“It’s halftime in America,” whatever that means. It doesn’t mean we get to chug Gatorade and eat orange slices. But since many of us, including this degree-holding author, are in debt, we’re looking to get out of it and back in the black. Financial advisory guru Dave Ramsey suggests that shaving your head to save on shampoo isn’t enough. If you want to get out of debt fast, you need to cut your operating costs, and that includes a cheap, reliable, efficient car. Here are our unofficial ten best cars for the Ramsey Plan.
Second Generation Ford Taurus
Ford sold over 410,000 Tauruses (Taurai?) in America between 1992 and 1995. So they’re everywhere. And since they’re everywhere, they’re cheap. You can pick one up for under a
grand with just a little Craigslist effort. Ford’s Vulcan V6 stonewalls age and wear, and the styling is even pretty decent (we can’t say as much for the following generation…yeesh). You can’t find one with a manual unless you can spring for an SHO, but we all have to make sacrifices. It averages about 26 mpg on the highway.
1995-2006 Ford Crown Victoria
Last year heard the swan song for Ford’s indelible Panther platform, which had underpinned Grand Marquises, Towncars, and Crown Vics for a period best measured in decades, not years. It was America’s last body-on-frame sedan. But just because it’s no longer being made doesn’t mean you can’t find them. Your local cab company or police department will be stacking them up for auction day, and there’s a reason each of those industries chose them so readily. They’re immortal, simple, and RWD. And they even do okay on gas, averaging around 23 mpg on the highway. You can find yours for under $1,500.
Fifth Generation Honda Accord
Speaking of ubiquitous cars, the Honda Accord was extremely popular even before its fifth
iteration arrived. Thankfully, that’s when they solved the rust issues plaguing previous generations. Accords have largely dodged the Ebay-ricer movement directed at Civics, meaning most haven’t been driven hard or mercilessly tuned. Reliability triumphs with the easy-to-find manual transmission paired to one of Honda’s storied F22 engines. You can find a ’95 for well under a grand if you look closely.
1995-2000 Toyota Corolla
Remember the years when cars didn’t have to have collagen injections to be certified on the road? When you could build something small and light? You can go back there, to that magical time, in a ’95 Corolla, and it will only cost you around $1,500 for one in good shape. It’s not terribly fast or fun, but we’re on a mission here, right? The Corolla has been known to get over 30 mpg, but you’ll want to keep an eye on the fiddly power steering pump.
1999 Chevy S-10
Chevy started the small truck movement with the S-10, so they had it pretty well sorted by ’99. If your work demands a truck, go with a light, efficient one. The S-10 has been known to hit around 25 mpg, and the platform is apocalypse-proof. Unfortunately, where the chassis and powertrain are eternal, the interior suffers from cheap build quality. You’ll be hard pressed to find one, for example, with both seat-tilt levers intact. But you’ll be saving money driving yours. A 2WD with a proper manual can be had for around $2,000.
XJ Jeep Cherokee
If you do need 4WD, and a longer roof, consider a circa 1989 Jeep Cherokee. You can get one for less than $1000 with careful shopping, and there’s a good chance it will have a manual. Hooked up to that shifter is the ancient-but-awesome 4 liter straight six, a carry-over from the AMC days. It’s one of the legendary American blocks, reputed to run for 400,000 miles or more, and gets over 20 MPG on the highway.
1990 Dodge Caravan
Chrysler invented a segment with the Caravan, satisfying the needs of soccer moms and delivery drivers everywhere. Your cheap car can also be a family hauler. You can find an old Caravan for well under a grand, and all models got over 20 mpg. You even get bonus gearhead points for finding a turbo or stick-shift model. If you don’t find that uber rare manual though, you’ll need to keep an eye on the transmission, which can be fussy unless properly maintained.
1992-2000 Honda Civic
What can we say about Honda’s little conqueror other than that it’s a great choice?
It’s the symbol of Japanese reliability, simplicity, and efficiency. A well-maintained, non VTEC Civic will be something you can hand down as a family heirloom, and MPGs average near the 40 mark. The trouble with Civics, though, is finding one that hasn’t fallen victim to virulent enthusiasm. Many on the market, especially the manuals, have been riced, swapped, kitted, and tuned within an inch of their little lives. And this enthusiasm has led to higher demand and higher prices. A ’97 in good shape, for example, will set you back over $2,000.
1998-2002 Ford Ranger
Like the Crown Vic, the Ranger will soon roll off the line for the last time. But the lightweight, simple platform has been an overall success for Ford, and that’s good news for you and the used market. You can find yours for around $3,000, and there’s a good chance it will be a manual. There are two small caveats, here. The first is traction. RWD models are tail happy, so take some of the money you saved and buy some tube sand. The second is that the AC tends to die on a painfully regular basis. But you’re sweating for a cause, so keep at it.
1998 Subaru Forester
Unlike its Impreza and Legacy cousins, the Forester has mostly avoided the ricer’s touch, meaning you can find an AWD, reliable family hauler that won’t have been destroyed by high hopes and Vin Diesel. Subaru’s boxer four keeps the center of gravity low, so the Forester handles brilliantly. At nearly three grand, it’s the most expensive car on our list, but the massive safety rating might overrule your budget. And it gets mid-20s on the highway. If you’re inquiring, though, make sure you ask about the head gasket. It should
have been replaced every 90,000 miles, and with the boxer engine, the job isn’t cheap.
Those are our suggestions. We leaned toward vehicles with a manual option because a clutch is so much cheaper to replace than an entire transmission, and we also tried to keep things fairly efficient, since price isn’t a car’s only cost. What would you add to this list? What would you subtract from it? Do you have any advice for us?
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.