When I was young and stupid, I bought a very cheap car. To satisfy my need to own a vehicle different than what everyone else was driving, I snagged a 1988 Isuzu I-Mark Turbo that I found nine hours away, for sale in Quebec. It was $1,900, with 230,000 kilometres of use.
I’d already bought the car within three seconds of walking up to it. It had a spoiler, and a turbo engine, and sports buckets with a great big “TURBO” badge embroidered on each. Nineteen-year-old Justin Pritchard was smitten. “IT SAYS TURBO ON THE SEATS!” I shouted, literally shoving every dime I had to my name into the seller’s face. “PLEASE TAKE MY MONEY!!”
In my lust-driven rage, I failed to realize my first car had a rotten floor with the structural integrity of a moistened ciabatta bun. That the brakes were basically shot. That the tires were nearly toast. That it had numerous electrical issues, mostly caused by rusted grounding points and a past squirrel problem.
Turns out, the seller of this car was a shady mechanic who had certified the car, but shouldn’t have. The “dirty certy” wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, but I didn’t know, or care. It said TURBO on the seats, and was the best car in the universe, and it was now mine.
A younger, more naive Justin Pritchard (with his prized 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS).
Some eight months later, largely due to the complete lack of replacement part availability to repair this four-wheeled dumpster fire, it sat on blocks in my parents’ driveway until they made me sell it for scrap.
The gist? I didn’t do my homework, and I tossed nearly two grand out the window.
So, Dear Reader: please, learn from my mistakes. Below, we’ll provide some information that’ll help you find a top-notch el cheapo car that’ll go farther for your money, and make a much better investment towards your transportation needs than that turd-satchel of an Isuzu.
For this piece, we’re setting a maximum price of $5,000. In that context, we’ll offer some tips, notes, and models you may want to consider – as well as some pre-purchase advice to help keep you from buying a used car that’s concealing wallet-threatening problems.
Pro Tips for Your Consideration When Buying on a Hard Budget
- If your total budget is $5,000, don’t look for a $5,000 car. Remember the additional costs: plating fees, other fees, certification, tax, and more. It’s also a good idea to have a contingency fund, in case the vehicle needs some extras (floor mats or a battery charger), or some maintenance or repairs off the bat (like new tires, or a transmission fluid change).
The gist? Consider buying a $5,000 car when you’ve got about $6,000 free to spend, or, if you’re capped out at $5,000, look for a car you can get for closer to $4,000.
- Read this paragraph not once, not twice, but thrice: a certification is not a guarantee that the vehicle you’re purchasing is in good shape, won’t break, or won’t have problems. It doesn’t mean the car has a warranty either, or that the seller has to come good if the transmission melts or the engine explodes three days after you buy it.
The gist? Don’t be too impressed if the vehicle you’re buying is sold “certified”. Remember: my piece-of-scrap Isuzu was. In many provinces, a certification is little more than a guarantee that the vehicle probably won’t fall apart as it’s rolling down the road. Take a certification to mean that the vehicle has met some (very) minimum standard for safety, noting that a certified vehicle could still have a blown engine, a transmission that’s about to puke, a rats-nest of wiring problems, and more.
- If feasible, budget about $100–$150 to have a professional technician give the vehicle you’re considering a once-over before you buy it, with a so-called pre-purchase inspection, or PPI. This small investment could reveal hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of problems you may not otherwise be able to detect by simply driving the car on a 20-minute test drive. Conversely, the PPI may reveal that the vehicle you’re after is in great shape, as a final thumbs-up before your purchase.
To set up a PPI, you’ll likely need to make an appointment with the shop of your choice, and have the seller bring the vehicle there for you, meet you there, or let you take the vehicle in yourself. A PPI usually takes about an hour, and is literally your best defence against buying a rolling assortment of someone else’s problems.
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- Think of the costs, against what’s important to you: is it worth spending more on a used car because it’s easier on fuel? Is it worth spending more on replacement parts and servicing if you find a mega-hot deal on a used luxury car? Should you spend more money on a vehicle that might be more reliable, or less on a vehicle that’s cheaper to maintain? Figure out what’s important, and do a little math.
- A few tips can help you to keep your purchase and running costs down. These include avoiding a car with a turbocharged engine which will typically be harder on fuel, require refueling with pricier premium gasoline, and may be more expensive to insure. Note that replacing tires may be very pricey if the used car you’re considering has big wheels, say, 18 inches or larger. If the used car you’re considering has xenon HID lighting, note that replacement “bulbs” can be very expensive to replace if they burn out. The nutshell? Know the replacement costs ahead of time.
