Choosing a Cheap Used Car

When you are looking for a cheap car to buy, you also want one that will be cheap to maintain.

When you are looking for a cheap car to buy, you also want one that will be cheap to maintain. The following advice will help you choose a model that requires minimal regular maintenance.

4-cylinder, Inline 6-cylinder or V6?

Bigger engines are generally more powerful and smoother to drive than smaller engines, but they can also use more fuel.

The number of cylinders, and configuration of the engine will also effect maintenance costs. If you compare an inline 4 cylinder engine to a V6 engine, the cost will be less as there are two less spark plugs, ignition leads, ignition coils, and generally the larger the engine the more oil and the more coolant that is required. A “vee” configuration engine such as a V6 has two banks of cylinders instead of one, so that means there are two cylinder heads, two exhaust headers and a whole lot of other parts.

Some manufacturers like Subaru have “flat” engines, which like “vee” engines, also have two banks of cylinders.

A smaller engine will usually mean it uses less fuel, but this will, of course, depend on the way the car is driven. Note that more cylinders can potentially mean a less stressed engine and a longer life.

Recommendation: Inline 4-cylinder engines usually have less maintenance costs and use less fuel than other engine configurations.

A Subaru BRZ flat four cylinder engine (also used in the Toyota 86). Note that it has double the cylinder heads, camshafts, variable valve timing gear, various sensors and many other parts over an inline four cylinder engine.

Timing Belt or Timing Chain?

Engines with timing belts need to have the belt replaced regularly. Failure to replace the belt can result in major damage to the engine, that would usually require an expensive rebuild or replacement. The cost to replace the timing belt varies from model to model, but is usually at least $500 and often significantly more. Whilst the belt is being replaced, most workshops will also want to replace other components in the same area, such as water pumps and belt tensioners, which can further increase the cost.

The alternative is an engine with a timing chain. Generally the timing chain will last the life of the car, but there are some models which are prone to problems in this area.

Recommendation: Choose an engine with a timing chain and check reviews for any common problems with the chain in that model.

An typical example of a timing belt kit: when changing the belt you may as well also change the water pump, belt tensioner, idler wheels, and possible other parts depending on the model.

Petrol or Diesel?

Diesel engines have become very popular in recent years, due to the better fuel economy and longer range.

However, owners who use their diesel cars mostly for short trips rather than long distance driving may suffer increased maintenance costs and reliability issues. Many diesel engines will suffer if they do not regularly run at normal operating temperature for longer periods of time.

It is also becoming more commonplace for petrol cars to require premium unleaded. Although premium is around 15% more expensive, if you are comparing a car that requires premium unleaded against another that uses regular unleaded and that one has 15% worse fuel economy then there will no difference in running cost.

Recommendation: Petrol engines are a better choice for cars that spend their life in city and suburban areas. Don’t necessarily be put off by the need to use premium unleaded petrol.

Should I Buy a European Car?

European cars have a well-earnt reputation for being expensive to maintain.

Some brands are worse than others. The more popular European brands like BMW have many alternate sources of parts and independent workshops specialising in them.

Owning a European car can be comparable to any other car if you follow some advice. The first is to find an independent mechanic who knows that brand of car and have them do your servicing and repair. This actually also applies to cars from any region, as the factory dealer service centres are usually the most expensive places to have your car serviced or repaired.

The other piece of advice is that you should consider buying your own parts and providing them to your mechanic. This can delay repairs, but there are usually many sources of parts that are much cheaper than buying from the dealer. Some parts are significantly cheaper if bought from overseas, if you can wait. Often, time-poor mechanics or those not familiar with alternate parts suppliers for a particular brand, will just pick up the phone and call the closest dealer for parts.

Recommendation: If considering a European car, keep to the more popular brands, and find an independent mechanic.

Should I buy a 4WD, SUV, etc?

Generally speaking, these types of vehicles are heavier so use more fuel and are harder on parts like steering, suspension and brakes.

Tyres are also usually more expensive.

Recommendation: If you don't have a need to go off-road regularly then stick to a regular two-wheel drive or if you are just looking for a higher driving position then consider one of the more conventional cross-over vehicles.


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