When looking at the second-hand car market, it’s easy to flock towards a Japanese car for its renowned reliability, typically higher than average resale value and low running costs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up with a trouble-free automobile. You still need to make sure you’ve found the right deal. More importantly, you need to know what you’re buying, even if the car you’ve spotted has a reputation of being indestructible.
Just over a year ago, my spouse and I set out to buy a second-hand automobile in order to lower our monthly expenses. We had come to the conclusion that while our 2018 Hyundai Elantra was a great daily driver, we would be better off without its monthly payments and new car insurance premiums. When our lease came to term, we politely informed our Hyundai sales rep that we would not renew for a new car.
Because at the end of the day, it’s proven that if you can put your hands on a decent used car on which you owe no debt, you’re winning on all fronts, something I proved in my latest running cost comparison story about MINI Coopers. Here are a few tips on how to make a smart second-hand transaction.
Fits the Budget
In our case, we set out to find a Japanese second-hand car, with a decent amount of mileage and that could fit our maximum budget of $4,000. It wasn’t an easy task given how Japanese carmakers tend to hold a higher than average resale value. But reliability was at the top of our priorities, which is why we narrowed down our search to brands like Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota; carmakers that have presented steady dependability records over time.
Originally, we figured a Civic, a Mazda3 or even a Corolla could have done the trick, but most of the examples we spotted ended up having either a lot of mileage or important rust damage. Our search ended up being a lot more complicated than we had anticipated, until we spotted the Camry.
I admit having been rather lucky with this one as it really was a case of “they don’t know what they own.” Because midsize sedans are slowly losing traction from Canadian consumers, you can spot good second-hand examples at decent prices, something this owner undoubtedly realized after not receiving many phone calls for his dear old Camry.
He was asking $3,500 for it, a fair price for a 2001 XLE V6 example, which happens to be the highest available specification for a fourth-generation Camry. Most importantly, the body was immaculate, the paint was still shining strong and the car came with a fresh set of winter tires. The car also had its original XLE V6 wheels wrapped around a fair set of summer rubber.
What made the transaction ever-so tempting was the fact that the car’s maintenance history was immaculate, mostly due to the fact that it had only been owned by one person. The car had therefore been purchased new from a Toyota dealership in Longueil, Quebec in 2000 as a 2001 car, and all of its maintenance had been done at the dealership ever since, with a rust proof treatment applied each year. The car was also a clean title, meaning it had never been involved in any accidents. In other words, we had hit the jackpot.
After performing a full inspection, everything checked out mechanically, with no underbody surprises. Sitting at 195,000 km, the V6 engine still pulled strong, but did reveal some faulty valve cover seals, which led to oil dripping on the manifolds. This is a common issue on this model-year Camry V6 and it’s recommended to have them changed past 100,000 km.
Since the repair would cost us between $300 and $500, we negotiated the transaction price down to $3,000, which the owner accepted without hesitating.
Reliable, but Not “Bulletproof”
The Toyota Camry’s reliability record is kind of a double-edged sword for consumers. While yes, it’s true that an old Camry will mostly likely drive longer than its competitors, many owners take that “bulletproof” claim for granted and in turn don’t necessarily inject maintenance money in their cars. Like all second-hand automobiles, a careful maintenance program must still be performed on a Toyota, especially if it is powered by a V6 engine.
Because the V6, while smoother and generally more enjoyable to operate than a four-cylinder due to its increased power, typically requires more attention due to more moving parts. And because it’s in a V configuration, you’ll need to consider double the costs for anything related to the heads, like spark plugs, ignition cables and head gaskets. Make sure these components are in good shape before buying, as replacing them will generally cost you more than on a four-cylinder model.
The other important maintenance check on the V6 is the timing belt. It’s recommended to have it replaced anywhere between 100 and 115,000 km. Expect repair costs anywhere between $800 and $1,000, or a good $200 more than the alternative four-cylinder engine.
That said, in the last year that I have owned this old girl, it has indeed proven reliable overall, albeit a few odd problems, like the Traction Control/ABS light constantly flashing the moment I fire her up, an issue my mechanic is still trying to sort out. The 194-horsepower 3.0-litre engine is smooth and linear power, but really not all that powerful by today’s standards. The automatic transmission, on the other hand, hasn’t showed any signs of slippage.
Overall, this is a sturdy automobile that doesn’t seem to want to let us down, with little to no cabin rattles even with two decades in its body, proving to be just as, and in some case, better built than some modern automobiles.
With the cold season coming, we recently performed a thorough pre-winter inspection, where a worn-down link kit and a slight exhaust leak were detected, for a total repair cost of just under $200. We then applied its yearly and very recommended rust proof treatment ($115), put on its winter tires, and she’s good to go for her 20th Canadian winter.
Perhaps what needs to be learned from my experience buying an old Toyota instead of renewing my Hyundai lease is that I have saved a lot more money during the process. By adding up monthly payments and regular maintenance, our Elantra would cost us on average $4,000 a year, for a car we didn’t even own.
In exchange, our Toyota cost us about the same amount during its first year of ownership, and that’s including its initial purchase price. Add to that added bonuses like larger, more comfortable overall, more cargo space, leather seats, a power sunroof and enough cash in the bank left to finally buy our first house, and we consider this to being the best automotive decision we’ve taken in our lives.