Home » College Town Clunkers: 1996 Dodge Van vs 2004 Jeep Liberty

College Town Clunkers: 1996 Dodge Van vs 2004 Jeep Liberty

Sbsd 5 22 2023
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Good morning! It’s Monday, and we’re going to start the week off with a couple of cheap cars for sale in midwestern college towns. But before we head back to school, let’s see which one of Friday’s sports cars earned a passing grade:

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Easy win for the Z car. Myself, I’d pick the Trans Am, mainly due to its condition. And also, as I’ve mentioned before, Japanese cars weren’t really part of the landscape when I was growing up, so I don’t have any nostalgic attachment to them. Firebirds, on the other hand, were everywhere.

For today’s choices, we’re heading to the college towns of Champaign/Urbana, Illinois (or “Chambana” to those in the know), home of the University of Illinois, and West Lafayette, Indiana, home of my wife’s Master’s degree alma mater, Purdue University. If there’s one thing nobody seems to have a lot of in college, it’s money, so we’re looking at just about the cheapest viable cars in each town. Let’s see what a couple grand’s worth of financial aid slopover buys you.

1996 Dodge Ram 2500 conversion van – $2,395

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.2 or 5.9 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Champaign, IL

Odometer reading: 194,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

Dodge built these vans for approximately seven hundred years, it feels like. Okay, not quite, but thirty-two model years is a hell of a long run for any vehicle. But it’s a box with an engine; if it ain’t broke, why fix it? A couple of sheetmetal freshenings and some engine and transmission updates were enough to keep it chugging along. And for all that time, it remained a popular platform for RVs and conversion vans.

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That’s what we’ve got here, that most American of road-trip machines: the conversion van. Take one stripped-out cargo van, add captain’s chairs, windows, a flashy paint job, and a host of power features, coat the whole thing inside in wall-to-wall carpet, and hit the highway. This van’s color scheme is green, so we get this lovely green velour all over everything. It also has an unusual sideways-facing bench seat behind the four captain’s chairs, which I imagine folds down into a bed.

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This van is being sold by a towing company, and as a result, we don’t know much about it. They’re not exactly forthcoming with details as to its current condition either. They do say “come take a test drive,” so I have to assume it runs and drives all right. They don’t tell us which engine is in it, but it will likely be a “Magnum” V8, either 5.2 or 5.9 liters. The 3.9 liter V6 from the Dakota was also available, but I can’t imagine a conversion van company choosing it.

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It looks pretty good overall, though there’s some trim weirdness on the side barn doors that might be hiding some rust. But for the price, a little rust isn’t much of a worry. The gas mileage from a big V8 van isn’t ideal for a broke college student, but there’s plenty of room. Just ask everyone to chip in for gas.

2004 Jeep Liberty Sport – $2,250

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.7 liter overhead cam V6, four-speed automatic, part-time 4WD

Location: West Lafayette, IN

Odometer reading: 315,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Very well, they say

Here we have something a little easier to park on campus: Jeep’s Cherokee replacement, the Liberty. This little 4×4 has been a fixture on the low-end used car market for a while now. It has a less than shining reputation for reliability, but this one has managed to rack up more than 300,000 miles. Whether that’s through careful maintenance (as claimed by the seller) or dumb luck (more likely) hardly matters at this point. It’s here, it’s cheap, and it runs.

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Inside, it has held up remakably well, especially given Chrysler’s reputation for cheap interior materials. The seller says everything works, including the air conditioning. They also say it runs and drives “like it was designed,” but the check-engine light is clearly visible in one photo of the dash. You can make your own joke about mid-2000s Jeep reliability as to whether that’s how it was designed or not.

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This Jeep has suffered mightily in one regard. Rust–that old automotive nemesis–never sleeps, they say, and it looks like it didn’t even get a little bit tired working on this one. The bottoms of the doors are absolutely gone, and there’s not much left of the rocker panels either. Is it structurally compromised? You’d have to look underneath to find out. If it’s still intact enough, you could probably get a year or two more out of it. But a car in this condition has to be seen as a temporary solution.

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But until the rust takes it, you’ve got a good-driving runabout with four wheel drive and working AC. And there’s zero chance of it being stolen, no matter where you park it. Lend it to friends without worry. Try your hand at off-roading without fear of damaging a nice car.

College is a rough time of life to be a gearhead. You have no money, no time, and no place to park a project car, so you have to make do with whatever comes along. Neither of these is anybody’s idea of a dream machine, but if they’ll get you home for Christmas and haul all your stuff back home for the summer, they’ve held up their end of the bargain. Which one will it be?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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BloggyMcBlogBlog
BloggyMcBlogBlog
1 year ago

Have you seen how much colleges are charging for dorm rooms now? Get that van and you’re cutting your housing expenses be at least 3/4! When you need a shower, go to an athletic facility. This will pay itself off in no time!

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
1 year ago

Where we’re going, we won’t need showers.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 year ago

They will both bankrupt you. But you can always live in that van down by the river. Selling Tie Dyed tshirts, shrooms and pot. I think I just talked myself into it.

Mobelibus
Mobelibus
1 year ago

Is it even a question? One is a wheeled studio apartment and the other is Jeep from a bad era with a pretty severe case of syphilis. There might be actual syphilis in the van , though. So there is that.

Maymar
Maymar
1 year ago

I got my wife’s Liberty with less than half the mileage and less rust (not no rust obviously, just less) for about the same as this, so that’s a clear pass. And yeah, whatever minor gas savings you’ll maybe hopefully get can easily be recouped by living in the van (with a nice waterfront view even).

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
1 year ago

Van! It has quarter glass butterfly vent windows! As a broke college student I drove a late 70’s E150 van conversion with a 351 Windsor and three in the tree standard transmission. It was the family vacation mobile when I was a kid and had a dark tint, shag carpeting on the walls and that bench seat/bed combo in the back. I slept in that bed rather than risk a DUI after a college party more than once. This van was dead reliable and anything minor that broke could be fixed easily. My Mother in law’s Liberty couldn’t seem to make it around the block without something or other breaking.

Last edited 1 year ago by MAX FRESH OFF
PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
1 year ago

I’d only pay $2250 for that Liberty if the engine was brand new, installed last week, with receipts. Because that’s the only way it’s worth more than $300. That rust is so bad, I wouldn’t even drive it home at 35 mph on the back roads.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
1 year ago

Give me the van down by the river! It’s awesome compared to that rustbucket!

“Try your hand at off-roading without fear of damaging a nice car.”
-Or, ya know…it breaking in half while off-roading

Cool Dave
Cool Dave
1 year ago

The van. All day, every day. I’ve considered multiple times picking something like that up for family road trips!

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
1 year ago

A jeep with a 3.7? The gas savings vs. this van will be minimal.

STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
1 year ago

That van would beat a good many cars solely due to that stripe-work.

and this is coming from a guy that celebrates the Liberty.

Great picks today, Mark!

Cyko9
Cyko9
1 year ago

I keep hearing how I should give the Jeep Liberty a chance as an economical option, but this one is _beat_! Gas mileage will be rough in the van, but charge another student rent to live in it and it pays for itself.

SolamenteDave
SolamenteDave
1 year ago

DAJIBAN!

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
1 year ago

Was all set to vote for the van based on my affection for 1980s and 90s conversion vans. Then started to read about (and see pics of) the Jeep and mashed the button for the van as fast as I could.

Gubbin
Gubbin
1 year ago

That van can probably tow a smallish asteroid while carrying a crew of 7.

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