Rose is a thirtysomething from Brooklyn who is the Director of Strategy and Marketing for Atlas Obscura, a site dedicated to getting people to go out and explore the world and report back on what they find. In order to live her company’s mission, she wants an affordable and reasonably reliable car or truck to get her out of the city. What should Rose buy?
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Some New Yorkers have enough money to buy a small home in some verdant hamlet and then escape there on summer weekends while the rest of us are stuck in the city. If you’ve never lived in New York in the summer, it’s like being a washer or a screw stuffed in one of those seemingly endless stacks of tiny drawers at a massive and poorly climate controlled big box hardware store.
A second level of wealth goes to people who can afford a car, but not a parking space, and can thus enjoy freedom of movement that isn’t restricted by trains or busses. Rose is such a person and has a decent amount of change to spend on a suitable used jalopy.
“I’ve lived in NYC for 12 years, but the longer I stay the more my tenure becomes dependent on being able to leave when I want. I’m privileged in that a car is not a day-to-day necessity (I walk to work, get my groceries delivered, etc), but being able to pack up and spontaneously GTFO feels like a luxury I’m finally grown enough for.”
Rose has an eschatological streak and is thus down for a weekend of Mad Maxing out, so an ideal drive for her is somewhere “flat and dirty and beautiful where I can go really fast.”
Because Rose doesn’t drive frequently she’s looking for something that feels substantial and, while she isn’t opposed to learning to use a manual transmission as God intended, it’s not a skill she’s yet mastered.
A W123 Mercedes-Benz wagon is appealing to her because she wants something she can haul life’s accumulated junk in, but she’s going to have to street park this and doesn’t want to spend significant time or money getting the car fixed so she’s a little nervous about the prospect. Volvo wagons are also good, but a little common.
Budget: Around $8,000
Daily Driver? Not really
Average Miles Per-Week: 150, but all in a single adventure on the weekend
Wants: Something sturdy, reliable, roomy, safe.
Doesn’t want: Anything too fast or too small
I’d say get a late ‘90s or early 2000s Jeep Cherokee, which manages to knock a lot of things off your list. A W123 wagon is a glorious thing and those diesels can be bulletproof, but as someone who once owned a 300D sedan the reality is that they are best suited to people who will maintain them themselves and keep on top of all the rubbery and plastic bits.
Jeeps, as David can attest, have a similar reputation but are newer and a nice one can be had for under $5,000 in good shape, leaving plenty of money around for any repairs that might be necessary. It’s roomy but not huge, has a nice seating position, and looks ready for adventure. Here’s a nice one in Connecticut, though maybe you can find one with lower mileage?
If I was in the position to buy a car for less than eight grand that had to be roomy, safe, reliable, wasn’t too fast, but also had to have the unique ability to go off-road eventually, I’d pick a ‘90s Toyota Land Cruiser. While I don’t think that you’ll get anything notably low-mileage for less than $8000, it doesn’t matter, as these cars are immune to the crushing weight of time.
They bend the laws of thermodynamics to make entropy work in reverse, meaning that Land Cruisers actually get more sturdy and reliable the more they’re run-in. They look halfway decent and they’ll run forever. Fuel mileage will suck, but it’s a small price to pay for the poster child of automotive dependability. Accept no substitutes.
If you want something that’s safe, not oppressively slow and has great cargo space, I would recommend a 2004 Volvo V70R. It doesn’t have the best turning radius, nor is it among the cheapest cars you can find, but it’s great and here’s why.
The V70Rs all come standard with AWD, which is good if you’re living in NYC. In the winter, even though the roads are cleared of snow pretty quickly here, there’s a chance that your weekend trip might have some snowy roads. If that’s the case, the AWD will definitely help in certain situations.
The wagon is great for transporting cargo, and will make it easy to park because it’s easy to see out of.
The car is also rated at 300 HP, which is what I personally believe all cars should have. 300 HP is right at that sweet spot of power where you can still merge and pass well safely, but it’s not so powerful that you’ll hit 100 mph without noticing. You get awesome Brembo brakes, too. The V70Rs came in both stick shift and automatic, but this one in Pennsylvania, for $9,990, is an automatic.
Certainly if you’re looking for a spacious and cool car for the city for less than eight grand, the obvious choice is the most unquestionably stylish one: the BMW 2002. It’s a cheery little car that drives well, with tons of room, receiving constant adoration by everybody from your mechanic to strangers walking past you at intersections.
But maybe the spacious trunk and back seat of the 2002 are not enough room, which I can understand. There are other vehicles for you. I could relate if a Geo Prizm GSi isn’t totally your style, though they’re good cars with a now-funny image. And I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have experiencing ordering spare parts from internet forums should own a still-totally-modern Saab 9-5 wagon, though they’re about the best deal on the car market today.
What you want is something simple, lovable and practical, and that’s a Volkswagen Squareback. My mom had one. They’re sweet, undervalued cars, with tons of space despite small two-door dimensions. They have a it-will-never-die four-cylinder engine in the back and an extra trunk up front. Big bumpers and perfect visibility are also good city parking traits. Squarebacks are happy vehicles, parts are ubiquitous, and mechanics still don’t mind working on them. It’s a bit of a leap to own a car older than you are, but if anything makes it straightforward, it’s an old VW.