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Five $2,000 Cars to Buy and Five to Avoid

This is as good a time as any to remind people that there are inexpensive vehicles listed online or parked in driveways.
Mark Toljagic

There’s a million reasons why people need cars.

Some want a vehicle to get to a distant job not easily reached by transit, or during the night shift when the buses aren’t running. Others crave a set of wheels to exert their independence or become self-employed. Still others want a vehicle so that they can help people.

We know there’s an army of people working hard to keep services going during the present pandemic. Many of them are low-wage earners toiling to keep important facilities like grocery stores running and clear of the coronavirus.

This is as good a time as any to remind people that there are inexpensive vehicles listed online – or parked in driveways with hand-drawn For Sale signs – that can serve hardworking folks during the present turmoil.

Five overlooked winners

The emphasis here is on good-quality cars that can go the distance without becoming a burden on cash-strapped households. With this in mind, we’re using the government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit monthly payment of $2,000 as our price guideline (tax, licence and insurance are extra).

It goes without saying that if you manage to find a Toyota or Honda for $2,000 it pretty well qualifies as a bargain, even with upwards of 250,000 km on the odometer. The trick is finding other gems at this select price point. Here are five uncommon bargains.


2007-09 Suzuki SX4  

The product of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s famed Italdesign studio, Canadians embraced the front-drive Suzuki SX4 hatchback when it arrived in 2006, fishbowl styling and all. Suzuki also offered an all-wheel-drive model, whose electric solenoid-operated clutch pack activates the rear wheels. The SX4’s sole engine is an all-aluminum, 143-hp 2.0-L four cylinder working through a standard five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic.

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The made-in-Japan SX4 garnered little criticism regarding build quality or reliability. Online complaints point to false warnings from the Check Engine and Airbag lamps, some interior rattles and the odd bad alternator or fuel pump. Owners dislike its tiny fuel tank, which requires frequent filling. The dealer network is long gone, but components are still stocked by many auto-parts retailers.

2004-2006 Ford Focus

Ford’s European-designed Focus brought unexpected sophistication and refinement to the economy class, with stellar handling and smart design both inside and out. Too bad the back seat is a little tight and interior materials were selected on a budget. We’re especially smitten by the not-so-small Focus wagon – a practical workhorse with room for ladders and related gear on the roof, if that’s what you need. There are sedan and hatchback Foci, too.

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The four-cylinder engine will likely keep on ticking, especially if it’s been sourced from Mazda, Ford’s partner at the time. Watch for malfunctioning air conditioners that may be traced back to a leaking compressor shaft seal. Other setbacks include faulty throttle bodies, alternators, ignition switches, window regulators, and wheel bearings in small numbers.

2004-06 Mitsubishi Lancer

Here’s a decent car that’s overlooked because it wears the tri-diamond logo of Mitsubishi Motors, an importer that doesn’t have much of a history in Canada (former Dodge Colt owners would beg to differ). This vintage of Lancers shared a 120-hp 2.0-L four-cylinder engine, although a heartier 162-hp 2.4-L four was introduced in the Ralliart sedan and exceedingly rare Sportback wagon.

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The Lancer distinguishes itself in the econobox market by delivering slick refinement and a few unexpected premium touches. The relatively few mechanical problems recounted by owners include prematurely worn clutches and brakes, as well as paint that can chip and scratch easily. The climate control knobs are fragile and may snap. Shuddering or surging displayed by the automatic transmission may require the autobox to be flushed and refilled with newer SP-III fluid.

2007-08 Hyundai Elantra

Hyundai’s Corolla hunter neatly packaged all of the usual content, plus some posh goodies – such as heated seats – at a price that undercut the benchmark Japanese sedan. Its generous-sized cabin coddles passengers, the ride is supple (if a little floaty), and acceleration and handling are about class average. An energetic 2.0-L DOHC four cylinder makes a useful 138 hp, while road noise is nicely subdued for an econobox sedan.

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Build quality leapt ahead with this generation of the Elantra, and it’s imported from South Korea rather than Alabama. There are scant reports of failed ignition switches and door locks, along with the occasional troublesome automatic transmission. Hyundai extended the warranty on the Elantra’s electric power-steering rack and column, which may exhibit intermittent problems.

2004-2006 Ford Ranger

Looking for a light-duty truck that works? The original Ford Ranger compact pickup hasn’t changed much, along with the closely related Mazda B-Series, since the Clinton administration. Rangers are small by contemporary standards, but come in rear- and all-wheel drive configurations. There are no four-door versions of this vintage, although SuperCab models provide rear-hinged half doors to ease entry into the cramped rear jump seats.

