• Nov 30, 2006


Quick, print this out! This information will self-destruct! How else will we keep everyone's greasy mitts off our beloved "sleeper deals?" Not sleeper in the hot-rod sense, though some of these cars are certainly capable. No, by "sleeper deals" we mean the great iron out there that's overlooked, rewarding to drive, fun to maintain and modify (if that's your thing) and most importantly, stupid cheap. Of course there are far too many to list in a single article, so perhaps this document will take on a life of it's own and become a living entity. Like Wikipedia, or Swamp Thing. Here are the first five that spring to mind.

(Top-Secret list of cheap and really good cars after the jump)

Volvo 7 series

The Rodney Dangerfield of Volvos. Slotted between the cult-classic 2 series and Euro-slick 850 were the red-headed 7's (which begat the 940/960 range). The 740 and 760 are virtually the same beasts, the higher number indicating a higher level of equipment. 760s could also be had with a V6 that wasn't available in the 740s. These may be especially cheap, for while the V6 had all its teething issues mainly worked out by the time of the 7's, its reputation had been thoroughly sullied. Most of the ones you'll see are 4 cylinders, and that's the engine to get. Whatever you end up with, there's a large and knowledgeable base of support on the internet.

These cars are serious bargains. The underpinnings are stout and elegantly designed and the engines are virtually indestructable. They're simple to service and take huge amounts of punishment. The sedans are cheaper than the wagons, as the great utility of the wagons excites it's own little subset of freaks. Don't be fooled by the lack of respect from all quarters. Check the spec sheet out:
  • Rear Wheel Drive
  • 3300 lbs (on the lighter side of midsize)
  • 4 wheel disc brakes
  • Available with a turbo and a stickshift (though the autos are better matched)
They're really like a 4 door Mustang of the same vintage. Turn the wick on the turbo a little bit, and you'll surprise a lot of folks on the road. For the excitement of a boring car, go with a naturally aspirated automatic transmission model. It'll just keep trudging along. The driving experience is still pretty modern; most were equipped with power windows and air conditioning, and leather is common. A good example can be found between $1000-3500. Heck, I had a hard time giving away a runner! When it finally drove away with it's new owner, I felt like I'd betrayed a friend.

Fox-Body Fords

You can have virtually anything you want in a car by shopping the variations of the Fox platform. From rare high-performance to the big payload of a wagon, the Fox has it all. The best known Fox is the Mustang, the coolest of all being the '84 SVO, though that's certainly open to dispute. Powered by the turbochrged 2.3L 4 cylinder, it had as much snort as the 302, but was lighter on its feet. These aren't plentiful, and they're sought-after. There are other high performance Foxes, too. How about a Cougar XR7? It's virtually the same thing as a Mustang GT or SVO, but with a fuglier body. '84-88 Thunderbirds are underpinned by the Fox, and are arguably more practical than a Mustang. Pimp-tastic, velvet lined cruising can be found in the Lincoln Mark VII and LSC. One of our favorite Foxes has to be the super-rare LTD LX. Unassuming '83-'86 midsize sedan exterior, Mustang GT greasy bits. To paraphrase Elwood; "Cop tires, Cop suspension, Cop brakes, fuel injection."

Fox wagons are great, they're not quite as big as the Panther-platform full sizers, but they've got a wide, flat load area and can haul more than all but the biggest of SUVs. They're easy to service, parts are plentiful and inexpensive, and the driving experience of the mid 80's cars isn't too dated. The early Fairmonts may feel a little medieval to some drivers. Or you could just revel in the simplicity of a pushbutton radio and you-wind-em windows. Heck, some cars even had vent-wings in the front doors!

There's tons of variations on the Fox platform, and like the Volvo, there's plenty of parts swapping that can go on between the cousins. With some creativity, you could probably even fit the IRS from the very last SN-95 Mustang Cobra under a Fox-platform car (Fox became SN-95 for the 1995 Mustang). From its humble roots as the Fairmont, through the funky Futura (the automotive equivalent of a velour shirt), to its eventual death as a Mustang-only platform, the Fox cars were robust, plentiful and a decent drive for very short money.

