Home » Crimson Crapcans Of The Great Plains: 2003 Honda Odyssey vs 2003 Pontiac Sunfire

Crimson Crapcans Of The Great Plains: 2003 Honda Odyssey vs 2003 Pontiac Sunfire

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Good morning! We’re still on the road, in western Iowa as I write this. We just had a wonderful dinner with some old friends who live nearby, and now I’ve got another pair of cars chosen by the greatest co-pilot of all time.

Yesterday, we looked at trucks from two different eras, and from the sounds of it, there wasn’t much middle ground. You were all firmly on one side, or the other. It seemed to be a matter of whether you wanted a truck for work, or play. The Chevy took home a pretty sizeable win, but even among its fans, there was concern about the rust. And yeah, it’s rough, but it’s also all fixable if you’re willing and able to do so.

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I already have a good workhorse truck, and I already know I don’t like driving a full-size truck every day, so the Ford has nothing to offer me. A short-wheelbase stepside 4×4, on the other hand, is like a Tonka toy writ large, and I am powerless to resist such a thing if given the opportunity.

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Today is all about just finding something cheap that runs and drives, and we’ve got two decent candidates. They’re both old, both red, and both two grand or less. One is a minivan and one is a two-door compact; you wouldn’t ordinarily cross-shop these two, but when it comes to cheap cars, body style doesn’t matter much. It’s more about condition, and probability of future reliability. Let’s see which one of these transportation thrifties fits the bill better.

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2003 Honda Odyssey – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.5 liter overhead cam V6, five-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Council Bluffs, IA

Odometer reading: 240,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

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Old minivans are sort of a cheat code when it comes to cheap used cars. They’re not considered cool, and no one wants them for family duty anymore, so the values drop like a rock. But they’ll do almost everything a truck can do, and in essentially the same comfort as a car. What’s not to like?

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Honda’s second-generation Odyssey is a prime example. Powered by a nice healthy V6 and stuffed full of comfy seats and power toys, these vans would seem to be the ideal cheap used car. Unfortunately, they have a very un-Honda-like Achilles heel: The transmission is made of hopes and dreams. Almost all of them need a new transmission eventually. This one was rebuilt before the seller bought it, and it shifts fine – for now.

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Otherwise, it looks like it’s in good shape, especially for 240,000 miles. The interior isn’t trashed, as minivan interiors sometimes are, and it’s a fancy model with leather seats, and probably the power sliding doors as well. The seller does state that it “might need a new battery,” which in my experience means the battery is done for. Just replace it; it’s cheap insurance.

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Outside, it’s more or less straight, and looks rust-free, though as with any Midwest vehicle, it’s worth a look underneath. But some peeling clearcoat and a few dings and scrapes seem to be its biggest faults.

2003 Pontiac Sunfire – $1,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.2-liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Des Moines, IA

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Odometer reading: 165,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

Here we have one of those cars that nobody loved, but sold like hotcakes anyway: the General Motors J platform. For twenty-three years, GM churned out these cheap little runabouts in a rainbow of flavors, across five different marques. They never were anything but competent and durable transportation at a bargain price, but considering the new car market these days, that sounds like a wonderful thing.

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This Pontiac Sunfire comes from late in the J car’s run, long after Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac had dropped their variants, leaving only Pontiac and Chevrolet. Old as the platform was, GM kept refining and improving it, right up until the end. In place of the durable but thrashy “122” overhead valve engine of earlier Sunfires and Cavaliers, this later model features GM’s Ecotec twin-cam four, along with – get this – a four-speed automatic. Fan-cy.

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It runs and drives well, according to the seller, and “all the lights work,” which may not seem like a big deal, but I don’t think I’ve ever bought a cheap used car that didn’t need a handful of light bulbs replaced. As faint praise goes, I’ll take it. The driver’s seat has a cover on it, but the seller says there are no rips in it. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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The exterior seems to be shedding clearcoat, but that’s not uncommon. I’m not sure why a solid non-metallic red has a clearcoat on it in the first place; if it wasn’t there, you could probably polish it up and it would look fine. As it is, you’ll have to live with it looking scruffy. At least it has those sweet three-spoke wheels.

To me, honestly, these both look like serviceable cheap used cars. One is nicer but a little more of a gamble mechanically, and the other is a cheap throwaway car in better-than-average condition. One is more practical, but the other probably gets a hell of a lot better gas mileage. You’ve got $2,000 to spend on a car. Which way are you leaning?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Dan Neufeld
Dan Neufeld
19 days ago

If that Sunfire was the GT with a 2.4, it would have been no contest. The Honda wins this time.

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
19 days ago

The Pontiac is most interesting, but the Honda would probably be more useful I guess.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
19 days ago

I can’t get an old Honda minivan. In addition to the glass transmission, it’s probably waaaaay overdue for an expensive valve adjustment. If the valves go too far out of spec, the engine will self destruct without much, if any, warning.

