$1,500 Volvo 240 Versus $2,000 Subaru Outback: Battle Of The Hipster-Mobiles

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It’s Day 4 of our quest for the perfect dirt-cheap daily, and today we’re coming back to my hometown of the past fourteen years: Portland, Oregon, the town where all the streets are named after Simpsons characters (or is that the other way around? Stupid Flanders). But before we head for the food carts, let’s see how our Twin Cities twosome from yesterday fared:

Looks like the ugly two-tone Toyota Camry beat the ugly two-tone Chevy S-10. Lots of commenters mentioned the two-wheel drive Chevy’s lack of ability to handle the weather; guess you all aren’t fans of snownuts.

Portland is, as so many people in town will tell you, loudly and repeatedly weird. But all too often it’s weird for weird’s sake, like the guy who rides a unicycle around town wearing a Darth Vader mask and a kilt and playing the bagpipes. (No, really). And the ones who aren’t trying to be weird seem to fit all the hipster stereotypes: They want you to go to the IPA festival with them (no thanks; most IPA tastes like punishment for something) or tell you all about some band they assume you have never heard of (oh, I’ve heard of them; they just suck) or convince you that the kale salad is delicious because there’s bacon on it (kale is irredeemable, and stop putting bacon on everything).

I like it here; just sometimes it’s so… damned… Portland.

The carspotting is top-notch here, however. I know of one street where I regularly see three derelict Citroëns, a Honda Beat, an original ’60s Jeep Wagoneer, a daily-driven Volvo 122, and an early ’80s rear-wheel drive Mazda 626 coupe in perfect condition — all just sitting at the curb like they’re no big deal.

In the other cities we’ve discussed this week, I’ve shown you the cheapest of the cheap — the best potential daily drivers I could find for as little money as possible. I can’t do that in Portland because I already own the best cheap beater in town – a 1995 Toyota Corolla that I bought for $500 two years ago – and it’s not for sale. So stop skulking around my driveway.

But there are two cars that are emblematic of Portland, its recent past and its constantly in flux present: the Volvo 240, and the Subaru Outback, and I found one of each in our sub-$2,500 price range.

1986 Volvo 240 DL sedan – $1,500

Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 177,000 miles (and apparently still works!)

Runs/drives? Yes, but needs a battery

 

There is a school of thought that has spawned an entire automotove subculture — one that says that car design peaked with the Volvo 200 series, and everything since then has been an exercise in futility. You’d call them Luddites or curmudgeons, except that you look around and see that these old boxes are still everywhere, and the newest of them is now 29 years old, and they still look good. You begin to wonder if those stubborn Volvo fans are on to something.

The cars are sturdy: Volvo led the charge in safety as a selling point, and for many years the Swedish cars were considered some of the safest cars on the road — built like tanks. Volvo’s legendary “red block” engine has its roots in the Mesozoic Era, but was modernized and perfected as new technologies came along, and is still spoken of in hushed tones of reverence among the Volvo faithful.

This one features a 4 speed overdrive AW70 automatic transmission, which like the rest of the car is built like a brick shithouse [Editor’s note: I don’t know what that last line means, but I can tell you that AW, which was a partnership between transmission makers Aisin and BorgWarner, created some of the stoutest automatic transmissions of all time, including the Jeep Cherokee XJ’s AW4. -DT]. Sure, a manual would be nice, but at this price, beggars can’t be choosers. The car has new tires, but has been sitting long enough for the battery to go flat; stop at Les Schwab and pick a new 12-volt on the way. The odometer is said to work, but the seller doesn’t mention the 240’s other trouble spot: the HVAC blower fan motor, which is behind the dash and allegedly a nightmare to replace. Best to test it before you buy.

Realistically, if you want a Volvo 240, you should buy one now. These cars are starting to turn the corner from cheap reliable beater to respected classic, and they will probably never be this cheap again. This car, with a rebuilt title, probably won’t gain a lot of value, but in general, 240 prices are rising. By my count, this particular 240 is only $62.50 per bumper sticker, a bargain. Don’t miss out!

 

1998 Subaru Legacy Outback – $2,000

Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter flat 4, 4 speed automatic, AWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 182,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but the tags are long expired

 

Some years ago, my wife and I were circling a parking lot, looking for a free space. “There’s one,” I said, “between those Subarus.”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” she replied. “Every spot around here is between the Subarus.”

If there is an official car of the Pacific Northwest in general, and Portland in particular, it is the Subaru station wagon. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Legacy, an Impreza, an Outback, a Forester, or that big new Ascent — you just can’t escape the Subi wagon. Horizontally-opposed engines and all-wheel-drive are just the only way to fly for a lot of people around here. Often fitted with rooftop cargo boxes festooned with stickers, Subaru wagons occupy roughly 40% of any given New Seasons Market parking lot on any given day.

Needless to say, that popularity means you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to secondhand Subarus, but they also tend to be over-valued; this Outback is the cheapest good one I could find. It’s a late first-generation Outback, based on the second-generation Legacy wagon, and by this time Subaru had stopped shoving the wheezy little 2.2 liter engine in and switched to a dual-overhead-cam 2.5 liter unit (if it’s a flat 4, is that a dual-next-to-head-cam?). This one, as most are, is an automatic; Outback buyers aren’t often the row-your-own type.

