Good morning! Well, here we are at the end of another week, which means it’s time to throw off the shackles of our $2500 price cap and spend some more theoretical money. But first, let’s see how you decided to blow five hundred imaginary bucks:
As expected. That Spitfire is a hell of a deal – if it’s on the up-and-up. I think we need to enlist S.W.Gossin to go check it out for us and report back.
Now then: We spend a lot of time trying to make silk purses out of sow’s ears on this column, stressing the good parts of $2500 cars and glossing over the bad. But the fact is that $2500 ain’t what it used to be; not too many years ago you could get quite a decent car for that money. But since the used car market has gone completely insane, you have to spend about twice that much for the same level of cars.
So today, I decided to find two good everyday cars for around five grand or so. I stuck to four-door sedans with manual transmissions, because I like them. So let’s take a look and see what double our normal price can get you.
2001 Toyota Camry LE – $4,900
Engine/drivetrain: 2.2 liter DOHC inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD
Location: Portland, OR
Odometer reading: 143,000 miles
Runs/drives? Great, the ad says
The Toyota Camry has been the “default midsize sedan” for decades. It’s easy to dismiss them as boring appliances, and to a large extent that’s true, but they are boring appliances because they are so competent. There’s nothing cool or sexy about a washing machine or a refrigerator either, but if they get your clothes clean and keep your food cold without any fuss or trouble, then they are good appliances. A Camry gets you where you need to go without any fuss or trouble.
Up until a few years ago, the Camry’s option list held a secret: an available manual transmission. The addition of a clutch pedal doesn’t magically transform it into a sports sedan, but it does at least keep you engaged in the driving process. And as with all manuals, it improves the Camry’s already stellar reliability and durability.
This Camry, sadly, is the same color as most appliances. But at least it isn’t that hideous gold-beige that so many of them are. It’s a basic LE model, with a 2.2 liter four cylinder, as well as all the typical power stuff, air conditioning – everything you would want for everday use. It’s nothing fancy, but honestly, for day-to-day use, fancy is overrated. You want nice, but not flashy; comfortable, but not complicated.
With only 143,000 miles on the clock, this car is halfway through its useful life or less. It’s clean and well-kept, and has been owned by the same person since new, so they should be able to tell you the whole history of it. That’s worth a lot with a used car; too often used cars get passed around like a bottle of Jaegermeister at a high-school party, and you have no idea how they got where they are. Knowing a car’s history gives you a good baseline to start from.
2011 Ford Fusion SE – $5,700
Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter DOHC inline 4, 6 speed manual, FWD
Location: Olympia, WA
Odometer reading: 158,000 miles
Runs/drives? Also great
Ford’s Fusion mid-size sedan, sadly, was killed off after the 2020 model year. Which is a shame, because it’s a really nice car, and has a generally good reputation. Most of the complaints I read about it involved the automatic transmission, and that’s an easy enough problem to solve.
Four-cylinder Fusions were available with a manual transmission, and in this 2011 model, that means six forward speeds. This plurality of gears are spun by Ford’s 2.5 liter Duratec engine, which is actually a Mazda engine with a Ford oval on the valve cover. This engine has a good reputation for reliability. It’s not massively powerful, but it does just fine in a car this size with a stick.
This Fusion is in nice shape, showing 157,000 miles on the clock. The seller raves about its driving experience, using the word “superb” more than once in a paragraph-long listing. It has eighteen-inch aftermarket wheels with good tires, and the maintenance has been kept up (they say). It looks like a pretty good deal to me, and I bet you could talk them down a bit from the $5,700 asking price, even.
And about that whole discontinuing-sedans-in-favor-of-crossovers thing? Look at this trunk. It’s huge, even before you fold the seats down, which allows for longer items to fit.
