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

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

Sbsd 4 21

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

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

77 Responses

  1. 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…

  2. I’ve looked at a lot of Subaru’s in that age and price point recently. I can almost guarantee the engine needs to come out to have a long list of leaks addressed, possibly including one or two head gaskets. Also, bring a code scanner. If the check engine light isn’t on, it’s burnt out.

    I still went with the Subaru. Only because I know the disaster that awaits someone.

  3. Volvo. That Subaru 2.5 is a ticking time bomb. Unless the first stop it visits is a garage to replace the head gaskets. And the seats in that era Subaru are horrid. Flat, hard, and they killed my back for any drive over 30 minutes.

    1. Everyone keeps talking head gaskets but I’m sure those would’ve gone about 30k miles ago. Plugs aren’t thaaaat difficult to replace on a non turbo, though the 2.5 is tighter than the 2.2. Timing belt and water pump are really easy to do. Keep topping it off with oil and this Subaru will keep running for a long time.

      1. I endorse this comment despite being a rabid anti-Subarist. 1998 was before the head gasket debacle. Best years were 2000-2004. After that things went to shit. I gave away my 72K mile 2007 Impreza I got so sick of fixing it.

  4. I had an ’87 Volvo 240 Wagon that was the absolute business. I do miss that car something fierce.
    Here in the OG Portland Subarus are also ubiquitous and overpriced and Volvos are wildly disproportionately represented. It’s weird to go to other places in the country and see hardly any of those.

  5. Portland, land of the cheap interesting cars, and these were the two? That’s fine, these could be worse. I actually found a running/driving first generation Dodge Intrepid on there. Yikes! I’d go for the Volvo in this case. Dont feel like getting intimately close to a needy Boxer anytime soon.

    There are a few Explorers with the OHV engine, those are pretty reliable and cheap to fix, as are the old square body Chevys and 80s-90s Ford pickups. Bad fuel mileage? Granted. Found a decent 1996 Accord in budget, and to show I’m not biased against all Toyotas:

    1. Yeah, rebuilt title got me too. Volvos are either a write off or they are not. Nothing in between. Maybe it was recovered from a theft, but who would have stole one? “Hey guys, let’s steal this and go for a joyless ride!”

  6. oh HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL NO I don’t want that Subaru! The EJ25D is one of the worst engines ever made, possibly the worst Japanese engine of all time.

    Impossible to work on due to the engine sitting against the frame, head gasket trouble, awful gas mileage, too.

    Volvo wins by default.

      1. Although they’re not perfect, the Subie engines can be perfectly reliable if you replace the failure-prone head gaskets with the revised/fixed version. As far as engine removal is concerned, if you know what you’re doing, you can get them out in 45 minutes or less. If you’re totally new to them, it will take you about 90 minutes. Not a big deal at all.

  7. Former coworker of mine had what internet car nerds (insert secret handshake here) consider the holy grail: a brown, manual Volvo wagon. Called it the Brick. Still ran well when he sold it (pre-2004) but he wanted something different. Bought and paid for an old school Land Rover Discovery to be transported to him. Loved it for a few months before it started having all sorts of typical LR issues. Over a beer he said he never should have sold the Volvo. Hell, it’s probably still running.

    Volvo all the way. Great deal with the per sticker price.

  8. I went with the Volvo but under the condition that the owner throws in a bottle of Goo Gone.

    Though I appreciate the very specific image that the bumper stickers provide – a dirtbike enthusiast who also likes sandwiches and older men – I think the limit for bumper stickers is two, lest you look insane.

        1. I have never heard of it in reference to attractive women, and damn all the implications of the term make that context extremely creepy.

          Only people I hear it referred to is very large men, frequently body builders, who you would not want to get into fights with.

          1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_House_(song)

            “Ow, she’s a brick house
            She’s mighty-mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out
            She’s a brick house
            That lady’s stacked and that’s a fact
            Ain’t holding nothing back
            Ow, she’s a brick house
            Well put-together, everybody knows
            This is how the story goes
            She knows she got everything
            That a woman needs to get a man, yeah, yeah
            How can she lose with the stuff she use
            Thirty-six, twenty-four, thirty-six oh what a winning hand

            Ow, she’s a brick house
            Yeah, she’s the one, the only one, built like an amazon
            The clothes she wears, her sexy ways
            Make an old man wish for younger days, yeah, yeah
            She knows she’s built and knows how to please
            Sure enough to knock a strong man to his knees…”

      1. Yep, from my Aus perspective, toilets (or dunnies as they used to be called) were often in the backyard, and so what covered them was the cheapest, flimsiest, usually corrugated iron, structure. We’re talking about times Pre-WW2.

        A brick one was therefore precisely as you describe.

        Never heard it used about women, but as someone else says below, some people like sturdy women. Vive la difference and all that.

    1. Yeah, brick shithouses are much more desirable than old rickety wooden ones.

      (The saying was once explained to me as a way to say “built much better than it has to be built”, which makes using it as a compliment make sense.)

      1. Over built by far , an outhouse can only be used for so long which is why you don’t usually build them to last forever. Outhouses are like hoopties, useful, but you use them up and move on, or fill it up and start over.

    1. At 186,000 miles, they will already have been replaced. Otherwise, the car would never have gotten anywhere close to that mileage. The replacements are much sturdier than the originals, so if the car checks out otherwise I would not worry about it.

        1. Mine’s an ’03 and while it did get very expensive for a bit around 100,000 miles (gaskets, timing belt, and more) once that all got sorted it’s been pretty trouble-free. I’m at 152,000 now and it hasn’t needed anything significant for several years, knock on wood.

