Tricks to Buying a Used Car, Part 1How to shop without stress
Everyone has something they hate, and for some it's buying a car. Me, I enjoy it, because I get to have something new to learn, take apart and break. I'm a gearhead, though, so forgive me those idiosyncrasies and instead take from me the experience. I'm going to tell you about buying a used car. As someone who has bought and sold a few (at least two dozen in the past 15 years), I've probably figured out a few things that can help you buy one yourself. An introduction, then, to what went through my mind as I shopped. (Author's note: Writing to you in the first person isn't something I like. It's elitist and arrogant in a way that doesn't jive with real journalism. Arrogance can be fun, but not when it's the one-sided, manufactured omnipotence some writers adopt to preach to readers they know can't respond. It's easy to be the smartest guy in the room when you're alone in the basement.)
Buy a Used Car?
I needed a used car, something that I could haul my boy around in, something that I could park at the airport. This implies a cost ceiling-how about $5000? The things already in my garage, though fast and challenging and interesting, are not very utilitarian and definitely not airport material. With purpose and function in mind, I needed a throwaway of some size, but not so much as to sacrifice decent mileage. Four doors would make installing and removing a child easier. A wagon could be useful. I snowboard a lot, so all-wheel drive? I go rock crawling in the mountains with friends, so a nimble little vehicle with some clearance would be cool. It had to be a manual gearbox if I wanted anything small and inexpensive to be fun (inexpensive sounds so much better than cheap), and a five-speed gearbox has fewer parts to break. Japanese manufacturers do small and inexpensive well-the Civic, Corolla, Sentra, Impreza. They're all economical and reliable. Okay, thought-process complete, parameters in place.
What Car Why?
Honda Civic. Bazillions of them on the road, dead-reliable and built to last. My brother had a 1989 four-door he called Wild Rice, on account of the car body's varying shades of brown. Chicago winters are not kind to Japanese metal. There were a few all-wheel-drive Civics in the '80s, but their freak value is high enough that no one will sell theirs. Civics are theft bait in So Cal, too. Hmm, all-wheel drive is smelling more and more worthy. Scratch most Civics.
Corolla. I never liked Corollas. Unfortunately for my tastes, Toyota's record for build-quality and reliability is right there in the stratosphere with Honda. You can't kill 'em. But I think they're boring and look like a week-old jellybean from the bottom of your pocket. There was an all-wheel drive Corolla wagon, too, but they're rarer still.
Nissan and Subaru metal in the '80s and '90s was not on par with their Honda and Toyota brethren. Formerly American Sentras are about as common as tortillas in Mexico, where they rattle themselves to a slow death, while Subarus of any age seem to migrate to Oregon or Maine to rust into oblivion parked beside alternative-lifestyle homes. Both would run forever with a little care, but I didn't want something that had probably been neglected for the first half of its life. You have to consider the owner as well as the car when buying used. Think of how they treat their vehicles as if it were a toy, or a good baseball mitt. Are they someone who would abuse their toys, then leave them outside in the rain? Would they understand and take care of their mitt, or would they lock it in a moldy corner of the garage without putting on some leather balm? Do they understand how to keep their toys in good shape?
Broadening my search, I considered the derivatives. What about a CR-V or the Rav4? The Honda CR-V is based on the Civic, and can be found with all-wheel drive (from the aforementioned AWD Civic). The Toyota Rav4, meanwhile, was built on the Corolla platform with all-wheel drive yanked out of the old Celica. Both have that stupid right-hinged swinging back door (think about it-in Japan, cars are right-hand drive and park on the other side of the street, so it makes sense for the first-generation of the vehicle sold stateside to have some home market funkiness).
CR-Vs are inoffensive and not unattractive, and the first-generation Rav4 glows with a weird Japanese monkey-head charm that's fun-weird. Both have bulletproof durability records. Trust the general reputation of a vehicle, because you're more likely to get a good apple in a barrel full of good apples than one full of rotten ones. The police will notice neither the Honda nor the Toy, unless you collide with a patrol car. Mileage? Options? Price range? Caveats? Being smart enough to know that someone else always knows more, I turned to the collective, the Internet, to dig up owner opinions, maintenance issues, and expert insight. Edmunds is probably the best for big-picture info, while KBB and cars.com let you triangulate value. With the web, you can usually find out more than you need, and I found myself shopping for mods before I'd even bought anything. Did you know the Rav4 has a cult following in Indonesia and Australia? I found a forum. It's a popular trail-crawler, and the rest of the planet gets a diesel in their Rav4. Lucky dogs.
The saga continues.
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