My son has been getting by with a 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt that has been great for his purposes, but with 250,000 kilometres and rust galore, it probably will not make it through to spring. He and his partner are both employed, but money is tight in these inflationary times. What could they get for around $7,000 that might see them through a couple of years as their careers advance, allowing them to save, and after which they can maybe consider something longer term, preferably electric? He can drive stick (the Cobalt is standard) but she cannot. – Bradley
Mark Richardson: This is a different question from the usual ones we receive, but it covers a huge number of vehicle purchases every year. What to buy when you really don’t want to spend much money? I was like this for the first 20 years of my car-buying life, and I know I wasn’t alone.
Petrina Gentile: And as prices continue to rise in the new- and used-car market, it’s tough to find a deal. If you’re looking online at used cars between $5,000 and $7,000, most are older vehicles – 2011 to 2015 models with mileage north of 200,000 kilometres, so not much better than the Cobalt.
Richardson: Let’s be honest – cars in that price range are toward the end of their lives. If you buy one, you should expect to keep it until it dies. Some features may not work properly, but you may get 50,000 or even 100,000 kilometres out of a wise purchase.
Gentile: Well, 100,000 kilometres may be pushing it. Most vehicles in that price range are sold as-is – they’re usually not certified – so you have to be cautious when buying. It’s always wise to take a mechanic with you when looking at a used vehicle to get their expert advice before laying down the cash.
Richardson: So let’s assume Bradley’s son will look at something that’s at least 10 years old with 200,000 kilometres on it. Frankly, the best place to start is through word-of-mouth – let it be known among friends and family that you need a car and will pay cash. That doesn’t mean the car will be reliable, though, and you’ll certainly want a mechanic to look at it first.
Gentile: There are no guarantees, but he might want to consider a tried-and-true used car like an old Mazda3.
Richardson: The commenters will pile on you for that suggestion because of Mazda’s reputation for rust. The truth is, early Mazdas did rust badly, but the issue was fixed within a few years and those early models have literally disappeared by now. If the Mazda doesn’t have much rust on it after 200,000 kilometres, it’s not going to get much worse, especially if it’s treated with an annual underspray.
Gentile: On the websites I’ve visited, there seem to be a large number of used Mazda3s for sale in his price range. I think he’d prefer the ride and handling of a Mazda3 over his Cobalt, too.
Richardson: Mazdas have always been affordable, and their drivetrains are solid. It’s anybody’s guess for reliability once the mileage gets so high, which is why it’s important to try to involve a mechanic. If the seller will let you, drive to a trusted mechanic for a proper once-over on the hoist that will probably cost an hour’s labour. You should expect to have issues, but at least you’ll be prepared and can budget for them.
Gentile: If he can get his hands on a 10-year-old Honda Civic, that would be a wise choice, too. You can find a few online for around $7,000, though the mileage, again, is often more than 250,000 kilometres. But Honda vehicles are reliable and you can often drive them into the ground. He could probably get another few years out of a good one.
Richardson: I have a 2006 Civic that we inherited from my mother-in-law, and it’s rock solid with 150,000 kilometres. Totally boring, but excellent transportation. Hondas and Toyotas are usually the most reliable of the older cars if you can find them. That means they cost more than a lower-mileage competitor, but they should go 300,000 kilometres if they’ve been cared for properly.
Gentile: He should keep an eye out for a used Toyota Corolla, too. They’re hard to find and boring, but they’re reliable and dependable.
Richardson: Another piece of advice would be to buy such an old car from a registered dealer instead of a private sale, unless the seller is a relative or trusted friend. There’ll be some provincial protection against inflated or untrue claims from the owner.
Gentile: I don’t mind private sales – I’ve bought and sold several vehicles privately. You’ll usually get a better price with a private seller compared to a dealership. But keep in mind, it’s always buyer beware. The seller is legally required to provide a Used Vehicle Information Package, which outlines the vehicle’s history and any outstanding liens. In Ontario it costs about $20, but varies by province.
Richardson: There are plenty of vehicles out there for $7,000, but you should expect problems with all of them as they age. The key is to be prepared before you buy. Insist on the Information Package so you know about any past issues and try to ensure the car is inspected by a mechanic so you’re aware of what work it will need.
Gentile: Try to stick with reliable options like the Honda Civic, Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla.
Richardson: Just don’t cheap out on the tires. They’re the only part of the vehicle that touches the road – hopefully. I’d rather have a bad car with good tires than a good car with bad tires.
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