I Need Something Practical So I Can Finish My Project Car! What Should I Buy?

Chris needs a car to get him through college because his ’86 Cutlass Supreme is currently a work in progress. He needs something affordable and spacious, ideally with respectable fuel economy and three pedals on the floor. What car should he buy?


(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

Here is the scenario:

I’ve got an ‘86 Cutlass Supreme. Anyone would agree with me that it is not a good daily for an 18-year old. It’s big, loud, and it gets about 12 mpg. Right now I am currently sanding it down and prepping it for new paint. (In short, I can’t drive it.) I am looking for something that will at least last me through college and maybe some more.

I want something practical, roomy, preferably a manual, and that can get over 20 mpg. I would really like it if the rear seats folded flat. I tend to lean toward Japanese and American cars but I may be open to something European. As for the budget, I can spend up to $10k.

Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $10,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: Indiana

Wants: Spacious, Manual, Reliable

Doesn’t want: A gas hog

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Honestly, I Didn’t Even Know This Car Existed

Illustration for article titled I Need Something Practical So I Can Finish My Project Car! What Should I Buy?
Image: Craigslist

Well Chris, managing the #collegelife amid this COVID mess is going to be interesting, but at least you have a hobby in your project car that can keep you focused. As for the daily driver, you are probably already aware that there are a lot more options at your disposal if you forgo the manual. However, since you are a younger person that likes to row his own gears, I feel obligated to make sure you have a clutch.

So I am going to recommend a car that I didn’t even know was made, a Saturn Vue 5-speed. I was well aware that GM made the Saturn Vue, but I had no idea it was offered with a manual transmission.


This car has everything you want. It’s spacious, comfortable and has folding rear seats with plenty of additional cargo room. The 2.2-liter motor paired with the five-speed manual returns up to 29 mpg on the highway. It turns out these three-pedal Vues were available only with front-wheel drive, but with a decent set of tires and careful driving you will be fine during the winter months.

This example on your local Craiglist looks fairly clean and well cared-for, with only 116,000 miles for less than $4,000. It checks all your boxes and comes in under budget, so what’s not to like?


Expert 2: Justin Westbrook - A Ride With Options For Your Fluctuating Personality


As the full-time Jalopnik staffer with the most recent memory of college, I am aware that many of us go through various dramatic changes in our personality, hobbies, friends and livelihoods throughout our college journey. You’re going to want something reliable, unclockable to mock and as flexible as possible to adapt to your weird changes.

To follow up what Tom offers (I think a Saturn is just going to burn you, honestly), let’s go for the same concept but with more reliability and less choppy body cladding. I found this 2005 Honda CR-V EX with a five-speed manual transmission near your location for $7,521, with barely 80,000 miles on the clock.


You want space? This thing was built for a family. You want adaptability? You can feel safe driving this on the fire roads that lead to you and your friends’ favorite campsite for doing hallucinogenic drugs, or whatever. It’s under budget, that heart sticker will come off of the rear window if you try hard enough, and there’s probably little out there more unassuming than an old silver Honda CR-V when it comes to who catches the eye of the campus police. Here’s what Car and Driver concluded about the car in the November 2001 issue:

It is the anti-truck: a unibody passenger car on stilts, an errand hopper with a kind of lean quick-wittedness, great visibility, 23-mpg observed fuel economy, and 8.1 inches of ground clearance in case you attempt that treacherous trek onto a baseball diamond to retrieve Jimmy’s catcher’s mitt.


Expert 3: Raphael Orlove - I Can’t Justify Another Saturn But...


All right, so the previous two recommendations are actually wonderful. Manual CR-Vs are a joy, as are Saturn Vues! I’ve spent some time in both, and they’re good boxes-on-wheels. But given that I’m looking at Craigslist in Indy, it’s my obligation to point out that there’s a 2007 Saturn Sky Redline for sale within your budget.

I must tell you this car exists. I should probably also tell you not to buy it.

Anyway, you should probably just buy that CR-V (or a Civic Si), but I’ll go ahead and say you should get this very blue Daihatsu HiJet. Plenty of mpg, room for Oldsmobile parts and a face that everyone on campus will love. Drop $5,800 and it’s yours.


Expert 4: David Tracy - Manual Element = ’Nuff Said

Illustration for article titled I Need Something Practical So I Can Finish My Project Car! What Should I Buy?
Photo: Greg VanDeventer (Facebook (Other)

I actually drove a 2005 manual transmission Saturn Vue for a bit in college. It was blue and looked just like the car Tom is suggesting. The thing was indeed reliable, and I really enjoyed rowing through its five-speed shifter. I didn’t like when the slave cylinder went bad a few years later; in fact, I just sold the car for my dad when that happened because I wasn’t about to drop a transmission on a dang Saturn Vue. (It was his car, and he’d put over 165,000 on it before handing it to me in my third year of college.)

Otherwise, the car was great, and I’d recommend it.

But not to you. To you, I’ll recommend a Honda Element.

This is your college car, after all. You shouldn’t be rolling around in something totally boring. Get either a) a dirt-cheap shitbox or b) something that costs a bit more than just three figures and has plenty of character. You don’t want to look back on life and think: “My college car—the car in which I experienced so many amazing adventures — was a [insert anonymous, boring car].” No, your epic college stories need to include a trusty, cool machine. That machine should be a manual transmission Honda Element.


It is a textbook-swallowing (or keg-swallowing, if you’re into that—but not until you’re 21!), study group-carrying (or frat-bro carrying, if you’re into that) practical machine. And most important, it’s quirky and cool. This orange one for sale near you is going for $4,500 or best offer. Buy it and enjoy experiencing the most studious (or wildest, if you’re into that) years of your life in a cool Japanese cube with a stick shift.

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Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting)


Margin Of Error

First of all, how a 18 years old ends up restoring a malaise era crap mobile such a 1980's Cutlass Supreme, a car with zero known qualities and appeal.

Your poor taste in classic car will not remain unpunished, and for that reason, young sir, you will have to buy a Kia Rondo.