W Platform GMs

If you can find one that hasn't started disassociating itself into iron ore, these may be the king of stupid-cheap cars. Luminas, Cutlass Supremes, Regals and Monte Carlos, there's something here for everyone. They were decently engineered, and then whacked hard with the beancounter's stick. Even after cheapening and decontenting, they're pretty good cars and drive better than you'd expect. Born as the GM10 in 1988, the W soldiers on, even motivated by V8 power. The mid to late 90's vintage is the sweet spot where they're cheap, but still have life left in them.

The General makes great powertrains, and the W cars literally rust away around perfectly running engines – be they the boomy 4 cylinder or more demure 60-degree V6's. The 6's are the ones to get -- they're smooth, pretty well isolated and offer a decent amount of power. If you want something tossable, seek out a Lumina Z34. The more complex "Twin Dual Cam" engine may drive up the cost of maintenance, though.

These cars can take a lot of pounding without complaint. Suspensions of the first-gen cars have a transverse rear leaf, like a Corvette. That little fact may keep you from feeling like too much of a dork for driving one of these things around. Honestly, for all the guff GM product takes, these are pretty good cars. Their sheer numbers, and the amount of parts they share with other GM platforms means that they are really cheap to run, and they can be easily turned into something special if you're creative with a set of wrenches. The ultimate W platform car has to be the Intrigue, Oldsmobile's last gasp and a hell of a car – better with the 3800 than the fancy schmantzy 3.5L. There's something to be said for pushrods.

C4 Audis

Back to The Continent for a surprise. These may be the most expensive cars cited here, with good examples running between $3-6K, but they're great deals even at those prices. Audi interiors are some of the best in the business, and that trend was just getting going with the C4 cars. The C4 is the platform underpinning the 1994-97 A6. It was based off the long-running Audi 100, so the bugs were largely sorted. Luxuriously appointed with leather, moonroof, and power toys out the wazoo, these cars make you feel important.

Audis are typically pretty rewarding drivers, and these cars won't disappoint. If you find them lacking, there's a large base of clubs and internet support to help you tailor your ride to your liking. All of the wagons (Avants) had the famed Quattro AWD system, and many of the sedans did as well. The V6 and automatic transmission are Teutonically stout, easily racking up 300K miles or more. The bodies are galvanized, so they'll still be around in 10 years, too. Unlike more recent wares from VAG, these cars can be serviced by any sharp mechanic or do-it-yourselfer. The last of a breed before you needed VAG-COM and an MIS degree to reset your Service lamp. There are other flavors of powertrain, some less reliable but more fun, like the 2.2L I5. Either way, these are perhaps the only cars we list that won't need any excuses no matter the company you keep. They still look sharp, they drive quite keenly and they're a nice, cushy place to park your keister.

Chrysler EEK

Ah, the K Car. What a hateful, wicked little thing. But it did spawn virtually the entire Chrysler lineup through the 80s and early 90s. EEK just refers to the original Reliants as well as the variants based off the same basic engineering. The K platform is even more an everyman's platform than Ford's Fox. Heck, it even gave us the minivan! Nothing, nothing beats a minivan for hauling stuff without a punishing driving experience. Bruised ego and a sore back, maybe, but way better than a cargo van. The Caravan did come with the 2.2L turbo engine for a few years, and folks like Gus Mahon (RIP) managed to get incredible acceleration out of them.

These cars used to be as ridiculously cheap and plentiful as the W platform GMs, but I've been seeing fewer and fewer as time drags on. For that reason, try to find something a little unique. There are the Daytona and Laser ponycars, which are a whole different flavor than their Mustang and GM F-Body contemporaries. There's even Shelby versions of the Daytona, Lancer, and Sundance if you're looking for exclusivity.