Condition-wise, it doesn’t look bad at all, though the 2018 tags don’t inspire confidence. Has it been sitting all that time? Or has someone gotten away with driving it on expired tags that long? It’s a question worth asking. At least Oregon doesn’t demand back registration fees like California does, but it will have to pass a smog test.

So that’s it for daily driver week; it comes down to a boxy-but-good Volvo sedan or a don’t-lose-it-in-a-parking-lot Subaru wagon. The winner will face our three other finalists to vie for the coveted Shitbox Of The Week title. Stay tuned.

 

Quiz maker

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79 Responses

  1. I can’t decide so I will take the average: a 1992 Saab 900. 2 or 4 door, Edmonds shows $1700 – $2700 pricing. I’d go for the basic 2-door hatch (“3 door”) with standard shift. FWD gets you wherever you should be, AWD just gets you stuck worse. RWD Volvos get stuck on wet grass.

  2. I was all in on the Volvo until you said “Rebuilt Title”. Sorry, No Dice.

    The line about the unicycle guy with bagpipes reminds me of a guy I used to see in collage, riding a bike (year round in NW PA) in a leather bomber jacket and a diaper. Luckily, no bagpipes!

  3. This one is close. I eventually went Subaru because the rebuilt title scares me more than expired tags knowing that Oregon only just restarted requiring current tags. I’ve daily driven a Legacy that was older and had more miles, I’m not scared of the boxer.

    1. Unsure about Canada-spec cars but any US-spec 240 with the original headlamps is blind by now. I replaced the opaqued originals when I bought mine and just replaced those 14 years later after a light front end smack crunched em and the corner markers, but they were pretty yellowed and needed replacement anyway. It’s reproduction stuff from all over the world.

      Parts for 240s are still not that hard to get as long as it’s not body/sheet metal or soft trim. I’ve had better luck with Rock Auto for a lot of things vs IPD or FCP Euro. Better pricing too.

    2. DOT-approved US-spec was for polycarbonate lenses, but Europe got glass. I’m sure it’s an easy conversion and has been done many times.

      The earlier quad-rectangular bulbs were the old glass sealed beam type.

  4. I was all set to go for that Volvo until I read through and caught the ‘rebuilt title’ you tried to sneak in at the end there.

    I don’t love the Subaru, but if the point is “What will you daily?”, my answer is “Not salvage.”

  5. As of 6pm EDT the Subaru ad is down, so someone apparently liked it , while the Volvo has been listed for 28 days. Kinda makes me wonder about it.
    I went with the Volvo, cause “stickers”, before checking out the ads, I dearly loved my 83 244 twin to this one, but the body took a hard hit, and the engine became a boat motor. Such is life.
    One of the most comfortable cars to drive, and easy to maintain. What’s not to love?

  6. Ahhh Portland, OR. A quirky little city with character nestled in the shadows of mountains in the beautiful willamette valley turns to a high crime homeless cesspool in less than 10 years. Glad I left.

    Now if your not driving an electric car, you are considered a parasite in Oregon.

  7. Going to have to go with the Subaru here.

    My fiancé was driving a 99 Legacy outback very similar to this one when we met (which she had purchased for $2k with ~170k miles on it). At the time I was still enamored with my 04 Volvo V70 (yes, I know FWD Volvos are very different beasts than this redblock). It took me a while to come around to the Subaru since it was less comfortable and the cup holder placement made no sense. However, even indie shop bills on the Volvo eventually got to me and I sold it last year while everything was still working on it. We still use the Subaru practically daily with 206k miles on it. It does burn oil but at a manageable rate.

    I also think that this gen of outback is pretty visually timeless, especially the two tone color scheme. I can’t abide by modern tall Outbacks.

  8. I own a ’91 240 manual so I’m a little biased. I’ve had young guys yelling accolades at it/me at 70mph on the highway. Kids love em!

    It’s really rusty on the dirty side from many Boston winters, but so far there’s just a little bubble here n there on the less-dirty side.

  9. 240 all day.
    I was one of those uncool kids at the end of the 90’s stuck in a canary yellow 244GL as their first car. Poor thing only lasted 7 weeks before it was destroyed buy a drunk driver (funnily enough in a Subaru Leone wagon) who T-boned me hard enough on the passengers side to bend the diff and push the front seats together.
    Got out without a mark on me, the 240 was driven onto the tow truck and the motor and box went into Chamois 240GL shell a couple of weeks later.
    That started the collection. Multiple 244’s that were fixed and flipped to Uni students an 80′ 244GLE that had a holden 202 Blue motor thrown in it just to see what it would be like, a 75′ 242DL that was bought and sold as a project and my 79′ 242GT in all its corduroy glory with the orange line dash and Aero cluster.

    Never owned a longroof, I would love to get my hands on one and a second to cut into a ute…

  10. Volvo.
    I’ve often wondered – when I see a car festooned with stickers and a temp tag if the owner bought the car because it had the right stickers or have then been saving up the stickers all this time waiting for the day they’d buy a car.

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