Car Search: Finding A $5,000 Sedan That Will Last 10 Years

Posted by



My latest client to hire me as a consultant wants a used car from an uncommonly competitive market segment: the $5,000 sedan, preferably a Corolla or Civic. So let’s roll up our sleeves and see what we can find.

This client lives in SF and doesn’t drive far, only about 5K miles per year. She’d like for this car to last ten years, so we add 50K miles to whatever we see to project down the road.

She’d had what was a perfect car for her, a 1998 Corolla with just under 100K miles, but in what is becoming a familiar story in SF, her Corolla was hit, and the offending car ran. It was a total sideswipe of the driver’s side, and the rear axle was bent as the car was forced against the curb.

And so her totaled Corolla was one of the first cars I found on Craigslist, still with her Mission District residential sticker. “Small amount of damage on the right side”. Here, small means “down the whole side of the car”. Probably bought at an insurance auction for a grand or so, and now it’s being flipped on a salvage title for $2,300. Capitalism!


Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of this generation Corolla, with its pedestrian performance and wobbly handling,

But this kind of Corolla isn’t aimed at enthusiasts, and there’s still a lot to recommend it. Not the least is that its design came from what I consider to be the Golden Nineties in Japanese cars, before the ’00s brought their myriad of sensors and other complications.  And this Corolla’s engine turns with a timing chain that lasts the life of the car, not a rubber timing belt that God knows when it was last changed.

Besides, this client really liked her Corolla. So we start there.

This one isn’t so bad, although the miles will have her up near 200K when she’s done with it. Still not a big deal for these cars, it seems like 240K is when the big things start going, but it’s more miles than she’s comfortable with.


Salvage title on this one, Those “faded paints” look cancerous.


Love these old Corolla FXs, but it’s too old and traveled for my gal.


This 2001 Corolla S checks most of the boxes, but $4,600? Sheesh.


That’s not as disappointing as $5,200 for a ’99 Civic with 113K miles.


My client is not American-car-phobic, so a look through the Cavaliers turned up this yellow coupe that shows how much cheaper the Americans can be.


This is the Cavalier you’d use for that one last bank job.


Anyone who says American cars from that era don’t last hasn’t met this Cavalier with 218K miles…


or this Saturn with 275K.


A swing through the Mazdas provided the usual distractions…


…as well as sympathies for the projects gone wrong.


This Protege would work, but it’s an hour-long haul to Saratoga from SF, meaning it’s far from my client’s preferred mechanic for the pre-purchase inspection. Besides, I typically avoid leaky water pumps.


It’s about now that I start asking myself why we are limiting our search to these overpriced shitboxes  expensive economy jobs. Let’s see what else we can get for this price.

My client is a practical gal, so I checked out Volvo, even though I know we’re entering the land of the $1,500 radiator and the $5K transmission replacement. I sent her this S60, along with the consumer reviews…


…and she responded with interest, except: “I wonder about the part in the review where they talked about the poor/difficult turning radius. That’s one area where Toyota is really good.” I have bitched about the 2014 S60’s wide circle, so of course I agreed, but this is how we see if  the client has any flexibility apart from the original target.

Here’s hoping that the next installment will turn up the right car for her. I’m curious to see where we’ll end up!

Tell us in the comments – what would you tell my client to buy?