I Need A Cross-Country College Road Trip Car For $4,500! What Should I Buy?

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Jared is a sophomore in college and will be taking a long cross-country road trip this summer. His FR-S is not really ideal for such a journey so he is looking for something cheap, reliable and comfortable that he can pass down to his sister. What car should he buy?


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Here is the scenario -

Hi! I am currently a sophomore in college and would like to go on a 1-1.5 month road trip across the US this summer. My current car is not suitable as it is too small and has too many mods to be reliable for such a journey. My sister is turning 16 this summer so I’m planning to buy a reliable car, drive it all over this summer, and then sell it to my sister at a reduced price. My sister will then be using the car for the remainder of high school and through college. I have a max budget of $4500, I really want to be a hatchback so I can sleep it in it. I don’t want a manual since my sister can’t drive stick.

Quick Facts:

Budget: $4,500

Daily Driver: Sort of

Location: San Antonio, TX

Wants: Cheap, reliable, hatchback

Doesn’t want: Manual transmission or a salvage title

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Time To Make Your...Escape

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Jared, you probably already know this but shopping in this segment is more about finding something that is decent than finding something specific. Even though you said you wanted a “hatchback” a crossover/SUV is functionally the same for your purposes since it does have a vertical fifth door. These larger cars are probably better for hauling your stuff and may make for more comfortable sleeping quarters.

The nicest thing I could find within your budget is this 2007 Mercury Mariner, also known as the fancy Ford Escape. These boxy crossovers were pretty darn reliable during their time. This example has 180,000 miles but looks to be in good shape and the Mercury luxury upgrades should make the long-distance trek a bit more bearable. This would also be a good choice for your sister as it’s not too big but still provides enough mass to be safe.


Expert 2: José Rodríguez Jr. - Run, Rabbit, Run!

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Howdy, neighbor! You may be in San Antonio—about 240 miles away from me—but that’s what us Texas drivers consider a short drive. I’d love to recommend a BMW hatch, but you want something that will be low-maintenance for your sister. Also, you’ll need something to make your trip fun while keeping true to the practicality of a hatchback.

You need a Rabbit. This 2008 Volkswagen Rabbit is in Pflugerville, Texas, and comes in nicely under budget at $3,950. It has a decent amount of miles (108,000) and other than a worn wheel and foggy lights, looks to be in good shape. I would ask the seller to consider taking less money, citing the worn bits.


It looks very basic, but all hatchbacks are basic cars at heart; basic in the best sense. The Rabbit is all about that, being VW’s entry level car for the fifth generation of the beloved Golf. It’s just a two-door Golf — three if you count the hatch gate — and it’s powered by a dependable 2.5 liter five cylinder engine. That motor should make easy work of long drives and is a tried and true VW mill that given a little care, should last your sister through High School and uni.

Expert 3: Rory Carroll - Cruise In Comfort

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Photo: AutoTrader

First, you really should teach your poor sister to drive a stick. But for the purposes of your this WCSYB, this’ll work. It’s simple, parts will be available everywhere you go in the US and it’ll make covering all those miles easy. It’s not a hatch, but if you can’t find 2-3 decent places to sleep in a Panther-platform car, you’re not trying. Plus it’s got those hilarious chrome things on the wheel wells. Who doesn’t love those?

You may not love your sister enough to teach her to drive a stick—thus figuratively handing her the key to a lifetime of driving enjoyment—but you clearly do love her to some degree. That’s why you’ll want her to have a car that’s interesting and fun in a way, but not cool, per se. This one fits that bill.


Expert 4: Erik Shilling - The Right Fit

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Hey Jared, I hate to sound like a broken record on this as I am a Fit owner and have recommended the Fit before, but it’s fairly obvious that is what you need. Here is one in San Antonio that is slightly above your budget at $5,000 but claims to have a clean title and looks to be in decent shape.

The mileage is a little high at 137,156, but Fits, like most Hondas, are durable little beasts. Also, the rear seats fold down to make a flat surface in the rear, which is just fine for sleeping on. I know because I’ve done it myself. And because it’s a Fit and stingy with gas you and your sister will have more money to spend on the important things, like mind-altering substances. Your road trip sounds lovely!


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Shane Morris

Jared, my man, I know you want a hatch so you can sleep in it... but hear me out: There’s a better way.

You just need a bigger vehicle. Secondly, when you’re doing a long road trip, it’s nice to have the dedicated trunk space, so you don’t get paranoid leaving everything visible when the car is unattended. (Hatches tend to leave it all out in the open.)

Allow me to introduce to you... the Blue Plate Special of road trip glory. The 2000-2005 Buick LeSabre. When these things were new, the silver panthers of America pounced on their plush ride, and... well, it looks like a car, right? It has looks.

The GM 3.8L modular V6 in these is bulletproof, easy to maintain, and they last forever. I found about 50 examples for sale with fewer than 70,000 miles, and many of them were under $4,500. In fact, the GM G-Platform in general isn’t a bad direction to go here, with a ton of value to be had for not many bones. In an era where GM was making some real trash, this car stood out for not being a total dumpster fire.

Buy one of these, replaces the belts, hoses, fuel filter, and then maybe the water pump. (That’s really the main weak point on these, but the water pump is obscenely easy to change on these. I’ve done it in literally 15 minutes.) You have a car that can confidently traverse back and forth all over the United States, it’s smooth as grandma’s denture cream, and it also probably smells like grandma’s denture cream.