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)
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.
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.
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!