by DT Editor-in-Chief Vince: I guess at the heart of the matter, I might be cheapskate. It isn't that I'm hoarding my cash with a plan to retire to Fiji when I'm 40. Not at all, I'd miss my wife and kids. My reasons for not wanting to buy a new car go beyond a simple desire to not hemorrhage greenbacks. It is more about the subtlety of value. Let me give a simple analogy -- it is tempting to head to your local magazine rack and pick up a copy of Road and Driver for $4.95 -- but you can get a dozen shipped to your home for $10 over the course of a year...and that is money in the bank.
It is not my intention to sell short the pluses of having a brand new car -- starting with the glorious smell of out-gassing hydrocarbons from that interior. Maintenance is going to be free during that (surprisingly short) warranty period and strangers don't silently judge you for loading your family into something that they donated to the cars-for-vets a few decades ago. Safety, emissions, amenities, Bluetooth, blah blah blah... I've even purchased a few new cars in my time, but we all do things when young and stupid.
I recognize that most people will rationalize that the new car will save them money over maintenance (and towing bills) in the long term, but I propose that with a simple set of ordinary tools, an understanding of basic automobile components, and towing coverage on your insurance policy (or AAA membership) you can beat the new car in terms of dollars per mile every single time. With a budget of around $5-10k and some cash for repairs you can/will beat the average $20k new economy car in 5 years of ownership -- however, there are a few rules.
Rule #1: Don't drive something horrible.
Yes, I get it, you love Polish built cars -- but you can't expect to buy/drive something that has zero local parts support and a terrible reputation for reliability and beat a new car on the long road. Instead, stick to cars that have built reputations for reliability -- deserved or not.
Rule #2: Newer is better.
In very general terms, the newer the car, the better it is going be at driving you to from Whole Foods (aha, now we know where all the money is going) without stranding you in front of the nearest 7-11. However, the more adept you are at solving car related problems, the better you are at tinkering, the older you can go and still get away with it. Want to drive a 79 Saab Turbo every day...sure, you can as long as you've got a full machine shop in your garage and are a Saab certified mechanic. However, be wary of the times when rapid technological advancements have added a slew of new items to the car -- these new technologies will probably cause issues when the car gets older. This is particularly scary on new 2010+ cars with everything interconnected; the GPS receiver goes out and suddenly your blinkers don't work.
Rule #3: Don't take it to the dealer.
This shouldn't be a surprise...but the dealer is the worst place you'd ever want to take any car that is not covered by warranty. I know they offer free coffee in the waiting room, and the bathrooms are clean...but you pay something like twice as much for the average repair -- and don't expect them to be any better than a good independent shop. Do find yourself a trustworthy and reliable local shop even if you are a savant when it comes to repairs; sometimes you need help and don't want to be stuck with the first place you find.
Rule #4: Use all 5 senses.
This was common among drivers a few years ago -- but modern cars have become so good and easy that we've gone soft. Touch the steering wheel, if you feel a wobble at 50-60mph but nothing below or above, it is probably an unbalanced wheel. You should be able to feel all kinds of other weird/questionable things through your hands, legs and butt. Listen to the car as it drives down the road - if it sounds like your engine is about to blow up, stop and check the oil. You should also be able to hear suspension issues, transmission whines, air in the power steering system...etc. If you are driving down the street and it suddenly smells like someone shoved the contents of a sorority house shower drain into a waffle iron -- stop, and find out where the smell is coming from. Use your eyes; you should put your car up on ramps in your driveway (or find a curb somewhere) and crawl underneath to check for ripped CV boots, rusted floorpans and other things to fix in your free time. Taste...okay, I don't think it is a good idea to swirl a sample of your ATF in your mouth like a fine Cabernet or lick the dashboard to figure out if you need new ArmorAll -- don't use taste.
Rule #5: Use the internet.
You've noticed that there is a repeated clunk during braking from the front calipers on your 2004 Subaru STI and head to the nearest dealer (in clear violation of rule #3...idiot). The dealer will probably try and charge you $6k for new brake components all the way around, but the internet forums will tell you that this is a very common thing and might be solved by a careful application of grease to the floating caliper guide sleeves, but can also be ignored. Here is a little secret: every single problem that you will ever have on a car has already been experienced by someone else, and it is on the internet. Don't just rely on search engines, head into make/model specific forums, search around, and post your questions.
Rule #6: Don't expect to always reach your destination.
I remember road trips as a kid being filled with boiling coolant systems, questionable safety, and flat tires -- but I don't think my kids have ever seen me change a tire...especially not on the side of the road. However, if you are willing to admit that sometimes your Porsche 928 will just go completely dead while driving in the fast lane (sorry about that honey...) you can drive something interesting while all of the other sheeple cruise around in hideously styled (and expensive) un-fun appliances. Live a bit. Be prepared to call your boss and say you will be late because of car trouble. He knows you drive a Lancia and will be happy to ask you about it when your Uber gets you safely into work.
Rule #7: Sell it before it blows up
This is the last part of the lesson today, and one of the most important. Don't get an old Subaru with 200k miles, drive it till 225k when everything blows up, and come back and tell me I'm an idiot (besides, I already know that). Be smart when you purchase a car, but be brilliant when you sell it. If you stick to cars in the 15-20 year old range, you can drive them for a year or two and sell without losing a dime of depreciation.
Here are some examples of late model cars that you could drive every day without losing your shorts...but you probably want to wear clean underwear, just in case.
Loyale Companion: 1988 Subaru Loyale TURBO 4WD Wag...
Brot und Butter: 1997 Mercedes-Benz E420 Sport W21...
5-Series 5-Speed: 2001 BMW 525i
Fast 'n' Cheap: 1995 BMW M3 E36
Retroriffic: 1990 Nissan Pao
5-Speed Rarity: 2004 Mazda6 Sport Wagon
Soon To Be Classic: 1989 Acura Legend LS V6
Poor Man's Elise: 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder 2ZZ Swap
Rare Fun Stick: 2003 Jaguar S-Type
Young At Heart: 1990 Mazda Miata MX5
What'd I miss? Comments below.