The author knows a lot about cars and motorcycles, especially older and more affordable ones.
With the current economic conditions, it's not surprising that not everybody can afford a newer car. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of lower-priced older cars that will last an extremely long time with proper care and maintenance.
Here is a list of 10 that I like and recommend. If reliability and economy are more important to you than shininess and status, maybe one of these is the car for you.
1. Volvo 240 1974-1993
- Volvos are excellent. They are built like tanks, and you can find very nice examples for less that $3000.
- They will easily make it well above 200,000 miles with proper maintenance.
- Parts are very reasonably priced and widely available in most Pick-a-Part type junkyards.
- Rear wheel drive is a plus to me.
- Despite rumors to the contrary, these cars are actually pretty easy to work on.
- Coupes, sedans, and station wagons are available.
2. Mercedes Benz 300D/CD/TD 1977-1985
- These Mercedes models are very well-built and still surprisingly plentiful in many areas.
- They offer considerable interior comfort for the price.
- Parts are cheaper than you might expect. They are almost as common in the junkyards as the Volvo 240.
- The diesel motor would be the way to go in my opinion, but the gas motors are also great.
- Coupes, sedans, and station wagon models are available.
3. BMW 3 Series E21 and E30 1977-1991
- These cars are really easy to find in many areas, although many of the early ones in particular are in pretty sorry condition.
- Make sure you get one that has been maintained: bringing one back from the dead is pretty un-economical.
- Rust can be a big problem on these, so be sure to check for rust before you buy.
- Parts are reasonable, and junkyard availability is decent.
- Available in 2-door, 4-door, and 2-door convertible.
4. Toyota Pickup and 4Runner 1984-1989
- While all Toyota trucks are known for their durability, this body style is my personal favorite.
- While many of these will be in less-than-good condition, they are relatively easy to get back on the road.
- Parts are cheap and plentiful.
- Taller people should look for an extended cab.
- 2wd and 4wd available.
- Electronic Fuel Injection available from 1985 on.
- Solid front axles until 1985 on 4wd models.
- The 4 cylinder 22R engine is known throughout the world for its reliability and longetivity.
- I personally have owned a few of these trucks with more than 275,000 miles on the original engines.
- The V6 is good as well but not as good as the 22R in my opinion.
- Rust on the bed is a major issue in most parts of the country.
5. Honda Accord 1982-1989
- Honda is a manufacturer that is also renowned for its build quality and reliability.
- The Accord was the top of the line offering for the U.S. market and tends to be in better shape than the Civic in my experience.
- High mileage is common on these, but not really a worry.
- Parts are cheap.
- There are many good independent shops around that specialize in Hondas if you are not up to maintaining it yourself.
6. Volkswagen Jetta / Golf 1985-1991
- This car was extremely popular and extremely robust.
- You can find these for as little as $500 in running condition with extremely high miles.
- Many of these poor cars have been driven into the ground or modified beyond usefulness by the boy racer crowd.
- Parts are cheap and common.
- There is a large variety of aftermarket tuning parts available for these cars.
7. Jeep Cherokee 1984-2001
- These are very good trucks in my opinion. The early models were plagued with troublesome engines and transmissions, so I would avoid any model that does not have the inline 6-cylinder engine.
- 2 and 4 door models are available.
- The straight six engines are capable of extremely high mileage.
- Solid axles and coil springs are standard on 4 wheel drive models.
- A sad number of these have been very highly modified for off-road use, which leaves them almost unusable for street driving, so I would avoid these.
- Parts are cheap.
8. Subaru 1980-1989
- I have seen these cars driving around with milages that are beyond belief.
- They are getting a little harder to find these days but are still around.
- Rust was a bad problem with these things, so make sure you buy one that isn't about to break in half.
- Available as coupes, sedans, wagons, pickups, and hatchback models.
- Turbos available on some pickup and and wagon models.
- 4 wheel drive or all wheel drive come standard, depending on year.