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Base two-wheel-drive Rangers used a 2.3-L four-cylinder Duratec engine, good for 135 hp (later raised to 143 hp) while Ford’s torquey 148-hp 3.0L V6 was standard in 4×4 models. The big enchilada was a 4.0-L V6 making 207 hp while guzzling fuel like a full-size F-150. Noteworthy headaches include worn front suspension components, driveline vibration, leaky transmissions and cabin lamps that drip water. Be sure to inspect the body, bed and frame for rust.


Five cheap disappointments

We’d be shirking our responsibility if we didn’t warn you away from some common sights on used-car lots that seem like good deals. All too often buyers plunk down their hard-earned cash on what looks like decent transportation, only to be disheartened when the repair bills start adding up. Here are five duds to avoid.

2007-2009 Nissan Versa

At first glance, the Nissan Versa is an immensely practical car: it’s a small hatchback with big room inside, rides nicely and is frugal with fuel. Unfortunately, it was an early mule for Nissan’s continuously variable transmission (CVT), whose metallic drive belt moves between tapered pulleys to simulate a near-infinite number of gear ratios within a range. Too bad the CVT demonstrated less than stellar reliability as the Versa aged.

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CVT complaints include violent shaking and stuttering, difficulty accelerating, overheating and suddenly shutting down. Early examples saw CVTs snap their metallic belts at relatively low mileage. Nissan provided a 10-year/200,000-km warranty on the autobox, but many Versas don’t qualify anymore. Versas are also notorious for breaking their front coil springs, which can puncture the tire, as well as prematurely worn catalytic converters.

2002-2005 Volkswagen Jetta/Golf

Volkswagen’s Golf is one of the bestselling cars in the world and its close cousin, the Jetta, is a Canadian favourite with its big trunk in place of a hatchback. This pair transcends the economy class with their robust construction, well-sorted suspension and upscale interiors. While we have recommended the Golf/Jetta in the past, especially with the durable 2.5-L gasoline engine, the reality is old German cars are expensive to repair.

2002-2005 Volkswagen Jetta/Golf

Common problems seen in aging Golfs/Jettas include failed water pumps (and overheated engines), worn camshafts, broken engine mounts, timing belts that stretch and jump, broken turbos and more. The TDI turbodiesel’s reputation is not what it used to be and repairs can be exorbitant. VW components are typically sourced from Germany, which adds time and expense to the bruising repair costs.

2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt

General Motors finally got around to replacing its long-in-the-tooth Chevrolet Cavalier with the Cobalt, a relatively modern design based on GM’s Delta platform. While it was a comfortable and quiet compact, it didn’t take long for the headaches to appear. First and foremost, the electric power steering system is troublesome and expensive to repair post-warranty. Not to mention it’s unnerving for many drivers to feel the power steering shut off at highway speeds.

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The Cobalt was at the centre of a massive recall campaign involving a faulty ignition switch that could randomly turn off the engine. Beyond the safety recalls, the Cobalt has not been a reliable friend. Common maladies included failed transmissions, leaky fuel pumps, faulty transmission shifters (locking the key in place), burned-out sensors and broken door handles. Oil may leak from the front crankshaft seal on the 2.2-L engine, as well as from the head gasket.

2007-2010 Jeep Compass

Jeeps have a reputation for being tough, no-nonsense machines that can go the distance. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. They’re prone to numerous mechanical faults, even if they can climb a mountain-goat path. The Compass is the brand’s entry-level model that uses the Dodge Caliber’s front-drive platform. The chassis is rife with suspension issues such as leaky front struts, fast-wearing ball joints and links, broken springs and rusted-out crossmembers – all of which compromise safety.

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The Compass – along with Caliber and Patriot models – is known for engines that shut down at speed, thanks to Chrysler’s notorious Totally Integrated Power Module (TIPM), responsible for bizarre electrical faults and some drivability issues. These models also use Nissan’s CVT automatic transmission, which is reputed to fail at high mileage. Other weaknesses include bad fuel pumps and fuel-tank sending units, and broken power-assisted windows.

2003-2006 Nissan Altima

Nissan redesigned its Altima midsize sedan in 2002 to successfully compete with the bestselling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The car’s great cabin, performance and styling were a hit with buyers. The base 2.5-L four-cylinder engine was smooth running and quite powerful, but a big problem eventually emerged: the pre-catalytic converter built into the exhaust manifold would disintegrate, sending sand-like material into the engine causing oil consumption and, eventually, engine failure.

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Some 2.5-L engines were replaced under warranty, while others paid the $6,000 repair out of pocket. Additional problems under the hood included broken engine mounts and failed head gaskets and timing-chain tensioners. Beyond the troublesome engine, owners complained about faulty radiators, oxygen sensors, prematurely worn struts and starting problems. Oddly, rust in an issue with plenty of owners reporting that their Altima’s floorpan has corroded all the way through – a critical safety issue.
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