Home » Chicagoland Cheapies: 2003 Hyundai Elantra vs 1999 Mercury Mystique

Chicagoland Cheapies: 2003 Hyundai Elantra vs 1999 Mercury Mystique

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Good morning! Today’s Showdown takes us to the western suburbs of Chicago, my old stomping grounds as a kid. We’re looking at two bargain-basement rustbuckets to see which one has more life left to give.

On yesterday’s thrilling episode, we checked out two cars from the same seller, posted in the same ad, and I gave you the rare option to vote for both of them. The combo platter proved popular, as I thought it might; they’re both cool vehicles. And I think if someone were to show up and make the right offer on both, they could score a pretty good deal.

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But by the traditional rules, where only one vehicle can win, that winner was the Ford pickup, despite some misgivings in the comments about its 302 V8 as opposed to the more desirable six-cylinder. But the 302 is a good solid workhorse of an engine as well, and it’s hard to say no to a brown stickshift single-cab truck.

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Today, we’re getting back to our roots a little bit and checking out two cars more traditionally fitting the term “shitbox.” Both have been ridden hard and put away wet, as the saying goes, but they’re both hanging in there, ready for more. Which one is the better deal? That’s for you to decide after you check them out.

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2003 Hyundai Elantra – $1,600

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Lisle, IL

Odometer reading: 185,000 miles

Operational status: “Has no mechanical issues”

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I’ve got to hand it to Hyundai. I still see this generation of Elantra all over the place, generally owned and driven by decidedly non-car-people, and most of them look like this one. Yet, somehow, after twenty years of abuse and neglect, five owners after they were a value-priced alternative to a Civic or Corolla, they’re still chugging along.

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This Elantra is still shy of 200,000 miles, pretty low for a twenty-year-old car. It runs and drives fine, and has new tires, new CV joints, and newer brakes. And on the inside at least, it doesn’t look too bad. Pretty good, in fact. It has seat covers, but those don’t always mean the seats are trashed underneath; some people actually use them to protect fabric.

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The outside is another story. It’s rusty, beat-up, and spray painted in weird places. I don’t know what happened to that driver’s side door, but whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty. Obviously the rust isn’t structural; if it were, no one would have bothered to do the brakes, axles, or tires.

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On a positive note, this is one Hyundai product that no social media star is going to steal for a joyride. Hell, you could probably leave the keys in it in a bad part of town and it would still be there when you got back. And you can be reasonably sure it will start, too.

1999 Mercury Mystique – $1,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter dual overhead cam V6, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Downers Grove, IL

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Odometer reading: 117,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives fine, but needs new tires

This is another Ford Motor Company “world car.” The Mercury Mystique is the sister model to the Ford Contour, which is the North American version of the European Ford Mondeo. Like all American Contours and Mystiques, this car was built in Kansas City, and features a 2.5 liter version of Ford’s Duratec V6, an option not available on the European Mondeo.

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This one runs great, at only 117,000 miles, and has had a bunch of recent work done. The seller does note that it needs new tires all the way around, as well as new struts in the rear. Best to do the struts first, and maybe an alignment, and then replace the tires. I’ve seen first-hand what worn-out struts can do to fresh tires. You could have a shop do everything all at once, I suppose, but pre-assembled rear struts are only seventy bucks each, and should be pretty easy to install.

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This is the upscale LS model, with leather seats and lots of toys. It looks pretty good inside, with only a few signs of wear. There is something funky going on with the dashboard; it looks like it warped from heat right along the windshield line, and there’s a chunk of it missing. But honestly, it’s a $1400 car, so who cares?

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It’s a bit rusty in spots, but not bad, and only has a few dents here and there. It was originally a Florida car, so it has been spared Chicago winters for most of its life. It still looks awful by West Coast standards, but downright pristine for a car in Illinois in this price range.