9. Isuzu Trooper 1981-1990
- These are some very tough vehicles and a very good value. While they are underpowered by most standards, they make up for it in durablility.
- Both long- and short-wheelbase models were available.
- Parts are cheap, although they are not as common as they used to be.
- Luckily the off-roaders don't seem to be hacking these up at the same rate as the Toyotas and Jeeps.
- The popularity of these vehicles seems to vary from region to region.
10. Toyota Van 1984-1989
- I really like these vans. Many of them have been severely abused as work vans, but nice examples are still around. I find at least a couple of them in almost every junkyard I go to.
- Available with 4 wheel drive which was pretty rare for the time they were made.
- Unfortunately, they used a different engine than the pickups, but it is still good for the long haul.
- Panel Van and Window Van versions are available.
There are many vehicles that could have been put on this list, these are just the ones I like the best. There is no reason to go get a new car with a high payment when you can spend a couple of thousand dollars for a car that will last you many years.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
David Hamilton from Lexington, KY on August 01, 2014:
I'm on 275,000 on my 90' Volvo 740 and it is still moving forward.
Johnd966 on July 19, 2014:
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wichitarick on November 11, 2013:
The 94-97 Cougars/Thunderbirds with the 4.6 are rock solid too. 300,000 is easily possible if you do the regular maintenance. Got one for 1000 and have spent 100 on it in maintenance over 7 months.
Yates on September 02, 2012:
Definitely agree about the Honda! My 1989 accord with 2bbl carb has been incredible since I've owned it, and without any unnecessary power accessories or fuel injection, all of the minimal work that I've had to do has been simple. Everything comes apart and goes together easy and it was just designed proper! (ex: auto transmission drain plug)
renotyler on April 01, 2012:
My buddy gave me an 85 volvo 240, his wife was tired of him working on it, I threw a new fuel filter in it and a ground strap for the alternator and its been runnin like a champ ever since, she's still young, only 457,000 miles on her, I hear people have made it to 2 million on that motor, electrical is a little shoddy but other than that a great car, ill probably have the ugly beast till I die, since I can't afford the gas in my camaro......
alanfish91 from Greenfield, Massachusetts on February 02, 2012:
I agree with most of these. I would have included 83-02 Toyota Corollas/Geo Prizms though :)
4Runner on January 23, 2011:
good to know. I like that old yota!
If you do bite the bullet and buy new, I would recommend a 2011 4Runner and then you can add aftermarket mods to it.
I found this blog helpful for parts
autopartslocato on November 26, 2010:
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glockr on September 01, 2010:
I disagree on the Subaru. I have a 2002 Outback and while it's a nice car, maintenance is expensive. Because of the engine design, any major and some minor maintenance requires R&Ring the engine which is expensive. Replace head gaskets... pull the engine. Replace the timing belt... pull the engine. Etc...
Hondas and Toyotas make great choices though, or late 60's to early 70's Chevys if you want to maintain them yourself.
hellokittysbff on July 20, 2010:
How did I know there would be a Honda on that list? They last forever. Just traded in my 1994. It was still running. Hard to let go of something that won't die, but I was ready to move on...to another Honda! haha
Cars Ireland on May 12, 2010:
This is a neat blog i remember owning a volvo 240 man it was like a tank
James Ross on October 25, 2009:
Another great list of cars. All of the autos here are extremely reliable, with a question mark next to the Jeep Cherokee. Having been through a number of these Jeeps, they all seemed to continuously have minor issues nickle and dimeing you from day one. You are better of buying a Nissan Pathfinder, a Toyota 4 Runner or as mentioned a Subaru.
GAWjr on August 12, 2009:
What an insightful article. Many people have been frightened by others horror stories, about old clunkers. But, in my experience these stories stem from cars from the big 3, or other average quality vehicles. The cars you've mentioned are all well known among mechanics as dependable, and best for the money.