Nothing fancy under these things (seeing a pattern here?). A beam axle out back, and MacStruts up front. They can be made to handle decently, and again, the large base of enthusiasts will help you keep the thing going. The 4 cylinder engines don't suffer any major design flaws and take tons of turbo boost in stride. For a more relaxing EEK experience, there are the luxury models. The E Class and New Yorker were larger and came with a torquey Mitsubishi 2.6L 4, same as in the Starion. The Mitsu 4 is smooth due to its balance shafts and has nice maintenance touches like a long-service timing chain instead of the more common belt drive. The carburetors on these are complicated, expensive and most likely shot by now. Do-it-yourself fuel injection like Megasquirt can fix that, if you're really determined. The later luxury models like the Dodge Dynasty and New Yorker came with Mitsubishi V6 power. These are oil refineries on wheels due to valve guide wear. Stay away from them unless you're game for engine swaps or rebuilds. Any of these may be best if you're mechanically inclined, as they're all older now and bound to need some sorting out. Once you get into it, though, it's like a big, fun snap-together model kit.

That's it for now, though surely these choices don't sit well with everyone, which is a great excuse to do this again soon!


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  • 45 Comments
      • 8 Years Ago
      Just wanted to add a few notes about the GM W-bodies. I'm always looking out for cars to buy, and I always stop to check out a 1990-94 Lumina. These still had the 3.1L V6 with multiport fuel injection. My '93 has 223K miles, and one friend's '93 is a couple months shy of hitting 300K.

      While they're not quite as quick as the 1995-up Luminas with the 3100 V6, I won't even consider a car with a 3100. I've seen too many of them fail, particularly due to the use of Dex-Cool. It tends to sludge up and eat the head gaskets. It's also much harder to do certain jobs, like changing the thermostat. On the old 3.1s, you take out two bolts, swap the thermostat under the housing, put your bolts back in and bleed the air from the cooling system. The 3100 requires a LOT of disassembly to get at the thermostat housing.

      I've also seen two white Luminas (a '91 and a '93) that have been on fire, one of which was totaled because of it, and both are still driving around today. The only time I've seen one of those engines die was when a C clip came off the top of a valve and dropped the valve into the cylinder, and it was driven like that for 12 miles back to the garage, clattering the whole way!

      The weakest points of the early W bodies are the rear brakes and the crank position sensor. Get semi-loaded calipers and pads with a lifetime warranty if you're going to keep an old Lumina/Grand Prix/Cutlass Supreme/Regal as a daily driver. When the crank position sensor malfunctions, you get no spark and the car won't run. The part's anywhere from $17-25. Incidentally, the weakest point on the 3800 Series II V6 seems to be the upper intake plenum cracking. Otherwise, I think they're nice motors.

      Mine needed some love when I got it, but it was worth the $450. It drives great, parts and insurance are dirt cheap, and there's a lot less to go wrong than on the 1996-up models, when OBDII became mandated and you could no longer shove a paper clip into the diagnostic connector to read the vehicle's trouble codes.
      • 8 Years Ago
      Cool Topic!

      I own the exact Audi A6 mentioned here. It's a 97 with about 260,000Km on it (160,000 miles). Bought it last year for about $5200 CDN (about $4600 US). I've put over 35,000 km on it since. Have to say, I.m very impressed with how it has not aged! No rust (I live in Canada so a lot of salt on roads in winter), quiet and smooth drive, Bose sounds system, very well laid out interior, leather, moonroof. I wasn't into Audis much before this car but didn't wanna be a mainstream person and get a BMW/Merc! Overall, I love it, Quattro is always a pleasure. Cornering and handling is superb considering the weight of this car (about 4000lbs or 1700kg). The only thing that I find annoying is the 0-60mph, it's on the slow side (about 10sec). But getting from 60 to 80 is much faster than many other cars around.