      1. I’ve had 4 different subarus (2 imprezas and 2 foresters) and have not had any of them need head gaskets done. Now, that doesn’t mean they didn’t leak everywhere and smell like an oil rig, but I truly believe the hype around the head gasket issue is overblown.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.”

  16. This one was the hardest so far! Both are extremely good prices if all is as stated in the ads, so much so that my “too good to be true” sensor is going off a little, so I’m approaching both with a healthy amount of skepticism. Subarus in this condition on Portland Craigslist usually have a blown head gasket a this price, and its been ages since I saw a 240 in running condition and with decent paint for less than 3500.

    I’ve got to go with the Volvo simply because it has more potential for appreciation and you might easily have a car that will go a long way without any major engine or transmission issues, whereas the Subaru is probably nearing some engine work based on the mileage of all of the “mechanics special” outbacks I’ve come across.

  17. I’ll take the certain engine death that comes with the Subaru over the uncertain death of everything that comes with the Volvo. Unless it’s an obvious unicorn, walk away from anything with more than three bumper stickers. Combine a rebuilt title with that many bumper stickers and you know there’s very little there that hasn’t been abused.

    When the Subaru dies, drag it to a rust belt state and get your money back from someone willing to fix ‘er right up. When the Volvo dies, the salvage title and out of state origin will prevent you from doing the same.

  18. I genuinely want to buy the 240 (unfortunately it is about a 3000 mile trip to Portland from where I live). I drove an ’87 240 for a few years in the late ’90s. It was a car I did not appreciate at the time (it was a hand-me-down from my brother who beat the hell out of it), but the interior and exterior styling grew on me after a while. My 240 was passed through several other relatives before it was totaled around 2010 or so; had it not been hit, I would have bought it back.

    This particular 240 looks to be in decent condition (hopefully the pictures aren’t deceiving?), and would look good with minimal effort. If nothing else, just getting rid of those stupid bumper stickers would restore a lot of this vehicle’s dignity. I haven’t seen one that looks decent and runs for anywhere near $1500. I am genuinely surprised to see it for sale for this price. I don’t think it even qualifies as a shitbox.

  19. Old 2.5L Subaru boxer? Yeah, no thanks, I’ll get my milkshakes somewhere else.

    “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”: David… “she’s a brick! …houuuse! She’s mighty mighty!” This is oooooooobviously what Mark was referencing (he totally wasn’t, but I’m sticking to my guns [with my Thunderbird!]

  20. 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.

  21. The 1986 Volvo 240 that I traded in towards a 2004 S40 in a fit of pique is one of my great regrets in life. I had dailied that 240 for many years, teaching all four of my kids to drive in it (stick shift, of course), took it on many road trips including ski trips traversing mountain passes in snow storms (who says you need AWD?) – it was wonderful. But then it started having a few problems and one day it dropped the tailpipe on the highway (disconnected from the front of the muffler) and I was forced to pull over and crawl underneath on the side of I-25 with traffic whizzing by and tie the pipe up with a wire coat hanger. I was already late for work and it pissed me off so much that I called in sick and took it directly to the Volvo dealer that was 5 minutes from the exit I pulled off near and traded it in. I never should have done it and I regret it to this day. Oh, and to make it worse, the S40 was a giant piece of shit – I’ll never forgive Ford for diluting the Volvo brand. My current C30 is one of the early Geely Volvos and it’s so much better. 6 years into owning it and I still love seeing it and driving it every single day.

  22. The Volvo does appear to an exceptional deal. Parts are quite a bit more expensive for these than Subarus though. On the Subaru, it’s almost impossible that this engine still has original head gaskets. Depending on when they were replaced, it may have the same, crappy, OEM gaskets installed that will leak again.. In more recent times, MLS (multi-layer steel) gaskets are available that solved the problem. Incidentally, the engine does not have to be removed to replace them. Unbolt the motor mounts, jack the engine up a bit and shove it to one side or the other to give working clearance to pull each head.

  23. 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.

  24. My neighbour has 4 or 5 of them in his driveway that actually look good and run (probably a few more behind the house that don’t). Just an old guy who loves a very specific car. He knows everything about them, where they were made, interesting bits of trivia etc. My vote is for him!

  25. As you said, the subies are everywhere and the volvo is just the more interesting ride. My 70’s 240 wagon had a manual (and the round headlights) and was SLOW but still had tons of character. My 16 year old daughter wishes I still had it so she could get it from me cheap, supports your assertion that they are still “cool”.

      1. Which is hilarious, because when I was in high school (late 90s to early 00s) and kids were starting to get their first cars, 240 wagons were the single least cool car you could have. They were the canonical icon of an uncool car, and we all feared that our parents would force us to have one as our first car due to their reputation for safety. I still can’t get my head around the idea that they’re desirable now, although I suppose I also don’t fully understand why they were so uncool in my day—I guess just because they were so rectangular.

        1. I understand why they were so uncool. For all their virtues, coolness was never one of them. They weren’t designed to be cool, they didn’t aspire to it, and the only cool people who drove them were the kind of cool that cares less than nothing about a cool image, which may be supremely cool on paper, but you’re still driving Aunt Janet’s cat-rescue taxi. They’re not fast, they’re not loud, they’re not showy. They’re sensible. They’re practical. “They’re boxy, but good.” Using “cool” to describe them is a perverse meta definition of cool that values Adlai Stevenson over Steve McQueen.

          All that said, I ended up picking it over the Subaru, after briefly preferring the relative newness of the Outback. I usually won’t pick anything mid-80s over mid-90s, just because of smog issues, but that Volvo’s seats are so clean… and that Subaru engine is not something I want to deal with. Like, ever. My only Volvo experience is with a ’97 960 wagon, and it was kinda great.

Leave a Reply