I am prejudiced against newer cars so everything I recommend in that regard should be considered a one-sided opinion. There are others here who will disagree with me and their opinions are just as valid.
My personal favorite is the Dodge Shadow / Plymouth Sundance. They are real easy to work on, the common problems have inexpensive fixes, they aren't loaded with insane computers that do things computers were never needed for before, and they're REALLY tough little ostrich eggs. A friend who used to own a body shop had one. His girlfriend pulled into traffic and got broad-sided in the driver's door by an '80s Olds Cutlass going 35 mph. The inside door panel never got touched thanks to a heavy steel beam in it. Her only injury was a bad bump on the side of her head.
If you can find one of those cars with the 3.0L V-6 engine you'll have more than enough power to get yourself in trouble. You can identify them by the bulge in the driver's side of the hood. Most of them came with the 2.5L four cylinder which is just fine. That has been a very popular and reliable engine. It is not an "interference" engine. On an interference engine, if the timing belt breaks, the open valves will hit the pistons as they coast to a stop and be bent. That necessitates a valve job and new head gasket. About the only thing to watch out for on the 3.0L is if there's lots of blue oil smoke from the tail pipe. In the late '80s and early '90s they had a problem where the exhaust valve guides, which are hardened steel tubes pressed into the aluminum head, would slide down into the combustion chamber. The engine would run fine but that caused the oil control seal to pop off and oil would run down the valve stems into the combustion chamber where it was burned. There was a service bulletin and some inexpensive tools for fixing that by placing a wire ring around the inserts so they couldn't slide down again. By now I'm pretty sure all of those engines have had that repair. By the way, the 3.0L is also not an interference engine. I prefer the two-door models for looks but the four-door is the same car. Try to find one from the early to mid '90s because it will have an air bag. THAT is appropriate use of a computer. As I recall, you won't find one with anti-lock brakes; another nice feature in Chrysler products.
The next step up is the Dodge Spirit / Plymouth Acclaim. Not exactly sporty cars but still very reliable and inexpensive to fix. They only came in a four-door version and were advertised as six passenger cars, but at least some of them had better be pretty small. None of those cars mentioned so far came with factory CD / cassette players. In '94 or '95 they might have been available with a CD player, but any Chrysler CD / cassette will plug in and most will have the correct mounting ears. The combo radio is built by Mitsubishi and is very high quality. I sell a lot of them for factory upgrades. The CD-only radios were built by Alpine and had more problems.
For me, the top of the line was the Dodge Dynasty. I liked them so much that I ordered one when I learned they were in the last month of production. I ordered every option available except automatic temperature control for the heater / AC system. I'm smart enough to know how to slide a lever if I'm too hot or cold. I don't need a troublesome computer trying to do that for me. The anti-lock brake system on my car is almost identical to the system on the Chevy Caprice Classic but the Chrysler version has one extra valve to isolate the two rear wheels and control them separately. There's more to that story that I don't know because with the Caprice Classic, in an anti-lock stop, you'll keep going and going until they find you in the next county! Cops hated those cars because they took so long to stop from high speeds. That model without anti-lock brakes stopped much faster. You have to understand that the purpose of ABS is not to stop faster although that is what usually happens. The purpose is to prevent any wheel from skidding so you don't lose steering control. A skidding tire has little traction and no steering control. With my Dynasty, on the other hand, I purposely tried to do a panic stop in the dealer's parking lot from 40 mph in the area where sand collected by a large sewer drain. Not only did it stop REAL fast without skidding on that sand, we just about tore the seat belts off their hinges. Very few ABS systems are as effective as that Bendix-10 system. There was a recall on it to replace the piston assembly in the master cylinder. I have the part to do that repair but haven't done it yet since I rarely drive the car. As with all Chrysler safety-related recalls, those parts have a lifetime warranty but I don't know if that just applies to the original owner.
One important thing to watch for on a Dynasty if you're up north where they throw a pound of road salt on an ounce of snow, is the bottoms of the rocker boxes under the doors rust away. They can be entirely gone but you'll never know unless you get down there and look.
I'd stay away from any of the '80s "K-Cars", the Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries. There are a few models that have become somewhat desirable and collectible but for the most part they are a dated design. They were great in their time and helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy, but they aren't sporty, powerful, or outstanding on fuel mileage compared to many newer models.
Absolutely avoid the Stratus / Cirrus / Breeze models. I worked on a lot of them for very minor power steering noise complaints and replacing parts is frustrating at best and impossible without having the car on a hoist. I got spoiled as the dealer's only suspension and alignment expert from working on the older models. Whoever designed these cars should be made to go sit in the corner and reflect on what he has done.
The Sebring / Avenger seem to have more problems than normal and are low on my desirability scale. Same with the early '90s LeBaron convertible. I've never liked the Intrepid and its twins the LHS, 300M, and Concorde. They're hard to work on and seem to have more than their share of breakdowns. Remember, I only see busted cars. I don't see or know how many are out there just zipping along with no problems.
I'd avoid a Neon too. That was the replacement for the Shadow. In comparison, they are little tin cans with a lot of engine problems. I don't think they typically will get the 33 mpg they were rated at. My '80 Volare is twice the weight at 4400 pounds of steel and chrome, and it consistently gets 28.3 mpg in the summer. That's with old technology and no computers. Also avoid anything with the 2.7L engine. Chrysler made a bunch of really nice engines over the years. The 2.7L isn't one of them.