- If you buy a Honda, or a Toyota, it’ll be more reliable than a Ford or a Dodge, right? Wrong. Though society at large seems to favour a few brands as champions of long-term reliability, that’s only a (very) partial truth. Poor owner practices can turn the most reliable car on the road into a nightmare for a future owner, and many owners of so-called “unreliable” vehicles enjoy years of trouble free operation, provided they maintain and care for their vehicles properly. Ultimately, the badge on the vehicle’s hood has much less to do with how reliable a vehicle is than how that vehicle was cared for through its life.
So, take reliability reports and “Top Ten” lists of most (or least) reliable cars with a massive grain of salt, instead seeking out full service records and a clean bill of health on a copy of the specific model that best fits your needs.
Some Advisable Used Rides for Those on a Hard Budget
Below, we’ll recommend some used vehicles for those on a hard budget, shopping within a certain vehicle genre. These recommendations are based on years of research by your writer in developing used car reviews for autoTRADER.ca’s massive used vehicle review archive, as well as input from various auto service technicians and service managers in our network. This is not a comprehensive or all-encompassing list, and we encourage used car shoppers to research their choices in full, perhaps with a look through our massive used car review section.
If it’s a mainstream sedan you’re after, consider comparing the cost and mileage of a Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Chevrolet Cobalt, or Pontiac G5 in your price range. The Japanese entries here are typically enjoyed for low running costs and solid reliability, though you’ll pay more for them. The GM Cobalt and G5 twins have poor resale value, though this can be beneficial to shoppers, since they look to be mechanically solid performers that are easy to run and cheap to fix.
Consider an Acura EL or Lexus ES – numerous copies of which are available for sale in the $3,000–$4,500 range, often with fairly reasonable mileage. Built by brands with celebrated reliability and quality, these models pack upscale interiors and higher-end feature content, skip the turbocharged engines to keep fuel and insurance costs down, and should turn in a comfortable driving experience for years to come, provided they’ve been cared for properly and consistently. Just avoid a model that’s been modified by past owners, and where possible, seek out a model that’s familiar to a local dealer, with full service records available.
If you’re after something with more space and all-wheel drive (AWD), consider a model like the Mitsubishi Outlander, Honda CR-V, or Toyota RAV4. Each of these has proven to look like a solid used-utility-vehicle bet in your writer’s research, with minimal major problems reported and an owner’s community that largely seems satisfied with how their vehicles have held up. With a clean bill of health from a technician after a pre-purchase inspection (PPI), these machines should offer plenty of space, traction, and flexibility, while keeping ongoing costs down.
The Toyota Prius is a good choice in a used hybrid car on a hard budget, largely because it’s the world’s most popular hybrid, built by the world leader in hybrid vehicles. In our price range, you’ll likely land on a vehicle with high mileage – so compare the fuel savings to the benefits of driving a conventionally powered model with less on the odometer. Buying any used hybrid without a professional inspection by a hybrid-trained technician is not advised.
If you’re after a pickup truck on a hard budget, consider a machine like the Chevrolet Silverado or GMC Sierra. Numerous high-mileage copies of these machines can be found in our price range, though some older units from the ’90s are on offer with more reasonable odometer readings. Though the older-generation machines are likely harder on gas and lighter on safety equipment, they may see you winding up in a big, useful pickup with less than 250,000 kilometres from the mid-$3,000 range.
After a budget sports car? Top picks here include the Honda Civic Si and Ford Mustang. Both look like solid and reliable performers, especially if left to stock and not modified by previous owners. Both are available with a manual transmission, offer a pleasing driving experience, and boast plenty of selection in this pricing bracket.
As a used car expert who has studied hundreds of used models over the years, here are the three cars I most often recommend for used car bang-for-the-buck on a hard budget.
Pick number one? A Honda Civic. Solid reliability, proven long-term confidence and easy access to parts, maintenance, and repairs make this one a top choice for a long-lasting and easy-to-own machine. Between $3,500 and $4,500, you’ll find plenty of selection on models with around 200,000 kilometres of use.
Pick number two? The Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. For similar money to a comparable Honda Civic, you’re in a newer used copy of one of these GM compact car twins, often with lower mileage. Resale values haven’t been overly kind to these machines, but they’re easy to care for, solidly reliable on the powertrain front, and cheap to fix.
Pick number three? The Ford Crown Victoria – which might be the ultimate hard-budget car in the universe. Though its standard V8 engine will use more fuel than a Civic or Cobalt, the Crown Vic has more trunk space than some SUVs, a large cabin, a comfy ride, and is basically indestructible. If you manage to break something, you’ll find replacement parts with ease, and it’ll likely cost you $14 to fix. These machines are solidly built, affordable, proven, and make tons of sense from a business standpoint if you’ve got to move people and things around on the relative cheap – which is exactly why so many police forces have used them for years.