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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StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 month ago

These ate cars you buy (steal?) to use in a bank robbery to get more money to buy a better car.

Sunfire:

Pros- small, maneuverable, probably won’t catastrophically fail during the getaway, not as much vehicle to burn to destroy evidence

Cons- tougher to get into and out of, not fast AT ALL, so don’t get in a chase, also probably easy to PIT maneuver.

Odyssey:

Pros- will blend right into traffic, fairly heavy, so if you are spotted, you can ram the cop car right back, sits pretty high up for good visibility watching for the po-po, lots of room if you decide to bring a team.

Cons- that transmission WILL sh1t the bed at the worst possible time, your team assembling montage will never look as cool as Ocean’s 11.

Verdict: Sunfire. I don’t want to share my haul, and to get away, the vehicle needs to get you away.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Nice write up! The Odyssey has the advantage that the police will never believe that it was involved in a crime. If the witness says red Honda Odyssey the dispatcher’s brain will autocorrect it to something else.

Isis
Isis
1 month ago

Just say no to J-bodies. Honda all the way.

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
1 month ago

My parents owned that era of Oddessey and it was an excellent hauler. The SunFerrari in automatic trim does not spark joy.

So pop up two fingers and make a fist with the other hand, cause you’re getting the minivan.

Ffoc01
Ffoc01
1 month ago

Having experience with both, barely made it past the lead photo before running to the Odyssey.

Went back, read the article, still 100% Odyssey.

Automatic J-Body, no thank you.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
1 month ago

The Honda will serve you well, knowing most people who’ve owned one of that vintage easily get 15++ years out of them.

That Sunfire is a no. It was shite when new, it’s shite when used. It was poorly built from day 1. It’s only saving grace is that it’s cheap to fix, parts are plentiful, and reasonably easy to work on.
I’d consider an old Sunfire convertible, though, as a summer runabout.

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 month ago

I pick the Sunfire, if it’s not rusted out it will be fine and anything that may occur is cheap to fix. Potential running costs greater than the price of admission kills the initially more appealing Honda as a choice for me.
A cheap vehicle should remain cheap throughout its remaining life of what? Maybe a couple of years.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
1 month ago

With the Honda you’ll look like the wife of a drug lord’s chief consultant. With the Pontiac you’ll look like a street manager of his Meth Division.
Go for the Honda, you’ll have less chances to get shot.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

Had a Honda van and it was a gas,
Soon turned out, had a heart of glass
The poncho’s a prize, only if blind,
But lack of rust, makes it a find

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 month ago

The Sunfire is objectively mediocre, but I have already replaced a transmission on a Honda product of this vintage and I have no interest in appearing in a sequel.

Maybe Mercedes would help me turn it into a Gambler runner?

WR250R
WR250R
1 month ago

At least the Honda can be a hauler. I think I’d do exactly that. Remove all the rear seats and use it for the Menards runs

Bryan McIntosh
Bryan McIntosh
1 month ago

That is the least rusted-out Sunfire I have seen in a VERY long time. That Ecotec will run pretty much forever with a bit of maintenance (although it may be due for a timing belt soon if it hasn’t been done already), and as long as the interior doesn’t smell like an ashtray I’d grab it just to give to someone who really needs a reliable daily driver.

If the transmission in the Odyssey has been replaced reasonably recently, I’d consider that too, but unfortunately the people who really need a van in this price range are the ones who are least able to pay for a transmission swap. :\

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
1 month ago

The Odyssey with the 3.5 V6 was actually somewhat entertaining to drive and it’s exceedingly practical. The Sunfire has always been miserable.

I’d rather take my chances with a questionable transmission than subject myself to misery every time I get in a car.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 month ago

Oh thank god someone else here seems to remember what the Sunfire was actually like.

Guys, there’s other shitboxes out there that are plenty reliable (for the situation of buying a beat-ass $2k car) that bring more to the table than the Sunfire. This is the sort of car that scared away some of the last remaining people willing to buy American economy cars.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago

You’re not wrong, but to be fair there are also better minivans out there that don’t threaten to become a paperweight at any given moment.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 month ago
Reply to  V10omous

Yeah, I’d much rather get a Sienna of this era. Especially in the two-tone!

I’d argue that if you’re shopping in the $2k range and the vehicle is on it’s 5th owner, you’re taking that risk unless it’s a 90’s Camry. And even then.

Think about the horrors that a 2003 Pontiac Sunfire has likely seen. I get that this powertrain has the “cockroach” reputation, but everyone here seems to think this thing has an unlimited amount of miles left on the clock.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago

Leaving aside any questions about purpose (long commute, hauling, etc), if I needed one of these to last me a year without a catastrophic repair, I’d say the van is enough of a step-up in driving experience to take that risk. If I needed one to last 5 years, I’d have to go with the Pontiac. In neither case would I be super happy driving my choice, but such is the nature of these contests.

Last edited 1 month ago by V10omous
Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 month ago
Reply to  V10omous

Yep, this is the reality of spinning the Shitbox Wheel of Pain™.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 month ago

This. I came down here to write the same but luckily someone already did.

The Sunfire wasn’t nice when it was new, and decades of rotting in the sun won’t improve that.

The Honda doesn’t have a great transmission, but there are parts to rebuild the 5-speed auto to be better than the glass-piece it was when new. Most are rebuilt with those parts these days, so I’d rather run that risk than go with the “guaranteed to be awful” Sunfire.