      For the DSM fans, I'm a DSM fan too and did own the 1G series (2.0 DOHC non-turbo). Timing belt went at 150,000 km (previous owner had changed 30,000km earlier). Then at 210,000 km it went again, which was when I bought the Audi (coincidentally the same day I signed my sale contract for the Audi!). Loved the car, and I do miss it lot. But it cost me quite a bit to drive. It had become more reliable lately(since I had changed many things at the end). But I would only buy one for a race track fun and not everyday/long trip car! IMO it's built for track fun and can take a lot of abuse, however it punishes you evenly whether you drive it hard or nanny it. So daily driving is not really its main application! It's made to have fun and it does that very superbly.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I cannot believe that they post about the GM W-body but never once mention the Grand Prix or the L67. If you are in fact a W-body fan, you know the supercharged 3.8L is the only motor to have. The 3.5L in the Intrigue died for a reason.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I owned a 98 Intrigue, and was told flat-out by the parts desk at the dealership that they don't make an upper intake manifold for the L36 3800 that won't warp. He recommended buying two sets of gaskets and doubling up on both ends.

      The supercharged L67 3800 in the Regal GS/Grand Prix GTP is a different story.
      • 8 Years Ago
      In my mind the best deal on the road is an old pick-up truck. Two-wheel drive is the best. They are simple and cheap to fix and can run forever.

      My first vehicle was a 1974 F-100 with a 360cu V-8 and three speed manual on the tree. No power brakes, no power steering. It was awesome and really taught me how to drive.

      I gave it to my Dad who eventually sold it for more than I paid for it.

      • 8 Years Ago
      Should have the 1st Generation DSM - Eclipse / talon / laser , FWD and AWD models on here..

      They can be had for cheap and are extremely fun to modify, these cars can make upwards of 300hp easily with a few modifcations.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I've owned two of the 1.8L Eclipses, my brother owned one, and I had a cousin that owned another, and head gaskets went on all of them with relatively low miles every time. The engines run so hot that the cheap aluminum used for the heads would warp and you'd end up sitting in a puddle of coolant at a stop sign. If you ever peg the head gauge in one of those things, the engine is toast.

      My vote would be for ANY old Civic or Accord. You'll probably have trouble finding one without a ton of rust unless you live in a southern state, but those engines (old D and F series) are all dead nuts reliable, CHEAP to find parts (or whole replacement engines) for, and run forever. I've owned 3 or 4 old Civics/CRXs with 250K+ on them, and one Accord with almost 300K - a friend of a friend still has that Accord and has rolled it over 300K already.

      I've also heard good things about old Corollas, although I can't speak first hand since I've never owned one. My uncle had one with 680K on it before an F150 broadsided it - still on the original engine and head gasket with only regular maintenance and timing belt changes.
      • 8 Years Ago
      38-- I completely agree on the P10 Infiniti G20. The automatics are dogs, but if you get a 5-speed you're buying a nice entry-level luxury sedan with the Sentra SE-R drivetrain that's been called one of the best-handling cars ever made. They are getting up there in years and so they're starting to have reliability issues (as with any old car), but they are still old Nissans and old Nissans are pretty damn reliable.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I owned an '85 Dodge Daytona. It was a reliable car, but I sold it after 6 years and bought a '91 Dodge Stealth (base model, SOHC motor), which I retained as a second car starting in 2001. It has run better than my BMW in some ways. It has way more charisma. I love the startable-from-5th-gear torque. Parts are starting to be a problem, so I wouldn't recommend it as one's only car.
      • 8 Years Ago
      No cheap car list is complete without the Crown Vic/Grand Marquis.

      Bulletproof, cheap to fix, runs forever, comfortable, and reliable. Parts interchange for about the last 15 years, and also use some of the same parts as Ford trucks.

      The number one cars of fleets - there is a reason taxis and police drive them. Leaving them off the list makes the list meaningless.
      • 8 Years Ago
      Completely agree on the A4 Audi, the engines and bodies go on forever, I would have added some older SAABs to the list too.

      Its about time the Green lobby looked at the environmental benefits of keeping older cars streetworthy and fit for purpose instead of pushing hard for new cars with super green anodine engines
      • 8 Years Ago
      I used to own a Daytona. Damn fine car for the money in its day.
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