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Bitchin, er... Corolla?

So I'm selling the Focus, and buying a cheap car for cash when we reach Portland. As previously mentioned, I had entertained thoughts of an old Camaro or something similar.

Then I remembered the weather. And I started looking around and noticed that most of the sub-$1500 Camaros for sale suffer to some degree from "Daddy's shootin' car" syndrome. You'd be amazed how many of them are up on blocks, or have the hoods removed, even in the photos on Craigslist. So now I'm giving up on that idea, and I'm going to look for something more practical.

Which, sadly, means dull, most likely. But I have a lot of experience picking out beaters, and I know what to look for and what to avoid. My criteria are pretty simple:

1. Cheap: This includes several factors, including gas mileage, insurance costs, and frequency of needed repairs. Any old car is going to have something broken on it; it's unavoidable. But certain cars are known for being better put together than others, and the closer to factory-original a car is, the more reliable it's likely to be. And since I'm going to take an absolute bath on the Focus, and the jobs I keep looking at are things like "shopping cart ad installer" and "adult video store clerk," the car itself has to be cheap, too.

2. Simple: In some ways this is a corollary to the "cheap to run" requirement, but includes some other factors. It eliminates certain cars based solely on equipment; digital dashboards, air-ride suspensions, and power seats are all taboo. Power windows are okay, though on any cheap old car at least one window is guaranteed not to work. It also implies a manual transmission, which tend to be more robust and simpler to repair than automatics, and also fail less frequently and get better mileage, which makes them cheap to run. A non-overdrive non-electronic automatic that has been well maintained would be acceptable as well, but I prefer a stickshift.

3. Practical: I've always preferred the styling of coupes, like most people, I suppose. But six months parking the Focus in a tight carport has reminded me of the drawbacks of two-doors. And it annoys me when I can't get an item into a car because the openings are too small, which is why I have always preferred hatchbacks or wagons to sedans. A good driving position and a comfy seat are essential, and I'd really like to avoid those annoying power seatbelts. And considering the weather, front- or four-wheel-drive would definitely be a plus.

4. Green: I'm really trying to be more environmentally-conscious. I've never been bad, but I'm trying to be better. So this means no cars made before 1975, which did not have catalytic converters, and no cars that burn oil or run too rich or anything like that. Fuel-injection is a plus, since it not only lowers emissions but also improves drivability and mileage. And aftermarket big wide wheels are a no-no; they add drag without significantly improving anything else.

So yeah, about as far from a Camaro as you can get, actually. But that's okay. Whatever I get, I'll plaster it with subversive bumper stickers and use it to haul RC cars to parks and music gear to jam sessions, and all will be well.


My recommendation

Dodge Neon. Bigger and sturdier than the economy Japanese sedans, drop dead simple to work on, at age they are as reliable if not more than the Honda Civics I have owned. And best of all, everyone hates them so they are dirt cheap used. No resale value at all.

In the last 20 years I've owned two base Civics then two base Neons, all bought new. The Neons held up much better.