The time has come. College is around the corner, and you, needing a set of wheels, have ended up looking at this very post in the immense realm of the inter-webs. Your friends keep suggesting you to buy a used Toyota Camry a Honda Civic, cars that, despite having a solid history of reliability and affordable maintenance, provoke nothing but yawns out of the dozens of –potentially– sizzling hot companions who will occupy the passenger seat. The problem is simple: you are not rich, and will soon adopt a monumental amount of debt that will stick with you for years. How, then, can you choose a car that will be economical, attractive and reliable without boring yourself to death? Assuming that your top-dollar is a reasonable $3,500 for a decent vehicle, read on, and find out some potential candidates for your college years!
FUTURISTIC FOUR-WHEELER: SUBARU SVX (1991-6)
|Not bad for a maker of toasters, right?|
For those living in areas affected by the snow in the Winter, you will be relieved to know that you will not need to sacrifice styling for a full-time four-wheel-drive. The SVX not only sports the traditional attributes of solid Subaru construction and mechanical integrity; in this particular instance, its looks are the work of Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, author of supercar legends like the Ferrari 250GT, the Iso Revolta Grifo, the DeTomaso Mangusta, or –not so much a supercar as a gullwing curiosity– the DeLorean DMC-12.
PROS: Italian styling, well built car, reliable engineering, 4WD, advanced safety features, sporty.
CONS: MPG in the low 20's, space distribution is not too practical, parts can be hard to find.
LOOK FOR: being an automatic car with a very torquey engine, check for records on transmission service and/or replacement, especially after 90k miles; radiators tend to crack; axleshaft bearings can be problematic in earlier cars; a non-working sunroof shouldn't surprise you. Leather tend to be poor quality, so look for fabric.
TOUGH: TOYOTA CELICA SUPRA MARK II (1982-6)
|Once upon a time all cars had to be photographed next to airplanes.|
One word: 22RE. Turbocharged or not, the reputation of this powerplant –also used in the unbreakable Hillux and Runner- rivals that of the 80's Mercedes diesels: tough as nails. Its presence is utter, no-frills masculinity; solid in its construction and, despite not being a rocketship (it goes from 0 to 60 in over 10 seconds), the safe feel derived from its weight and stability well compensate for it as a college car. They can be had for little money, and be ready to replace some 30-year old original parts. Still, an excellent buy for the money and a trustworthy automobile that is guaranteed to still attract looks.
PROS: cheap to buy, ultimate reliability, excellent build quality, smoothness, parts are plentiful.
CONS: MPG in the low 20's, be ready to replace a bunch of 30-year-old parts, bad resale value.
LOOK FOR: normal wear items (gaskets, leaks, bearings, fuses, relays). Finding a good used Celica is hard to do: with cars this reliable, people mistake them for maintenance-free machines, so look for one with service records that has not been beat up.
DEMI-LEGEND: MERCECEDES-BENZ SLC (1973-81)
|Brownie points for a European model with the glass headlights and short bumpers!|
The C107 Mercedes has always been considered an illegitimate child of the SL dynasty when compared to its convertible sibling: the R107. Consequently, the prices of these cars never fared too well, and well-maintained examples can be had in the 3-4k range. Still, in terms of durability and construction, it's all said: it's a Mercedes. Parts are astronomical brand new, but should be plentiful in your local scrapyard if you are up for adventure. The variants of this car are the 280SLC*, the 380SLC, the 350SLC*, the 450SLC and the 500SLC*. The ones with the asterisk are European-market variants, much more desirable, so make sure they can be registered legally.
PROS: cheap to buy, very reliable if well maintained, supreme build quality, V8 power, show-off factor.
CONS: MPG in the mid-teens, outrageously expensive to repair when they break, mediocre resale value.
LOOK FOR: a good maintenance history, avoid cars that have been stored for a long time. Rust is a deal-breaker. It will be a surprise if the A/C works, and a miracle if it blows cold. Fuel distributors tend to fail from sitting. Make sure all rubber parts are in decent condition, especially in the suspension and drive-train.
