Good Wagon Hunting: 1996 Toyota Camry vs 2003 VW Passat

Sbsd 11 10

Good morning! Today we’re headed northeast to Boston, Massachusetts to look at a couple of station wagons, for no other reason than I don’t think I’ve ever looked for cars there before. Before we do that, let’s take a look at yesterday’s results:

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Huh. Well, you’re wrong, of course. But then, I already have a British sports car, and wouldn’t mind a personal luxury coupe to commute in. But you’re still wrong; the answer is never TR7. Maybe TR8 is sometimes the answer.

You know what’s strange? I’ve owned 32 cars, and regularly driven maybe 20 others owned by significant others, and not one of them has ever been a proper station wagon. I’ve had quite a few hatchbacks, and a couple of SUVs that met the wagon criteria, but nothing the marketing department would have called a wagon. You’d think there would have been an Olds Cutlass Cruiser or a Honda Civic Wagovan or something in there, but no. It’s especially weird because I’ve always liked wagons. I’ve just somehow never had one.

Anyway, we’ve got two of them today, fresh from a lifetime of battle on the mean streets of Boston. One German, one Japanese, both well-used.

1996 Toyota Camry – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.2 liter DOHC inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Boston, MA

Odometer reading: 168,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep, but lots of other things are broken, it sounds like

There isn’t a day that goes by writing this feature that I don’t pass over at least half a dozen Camrys. They’re everywhere, they’re just fine, and they’re boring. I’ve included a few here and there, but honestly, I don’t have much to say about them.

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But this one is different. Not only does it have a really long roof, not only do the rear side windows look like they’re upside-down – it has two, count’em two, tiny rear window wipers. That’s twice the gunk-clearing power of the leading brand of rear wiper assembly!

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From the middle of the roof forward, it’s bog-standard Camry: a dead-reliable four, an overdrive automatic, excellent ergonomics… you know the drill. Camrys are like that kid in school who always got good grades, never got in trouble, and somehow everybody liked anyway. This one runs and drives, of course; it’s hard to keep these things from doing that. But the HVAC system is non-operational, the windshield is cracked, and it has been bonked in the nose a bit.

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The seller says they were going to restore this car but lost interest. That’s not surprising – the double rear wipers are literally the most interesting thing about this car. Let’s move on, shall we?

2003 Volkswagen Passat – $2,200

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.8 liter DOHC inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Arlington, MA

Odometer reading: 158,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

The B5 generation VW Passat is one of those cars I’ve admired since it came out, but have never been brave enough to buy. I’ve driven them, and I really like them, but reports of reliability problems and high maintenance needs have put me off. (I can hear Mercedes now saying “Just do it! They’re not that bad!”) If I were ever to take the plunge, this wouldn’t be a bad spec: 1.8t wagon with a manual.

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But looking at this one makes me glad I’d be car-hunting on the west coast. The seller says this car has just two little rust spots behind the front wheels. But those aren’t just “rust spots,” sadly:

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That’s a hole. The bottoms of the front fenders are rusted through from the inside. For those of you who live in sunny climes and have never seen such a thing, that’s bad. There’s nothing holding that plastic cladding in place but a little paint and good luck. And I can only imagine the horror show behind it. Rocker panels? What are those?

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The seller says it runs and drives well, but for Volkswagens of this age, maintenance is king. I’d want to see records of what has been done and when before deciding. The interior “just needing a little cleaning” makes me nervous as well. But it is a stickshift wagon for cheap, and as long as the rust hasn’t progressed to the structural level, it could be a decent beater if everything checks out.

So that’s Thursday for you: a pair of imperfect wagons. Either one could be a decent runabout, both have their drawbacks, but for this price you have to expect some flaws. Which one are you more willing to put up with?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellahs)

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56 Responses

  1. I would so pick the camry wagon. I’d put some 2018 camry sport wheels on it, put a small bash bar and safari lights on the front, and slap a roof basket on top. It’d eat miles across western Kansas in a classic jalopy-wagon style.

  2. OBVIOUSLY I’d go for the Passat—look at my profile cover pic. I had a 2004 manual with the 1.8T and AWD that we got 15 years out of. Interestingly, it lived outdoors in Pittsburgh but never had body rust this bad, just a couple patches above the grille that I could have, but never did, buff out.

    For most of its life it was problem-free with two big exceptions: one big electrical failure early in the warranty period, and the dreaded engine sludge that hit just 4 years in (alas, only a 3 year warranty, although VW rebated 50% of the engine rebuild cost; would’ve been 100% if I’d had complete oil change records). After those two things, it ran well until its old age, when the front axle gave out.

  3. 3 pedals and the 1.8T got my vote.

    For those worried about the 1.8T’s “sludge problem”, all you have to do is dump the Jiffy jizz currently in there and replace it with full synthetic, and then keep doing it every 5k miles. You can even do a quick ECU flash for some extra 30HP to win some green light races against some puzzled Mustangs.

  4. Having owned both of these in the past (as short-roofs, though), Passat all the way. This B5.5 car is an Audi A6 under the skin and drives like it. Yeah electrical shit will happen, but as long as the prior owners kept up the oil changes, it should be a shit-ton better to drive than the Cramy. The 1.8T engine was prone to sludging but strict 4-5,000mi change intervals should mitigate that issue.

    Never had any issues with either car tbh the Camry shit its ECU right after I sold it to a friend of a friend.

    1. This B5.5 car is an Audi A6 under the skin…

      No, it’s actually smaller A4, which also shares the same Group B5 platform with Škoda Superb. A6 uses the exclusive C5 platform that isn’t shared with any other brands within Volkswagen Group.

      1. Pretty much every single car over three to five years old has rusting issues in Massachusetts. Eight to ten is where rot sets in. It’s just a fact of life here – you deal with it, because it’s that or don’t have a vehicle.

  5. Welp, I guess my username says it all. I really enjoy my ’17 Camry: I find it to be a decent handler, and I like the pugnacious little I4.

    I don’t need much more than this. The fact that mine (bought used) has sunroof, leather, and heated seats just adds to the experience. Yes, I said “experience” in a Camry. I guess I find rugged reliability to be appealing: not only did I come up in the seventies, but I’ve owned several British and Italian sports cars along with a lot of seventies American iron. And I enjoyed them all, much as I enjoy my little XLE, but for different reasons.

  6. As the owner of my 3rd, 3rd gen Camry Wagon, I am legally obligated to vote for the Toyota. Sadly it’s the i4 and not the 1mz v6. The 1mz (alum block) is really the only perk in my opinion if the 3.5 gens. I prefer the prefacelift 3rd gen and will stick with my cast iron 3vz.

  7. I’d go none of the above since I live in the PNW and can find rust free examples. If pushed I’d go for the Camry as less trouble prone, although a Passat with FWD, manual and a 1.8T is the least troublesome form of B5 versus a W8 automatic with AWD which is like a Phaeton lite.

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