Good morning! On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re celebrating – and poking a little fun at – the wellspring from which so many beloved shitboxes emerge: the small independent used car lot. Both our cars today come from the same lot in Idaho, and boy, are you all going to hate me for making you choose between these two. But first, let’s find out our tally from yesterday’s sub-$1000 coupes:
The Probe wins in a landslide! It seems the body damage on the Acura scared a lot of you off. I’m inclined to agree, but I’d like to see an interior photo of the Probe before I commit. The previous owner could have kept half a dozen chihuahuas in there. You never know.
Now then: You’ve driven by them. You’ve seen their postings in the classifieds. Maybe, like me, you’ve even bought a car here or there from them. From sea to shining sea, they stand ready to provide you with questionable transportation at rock-bottom prices, or on easy credit terms. I’m talking, of course, about independent used car dealers. They’re everywhere, and they’re all the same: half a dozen nice-ish cars in the front row (one of which is almost always a twenty-year-old Corvette), a couple rows of serviceable but forgettable family haulers behind them, and, tucked away in the corner behind the trailer that invariably serves as their sales office, the fabled back row. This is where the forlorn, high-mileage, mildly broken cars languish, just waiting for someone with meager means, a bit of mechanical aptitude, and a healthy dollop of optimism to come along and make the salesman jump-start them.
One such dealer, Country Auto of Jerome, Idaho, is celebrating its twenty-sixth year in business by having a massive sale on its back-row cars, calling it the “26th Anniversary P.O.S. Sale.” Sounds like it’s right up our alley. I found their two cheapest offerings, and I’m going to make you choose one. Before we start, I apologize for the photo quality. That Olympus four-megapixel point-and-shoot just isn’t cutting it anymore, it seems. Buy a car or two, and they can afford a new camera!
Engine/drivetrain: 3.7 liter overhead cam V6, four-speed automatic, part-time 4WD
Location: Jerome, ID
Odometer reading: 183,000 miles
Runs/drives? I’m going to assume it at least starts and moves
The official car of baby-daddies on a budget everywhere, the Dodge Nitro seems like it was designed to be sold at used-car lots. The new ones were just ahead of their time; they just had to age into their role, like, well, I would say fine wine, but really more like those four White Claws still in the cooler from last weekend’s camping trip. These SUVs are apparently pretty nice to drive, but boy oh boy do they come with baggage.
This is the fancy SLT model, equipped with Chrysler’s PowerTech 3.7 liter overhead cam V6 and Ultradrive four-speed automatic. It’s an engine, and a transmission, and together they make the truck go down the road, and that’s all there is to say about them, really. I’ve heard conflicting reports about the 3.7’s durability; it seems to depend a lot on how well it was maintained. I don’t want to make assumptions about this car’s previous owners, but well-maintained cream puffs don’t end up on the back row of used car lots.
The Nitro’s looks have always been polarizing. I personally am not a fan; I think it looks silly and cartoonish, but I know it has its fans. I imagine this one would look better without the missing fender flare; maybe you can find one in a junkyard. The giant 20 (?) inch wheels aren’t doing its appearance (or wheel bearings) any favors, nor is the fact that there are only three of them. One would hope the fourth one is in the back with a flat tire. But regardless, while you’re at the junkyard looking for a fender flare, grab a set of matching wheels off a Dakota or something, of the proper size.
But at the end of the day, it’s a cheap, presumably running 4X4 SUV for a little over a grand. Ignore the styling and the stigma, ditch the baller wheels, and put it to work.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, six-speed dual-clutch automatic, FWD
Location: Jerome, ID
Odometer reading: 134,000 miles
Runs/drives? Again, I’m going to assume a rudimentary level of functionality
Need better fuel economy than a big SUV can provide? Don’t want everyone assuming you’re two months behind on child support? Well then, may I interest you in Ford’s subcompact Fiesta, in its awkward sedan form? It’s powered by a 1.6 liter Duratec four, driving the front wheels through Ford’s notorious PowerShit – excuse me, PowerShift – dual-clutch automatic. I have spent some time behind the wheel of a Fiesta so equipped; my last day job had one as a company runabout. I drove it twice, and then took my own car on errands. This transmission is not as bad as you’ve always heard. It’s worse.
This car only has 134,000 miles on it, low for a twelve-year-old car, and shockingly low for a car this cheap. The transmission’s reputation precedes it, apparently. But as long as you’re okay with driving an automatic that makes it look like you don’t know how to drive a manual, you’ll be rewarded with great gas mileage, and easy parallel parking. I’m reaching here, I know – I didn’t think much of the Fiesta at my old job, and I really disliked the job.
I have never understood the American fear of hatchbacks, especially when it leads to tacked-on trunks like this. This car is more than a foot and a half longer than the hatchback Fiesta, for no reason other than being less practical and uglier.
It does make me wonder how hard a manual swap is on one of these. With a stick, it might just be an acceptable cheap runabout. Or, I don’t know, make it a Gambler car or something? Maybe the transmission wouldn’t feel as jerky or shuddery on the dirt.
Cheap used cars from dealerships like this are a mixed bag. I’ve bought enough of them to know. You can probably drive off in either one of these and expect it to start the next morning, but don’t get too cocky – something will go wrong, and soon. It will overheat, or fail its smog test (not an issue in Idaho, but elsewhere), or something, and leave you cursing the dealership’s name and questioning your judgment. It’s all part of the experience. But sometimes, you find a gem, a car that exceeds your expectations and becomes a part of your life for a while. Could either of these be that diamond in the rough? I have no idea. But they’re cheap enough to roll the dice on. Which one will it be?
(Image credits: Country Auto of Jerome, Idaho)