THE WANNABE: DATSUN 280ZX (1978-83)
|Lots of European queues mated to Japanese mechanical proficiency.|
Very much in the Japanese tradition of imitating Europeans, the Z-Car is no exception. With styling queues from the curvaceous Jaguars and Ferraris of the 60's, you will be guaranteed to get some jealous looks in school while not breaking the bank. The previous generation (240Z, 260Z and 280Z) is currently stepping into classic car territory, and their values are currently on the rise. It should be a matter of time before this little sportscar does the same! If you are looking for one, do yourself a favor and get a turbo (1981 up), as this sweet increase in power will have little to no effect on fuel economy. As with the Supra, beware of any signs of abuse.
PROS: cheap to get, dependable, up to 30 MPG's, modern amenities with retro styling.
CONS: rust prone, you can spend thousands in getting it to showroom condition.
LOOK FOR: any signs of rust, as sheet metal is not well protected. Make sure the turbo is in working condition (hear it spool) and that the car has sufficient oil pressure (60psi at idle); other than that, check anything that you would on a 30-year-old car.
SPACESHIP: FORD PROBE (1989-97)
|With the right set of wheels, it makes for a respectable, current-looking sporty coupe.|
Something most people will not know at first sight is that the Probe is a Mazda in disguise, with innovative styling by Ford. With this marriage of American mass-production and Japanese engineering precision, this car sports very low repair costs, low parts prices, and a reliable four-banger that able to surpass 30MPG. Ford probes can be had for so cheap, it can be turned into a good beater not to be taken too seriously. You can splurge a few bucks for a couple racing stripes along the car, or a set of wheels that would bring it up to the 21st century without making it look like a 1990's electric car prototype. Overall, an all-around economical car without pretensions, and unique looks.
PROS: dirt cheap to buy and maintain, reliable, allows for many modifications, fuel economy above 30MPG.
CONS: plastic fantastic interior, amongst many of Ford's cost-cutting measures.LOOK FOR: distributor problems and signs of racing. Anything on this car, however, can be repaired for peanuts except for major body damage. On the downside, you will never sell a Probe for more money than you got it for: this is no future classic.
SAFE CHOICE: BMW E30 (1982-94)
|Much better looking than the bloated cucumbers that BMW are nowadays...|
Without any trace of doubt, the BMW E30 series (318, 325) is one of the best cars that can be had for the money. At this point depreciation has taken away any trace of their original value, yet they still remain a well-engineered, safe and exciting college cars that won't put a dent on your bank account. They have a traditional rear-wheel-drive layout, and in some rare instances, they can be had with four-wheel drive (the iX models). There is an immense amount of aftermarket suppliers to customize the E30, in both styling and performance. This BMW, along with the Mercedes, will be your best bet for a car to keep after college into your early working years without losing a trace of distinction.
PROS: German build quality, plenty of them to choose from, 25MPG and TONS of custom options.
CONS: parts can be expensive, some aspects in it feel cheap, fasteners are soft, electrical system is iffy.LOOK FOR: any signs of hard driving, as these cars drive and corner VERY well. A/C, instrument clusters, door locks and windows are problematic. Many of these can be fixed easily by the owner. Check thoroughly for timing belt service and suspension wear. In 4WD models there are model-specific parts can be expensive.
VERY ITALIANO: BUICK REATTA (1988-91)
|Who said Buick was a car for old people?|
While Cadillac was playing with Pininfarina and Chrysler was teaming with Maserati in the mid-80's, the Buick division of GM decided to go all-out in creating a car that would look, feel and drive like an Italian one. To that mix, they added a lot of pioneering technology, like a built-in LCD screen and their invincible 3.8L, 6-cylinder engine. The result is a car with an exquisite leather interior, Buick's standard levels of quietness and comfort, and an overall degree of quality not common in the American market. The Reatta was not a big sales success due to its original sticker price and foreign feel to Americans, so it had a very short life. Towards the end of production, GM made a convertible version.
PROS: Excellent build in and out, parts are cheap, 25MPG, great visibility, fantastic ride quality, comfy seats.