Timothy Swanson
Timothy Swanson
19 days ago

Pontiac, for my 16 year old kid. I’ve owned the 2.2 Ecotec, and it’s a solid engine with good mileage for the era. Nothing against minivans – I’m on my second Sienna – but the fragile transmission in that thing was the devil for a friend. Since they are cheap, I’d hold out for a Toyota.

SirRaoulDuke
SirRaoulDuke
19 days ago

Honda because of the versatility. It would be a third vehicle for us, we could haul shit from the home store with it, so why not?

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
19 days ago

I was going to say “Pontiac” because extinct brand and 2 doors.

But then – I think I’d rather be run over by a crop-dusting biplane out at Prairie Stop.

Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
20 days ago

I’ll have to say Honda, I’ll take the chance on the transmission and the vehicle is more versatile. Was going to say something about how Canadians love J platform cars, but I’m not Canadian, they should tell it for themselves.

Also why don’t many folks clean a car before selling? Even if I was selling a $2k POS I’d wash/wax and vacuum the thing, I might actually be able to get a few more bucks for it.

Dirk from metro Atlanta
Dirk from metro Atlanta
20 days ago

I don’t think you can kill the Honda, and I wouldn’t look any cooler in a J-car, so there ya go.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
20 days ago

I’ll take the Honda for more reliability especially w/ the transmission rebuilt- even if it goes eventually, I’ll fix it. I just love Hondas. I still like the Sunfires but like the older body style better than this one…at least this has the better engine. I used to have an 86 Sunbird so still kinda like these kinds of cars
The Honda looks really good & comfortable though

JDE
JDE
20 days ago

Honda for the win. it might even be worth a few bucks more at the scrap yard when it finally dies.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
20 days ago

I’m not sure why a solid non-metallic red has a clearcoat on it in the first place; if it wasn’t there, you could probably polish it up and it would look fine”.

Is this for real? Metallic paint =/= clearcoat

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
19 days ago
Reply to  Baja_Engineer

My Mercedes-Benz is non-metallic Mars Red, and has clear coat.
It keeps the red from fading.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
19 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

Exactly my point, that’s why I quoted Mark’s words under the last Sunfire’s picture . Non-metallic paint and clearcoat are not mutually exclusive.

Last edited 19 days ago by Baja_Engineer
Cam.man67
Cam.man67
20 days ago

My cousin traveled the country in an ‘03 Odyssey about a decade ago, living in it and eventually racking up over 300k miles in it. We nicknamed “The Whale”. I’d never buy one, but I have a lot of respect for that era despite the crap transmissions.

The Sunfire on the other hand, I’d have no reservations about buying it as a cheap, maintenance-optional beater. Once thoroughly used up, then it’s time to chop fenders and add UTV tires. Gambler, baby!

Der Foo
Der Foo
20 days ago

Having had a friend in college with a Sunfire that at even 60K miles literally fall apart and needed a mechanic on call, I’ll go with the Oddy.

That Guy with the Sunbird
That Guy with the Sunbird
20 days ago

I have an affinity for J-bodies, since this Sunfire’s ancestor sits in my garage right now. Give me the Sunfire and I’ll either have it looking nice again or put those sweet wheels on my Sunbird.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
20 days ago

I flagged the cool of the wheels too – they were the best of the Sunfire range for sure!

Which wheels do you have on your Sunbird? The very Pontiac swept 5 spoke with the added vanes?

Last edited 20 days ago by Jack Trade
That Guy with the Sunbird
That Guy with the Sunbird
19 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

Indeed! The ones they included on the Fiero, Grand Am, Sunbird, and a variation of them on the Firebird as well! They called them the “hi-tech” wheels.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
19 days ago

I love when I learn what wheel designs I can only vaguely describe are actually called – thank you!

So does this mean (going down the Sunbird rabbit hole in my memory) that yours has the hooded headlights? Fingers crossed here…

That Guy with the Sunbird
That Guy with the Sunbird
19 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

It would if it was a GT, but it’s just a lowly LE base model, so just regular headlights for me. They are glass, though. So, they haven’t fogged up in their 34 years of existence!

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
19 days ago

I miss glass headlights for sure.

That Guy with the Sunbird
That Guy with the Sunbird
19 days ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Good name!

