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$900 Chrysler Minivan or $1500 Ford Focus: The Hunt For A Cheap Daily-Driver In LA

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It’s day two of our daily-driver tour, and today we’re leaving the rust behind and heading to sunny Southern California to find the cheapest ride in Los Angeles. But first, let’s see how our Chi-Town Clunkers fared:

This was our closest vote yet, I think. But it looks like the don’t-call-me-a-Geo is going to take the win. Either one would make a good “beater with a heater” for a couple of years, but like the Highlander versus the Kurgan, There Can Be Only One. [Hi, David here. Just pointing out that, yet again, I have no idea what Mark is referring to -DT]. And that one is the 2002 Chevy Prizm.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I assumed, based on what I’d seen in movies, that everyone drove a convertible. Shortly after arriving, however, I discovered that this was not only untrue, but impossible: There is no way to keep your Thomas Guide open to the right page with all that wind in the car. (I’m dating myself with that reference, I know.) [Hi, David here. Somehow I actually do understand this reference; Mark is talking about an old guidebook that helped LA residents navigate the city back in the 1980s-ish. -DT]

Convertible or not, you absolutely need a car here. This place is huge, public transit is only a vague suggestion, and as Missing Persons so correctly stated, “Nobody walks in L.A.” [Okay, I’m back to being lost -DT]. You spend a lot of time in your car here, so it should be something comfortable and reliable. Cars are also expensive here, both to buy and to maintain. But rust is usually a non-issue, and smog rules mean cars are either mechanically maintained or junked, which keeps the talent pool of cheap cars to a higher standard than you might otherwise find. Will that help earn either of our beaters a star on the Driveway of Fame?

1997 Chrysler Town & Country – $900

Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Beverly Hills, CA

Odometer reading: 203,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep, allegedly

 

How this old Chrysler minivan ended up in Beverly Hills is anyone’s guess. Maybe Richard Gere rented it for a week, and fell in love with it, or something. But it’s there, and attracting its fair share of flakes, weirdos, and lookie-loos, based on the tone of the ad. I’m not surprised. It’s also advertised as being “good for working or sleeping,” so if you are Down And Out In Beverly Hills, this could be just the thing. But they’ll probably make you drive it a few miles west to Santa Monica to park it.

[Okay, final interjection here. I was so concerned that Mark was joking about dire living conditions among Angelenos that I asked my coworker Jason if we should edit the above paragraph. Turns out, it was another reference I missed: 

I really need to get out from under my rock. -DT]

The van itself looks… okay-ish? It looks to be sitting in a junkyard or impound lot, which might account for the salvage title. This is the top-of-the-line 3rd generation Chrysler minivan, so it will have all sorts of goodies like power seats and dual-zone climate controls and whatnot, but who knows how much of it still works? At least it looks intact. The seller says it “needs to be shampooed,” but let’s not dwell on what that may mean.

A wild card is the condition of its infamous “Ultradrive” transmission. This recall-prone unit had a bad reputation early on, but this is a later one, with over 200,000 miles on it, so it has likely been replaced or rebuilt at some point anyway. All we know is that it works, for now. The 3.8 liter pushrod V6 supplying it with torque “SOUNDS GOOD,” according to the seller, so there’s that.

There is the matter of the salvage title, and I don’t know how that affects the dreaded back-registration nightmare in California. It’s probably worth a call to the DMV to find out before you hand over your money. But I found nothing else under a grand that didn’t need immediate mechanical attention, so if you’re really on a budget, this might be an option.

 

2000 Ford Focus ZX3 – $1,500

Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Glendora, CA

Odometer reading: 185,000 miles

Runs/drives? It does indeed

 

From my searches, if you need a cheap ride in southern California and you don’t want a sketchy van that may or may not be its very own CSI episode, you need to bum a ride out of town a ways, in this case, east on the 210 freeway out to Glendora, just north of San Dimas (excellent!). There you’ll find this little beat-up 2000 Ford Focus ZX3.

Some of the early Focuses (Foci? Can somebody clear this up in the comments?) were saddled with Ford’s NVH (sorry, I mean CVH) four-cylinder from the Escort, but the Focus ZX3 got a 2 liter Zetec from the start. This twin-cam engine was good for an extra 20 horsepower (130 vs 110) and is a good deal less thrashy than its predecessor. The five-speed in the Focus is a nice unit as well, with easy shifts and good feel.

