Home / Car News / Choose Your Cheap Daily Driver In This Tough Car Market: Fake Toyota, Stickshift Focus, Unkillable Camry, or Boxy Volvo?

Choose Your Cheap Daily Driver In This Tough Car Market: Fake Toyota, Stickshift Focus, Unkillable Camry, or Boxy Volvo?

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown, the game where every car may as well be made up and the votes don’t matter. We’ve spent the week looking for a dirt-cheap drivable-as-is beater in four cities, and now it’s time to choose the least of four evils. But first we need to see who our Stumptown champion was:

Looks like our be-stickered, branded-title, B230-powered Volvo 240 has the win. The all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback may be a bit more sure-footed up around Mount Hood, but the Volvo will carry you to Fred’s Sound of Music to pick up your refurbished vintage Technics turntable in more style.

So now, as is our custom on Fridays, let’s recap our four winners, and I’ll have my say on them.


Chicago – 2002 Chevy Prizm – $1,175

Let’s face it: there were no good choices here. I expected to find a bunch of good old half-dead GM and Ford iron in Chicago, but nearly every ad I clicked said “does not run” or “needs work” or something. All I could come up with that actually ran was a rusty-ass Mazda and this little cockroach.

As I have stated, I own the Toyota version of this car, a generation older, and I wouldn’t part with it for any less than David would take for his Mustang. But that’s not because I want it; it’s because I need it. I need a car I can count on but disregard, especially where I have to park for my day job. I drove my prized MGB GT to work once, and spent all day peeking out the window checking on it.

The best beaters are the ones you love for what they do, but don’t like for what they are. The sort of car that’s perpetually a quart low on oil, hasn’t been washed in at least a couple years, has a replacement value equal to a medium-priced sofa, and a sentimental value of precisely zero. And for that use, the Corolla/Prizm is ideally suited.


Los Angeles – 2000 Ford Focus ZX3 – $1,500

Out of all four cars here, this is the one I could most see myself buying. I cut my teeth on little zippy stickshift front-wheel-drive cars, and they’re still just about my favorite thing to drive. And I have always liked the looks of the first-gen Focus hatch. I even owned one,when I lived in LA, except mine was yellow and an automatic (sad trombone noise).

I paid too much for it, and got too little for it when I sold it, and that left a bad taste in my mouth for car payments; I swore off car loans when we moved to Oregon, and I have only bought cars for cash since. But I remember thinking when I sold my Focus that it would make someone a great $2,000 beater in ten years or so. And it looks like I was right.


Minneapolis/St Paul – 1996 Toyota Camry – $999

Uff da. This thing. I mean, yeah, it fits into the same category as the Prizm: just some reliable clunker you can ignore while you lavish your attention on more worthy vehicles. It’s a piece of junk with a remarkably long half-life. At least you know nobody is going to steal it.


Portland – 1986 Volvo 240DL – $1,500

Now this, I like. I don’t know what it is about these old square Volvos, but they have an earnest charm about them that’s hard to deny. It appeals to my “form follows function” nature; it is exactly the shape and size it needs to be to be the best car it is capable of being. Honestly, modern car designers could do worse than study Jan Wilsgaard at Volvo (and Bruno Sacco at Mercedes, for that matter). I’ve come very close to buying a Volvo 240 or 740 a few times now, but some other car always comes along and I buy that instead. Maybe someday, before it’s too late and they all end up on Bring A Trailer for absurd amounts, I should take the plunge. Make mine a manual, though.

So that’s our show for the week, folks; hope you enjoyed it. Next week, we’ll move on from cheap daily-drivers and take a good look at some of the weasel-words sellers use to describe a car that doesn’t run: “It only needs,” “great potential/future classic,” “mechanic’s special,” and everyone’s favorite, “ran when parked.” Don’t miss it.


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49 Responses

  1. Surprised by the lack of love for the un-killable Camry — even with some epic hail damage. If my car-buying options are limited by money, then post-purchase costs need to be factored in. The Camry from that era is like the Terminator. Truth in advertising: I had a ’97 with 250k-plus miles that was still going strong and had no mechanical problems when I finally donated it to a church a couple years ago.

  2. I voted for the Volvo, but if I were going to join the flying box club (as a Saab guy this seems a bit treasonous), it would have to be a MT wagon. There’s a great one on Eugene CL that is tempting me to take a drive down tomorrow.