So it looks to me like $5,000 is a good range in which to find a pretty nice car, especially if you’re willing to (or prefer to) drive a manual. We’ll stick to half that amount for our daily choices for now, but it is nice to see what spending a bit more can get you: a nice Toyota, or a Ford half its age, both with about the same miles. Either one would make a good daily driver; which one is for you?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)
I put 132k on a white 2001 Camry LE auto. I’ve owned many Toyotas but not a fan of this one, Perfectly maintained but eventually smoked so much on startup that I was embarrassed to back out of my driveway. Many, many miles behind the wheel of a 2007 Fusion SEL auto. Go for the Fusion. So much better to drive.
Definitely the Ford. Its a decade newer, far less like to impale you in a crash and dynamically they are miles apart.
My friend bought a Fusion of this generation, and by choosing the manual he saved a couple thousand dollars over the equivalent level of trim on the automatic. He had originally wanted a Mazda 6, but again, the Fusion ended up being a money-saver for being essentially the same car. He was very satisfied with it.
The Camry is automotive Sominex. Various family members have owned these, and they did nothing better, and many things much worse, than any competing products. The ones I have been in rode horribly, with poor body control over bumps and railroad tracks. But people flock to them because they have a “better” reliability score that is within a rounding error of the next 5 cars on the list.
Despite my boss towards Toyota, I had to go with the Ford today. Those were a big ten years in safety, tech, and expected longevity. I doubt the Ford will die with as many miles as the Camry, but it is a lot closer than it would have been with a 2001 Ford.
Normally I would default to the manual. But… I owned one of these. Bought new as a commuter. I thought I knew what I was getting after having a 2nd gen Camry manual. That was a really good car until rust killed it. The new one had the worst combo of engine and transmission I have ever owned. Around the same time my parents had a higher trim level Camry with the auto, which was miles better. Still boring as hell, but it worked better. The auto actually felt more powerful than the manual. I have driven a few Fusion rental cars. They are nothing great, for sure, but much better than that particular Camry. BTW – not a Toyota hater. I currently own two I’m quite happy with.
I had a 98 Sienna which had the same engine as this Camry. Reliable but parts and service were a killer. There are some things that need Toyota-specific tools so I couldn’t do them, and the maintenance on those is what finally led me to give up on it in 2017 at 300k.
Fusion for certain. Ten years younger, parts and service far cheaper, and it’s fun to drive. I had one as a rental, enjoyed it. Also that pass-through rear seat means you can easily put a bike in there, no racks needed or grease stains on the rear seat.
A decade newer car for the same price? Ford please
Camry. I’ve driven automatic versions of both vehicles and I will say the Ford was more dynamic to drive. Like, a tiny tiny little bit. BUT. The Ford belonged to my fiancee and it was a decent car until it hit about 150k, then within the space of a few months, enough problems cropped up that fixing them would have been nearly equal to the value of the car. The 1998 Camry that I spent some seat time in, had 200k miles on it, still drove like new, and had never once had a mechanical malfunction. Yeah it’s dull, but I never thought the Fusion was that great to drive anyway.
I’ll take the Ford for sure. Had almost this exact same Fusion sans manual as a rental for a week in the Arizona desert on vacation, and it was a pleasure to drive. Quick on it’s feet and roomy, and I’m definitely not a Ford guy.
That Camry is putting me to sleep just by looking at it. Hell no
Ford. Had a ‘08 manual Camry and two manual Mk3 Focuses SE,ST and both near zero maintenance Fords felt hardly used near 200k and the Camry SE at the same mileage while looking good thanks to apparently decent care, rattled and clattered sloppily over bumps had squeaks and creaks throughout the interior, exhaust noise, and smelled of burnt oil from a leak on the exhaust. The manual did nothing to help as Toyota doesn’t know how to imbue a clutch with any kind of consistent feel or feel at all. That gutless car was a beigehole (actually gray) of antilife that sucked a bit of life out every time I got in it like an Acheri from Native American folklore. Even the seat sucked with thoracic support instead of lumbar (and I’m 5’11”). A Camry is an emergency need car option only. I drove the later Fusion and that was nothing exciting, but if the previous model is similar, it’s Carol Kane compared to the circle-of-hell Camry.