CONS: some pricey Reatta-specific parts, only 2 seats, door seals can be noisy, separate dash can be rattly.LOOK FOR: a non-working LCD display can set you back close to $400 in parts alone, check for spent seals, rubber trim and O-Rings, as well as electrical gremlins. Headliner tends to sag in Buicks this age.
RACER KID: LEXUS SC300 (1991-5)
|Simple, understated, and open to MANY modifications.|
The story behind the 1st Generation Lexus SC resembles that of the Ford Probe: Japanese precision masked under the beautiful, restrained work of the designers at the Art Center of California. As with most old Lexus drivers, you do not choose your car because of its styling being over the top: its beauty lies on the careful craft behind every detail, from its dependable Camry engine to the subtle click of the buttons in the stereo. This Mercedes competitor came equipped with a 4-speed automatic transmission for cruising comfort, or a 5-speed manual, for an extra pep. The SC also came with the UZ-FE V8 engine, used in the refrigerator-like LS400, but we discourage that option due to the costly timing belt service and drastic drop in fuel economy and increase in pricing.
PROS: Build quality comparable to Mercedes, quietest car for the money, silky smooth ride, dead reliable.
CONS: model-specific parts can be exorbitantly expensive when they –rarely– break, can be numbing for some.LOOK FOR: burned LCD's, flickering instruments; leather in old Lexus models tends to dry and crack. Check when the timing belt was last changed ($250, once every 90k). If you find a affordable SC400 with a fresh timing belt service, you just saved $1,000!
PIMPMOBILE: LINCOLN MARK VII DIESEL (1984-5)
|American body, European soul.|
While gasoline Lincoln Mark VII's can be obtained for one/two grand all day long, their oil-burner counterparts still fall under the budget of $3,500 for a college ride. Back in the mid-80's, with the vogue for diesel-powered cars led by Mercedes and Volkswagen, the Americans decided to hop on the bandwagon. While GM converted one of their gasoline engines to diesel with disastrous consequences, Ford installed a silky-smooth BMW diesel in their flagship car. The result was an almost 40mpg automobile that rode like a cloud. For those looking for gobs of vintage American flavor or maybe a little bit of Italian Mafia flair, the Mark VII is the way to go for a roomy, distinguished buddy hauler.
PROS: MPG in the high 30's, extremely cheap parts, floaty and quiet ride, large trunk for your hitman needs.
CONS: air suspension o-rings like to fail, dropping the car to the ground; BMW diesel parts are scarce.LOOK FOR: sagging or leakage in the air suspension bags; electrical problems; any signs of overheating in the BMW engine: they like to eat head gaskets.
FRANKENCAR: VW CORRADO (1988-1995)
Despite the Volkswagen Golf being the undisputed king of compact, 2-door hatchbacks, there's an essential problem that prevents it from making it into this list: everybody has one. The Corrado, on the other hand, is a lesser-know sibling that shares a multitude of parts with the Golf and the Jetta, put together by the works and wisdom of the VW factory at Osnabrück, Germany. Its styling echoes the sporty lines of the Alfa Romeo GTV6, with a substantial edge in engineering integrity that enhances its performance in every single segment compared to its counterparts in the hatchback segment. Parts are readily available, new and used –with some exceptions–, and the value of this future classic can only go up from now on: ask Top Gear!
PROS: Upper 20's for gas mileage, lots of shared Volkswagen parts, responsive handling, practical, fun.
CONS: pricey Corrado-specific parts, paint chips easily, lousy crash-worthiness, lots of plastic.LOOK FOR: door handles like to break; driver profile is sporty, so check the suspension; electrical problems as it is common with other Volkswagens. Other than that, the usual laundry list you would use for any other car (leaks, oil in the coolant, cosmetics, clunking sounds, grinding or moaning bearings/gears...).
The college experience does not have to include "point A to point B" driving. Make sure you take care of your automobile at the same time you take care of your studies; in cars this old, check the fluids often and wash your pride and joy to prevent rust, regardless of where you are. Do some research around your community and find a specialist on your kind of car, sometimes they will even give you student discounts. Mechanics are deeply moved by young people who insist on maintaining older cars, so do not hesitate to ask any technical questions online and offline! Best of luck in your choice and happy schoolin'!