This one looks like it’s in decent shape, although the air conditioning is dead, which can make summer days unpleasant. But it may be fixable, and there’s always the “2/60” option. It appears to be two different shades of silver, which might indicate an accident repair long ago, but the title is clean, so who cares? You’re not going to valet this thing, and nobody in the parking lot at Ralph’s cares what it looks like.

This would also be a lot more fun on the weekends up in the canyons than a minivan. The first-generation Focus is a fun car to chuck around, and I can personally confirm that they will cruise at over 100 mph in the HOV lane on the 101. I mean, it’s no Lotus Esprit (I hear those babies corner like they’re on rails!), but it’s more fun than your typical econobox.

So those are your choices: the absolute cheapest functional vehicle I couild find in town, and a good example of what’s available a little further out. Which one would you use to escape from L.A.?

QuizMaker

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78 Responses

  1. Minivan, all day.

    Look, I get it, it’s ugly, it’s not trendy, it’s “slow”.

    I does not care.

    It’s practical, it’s roomy, it’s comfortable, it’s a workhorse, it’s surprisingly efficient, and it’s the only reliable thing Chrysler (and its many owner) have consistently produced. That 3.8 V6 will run badly longer than most other cars will run. The seats can be removed to give me space for camping, hauling Home Depot purchases, or bringing home antique furniture the girlfriend found at an estate sale. It’s not going to draw attention to itself anywhere. There’s a lot to like about a minivan.

    I also have an irrational hatred of the Ford Focus, so there’s that.

    1. It is possible the seller wanted $1700 and then just decided they wanted to move on in their life and took $200 off so they would have to clean it up. Some people get to the end of their relationship and just want to go hang out with the new girl.

  2. We need to start having Autopian movie nights to help get David out from under The Rock…. Which is, indeed, another relevant 90s movie. It even has a car chase between a Hummer and a Ferrari!

    1. Do you realize how many years of movie nights it would take to get him caught up? There were at least three movies and one song in this one post that flew over his head like Clint Eastwood in a Russian mind-reading jet.

  3. The Van is wear hazmat suit level and not worth it.

    The focus, manual or auto, would be the better choice. The manual is good for when the sucker fails to start and you need a bump start.

    For references, we really need to address that. I think between all of us we can come up with a primer and gameshow with links to help our Buddy David.

    1. The 4F27E actually isn’t bad at all, one of Ford’s better transmissions. Of course, it also helps that Mazda designed it.

      Fun fact: the transmission was used in both Ford and Mazda models. Mazda was smart enough to include a drain plug, while Ford didn’t.

      The really bad transmission came in 2012 with the Mk3 PowerShit. And once Ford stopped selling the Focus in the US, they went back to a regular auto with the Mk4

  4. Ooh, the results display automatically now.

    The upgrades are rolling in!

    I’m kind of curious which Beverly Hills references DT would reliably get. I’m thinking Weezer might be in his sweet spot.

    Axel Foley would be before his time.

  5. Having had an early zx3 the 2/60 option really isn’t one unless you’re ok with incredibly violent cavitation. While taking my brother in law to Speed Week at Bonneville the AC decided to quit so we tried the windows. Lets just say I had a nasty headache for 2 days and the brother in law puked his guts out.

    And to forestall the obligatory “You were in the sun too long” we hadn’t made it to the flats yet. Lets just say we let the fan wheeze on us on the way back as best it could. Still had a blast though.

  6. I’ve had both David and Jason on Reels and Wheels so I can confirm they have watched movies. Trying my best here.

    Also I had to vote for that Focus in spite of how it’s got my two least favorite late 90s/early2000s styling features – headlights that sweep back up the hood like a kindergartener making a face at you and tail lights that live in the C-pillar, leaving the rest of the car’s ass painfully bare. I would be down with that minivan if the miles were fewer and the carpet less like one of those places where cabbage is fermented, but knowing its Chrysler mechanicals, this van slipped way past “borrowed-time” years ago and is now more akin to one of those zombies that’s been sitting by a tree so long it’s merged with it. Yes it’s alive, but only in the loosest sense.

  7. What about the San Dimas reference from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? You have to watch that one. Along with the original Highlander. The Highlander TV series was great too.

    Down and Out in Beverly Hills was a really good movie. But it hasn’t become part of the culture like the previous two

    No need to watch Pretty Woman. It’s a standard rom-com, only notable for the unusual glorification of prostitution in a mainstream movie.