    Last summer I was driving my 1980 900 Turbo 5 door to the coast on my favorite coastal range road and I found myself in front of a pack of classic Volvo guys in some really fantastic cars. When we got to Pacific City they pulled into the gas station after me and we talked Swedish cars for a while. That would be the perk of getting the Volvo for me. The little enthusiast communities that love certain cars are the best part of this hobby, and the Volvo crowd won me over that day.

    1. Agreed, and there are some really great acvite communities here in Portland. The Volvo community, as mentioned, but there’s also a HUGE Alfa Romeo club, a massive Land Rover contingent, and I’m a member of one of three MG clubs here in town. And old oddball car folks tend to be good folks, in my experience. Kinda have to be; you never know when you’ll have to depend on the kindness of like-minded strangers.

  3. I wouldn’t be able to leave the Volvo alone, the ergonomic assaults of small ford’s on their occupants … I ended up with a choice between fake and unkillable. The Camry is the one I could put up with and use nearly forever without liking it so much I had to improve it.

  4. I’ve owned two of these and driven the rest extensively. My actual money paid for the stick shift Focus new. So that’s where I would land.

    For a functional beater for a regular person, the Chevy is the best deal. Newest car with the electronics and accessories least likely to fail due to age yet. FWD for the snow. Best mileage. Parts availability of a Toyota Corolla, priced like a Chevy Cavalier. Snooooozefest but that’s not what this is for.

    The Camry might seem nice, but at that age everything is failing around the unkillable engine.

    The Volvo is a fun basis for an 80s sleeper hot rod where your local regulations permit, but bone stock it’s slow and boring and poor handling. Fun anecdote: I snapped the throttle cable on mine once asking it to work too hard up a hill.

  5. If we’re talking about an A-to-B daily, the best deal for headache free ownership is the Chevy. The stealthiest of stealth wealth, Jim Cramer style.

    But the kid in me wants the Volvo, because I can only drive what I’m capable of drawing. 3 box lyfe.

    These days, the hardest decision is usually the correct one. And that’s the Prizm.

  6. I’m guessing this article was supposed the have Mark in the byline and not DT?

    I’m on team Volvo for this one, as I’ve driven examples of the other cars on the list and for ergonomic reasons I can’t stand FWD Fords of the 90s through to present-day. Seating position feels like I’m driving a bus, indicator on the wrong side for an RHD car that was likely designed in the UK and the shifter and clutch never felt great in these to me either.

    The Toyotas are great cars, but again they never felt that great to drive for me.

    Volvo being RWD and a half decent platform for an engine swap – see the Street Machine YouTube channel’s 1JZ-swapped Trolvo for example.

    1. Not a Ford fan, and totally take your meaning on the seating position (there is just SO MUCH centre console). I’m not particularly tall but never found the Focus comfortable. However, I always thought the clutch and shift to be really nice on them. Okay, I only drove one a couple of times during driving lessons (and it was the mk2) and all I had to compare it against at the time was a VW Polo, which had an extremely heavy clutch with an unforgiving bite point, or my brother in law’s Mini One, whose left pedal required I have double jointed legs that bent the wrong way, but did have a really nice shift throw. The Focus was kinda all things to all people in manual form.

      They seem to eat clutches for breakfast, though, on purely anecdotal experience with my wife’s old one.

  7. It was the Camry or the Focus. I went with the Focus because the first gen Focii were really fun to drive, plus its a manual. I figure if I am consigned to driving a beater I would like to at least enjoy what I’m driving. Plus its newer. The Camry reliability is hard to beat though.

  8. Definitely the focus. I almost bought one again recently when contemplating a beater commuter. I had an 01 ZX3 and it was a hoot to drive and damn reliable. Had it during the 08 gas price explosion when I was driving 800 miles a week and hypermiled the hell out of it. Best tank was 47 MPG!

  9. I like the Camry for the “unkillable feature”. But I’d probably go with the Focus. Only because I can personally attest that they are survivable in a bad situation (stop reading now or get the story).

    A lady pulled out in front of me (and my wife and 2 kids) on a 6-lane divided state highway. I T-Boned her at 50 mph. Hit her right at the driver door/panel junction. Totaled the Focus, but we all walked away. A side note, air bags taste like shit.

