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8 Hot Used Cars on Sale for Pennies on the Dollar

Sam Smith
October 21, 2011


Thirty years ago, the average 10-year-old car was falling to pieces. Not anymore. Today, you can find great 15-, 20-, or even 25-year-old cars that are reliable and affordable. Our guide to finding great pre-owned cars on the cheap led to these eight examples — and there are many more out there, so happy hunting.

Ferrari 308/328

1975 to 1989

Price Range: $20,000 to $40,000

Why It's Cool: It's a midengine Ferrari for the price of a family sedan. Even if the Ferrari is slower in a straight line (which it is), how can you pass that up?

What It Says: "I can afford a Ferrari. Would you like to see my Ferrari? Look, Ma, I've got a Ferrari!"

Speed Bumps: Terrible ergonomics; interior known primarily for Playskool switchgear and dime-store quality. Cam-belt service can approach $8000. Low price of entry often results in neglect by cheapskate owners.

Why You Want It Anyway ...: Three words: Magnum, Private Investigator. Also, it sounds like a Ferrari, aka a wicked wail.

Alternative: 1997 to 2004 Corvette C5: if you can get past the Rubbermaid interior.

Porsche 944

1983 to 1991

Price Range:
$4000 to $12,000

Why It's Cool: It's a Porsche, albeit a front-engined one that shares components with period Audis. Nimble, durable, lots of storage space. Cheaper than the floor mats in a new 911.

What It Says:
"I enjoy sausages, Kraftwerk and blowing exhaust smoke into the faces of air-cooled-Porsche purists."

Speed Bumps: Timing-belt breakage means certain engine death. Sardine-can driveline packaging and obnoxious parts pricing means maintenance is expensive. Turbo models don't feel as fast as they cost.

Why You Want It Anyway ...:
Speedy enough to get you into trouble, reliable enough to help you get out of it. In the right hands, it will embarrass a 911. Perpetually proletarian.

Alternative: 1976 to 1989 Ferrari 400/412: the greatest V12 Cadillac Eldorado Detroit never built.

Mazda Miata

1990 to 1997

Price Range: $1000 to $7000

Why It's Cool: Imagine a 1960s Lotus designed by the same people who brought you reliable modern electronics and the immersive video game. The playful promise of every British sports car ever made—actually fulfilled.

What It Says: "Really, I'm comfortable with my sexuality. No, I don't want a wedgie. Please, can we stop with the wedgies?"

Speed Bumps:
The engine (115- or 131-hp I4) produces less power than the average household blender. Amateur road racers are snapping up all the good ones. Seat fabric is famously less than durable, and it's tough to source replacements.

Why You Want It Anyway ...:
Few cars this cheap handle this well. And if snickers from strangers make you feel insecure, you can always just tell them you're borrowing your wife's car.

Alternative: 1982 to 1993 Alfa Romeo Spider: hopelessly anachronistic, but butch in a '70s funk kind of way.

BMW 3 Series

1984 to 1991

Price Range: $2000 to $15,000

Why It's Cool:
Good at everything, from long trips and grocery runs to track days. Astonishingly durable. Gloriously anonymous speed partner.

What It Says:
"Officer, this car is 20 years old. I don't even think it goes that fast."

Speed Bumps: As with the Porsche, a broken timing belt can lunch the engine. Good performance plus low cost and durability means most examples now have over 200,000 miles. The cooling system is a weak point on early models.

Why You Want It Anyway ...: You need a car that will do it all, but you don't want to pay for it. Also, there's a rare but stunning M3 version with a 192-hp four-cylinder.

Alternative: 1980 to 1987 Audi 4000CS Quattro: essentially Audi's legendary '80s Quattro coupe with four doors.

Cadillac Seville Touring Sedan (STS)

1992 to 1997

Price Range: $2500 to $7000

Why It's Cool: Big, fast and gifted with GM's trick overhead-cam Northstar V8. Interior like an overstuffed couch. Front-wheel drive, so it's not hopeless in the white stuff.

What It Says: "What's wrong with getting old? Is there an Old Country Buffet around here?"

Speed Bumps: Cooling and oiling systems are weak points. The line "Hey, baby, wanna see my front-drive Cadillac?" is as appealing to the opposite sex as "My new dentures fit perfectly!"

Why You Want It Anyway ...: The dash can be turned into an onboard scan tool. It lets you watch engine parameters in real time and check and clear codes. Lends an air of quirky, senior-citizen dignity to anyone.

Alternative: 1990 to 2002 Lincoln Town Car: limousine, rental car, American icon.

Jaguar XJR

1995 to 1997

Price Range:
$4500 to $10,000

Why It's Cool: Feels like wealthy love, yet does killer burnouts. Acres of wood and leather, and a buttery ride-and-handling balance. The last high-po Jag to use the brand's creamy (and supercharged) inline six.

What It Says: "Luxury is worth paying for, even if you pay for it over and over again. Can I borrow five bucks?"

Speed Bumps: Factory parts can make Ferrari bits look like bargains. Electrical problems are endemic. It will depreciate like mad, no matter how much money you dump into it.

Why You Want It Anyway ...:
Because it's a Jaguar. And — even if you're pushing it down the street — everyone feels better in a Jaguar.

Alternative: 1992 to 1998 Mercedes-Benz S-Class: autobahn cruiser extraordinaire.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

1986 to 1995

Price Range: $1500 to $10,000

Why It's Cool: The first Benz to introduce the chiseled, taut body. Feels like it was carved from a solid metal slab. Somehow appeals to both the counterculture and the upper class at the same time.

What It Says:
"When the revolution comes, all of you mindless jerks are going to be the first against the wall."

Speed Bumps: Diesel models are slow enough to cause brain damage. Parts prices induce fainting. Oddly fashionable with hipsters, so supply is dwindling.

Why You Want It Anyway ...: Minor components will outlive your children's children. Later diesel versions produce little smoke and sip fuel like a hybrid. Apocalypse transportation par excellence.

Alternative: 1979 to 1992 Peugeot 505: Modern reliability plus French ride comfort equals wonderful.

Volvo 240 Sedan

1982 to 1993

Price Range: $1500 to $6000

Why It's Cool: Stodgy, but charmingly so. Dana rear axle will hold up to a V8 transplant. Legendary safety; could fall off the Chrysler Building without denting a bumper. Eats road trips whole.

What It Says: "I don't believe in aerodynamics, I just believe in me. And these Birkenstocks."

Speed Bumps:
Faster than the Mercedes, but not by much. Suspension rubber is notoriously short-lived. Available with an 82-hp, Volkswagen-built diesel six, which is neither powerful nor efficient.

Why You Want It Anyway ...: You like driving into things and surviving. You like carrying things while driving into things and surviving. You have a spare Chevy 305 in your backyard and need a place to put it.

Alternative: 1982 to 1988 BMW 535i: ubiquitous and boxy, like the Volvo, but fun to drive.