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Second-hand cars perfect for first timers

A new driver’s first car will in all likelihood be a modest ride due to a number of considerations, key among them being affordability.

Published July 20, 2012

A first car is not traditionally a pretty thing. Think bodywork perforated by rust, two or three different tires and an engine spewing enough toxins to warrant an Environment Canada investigation.

But what to make of those disobliging websites that promote gold-plated “10 Best” recommendations for your teen’s first car, conveyances such as a Nissan Frontier CrewCab pickup, a $60,000 Audi A6 and Volvo S80?

Really? Are you keen to let your novice-driver son negotiate Toronto’s mind-numbing traffic in a brand-spanking-new Volvo?

A new driver’s first car will in all likelihood be a modest ride due to a number of considerations, key among them being affordability, both in terms of acquisition costs and running expenses.

Here are five reliable, used vehicles that work as first cars in the real world.

2000-2005 Buick Century

The official automobile of lawn bowling and arguing for the seniors’ discount at the deli counter is a familiar domestic sedan. And a true Canadian one at that, because the Buick Century rolled out of Oshawa’s GM Autoplex plant for years.

Riding on the rigid W platform since 1997, engineers designated GM’s venerable 3.1 L V6 as the base motor. Hooked up to the standard four-speed automatic transmission, the 175-hp motor was a well-matched powertrain that felt reasonably alert.

Like many old-school Buicks, the Century’s suspension was skewed for comfort, which meant this mid-size wallowed and bottomed out with the worst of the land yachts. And the driver helmed the thing from a broad bench seat up front (buckets became available later).

Reliability has been exemplary for the most part. A short-lived alternator was a common sore spot, and a battery replacement often followed, too. The disc brakes required more rotor turning and fresh pads than usual, owners griped. Other weaknesses included sundry electrical glitches and transmission leaks.

If sofalike seating, a big trunk, innocuous styling and throttle response that could launch this Buick into a grocery-story window doesn’t telegraph hand-me-down first car, we don’t know what does.

2000-2005 Toyota Echo

The Toyota Echo couldn’t win any beauty contests when new, and don’t expect any fawning comments at the gas station now. Derisive snickering, maybe. Small but tall and perched on skinny tires, it seemed like it might list in a stiff breeze.

But we’ve come to adore the homely Echo with its trim exterior dimensions and trick tall cabin inside. Its upright chairs provided easy access and good sightlines. The centre-mounted instrument panel was never a good idea, but owners swear you get used to it.

The Echo is propelled by a sophisticated 1.5 L DOHC four cylinder that puts out 108 welcome horsepower, thanks to 16 valves and variable valve timing, hooked up to either a five-speed gearbox or four-speed automatic transmission.

Available as a two- or four-door sedan (the hatchback arrived in 2005), the Echo may make you feel like you’re in a penalty box. The interior is as grim as a discount motel, but without the free coffee and newspapers.

Despite this, Toyota didn’t cut any corners when it came to the oily bits. Mechanically, its entry-level car was made to last — the Echo was actually assembled in Japan — and owners raved about the little car’s unshakable reliability and cheapskate operating costs.

2000-06 Nissan Sentra

The Nissan Sentra hasn’t amassed the same rabid fan base as the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, which works in your favour because there are plenty of old Sentras on the market at fire-sale prices. It’s also inconspicuous — you’ll never see the Sentra on a most-stolen cars list.

Inside, the Sentra offered posh levels of refinement and furnishings unbefitting of an econobox. The two-tone dashboard was an uncommon touch in this segment, and the seats were plump and comfy. The Sentra won accolades for its quiet composure; no wonder it’s been called the Buick of small cars, among other things.

The base engine is a 1.8 L DOHC four cylinder making 126 hp and 129 lb.-ft. of torque. Nissan’s 145-hp, 2.0 L four was available briefly in the SE model. Avoid the troublesome 2.5 L four found in early SE-R models; this engine is notorious for ingesting its ceramic catalytic converter and grinding itself to smithereens.

Not quite as bulletproof as its main competitors, the 1.8 L Sentra is known for its recalls involving ECM foam insulation and crank-position sensors. Reports of mass airflow sensor failures and bad window regulators have also circulated. But once it starts, the Sentra goes and goes.

2001-06 Hyundai Elantra

Hyundai’s brand may have gotten a drubbing from Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but the good news is the South Korean automaker is only stronger for it. Hyundai’s Corolla fighter came into its own in 2001 with fresh styling and some sound engineering under the hood.

While it carried over its 2.0 L DOHC four-cylinder “Beta” engine, it was thoroughly renovated with a ribbed iron block and eight-counterweight crank, putting out a robust 140 hp. Its front-drive platform was solid, exhibiting relatively few creaks and rattles that come with age. Many owners liked the Elantra’s soft ride, a mainstay of the marque.

Inside was an utterly contemporary and comfy interior with excellent ergonomics and good sight lines all around. The Elantra featured a six-way adjustable driver’s seat to accommodate all shapes of drivers. To compensate for the demise of its wagon, Hyundai introduced a handy five-door “GT” hatchback for 2002.

Early 2001 models exhibited some electrical problems, including faulty headlamps, power windows, CD players and other accessories. Also reported were short-lived clutches, fuel pumps and a few cracked exhaust manifolds. Here’s a solid lead: the later model-years were better.

2003-07 Suzuki Aerio AWD

Recognizing there are Ontarians who actually could use an all-wheel-drive vehicle — anyone on the lee shore of Lake Huron, for instance — the small-but-tall Aerio was another in a long line of Suzuki models that put its best four wheels forward.

Sold as a four-door sedan and wagon, the Aerio’s ungainly shape made it look like it had been reverse-engineered from a toaster. But like the Echo, its tall cabin and upright chairs yielded an inordinate amount of passenger space and a commanding view of the road.

Suzuki gave it an overachieving motor: an all-aluminum DOHC 2.0 L four that made 145 hp, power that was put to good use coupled with the optional all-wheel-drive system and four-speed automatic transmission. The powertrain proved to be a little thirsty, though.

In 2004, the Aerio traded up to a 2.3 L four that generated 155 hp.

The made-in-Japan Suzi garnered lots of accolades by owners who’ve had no reason to visit their dealer. In terms of headaches, reported fixes have had to do with short-lived factory tires, a few failed air conditioners and some interior rattles. This is one Suzuki auto that lives up to the sterling reputation the company earned making motorcycles.

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