Dear Tom and Ray:
I'm looking for a vehicle to be my "vet-mobile." I'm a mobile veterinarian and am looking for a used SUV/minivan with four-wheel drive that's durable for horrible, nasty roads, lots of snow and llama spit. I have a fiberglass vet box with drawers that I would need to fit in the back -- probably with the seats out. What do you recommend in the $6,000 range? This would be my only vehicle, so I'd like something economical, with good gas mileage as well! Thanks a bunch. -- Heather
TOM: Geez, Heather. You want lots of space, four-wheel drive, flexibility, durability and good gas mileage. And you want it for $6,000. Don't you want it to massage your feet while you're driving, too??
RAY: We were with you until you got to the $6K, Heather. The almost perfect vet-mobile out there is the Honda Element. It'll be perfect once it gets side-impact air bags and improves its lousy side-impact-collision scores.
TOM: But it's got everything you want. It's got lots of flexible space in the back -- the rear seats come out. It's got optional all-wheel drive, it gets good gas mileage and it's a Honda, so it's totally reliable. And to top it off, it's got a nice, flat, rubber-covered floor in the back, which is nice and low, so old dogs and arthritic llamas can step in the side door very easily. But the Element just came out, and it's about $22 grand, brand new. It'll be years before it's available in your price range.
RAY: For $6,000, you're going to have to make some compromises. I would say the closest thing you'll get to your wish list would be an early- to mid-'90s Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota 4Runner. Those are among the most reliable vehicles of that type from that era. And they meet most of your criteria.
TOM: Another vehicle that might work for you is a Chrysler Town and Country all-wheel-drive minivan, also from the early- to mid-'90s. It won't be as reliable or as rugged, but it'll be more comfortable to drive every day.
RAY: If you could go with a somewhat smaller vehicle, you might consider a 1998 or 1999 Subaru Forrester, which has all-wheel drive and good reliability. But it's not really designed to take a pounding off-road. And because of its smaller cargo compartment, Llama Reports gave it two hooves down for head room.
TOM: Whatever you find, make sure you get your own mechanic to give it a complete physical and work-up BEFORE you buy it. You don't want to spend six grand and then have to put it to sleep a few months later, if you catch my drift, Heather. Good luck, kiddo.