These are no one’s idea of dream cars, it’s true. But sometimes, a dirt-cheap runabout is just what’s called for. A car that’s already rusty and dented is a car you don’t have to worry about. Payments? Collision insurance? Carwashes? Those are for other people. Cheap cars can save you money in more ways than one. Which old rusty beater is the one for you?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Lightning
Lightning
23 days ago

Before I clicked my vote, I took a guess 90% to 10% in favor of the Mystique. . . and I was right on.

Peter Foreman-Murray
Peter Foreman-Murray
23 days ago

I came to the article to say “Hyundai hands down.” But then I saw the mileage difference. I had a 2002 Elantra GT that I drove from new to 205k. That was a damn good car. But those last 15 or 20 k miles were the most expensive. Engine and trans were great. Everything else, just one thing after another. My wife joked that I didn’t have a car payment but that I had a “Brian payment.” Brian was my mechanic. Hindsight 20/20 I’d sell it at 185k. Switched my vote to the Mercury.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
23 days ago

Gimmee the Hyundai

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
23 days ago

She’s crazy about a Mercury, and so am I.

Myk El
Myk El
23 days ago

I used to refer to the Mystique as the Mystaque, but not in this case. Still, Chicago cars have a rep and I can’t say either inspires confidence.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
23 days ago

I wouldn’t wish a Hyundai or Kia from that era on my worst enemy. Give me the Ferd.

Dodd Lives
Dodd Lives
23 days ago

I’ve never driven a North American-market Contour/Mystique, but I spent a lot of time behind the wheel of a 4-cylinder 5-speed Mondeo wagon that we had as a company car in France. It was surprisingly fun on twisty Routes Départementales, and was plenty happy at higher-speed cruising on the autoroutes. It was definitely a lot more fun that any Elantra I’ve ever driven. The Elantra has to be the epitome of car-as-appliance.

Mystique for me.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
23 days ago

Even if the conditions were the opposite, I’d still take the Mercury.

Thankfully it looks in surprisingly good shape for the age and location.

The 2.5L V6 is a sweetie. It kinda has to be to make up for the transmission it’s saddled with, but hey, pobody’s nerfect.

It’s still strange to me that these were considered midsized family vehicles in Europe (as the Mondeo), where they were sold here as the intended replacement to the compact Escort (which outlived it in ZX2 form), and was superceded by the also-compact Focus. By the same token, how bad were the other vehicles being sold there that the Mondeo champions such reverence for its time?

Scott Ashley
Scott Ashley
23 days ago

That driver’s door of the Hyundai might just buff out … Ya right i took the merc

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
23 days ago

Man both of these are so bad. But I think that I’d go with the Mercury Mystake, given that the only major mechanical issues you’d probably have with it are the water pump. These 2.5L’s got a plastic impeller water pump that would crack in half after a while. But otherwise? These 2.5L + CD4E powertrains weren’t too bad (mechanically speaking).

The rest of the car (Craptours/Mystakes) weren’t that great. Back seat was TINY, I think I fit better in the back seats of Escort sedans, or even ZX2 coupes!

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
23 days ago

And you had to take care of the automatic and change the fluid according to the ‘severe use’ schedule if you want it to last.

And yeah, the Escort had about the same amount of space overall and was actually more spacious in wagon form.

Cerberus
Cerberus
23 days ago

Mystiques were at least OK to drive and nowhere near as bad as those Hyundais and, regardless, for $1400 with that mileage, it seems like an outright deal. An ex had one of these Elantras. The wheel broke off when the control arm snapped in traffic and the metal of the other was paper thin at less than 10 years old and barely over 100k (there was a recall, at least), plus the weatherstripping was completely gone—side-windows-constantly-banging-within-the-frame-gone—exhaust was loud, suspension was shot, everything squeaked and rattled like a truck that had spent decades of abuse on a mountain gravel road in a 3rd World country, it leaked and burned oil, and the transmission felt like it was on its way out. Even discounting the severe psoriasis on this Hyundai and its greater mileage over the Mystique (an impressive feat for both the car and its owner), those Elantras were such inexcusably, abominably awful vehicles by any measure that I would pick a non-running Yugo over one for charm, if nothing else.

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