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I thought it was important to post this for readers who aren’t car experts. As things generally get harder and harder, car buying and maintaining becomes an ever more critical decision making process. You can think you’re playing it safe by buying a Honda or Toyota, but look what you get – an interference engine with a timing belt. Yes, it will work if you keep it maintained, but the hidden cost of maintaining it is substantial. Once the value of the car is down to a few grand, is it worth over a grand to do this maintenance?

I did a similar job on my car a few months back. Luckily I have a non-interference engine with a timing chain, so I didn’t have to go that deep (yet). I did prop up the engine and take off a motor mount (a job I’ve done a few times at this point) – all so I could change a little camshaft position sensor that might have gone bad. I don’t even think the sensor was the problem. My car randomly died on me while driving down the road – in the end I think the problem was the fuel pump going out, which was a huge project itself, but I’m trying to replace everything that can possibly cause the car to die or not start. Anyway, when you get deep into a modern motor, you find there are a bunch of other parts that you might as well replace while you’ve got everything apart. I ended up replacing the camshaft position sensor, heater hoses, the water pump, a belt tensioner, an idler pulley (a newish one that failed anyway), the belts, and changing the coolant, while I had the motor mount out of the way. I would have replaced an 02 sensor too, but I couldn’t get it to break loose while working from the top of the motor. So it’s still on my list.

My conclusion about cars is that there are no good cars out there. None. No good car has ever been made. They’re all compromised in some way or another, but some are significantly worse than others and will break you.

The best low-dollar car to buy in America is a 97-2005ish Buick formerly owned by grandma. Specifically one with the supercharged 3.8. Older than 97 gets you into the OBD I codes. OBD II is a lot better. GM dropped the 3.8 around the mid 2000’s, and the replacement was nowhere near as good. The newer Buicks aren’t depreciating as badly either. So, the mid 90’s to mid 2000’s era Buicks aren’t the prettiest cars in most peoples eyes, and don’t have the latest tech, but they had a high build quality, the supercharged 3.8 is one of the best motors ever made, and they tend to come out of the hands of people who didn’t abuse them. They’ve got about as many features on them as you can have without getting into real problems. For example, a Buick in that time period rides on regular shocks and struts, but a Cadillac has the magnetic suspension that is very expensive to replace. If you can get parts at all. And that unfortunately is the problem with most of the aspirational cars you desire to own – produced in limited quantities, bugs never fully worked out, parts difficult or impossible to obtain. They’re not worth it unless you like to wrench and have time and garage space on your hands.

I would hesitate to own any vehicle with too many electronics on it, with the possible exception of a Corvette, Camaro, or Mustang. The aftermarket for those cars is so strong that, for some years, you could build a completely new car from aftermarket parts. Parts will always be available for those cars. For a lot of the newer cars though, the ability to replace electronics is going to be what kills them. Car Wizard has a video where he talks about the difficulty of getting an electronic component for a 90’s Ford F-150 pickup, which is consistently the best selling vehicle of all. If lack of electronics availability is knocking the F-150 off the road, no car with electronics is safe.

Of course the problem with Camaros and Mustangs is that they are Camaros and Mustangs. They’re everywhere and they’re not the best built cars. In a way that means the Corvette is the only car worth owning. The C5 and newer generations are fairly practical as well. It’s a more expensive choice, but not a bad one if you can live with a two seat sports car.

As far as older cars go, nothing before the 60’s is viable for most people, and basic safety features like seatbelts, disc brakes, and head rests don’t show up until the late sixties or early seventies. There’s a sweet spot in the late sixties and early seventies where you can find a good car if you know what you’re doing and are willing to do things like learn to tune carburetors. Personally I never had as much carburetor trouble as some people do, and mine was never set up right. In the seventies and eighties you get into way too much emissions control equipment. What a mess that was. For basic transportation, the 82-97 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera was particularly good, especially in it’s later years. They built so many for so long that they eventually got most of the bugs ironed out. I still see these cars on the road today, in good shape.

For me I’d say the sweet spot for cars was 68-72, and then 97-to-2005ish. Anything before that is too primitive, anything after that has too many electronics and gadgets, and most of the stuff in between is a mess. There are a few stand outs in the eighties, like GM’s G-body cars. There are some other eighties cars I would have as third or fourth cars, but not as something I’d expect to daily without trouble. There are newer cars I’d buy if I had money to throw away.

That’s my two cents, 68-72 and 97-2005ish were generally the best years for the automobile. If you can live without one though, do that. This is coming from a car guy who can do a little wrenching. I don’t like being without a car but they’re either a lot of trouble because they’re old or they cost way too much because they’re new. Or both. If you don’t have to do it, don’t do it.