  10. Focus. The Volvo would require too much effort to make it fun, so it’d just be a snooze until something breaks, and then the parts will either be expensive and/or hard to find. That Focus would be reasonably fun to drive, and I’d care about it about as much as if it were a Bic lighter. When it stops lighting my fire effortlessly, I throw it away.

  11. If the premise here is to join the shitbox/beater lifestyle, then I would have to rule out the Volvo. I’d be too temped to lavish some attention on it.

    I guess that would make it the Focus then. I’d imagine it’s a bit easier to live in a hatchback if I had to. Besides, I’m too old to learn how to drive an automatic.

  12. I voted for the Focus, despite not loving my SVT that I sold recently. It would still make a decent beater in non-interference Zetec form. The Volvo was a close second for me.

    Agreed with other commenters on the seating position in the Focus in particular. Didnt feel so bad in a 2012 Fiesta I drove, and I quite like it in my mom’s 2012 Taurus, but I never felt truly comfortable in the Focus. Better than several other compact cars, but still not ideal.

  13. The Prizm is the best one. It’s a Toyota like the Camry, but it is newer, gets better mpg, and has a timing chain instead of a stupid timing belt (even though the Camry is non-interference, I’d still rather have a chain than a belt doing the timing)

    Also, the Prizm is not a fake Toyota. It’s a real Toyota.

    The Toyota Cavalier is a fake Toyota.

    Ford has too many weird problems with the Focus, and it’s only 2 doors too.

    1. I own a ’01 Prizm and that red one is a little nicer than the one I’ve got.
      In fact, I’m really unhappy that I have to sell off mine because I’m moving to a state that requires technical inspections and my car has too many problems to fix–so many that the cost to fix them all exceeds the resale value. I’ve driven mine more than 170,000 miles and still like it as much today as I did the day I bought it.

    2. Exactly. It’s a Corolla with a bowtie, and you can’t kill it. I had a 98 Corolla for my first car and could pull anything I needed from LKQ back when them and the Prizm were everywhere. Heck, if I’d had known more I would have dropped in a manual when my rear main seal started leaking. Instead, I took the easy way out and bought a manual tC.
      Then again, I grew up riding around in a 5th gen Nova, which was the original GM-Toyota crossover, and am still obsessed with the 5 speed Pontiac Vibe (Toyota Matrix).
      Also, what idiot let Toyota sell a Cavalier with a TRD trim?

  14. I’ve never owned an automatic in my life, and I totally agree about zippy little FWD manual cars, but that Volvo is the only one with any character. That is one handsome beast, yet shabby enough I wouldn’t worry too much about scratching it up a little scraping off all those stickers.

  15. All of these cars make great gravel road pseudo rally tools. I’m leaning to the Focus, because A they make very good “race” cars. I actually like the weird looks. And this is a very easy FWD car to convert to RWD when it eventually reaches it’s sell-by date and you want to really whoop on it.

    But I’m going Volvo. It’s basically everything the Focus is, and could ever be. The auto is a turn off, but when the transmission eventually dies, it’s a really easy swap to manual.
    And anyone thinking of making an offroad car. RWD is always better.

    1. The AW70/71 is really well-matched to the redblock (certainly better than the M46/M47 manual transmissions, not to mention way more durable). If you’ve driven one that shifted like shit, most likely it was due to the kickdown cable never having been adjusted.

      Change out the stock “M” camshaft for something else like an “A” or IPD’s VX & an adjustable cam gear, and that changes the game.

  16. I voted focus but I’m not happy about it. I loathe the styling but the other options are rust, more rust, and rebuilt title. Also, I usually go stick shift for a beater since, in my mind at least, they are more reliable. Clutches ain’t that hard to replace…

    1. So long as you check the fluids regularly, and don’t let it overheat they’ll run forever, though. I put over 200k very hard miles on mine delivering Pizza on salt-coated roads. Then my dad took it out and left it “warm up” without knowing the fan didn’t work and overheated it… (long story, but it got taken in for scrap before I even knew about this so I couldn’t save it 🙁 )

      1. I agree the car is a safe enough for me to tool around in. I would not put my kid in that if I had a choice. Last thing I want is a break down with no cell service while a 13 year old pouts in the seat.

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