There is not a single Ford product I would want to own. Worst of all, I don't even want to talk with you further if you want a Tempo / Topaz or '80s Escort. Those are honest to goodness killer cars with outer tie rod ends that fall apart without warning leading to loss of steering control. While working at a Sears Auto Center in the '80s for seven years, we averaged over 40 tie rod ends for those cars each week. Our shipment of parts came in every Wednesday, and by Saturday we were buying more from the local auto parts stores. You'll find on those cars the front tires are tipped WAY out on top, over five times more than normal and there is no way to adjust them up straighter during an alignment. Tires will be chewed off in 15,000 miles but the cars ride much smoother than other small cars of the time so Ford sold a lot of them to unsuspecting customers. The Tempo was one of the first cars to have tiny little sheet metal strips going from the middle of the trunk to the wheels to hold them in position. We couldn't believe how flimsy a car could be and still hold somewhat together.
The Taurus / Sable has their own steering, suspension, and alignment misery designed in and is another one to stay away from. A girl turned in front of me about ten years ago with a Taurus and I hit her with my Challenger. That's why my car went to the restoration shop. Had I known I could have easily pulled the crumpled fender away from rubbing on the tire, I could have driven it home. In fact, I drove it like that for another year. On her car, I flattened the right rear wheel down to the ground and pushed over half way across the trunk to the other side of the car. Kind of like steel hitting cardboard. My head lights didn't even break. Her pile was totaled.
My distaste for Ford has mostly to do with the sneaky tricks they do to get people to buy their products. I could list a whole pile of problems with their older trucks and the Bronco 2, but I don't have any experience with the newer stuff after about 2000. A lot of the problems they had went on for many years with no attempt to fix them. Once enough people had experienced those things and learned how common they were, Ford would advertise some "new and redesigned" something to trick people into thinking the problems no longer existed.
I don't like GM for their business practices that cost unsuspecting buyers lots of money after the sale. I've written five-page articles on the tricks they pull and why they prove they don't have the customer's best interest at heart. Salespeople are trained to be extremely high pressure or they don't last on that job. They know all the tricks that while not illegal and not even unethical, they will get you to spend more money and make them more in commissions than at any other dealership. Since the '94 model year, they will no longer sell us radio service manuals or parts. They want to lock up all that repair business for them self. The average is $450.00 to have a cassette radio fixed. I used to charge dealers around Wisconsin $35.00 including return shipping. Their CD players all through the '90s had a 100 percent failure rate for the laser mechanisms. So far I've worked on over 2000 Chrysler radios since the early '90s and I've run into exactly five bad lasers, four of them on Alpine-built units.
Since few independent shops can repair GM radios, many people went to Best Buy to have a nice aftermarket radio installed. Once GM figured out they were losing money there, they started building the Body Computer into them beginning around 2002 on some models. That radio has to remain in the car for many other features to work. Genius! They found another way to bleed money from people but it doesn't do anything to benefit the car owners. GM also has most of their internet-based computer updates locked up so independent shops can't program replacement computers. You'll be stuck going back to the dealer. They only allow independent shops to program three computers because the government has mandated it since they affect emissions. Toyota and Chrysler allow independents to update all of their computers except the Security system for very low cost. Hyundai allows access to anyone for free.
GM also has designed in to their scanner the capability to press "lock" one time to electronically lock all the computers on the car to the radio / Body Computer. Once that programming is done, it can not be undone. If the Body Computer needs to be replaced after that, ALL the other computers must also be replaced and programmed. That takes days and can easily cost more than the car is worth. What possible reason would a company have for designing a car like that?
In many ways Volkswagen is even worse. They also have their tricks designed in that require dragging the car, in park, onto a flatbed truck for a trip to the dealer after simply disconnecting the battery. You don't want to disconnect the battery on a newer GM product either unless you know what will happen. Some cars will work just fine. Some will need to be towed to the dealer.
There's a list of the products I'm familiar with or have been to schools on. There are some issues with Chrysler products too related to their anti-theft systems. ALL manufacturers have common complaints about anti-theft systems that are very effective at preventing owners from driving their cars. I can answer about half of the Chrysler problems and there are a few tidbits of information that you'd want to know if it comes to that.
Keep in mind these are just my opinions, but it's opinions that cause people to buy one product over another. For every car I like, someone else is going to disagree, and that's fine. One thing you might look at is what kind of cars the mechanics are driving and why. Ask other people their opinions too. If you visit a used car lot and just tell them you need a car, without mentioning anything you saw there, the first thing they should do is ask what you'll be using it for. Part of their job is to find what will meet your needs. Instead, if they steer you to a certain car before finding out what you are looking for, that is probably something that's been there a while and they want to unload it. I don't know about all states, but in Wisconsin you can ask for the previous owner's name, then contact them to find out why they traded it and what problems they had.
Rather than try to bore you with any more of my opinions, it would be easier to answer questions about a specific car you're considering. I personally would prefer driving the '75 Cutlass over anything from the last 15 years but I know it will be hard on gas.
Friday, June 29th, 2012 AT 9:32 AM