Chris lives in New Hampshire and is naturally into winter sports. His son has gotten involved in ski racing, but due to COVID-19, the ski lodges will be closed this year. He wants to buy a cheap ride that can double as a mini-lodge for gear and rest. What car should he buy?
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Here is the scenario -
My kid is really into ski racing, but this year the lodges and ski team clubhouses we normally hang out in are closed due to COVID. Skiing this year will be a parking-lot affair, in good weather and bad. So I need a rolling mini-lodge for me and my budding Bode Miller for this season only. Afterward, I want to get rid of it as I have little interest in hanging onto an extra vehicle.
I want something decent in the snow, roomy and cheap...like around $5,000 or less. The short-term nature of my ownership window and relatively low budget means something that is broken-in but that won’t explode into a repair nightmare in a few months
Budget: Up to $5,000
Daily Driver: Not really
Location: New Hampshire
Wants: Roomy, cheap, decent in snow
Doesn’t want: Something that is too much of a maintenance headache
I think it’s obvious by now that recommending cheaper rides is not my area of expertise, but sometimes I get lucky and find the perfect match. At sub $5,000 this isn’t an easy task, but there happens to be the ideal ride for you listed for sale nearby. It’s this 2003 Honda Element 4WD.
The Element is arguably one of Honda’s best ideas. Honda really should figure out how to bring this back with a hybrid powertrain, as the toaster shape doesn’t bode well for great gas mileage. But mpg is not your primary concern — you want space, reliability and all-weather capability. The Element has a super flexible interior configuration. You can flip the rear seats up on the walls, giving you plenty of space to change clothes. Or you can flatten out the front and rear seats to make a long bed for catching naps between runs. It’s possible to store plenty of gear inside or, with a set of racks, on the roof. This particular example has 190,000 miles but looks well cared for, so it should last through the winter with minimal hassle.
I wanted to recommend a station wagon for your needs, Chris, because the wagon is the king of cars, but their lower rooflines and modest ground clearance might not suit your needs. I then thought of recommending a panel van that could double as a changing room, but depending on weather conditions, a panel van might make for an uncomfortable ride to and fro.
You need something that splits the difference between comfort and space. And, of course, something outfitted to handle the “winter” in winter sports. You need a Z71 Tahoe. The last one that really felt like a Silverado with a hard-shell was the second-generation Tahoe. In Z71 trim that truck saw a few iterations of the Vortec V-8. The second-gen didn’t have the worst fuel economy considering its size, and it was a capable machine with beefy skid plates and a locking rear differential.
The interior is very roomy, and build quality is good, if not great. It can accommodate people and cargo well, and it may have room enough for donning sports equipment inside. If you need more space for passengers or to recreate the “lodge” feel, just put your ski gear on the roof.
This Z71 Tahoe is nearby and has 230,000 miles, but that V-8 is just stretching its legs at that point. It has some rust, but the seller claims it’s surface only, and it comes in generously under-budget, which means you’ll have money left over for a top-box.
Being locked out of your favorite hangout area sucks; it’s something a lot of us have experienced during the pandemic. I think the next best thing is a lodge on wheels. Get an old school bus!
School buses are decent in the snow with good tires — or chains if the snow you’ll be going through is that hardcore — and you have so much room for activities! Since this is a temporary arrangement you don’t need to go all out on a camper build. Toss in some basic furnishings and whatever else you want and it’ll be your lodge away from your lodge.
I recommend this $4,500 2006 Ford E-350 mini bus. It’s small enough to drive comfortably while being big enough to chill out in as a mini lodge. Under the hood is a 6.0-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel engine. The 6.0-liter Power Stroke is known for having some issues, but as long as you aren’t doing crazy tuning or heavy towing I bet it won’t give you any problems.
If you need this lodge to be even bigger than any of our selections, here’s a partially converted full-size bus out in Vermont for only $3,300.
A rolling mini-lodge is a fantastic concept, and, luckily, a relatively easy one to realize. What’s a lodge but a warm box set in the snow? And what’s a van but a (potentially) warm box on wheels? You just need a good van.
Ideally, a good, extra-roomy van, because you’ve got a lot of equipment to haul around. And you may be changing and stuff inside the van, so room to stand would be ideal. That’s why this 2001 Ford E250 high-roof van is perfect for you.
It’s an ex-wheelchair-lift van, likely used by some medical facility, but you can remove the wheelchair lifts if you don’t have a need for that. Inside, there’s plenty of room and plenty of headroom, and you could easily outfit this thing with benches and storage lockers and warm rugs and a hot cocoa/coffee/booze dispenser and little table or whatever you want.
Plus, it has separate heat for the rear, so you can make your little metal lodge nice and cozy.
It’s not 4WD, but with the right tires this V8 beast should be able to get through most situations just fine—there’ll be plenty of weight over that rear axle — and while it’s big it’s not so big that it’ll be a huge hassle to drive or park.
It’s just a bit over your budget at $6,000, but I bet you could haggle that down a bit. Maybe you could sell the wheelchair lift setup to someone who could use it, too? You’ll figure it out.