Home » Cheap Beaters From Dead Brands: 2003 Pontiac Bonneville vs 1997 Plymouth Voyager

Cheap Beaters From Dead Brands: 2003 Pontiac Bonneville vs 1997 Plymouth Voyager

Sbsd 10 24 2023
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Good morning! On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re getting back to basics and looking at a pair of good old fashioned “Transportation Thrifties,” both from dead marques whose parent companies are still around. What does less than two grand get you these days? You might be pleasantly surprised. But first, let’s see which old truck you preferred:

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Hmm. Long bed = long line. Short bed = slightly shorter line. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. Honestly, I don’t think there is a bad choice here, and if the two trucks were side-by-side, it would be hard for me to choose. It would probably come down to a test drive. But I will say that all pickup trucks of a certain age really should be two-tone, unless they are fortunate enough to be painted Forest Service Green.

Now then: I spent most of the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s living in and around the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was flat-broke for a lot of that time, with crappy credit and not much money to spend on vehicles. I got by with whatever $500 clunker I could find, and I went through more than a dozen of them in ten years. It was, now that I think about it, perfect training for this gig, actually.

Those days are long gone for me, but every once in a while, I like to check out the listings in the Twin Cities to see what bargain-basement junkers I might be shopping for if I were still in that situation. $2,000 is the new $500, it seems, but the spirit of the “beater with a heater” is still alive and well. These two jumped out at me as being particularly good deals, and coincidentally, they’re both from American brands that have been since killed off. Let’s check them out and see what you think.

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2003 Pontiac Bonneville – $1,700

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Brooklyn Park, MN

Odometer reading: 200,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

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First up, we have a car with a Minneapolis connection, through music: Legendary Twin Cities alternative rock band Trip Shakespeare immortalized the Bonneville in song back in 1991. That fact alone makes it cool, in my book. Also, it was named after a big flat area where people can drive really fast. But I have been a fan of Pontiac’s big plasticky sedan ever since it went front-wheel-drive in 1987. I backed a maroon Bonneville LE into a concrete bollard in driver’s ed learning how to parallel park. My friend Jeff’s dad bought one, only he went all-out and got the SSE, in monochrome white. I still remember being awestruck by the sheer number of buttons on the dash and steering wheel. Me and the front-drive Bonnie go way back, even though I’ve never owned one.

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This 2003 model represents the Bonneville’s swan song; it is from the tenth and final generation of the big Pontiac. It’s powered by one of GM’s greatest engines ever, the 3800 Series II V6, putting a healthy 205 horsepower to the front wheels through a 4T65-E automatic. Keep the fluids clean, preventively replace a couple of gaskets, and this powertrain might run until the end of time – if the subframe and engine cradle don’t rust away from under it before then. A nose-heavy FWD car is great in the snow, but road salt trapped in the subframe, a known problem for these H-bodies, can crash the party in a hurry. Best take a peek underneath and make sure it’s structurally sound.

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Overall, though, this big Pontiac seems to be in decent condition for having 200,000 miles on the clock. There is a bit of rust showing, and probably more under the plastic cladding, but the paint is shiny and the clearcoat is intact, which suggests to me that this car was garage-kept, so there’s hope. The interior is a little grubby, but GM interiors from this era always look a little grubby unless they’re perfect. But for this price, who cares?

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This strikes me as a damn near ideal beater: cheap, economical to run and fix, comfy, and able to stand up to some neglect and abuse. Its sister model, the Buick LeSabre, often appears on lists of recommended cheap used cars, but everyone tends to forget the Bonneville. And it’s the same car, only cooler.

1997 Plymouth Voyager – $1,800

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter overhead cam V6, three-speed automatic, FWD

Location: St. Louis Park, MN

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Odometer reading: 157,000 miles

Runs/drives? You betcha

When someone says the word “minivan,” this is the vehicle that comes to my mind, even all these years after it went out of production: the Plymouth Voyager. Chrysler made approximately seven bajillion of these things over three generations, and during my time in the Twin Cities working at a service station, I must have changed the oil on approximately half of them. Like the Bonneville, it’s a vehicle I’ve always admired, but never owned; it’s not cool, but it’s relentlessly, unabashedly practical, and that is an admirable quality.

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This third-generation Voyager is just about the specification I would choose, too: a short wheelbase SE model, with the optional Mitsubishi-built V6. A 2.4 liter four was available, but almost nobody bought it. An automatic transmission was compulsory in this generation; previous Voyagers could be had with a manual, but despite what David says, a stickshift does not, on its own, make a vehicle fun or cool. This is a practical utilitarian vehicle, not a sports car, and there’s no reason to avoid it solely because it’s an automatic. The automatic in question is Chrysler’s three-speed A670 Torqueflite, not the sexiest gearbox around, but sturdy and durable.

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Chrysler minivans never seemed to be as affected by rust as some other vehicles. Sure, they rust – everything does – but they don’t dissolve like wet tissue paper like some cars do. This one has had some rust repair done on the door bottoms, the seller says, and it looks like there might be some rot in the rocker panels, but for a cheap twenty-six-year-old car in Minnesota, it doesn’t look bad at all. Plus, it’s green, arguably one of the best colors for any vehicle.

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Inside, it’s even cleaner. The seller says it has a fault in the HVAC fan controls; the fan is either on full-blast or off, nothing in between. This is usually controlled by a resistor wired to the switch: When the resistor burns out, you lose the in-between speeds. I’ve had to replace a couple of them over the years on various cars. (It was a common failure point for mechanical speed controls in Tamiya RC cars back in the day, too, come to think of it.) They also note a slight coolant leak from the radiator, which they keep topped off, but I think I’d just throw a new radiator in.

Both of these cars, honestly, look like absolute dreams come true compared to some of the clunkers I had in the Twin Cities, like the Chevy Cavalier that spun a rod bearing on the day after Christmas, or the Dodge Colt with the rusted-out fuel pickup tube inside the gas tank that made it sputter and stall when it got below half full. But cars in general have been getting steadily better, so it stands to reason that they would hold up better later in life. They’re more expensive these days, too, but everything is. These both seem like good deals to me. Which one do you favor?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Madewithgenuineparts
Madewithgenuineparts
1 month ago

The Bonneville is probably the better beater (3800s don’t go wrong) but WOW is that Voyager in good shape – I’m a youngun, but I’ve NEVER seen a Chrysler van of that generation so clean inside and out. Voyager for me for having dead brand swag, a good color, and being a cheap van that doesn’t have a spaceship’s worth of electronics.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
1 month ago

Ironically the Voyager *is* a spaceship.

Here4thecars
Here4thecars
1 month ago

I really wanted to vote for the Bonneville, but a minivan at that price is hard to pass up.

El Jefe de Barbacoa
El Jefe de Barbacoa
1 month ago
Reply to  Here4thecars

It’s a pretty damn clean minivan for that age and price.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
1 month ago

In the late 90’s and early 2000s, I too was living in the twin cities. Home was Maple Grove and I was working for Chrysler Corp. doing technical training based out of their facility in Plymouth, MN. I drove these minivans A LOT, all over MN, SD, ND and IA. I even bought a used 1996 shorty Caravan LE for my wife when she quit her job and went to grad school in 2003. I still have a fondness for these short wheelbase minivans.

Lhn91
Lhn91
1 month ago

Horribly torn on this one. I love and have owned a couple GM 3800’s (a 98 and an 02 Regal). I’m also an unashamed minivan lover and I have a real affinity for this and the following generations of Chrysler vans.

The 3800 may run forever, but early 2000’s GM electronics….. aren’t the greatest, in my experience. So for me it’s the practical bubble on wheels.

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