forever vehicle would have to be assembled and would of course be specific to my needs. A 1.9 IDI turbo diesel out of the Jetta/Golf dropped into a Suzuki Sidekick 4door 5speed 4×4 would cover 99% of my needs. Of course finding a decent 98ish Suzuki ain't too easy either.

          For the last couple of decades, I just buy $1000ish vehicles and drive them till they drop. Often 3-4 years later. I usually have the next beater waiting before the current one gets beyond financial viability. That is almost over now as even the simplest of the vehicles from the last 15 years are way too complex to survive as "beaters". Too much integration and high tech plus ridiculous sized wheels so even 4 tires cost more than my average beater purchase. My last three turds all has 235/75/15 tires. Good ones are $150 each instead of $400+ for 20" ones.

  5. Also, if you know manual, get one

    Saves you $$$ and more involving, adds a little spice to the car.

    Personally, I’d get a Taco if I were getting a ‘Yota, or an 86, but that’s just me

  6. Eric,
    My bullet proof cars are Toyota, Honda, and Subaru. However, I agree that Toyota is a step above those makes. I had a 1990 Honda Accord that my wife and I drove into the ground until it was literally almost ready to fall apart. We sold the Accord in 2014 for scrap then bought a 1999 Toyota Sienna XLE with 108,000 miles. Interestingly, while I was researching available used vehicles (I was looking at either a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna), I discovered that there were used car dealers who actually specialized in selling nothing but Hondas and Toyotas. I now have 190,000 miles on the Sienna. In addition to the normal daily driving we do, we have used it for our vacation travels where we usually take long drives out west (at least two trips we drove over 5,000 miles). Never a problem other than normal replacement of various things that wear out over time.

    I love your writing and thinking on liberty-related issues, and your take on the intersection of liberty and automobiles (very intertwined!). Keep up the great work!
    Steve

    • As an owner of two Subaru’s, I differ on the “bullet proof” label for them. They are not bullet proof, in that no major repairs aren’t needed. However, they are very tough cars: meaning things that might otherwise be catastrophic do not kill the Subaru. I have a 95, whose kids have driven w/o oil in the crankcase, driven till an axle broke, and others. These were all repaired, either by me or a cheap mechanic I use with success. My ’05 needed the head gasket replaced. Arrghh. That was $2500. However, the horizontal 4 engine layout is very easy to work on and repairs are simple. With that, I would buy another. However, it would have to be before 2017, b/c after that they have too much nanny-state safety crap.

  7. Another thing that Toyota will do is fix something under warranty, even when you’re past the warranty. They did that on my 07 Tundra when the heater fan motor got stuck in the on position around 60,000 miles. I’m on my 3rd Tundra since then and have never had an issue with anything going out. My second one had 137,000 miles. Not a single thing broke or had an issue. 68,000 miles so far on my 3rd one and never had anything wrong either. If I did under 100,000 miles on something electrical/mechanical it wouldn’t surprise me if they fixed it under “warranty” out of the warranty period.

    New cars generally have tons of issues. I’ve seen it in my business. If you buy new, buy Toyota. They aren’t always issue free, but usually are. Nothing sucks worse than driving a rental while the car shop is trying to figure out what’s wrong with your vehicle. Or while they are replacing the engine/transmission or some major electrical flaw.

    My brother and siblings say “Ford” or “GM really took care of us under warranty”, to which I respond Toyota took care of me once out of warranty in a combined 300,000 miles. They have never had to “take care” of me again.

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