Mayuck is helping his younger brother who just started college with a car purchase. Naturally, he thinks his sibling isn’t all that smart when it comes to cars and he wants to find him something simple, cheap, and reliable that is, as he calls it, “idiot-proof.” 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:
My younger brother is an absolute idiot but needs a car. He started college in Ohio. On a recent drive in a friend’s new car, he was stuck on the highway rest area for one hour since he didn’t know how to disengage the electronic brake called AAA, the whole deal. So the need is an idiot-proof car.
The body style really doesn’t matter nor do the drive wheels. It just needs to be cheap, like under $5,000, durable and something that can take the abuse of someone who knows nothing about cars.
Budget: Under $5,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Wants: Idiot-proof, cheap
Doesn’t want: Something too complicated
Mayuck, while I’m sure your brother is not a complete idiot—he did get into college, after all—it can be frustrating to try to help someone with seemingly no common sense when it comes to cars.
In fairness, it’s hard to learn about cars nowadays if you aren’t into the scene. Driver’s education doesn’t really teach you much about cars and driving, so unless you have friends or relatives who are car people, it’s easy to be a bit clueless.
But back to your brother’s ride. If you are looking for something cheap, durable and idiot-proof, he needs a Ford Crown Victoria.
These Panther-platform cars have seen police and taxi duty, which can be very hard on a vehicle. But the Crown Vic and its platform-mates from Mercury and Lincoln can take the abuse and keep on chugging. As for maintenance, parts are cheap and any corner mechanic and fix one of these. Plus, they make for a great college car, they are comfortable to drive and offer plenty of room for friends. The downside, of course, is that these are fairly thirsty and he will need to be extra careful in bad weather.
Here is an example nearby that claims to be a “rust-free” California car. The seats are a bit rough but the underside looks decent and it’s well within his budget.
Oh, boy, do I feel qualified to answer a question about cars for idiots, as I myself have been known to occasionally exhibit a few idiot tendencies.
I like Tom’s suggestion. Fleet vehicles are a good bet, as they’re generally cheap, durable, and meant to be easily driven by damn near anyone. Which brings me to my recommendation: The Grumman Long Life Vehicle.
I have been driving around my older Postal vehicle for a few months now, and if there’s anything it’s taught me about mail carrier machines, it’s that they’re incredibly simple, durable, and absurdly easy to drive.
They do lack amenities like air conditioning and basic safety features, but thanks in part to the narrow front tracks, the turning radii of these trusty steeds are amazingly tiny, and the LLV—unlike my DJ—comes with power steering! It also comes with one of the most detailed user manuals I’ve ever seen—one that you could read to your imbecilic sibling every night before bed to help him learn how to operate a three-speed automatic transmission.
Bolted to that Turbo Hydramatic 180 three-speed auto, by the way, is the 2.5-liter Iron Duke inline-four engine from General Motors. It was an unrefined and underpowered pushrod motor, but one thing it’s been known to do well is just keep running. That kind of longevity also holds true for the old Chevy S10 platform serving as the basis for the Grumman LLV, and especially the aluminum body panels.
The question is, “Where can you snag an LLV?” And actually, I don’t really know. I’ve seen some pop up on Govdeals, though I’m not sure what the titling and registering processes would be like on these. So really, I just suggested a machine that you may not be able to get your hands on, and if you do, it could be tricky to legally drive on the roads. Plus, the delivery vehicle is absolutely not meant for any sort of highway use, as Eric Brandt at Autotrader describes in his story about his time behind the wheel of an LLV. From his article:
Regular driving around town was usually pretty bearable, but driving an LLV on the highway shouldn’t even be legal. I’ve only had to do it a few times, and those times were probably the most terrified I’ve even been while operating any motor vehicle. Riding a motorcycle over 100 mph? No problem. Merging onto the highway on a mail truck? You couldn’t pay me to do it again. The sluggish acceleration, deafening noise and harsh vibration were all bad enough, but knowing the body of that vehicle would crush like a soda can in an accident is what made it such a frightening experience.
So really, my recommendation isn’t a great one. But that’s no surprise; I am an idiot, after all.
Much in the same way that a perfectly straight road can actually find itself more dangerous than a curvy one as drivers are lulled to sleep by boredom, getting as simple and straightforward a car as possible might work against you in this case. Not that a Crown Vic or a Grumman are exactly the most normal choices but stick with me.
The Element is not the most technically complicated vehicle. It’s all pretty chunky and simple inside and out. It’s a Honda after all. But it’s interesting and weird enough that it’ll get whoever owns it interested in what its quirks are.
It’s a little rugged, it has bumpers, it has space galore, and quirks though it may have, again, it’s still a Honda. Not exactly difficult to own.
It’s also not too hard to find one in your price range. This one has a dent and some rust, but what, is your brother a prince?
I was going to suggest a Toyota Corolla, as that’s about as idiot-proof as you can possibly get. I was even going to skip the manual gearbox I normally recommend in case your brother (who I’m sure is a very nice person!) screws that up too. But instead I’ll go with this slightly more interesting, vastly more practical member of the Corolla family from the 2000s: the Toyota Matrix.
With a hatchback body, seats for five and a bulletproof 1.8-liter engine, your brother will manage school and life after just fine, provided he gets his oil changed with some regularity. He can’t possibly fuck this up.
Behold, a 2004 example near Cleveland with 117,000 miles (or in Toyota-speak, “a new car.”) Check to see it’s in good mechanical shape first, but at $3,999 with cold A/C, I think you have a winner.