Is it possible to find a reliable car for our college student daughter with a daily 1.5 hour commute?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 1997

Dear Tom and Ray:

Your column is very informative and a big help to me, a parent with two
teen-age drivers. What advice can you give me in looking for a used, reliable
car for my daughter who will be commuting to college next fall? We want
something that is good on gas, but not too small, for her roundtrip highway
commute of an hour and half a day. Is this realistic with a price range of
about $3,000?

Since my knowledge of car repairs is minimal, would we be better off buying
from a used car dealership rather than a private owner? I'm naturally concerned
about buying a lemon with no recourse from a private owner, as happened last
year with my son. -- Maura

TOM: Well, you've asked a lot of complex questions here, Maura. And
unfortunately, there isn't enough room in our column to cover it all. If we
did, we'd have to bump Ann Landers again, and you know how she gets!

RAY: So if you want our full-length, many-paged treatise on HOW to buy a great
used car, you should probably get the pamphlet we wrote on that subject. (for a
copy send $3 and a stamped (55 cents), self-addressed, No.10 envelope to Used
Car, PO Box 6420, Riverton, NJ 08077-6420). Besides, if we don't sell a few
more of these, we won't be able to send OUR kids to college!

TOM: Even just the question of which car to buy is complicated, but we'll try
to help you out, here. The truth is, I've just been through a similar search
myself. My 16-year-old son needed a car to get to school. In my case,
reliability wasn't that big an issue. I figure, if it breaks down, he'll walk.
Whaddo I care?

RAY: But you're not in that position, Maura. If your daughter's car breaks
down, she won't get to college, she'll flunk out, and then she'll move back in
with you -- permanently! So we understand the importance of this purchase.

TOM: Unfortunately, it's hard to get reliability, safety and fuel economy all
in a $3,000 package. So you'll have to decide which criteria are most important
to you. Since she's going to be on the highway, I certainly agree that you need
something substantial. Even if she is one of those rare, safe, teen-age
drivers, some car or truck could always plow into her. So that eliminates the
cheap, reliable, around-town used cars that we often recommend like the Honda
Civic, Geo Prizm and Toyota Corolla.

RAY: If safety is your primary concern, you could get a mid-'80s Volvo DL.
That's what my brother got for his son. It cost about $3,000, plus another
$1,500 to fix. It's not the most reliable car in the world, but when he drives
it into a mailbox while looking backwards to ogle some coed, he probably won't
break too many bones. And that was an important consideration, since the kid's
father still has those kinds of accidents on a regular basis.

TOM: That kind of car could work for you, too, Maura, if you're prepared to
maintain it. And that'll probably mean putting aside an additional $1,000 a
year for repairs (as opposed to the $500-$700 you'll spend fixing an average
older car).

RAY: If you wanted something a little more reliable, you could get an older
mid-sized car like a Toyota Camry or a Ford Taurus. While not as safe as a
Volvo, they're both heavy enough to provide a fair amount of protection in an
accident. And either one would be cheaper to maintain and more reliable than a
Volvo. Especially the Camry.

TOM: Or you could tilt the scales toward safety and reliability and forget all
about gas mileage. In which case, I'd recommend something like a 1980 Chevy
Caprice Wagon. That's big and heavy, and it's cheap to fix. Plus, as an added
bonus, your daughter could always stop at the lumber yard and pick you up some
4x8 sheets of plywood on her way home from class. Think about it, Maura!

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