EastbayLoc
EastbayLoc
1 month ago

Yup, the Sunfire and it’s ugly brother Crapalier were terrible out of the door. Esp. with a 4 cyl. and the auto. Friends had those as the family couldn’t wait to pass down that garbage to their kids just to be rid of them.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 month ago

The Honda probably has a few years of competency left in it, a steal for $2k van. Yeah I get it the transmissions in these have a shelf life, but it’s already made it 20 years and the transmission has already been rebuilt.

In almost all situations I say no to Cavaliers/Sunfires. I’m guilty of the whole rose-tinted glasses thing for a lot of older cars, but I refuse to throw the shades on for the J-body. They sucked when they were new. Yeah I get that they were cheap and “run poorly forever” (I get this is the accepted reputation, but I know multiple people whose J-body shit the bed for good very, very young) but cars like these were more or less GM shoving a boot up the ass of folks that dared buy a small economy car from them.

Tbird
Tbird
1 month ago

This is one case where the Pontiac may be better. You can keep the Pontiac running forever for almost nothing and any independent mechanic in the country can fix it. The Honda has superb overall reliability, but could be expensive when repairs are needed. These need timing belts every 80k, so figure $1000 at a shop. My 2005 MDX has not had transmission issues but I watch it closely, change the fluid regularly and have an external cooler installed. Don’t cheap out on fluids with a Honda.

RedLeader289
RedLeader289
1 month ago

That sunfire will run indefinitely. I don’t know what witchcraft GM used on those little 2.2 motors but they just don’t die.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
1 month ago
Reply to  RedLeader289

You thinking the 2200 or the 2.2 ecotec? The 2200 is absolutely bulletproof. The 2.2 slightly less so.

Everything else around that engine, however, is miserable. Electrics are rotten, transmission is awful, fit and finish was bad from day1, the driver’s seat support is likely broken under that cheap cover, the dash will rattle no matter what you do to it … I could go on. But parts are cheap, so there’s that.

RedLeader289
RedLeader289
1 month ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

Either, had same experience with both. Yes, everything else around them is awful (though I did like the 5-speed that they mated to them). But like they say, a chevy will run bad longer than most things will run. I’m convinced sunfires/cavaliers are why that statement exists.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
1 month ago
Reply to  RedLeader289

This one isn’t the Getrag 5MT, it’s the 4spd slushbox.

But you may be onto something with that logic.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago

I’ve always loved GM’s everyday sport coupes, and the Sunfire definitely Pontiacs-up the whole concept nicely.

Edgy styling, just look at those wonderful seat fabrics, and these wheels are the model’s best/definitely fit the overall mojo.

Also, these came around after Pontiac’s ribbed for no one’s pleasure design ethos, so that’s a plus. It’s only a manual away from going from a decent daily driver to a fun within reason sport coupe (almost always the case in this segment), but I’ll still take it.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago

I’ll go with the Honda, but I want to see the receipt for that trans work. How long ago?

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
1 month ago

I’m normally in team van but I’ve heard enough about the transmissions on those to avoid them. I knew a few people with J bodies over the years and they mostly ran alright. Lots of little annoying issues but they did well at the starting and getting you there despite those issues. For a cheap beater it’ll probably do the job for a couple of years and when something expensive and mission critical goes the scrap yard can have it.

Tbird
Tbird
1 month ago
Reply to  IanGTCS

J bodies are automotive cockroaches, in a good way.

Musicman27
Musicman27
1 month ago

I’ll take dumpster fire 1, over dumpster fire 2.

Last edited 1 month ago by Musicman27
IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago

This is an either for me, depending on what you want from a vehicle. The Sunfire was uncompetitive when new but the J bodies fill a role today as a dirt cheap daily that you can keep running for peanuts. It helps that this particular car is one of the cleanest J bodies I have seen in years. If you need a cheap hauler, get the Odyssey. It should have a few years of service left as a part-time vehicle. I wouldn’t give a shit if the transmission explodes in a few years after I spent a whopping $2,000 for it.

I’m all set on a reliable and economical daily, so I voted for the Odyssey as a furniture and mulch pig. If you just need to get to work on the cheap however the Sunfire is a better choice.

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
1 month ago

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.

In the picture of the passenger seat you can see most of it and it looks to be in good shape. These GM interiors generally hold up pretty well, and with 165k on it I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a bit worn but overall in good shape.

Not a fan of the sunfire, my dad was looking at one for my sister when we were teenagers and had me do some research, the side impact crash test was like 1 star for these coupes. I have never liked the look either, having said that, I still trust it more than the Honda transmission. When I worked in a Honda service department, it was well known that these often only lasted 70k so at 240 it should be on its 4th or so by now.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
1 month ago

We had a Windstar as the primary truckster for our small kids in the early aughts. It seemed like the cooler parents back then had an Odyssey. The Pontiac will probably outlive me, but I can attest to the validity of using an old minivan as something akin to a covered pickup truck (not the Windstar, it died in ’05 – my mother in law’s Freestar)

Alexk98
Alexk98
1 month ago

Those J-Body cars will run longer broken than a lot of cars will run at all, and that Honda transmission is one hard acceleration or heavy load away from sending that to the scrapyard.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago

FYI, the header image is wrong, I was about to post angrily about a $3000 Sunfire, but $1900 is more palatable (and my choice).

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 month ago
Reply to  V10omous

Yep, topshot prices are off for both. I also nearly lost it at the premise of a $3k Sunfire.

Still hate the Sunfire though.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
1 month ago

I’ll take the cockroach Pontiac. Those Honda transmissions are made of glass.

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