Keith Hunt
Keith Hunt
20 days ago

I’d prefer the utility of the minivan for sure and the already once replaced transmission helps with (some) of the anxiety, so personally I’d go that route if this was a secondary vehicle for myself

But…if someone just needed A VEHICLE I’d probably point them towards the Sunfire. I had a 1998 Cavalier that then became a hand me down to my younger brother, in the family from about 80,000 miles to about 220,000 miles over 10 years. The only praise I can give it was the car was a cockroach. Timing chain, 3 speed auto. Lots of little things broke but the car always started and just kept going with only fluid changes and tires. Less familiar with the later engine/transmission in this 2003 Sunfire but if anything like the earlier cars it should get you there

The “all lights working” does mean a bit more than it might appear as well, as everyone I know who had a Cavalier/Sunfire from these years would have wiring issues with taillights/headlights (ours included). Only oddball issue we had with it

Christopher Warren
Christopher Warren
19 days ago
Reply to  Keith Hunt

I had a 2002 Cavalier coupe and discovered the no headlights or wipers issue was caused by a 8 pin wiring connector for all this being mounted directly beneath the battery tray, any leakage of the battery would drip down onto the connector, gradually dissolving it until it wouldn’t clip together properly anymore. Brilliant engineering GM, just brilliant.

Keith Hunt
Keith Hunt
16 days ago

Brilliant, indeed! Of the various GM vehicles my family have had in recent decades, they’ve definitely been the worst offenders for “shit breaking that I never thought twice about on any other vehicle”

We drove a 2006 Buick Rendezvous for a few years, a grandmother hand me down. The entire headlight assembly fell out once after a bump and took some of the wiring harness with it. We soon learned that this is a common issue, the plastic mounting tabs are brittle garbage over time. When replacing it I found that all the junkyard Buicks had the same issue *facepalm*

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
20 days ago

Honda for me. It’s a nicer, more useful vehicle. And even if the transmission goes, then you’re only out $2000K if you decide to dump the vehicle. Or you can spend some bucks and have the transmission repaired or swapped.

Matthew C
Matthew C
20 days ago

We had that generation of Odyssey when my kids were young. It was problem free for the 115k miles we had on it. I was always aware of the transmission issue and had frequent flush and fills to stave off the destruction. Sold it for about half the value in 2006 when we didn’t need it anymore. There is nothing more utilitarian than a minivan. MD to Florida road trips at almost 30mpg with a full complement of family and luggage=check. Home Depot runs with mulch or plywood=check. Comfortable seats for a long cruise=check. The transmission will fail though

Stig's American Cousin
Stig's American Cousin
20 days ago

Not even close – give me the Honda. If the Honda transmission is made of hope and dreams, the entire Sunfire is made of thoughts and prayers. There’s a really good reason why you still see a lot of second generation Odysseys on the streets while the Sunfires have been long since recycled into guard rails.

The Honda is a cheap beat it up vehicle at this point. Fold and yank the two rows out and you have one of the largest covered hauling vehicles out there. Want to become a grandparent before you’re ready? Get this for your high school kid as their first car. Instant shaggin’ wagon. Need a cheap but reliable car for driving the urban jungle? Here’s your van.

This is one of the easier ones in a while. The Pontiac is hot, rotted death on tires. Get the Honda.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
20 days ago

The Honda may go horribly wrong. The Sunfire started out, and always will be, horribly wrong. Honda for me.

Last edited 20 days ago by Farty McSprinkles
EastbayLoc
EastbayLoc
20 days ago

I’ll go on an Odyssey in that Honda. I was never a minivan guy, never owned one or drove one. And then we needed to moved a bunch of stuff, easy chairs, lights etc., from the in-laws and I didn’t really want my wife driving 100 miles in a large U-Haul with the ever present exhaust leak that does 55 wide open. So we rented a minivan, Chrysler Pacifica, and it did the job. I could not believe how much fit into that car. Had to reevaluate the whole thing.

I was hoping the Pontiac had at least a V6 or a 5 spd but it has neither so it’s a non-starter for me. I’ll go Odyssey and I figure it it has almost a quarter million miles with the transmission, it is probably okay for a while longer.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
20 days ago
Reply to  EastbayLoc

the transmission has already been rebuilt so it should be fine for at least a few tens of thousands miles

Peter F Coit III
Peter F Coit III
20 days ago

Why does the top pic say 2888 vs 3000 when it’s 2000 vs 1900. Proofread, editors!

Jatkat
Jatkat
20 days ago

My moms second ever new car was a 2000 Honda Oddy (first one was a Chevette). She replaced our 88 Subaru wagon with it. My god the quality and performance difference was incredible. I remember it even as a wee little boy. She held onto that van for 250,000 miles, and until I was in college. Never had any transmission problems, maybe because she maintained it religiously. They are supremely solid rigs. I’ve driven caravans of the same era, and they feel like play-skool toys in comparison.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
20 days ago
Reply to  Jatkat

The 1999-2001 Odyssey had a 4spd auto. With the 2002 refresh Honda transitioned to a 5spd, that’s when the problems increased, same with the early 7th gen V6 Accords.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
19 days ago
Reply to  Baja_Engineer

The 4AT was definitely known as a problematic transmission even by the time the 5AT was rolling out: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-sep-11-hy-acura11-story.html

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