    Finally, the Thomas Guide wasn’t a guidebook. It was a spiral bound set of maps that covered the entire metro area with an index for the streets broken down by address numbers. The edge of each map had the page number of the adjacent map so you could follow along as you drove. These were vital not only in plotting out your initial path to somewhere, but in coming up with alternates to route yourself around unexpected traffic jams.

  8. Is anyone actually voting for the van? The van doesn’t seem like reasonable transportation. I simply don’t believe it is reliable enough to drive every day. Plus, you would have the title and registration issues to deal with if you wanted to drive it. I think the owner is genuinely trying to sell it as temporary shelter.

    The Focus is a relatively modern vehicle that isn’t beat up too badly. As long as it runs and drives most of the time, it is a steal at $1,500. This should be a massively lopsided victory for the Focus.

  9. Why is there never a cool focus for that cheap close to me? *realizes it’s because everything within 200 miles of me is made of rust* 🙁

    My first* car was a 2001 focus wagon and I still miss it…
    *depending on your definition of first, my first car was a 80-something Camaro Berlinetta, the 2001 focus, a 2003 Subaru Forester, or a 2018 Kia Forte…. Or for some more esoteric definitions, an old F150 (I think?) farm truck.

  10. I was briefly concerned that this would be another reverse Sophie’s Choice where we’d have to decide between two unwantable things, but that Focus ain’t bad at all for a dirt cheap price. I can not improve on Sid Bridge’s “zombie merged with a tree” metaphor for the minivan so I won’t try, but I wouldn’t have wanted it even if it was reasonably clean with 50K fewer miles on it. I probably wouldn’t balk at paying $2K for that Focus. The 5% who didn’t vote for it just want to watch the world burn while they sink into the damp mire of that minivan’s carpet.

  11. Salvage title in California is a surprisingly easy process. As long as all the lights work, the brakes look like they exist, and it passes smog, it is good to go.

    Still voting the Focus over the biohazard minivan.

  12. $900 for the van? Does that mean they’ll pay you $900 to drag it away? Call it the Chrysler Cockroach because I get the heebie-jeebies just looking at it. Shudder! As for the Ford, never buy a car that’s used as a litter box. Garbage in, garbage maintenance.

  13. I’m biased against the Focus because I have one sinking into the ground in my dirt floor garage but that van is only good for a prop in a movie about destitute man murdering someone so I really have to give it to it.

    Also my god David, Highlander? You don’t get Highlander? Actually does the Toyota Highlander have screens in the back for movies? Maybe David needs to watch Highlander in a Highlander.

  14. OMG! NO @#$&ING Way would I even go to the lot where the Chrysler is, I value my internal organs!
    And I really like that gen of minivans, engine and transmission problems aside. Had a voyager, loved it, until I ripped off the tranny pan in an early morning evasive manuver. The ability to take out the middle seat and stuff toolboxes behind the driver’s seat was so very convenient.
    Nice choice on the focus, good lil beater.

    1. I owned an ’05 ZX3 when I was in LA. Not a bad little car, but I paid too much for it, and took a bath on it when I sold it. I always thought it would eventually make a good cheap little runabout, 3 or 4 owners down the line.

  15. Minivan “needs shampooing”?!?! No, my dude. That thing needs a fire.

    David, you had to have seen Talladega Nights, right? You didn’t at least get the Highlander reference from that? I mean, its a movie It won the academy award for best movie ever made.

  16. Those were great vans– bulletproof and long running. But I, for one, can’t get past the GRUNGE condition. Thanks, but no thanks for that reason only. I guess I’d sleep in the Focus with the seatback reclined- maybe covered with a trash bag in place of a sheet.

  17. Due to Chrysler minivans being known for transmission problems, and that the Focus is manual, the Focus is the better choice here.

    Common problems with the Focus include the third brake light melting and the wires behind it breaking, random coolant losses, and the thermostat housing likes to explode. Although the Zetec has a timing belt, the US version is non-interference, and it’s one of the easier cars to change a TB on.

    The Chrysler minivan is known for transmission problems, and a big V6 minivan is a gas guzzler when gas prices are too high, and transverse V6’s are impossible to work on, especially in a van. If the transmission is working, get an aftermarket pan with a drain plug and change the fluid every year with Redline C+

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