Home » Mazda 3 Or Chevy Prizm: The Hunt For A Cheap, Reliable Daily Driver In An Expensive Used-Car Market

Mazda 3 Or Chevy Prizm: The Hunt For A Cheap, Reliable Daily Driver In An Expensive Used-Car Market

Sbsd 4 18

Welcome back to another week of Shitbox Showdown! We’re doing a bit of a theme week this week in an attempt to answer the question: In this age of insane used car prices and low inventories, is it still possible to find a viable daily driver for next to nothing? Just what does the bottom of the barrel look like these days? To find out, we’ll look at two cars from each of four cities, and at the end of the week, we’ll choose the best of the worst.

First, let’s check out last weeks final results:


Bit of a Saab story for our topless Swede. There was no lack of support for it, but it’s hard to beat a good, honest old truck. The ex-fleet F-150 is our second Shitbox of the Week winner.

Back in the dark days before the internet, when AutoTrader was printed on actual paper, there was a section called “Transportation Thrifties.” It’s where you looked if you just needed wheels to get around — something that you could drive as-is for a week or two until you got another paycheck to start fixing stuff. Back when I was shopping those pages, I saw a lot of Ford Fairmonts, Dodge Darts, Oldsmobile Omegas, and similar cars with alliterative names. The cars have changed, but the need for cheap rides has not, so let’s open up our metaphorical paper to the Thrifties and see what we can find.

First stop: Chicago. My kind of town. I’m from here originally (well, the west suburbs, technically). I got lost in the Field Museum of Natural History on a field trip in fourth grade, I saw Michael Jordan score his 20,000th career point in the old Chicago Stadium, and I have a usual Portillo’s order. (Italian beef, dry, with sweet peppers and a side of onion rings.) There are two seasons in Chicago, winter and construction, and they are both hell on cars. From this crucible of pothole filler and road salt, I have extracted two ingots of potential used-car gold; let’s see what you think of them.

2005 Mazda 3 – $1,200

Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Norridge, IL

Odometer reading: 107,000 miles

Runs/drives? Ad says yes, but no other details are given

Mazda’s small cars have gained a reputation over the years as reliable, fun-to-drive, good-performing miniature sports sedans that dissolve like tissue paper when exposed to road salt. This one appears to be no exception: its inevitable date with the tinworm is well underway, but structurally it sill looks more or less there. You wouldn’t make any long-term plans to restore it, but it should get you around for a couple more winters yet.

Mechanically, these cars have a good record; Mazda’s MZR series four-cylinders are stout dual-overhead-cam units (with timing chains, not belts) that were also found under the hoods of zillions of Ford Focuses (Foci?) and 2000s Rangers under the Duratec name. It’s a good, revvy engine that gives decent performance and is easy on gas. This one is backed by an automatic, which saps some of the fun but it makes life easier on the tollways in rush-hour traffic.

The ad is scarce on other information about this car, but then again, the only way to really find out what you need to know about a potential beater is in person anyway. Start it up, drive it around the block, push buttons, turn knobs, see if stuff works. Accelerate hard and brake hard, take a corner or two too fast, listen for clunks or growls or vibrations.

Really, that’s about all most sellers will let you do for a car this cheap; don’t plan on taking it anywhere for a pre-purchase inspection. And don’t expect any sort of discount for non-functional accessories. (Who do you think you are – Abe Froman? The sausage king of Chicago?) It is what it is. Take it or leave it.


2002 Chevrolet Prizm – $1,175

Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter inline 4, automatic, FWD

Location: Tinley Park, IL

Odomter reading: 147,000 miles

Runs/drives? “NO PROBLEMS” the ad says

The seller has this car listed as a “Geo Prizm,” but GM dropped the Geo nameplate in 1998 and ported all the remaining vehicles in the lineup over to Chevy. Everyone still called them Geos, though, so the seller’s confusion is not surprising. But what this car really is, for all intents and purposes, is a Toyota Corolla — a car with a reputation for being invincible, if dull. Prizms were built alongside most U.S.-spec Corollas in the joint GM/Toyota NUMMI plant in California, which is now home to Tesla’s production line.

This one is from the final year of the Prizm, 2002; the vehicle sits on Toyota’s E110 Corolla platform. It has a variable valve timing-equipped 1.8 liter four (oooh, fancy) connected to a four-speed automatic. Nothing too exciting, but it’ll keep sipping gasoline and pulling this little Prizm along for another 100,000 miles at least, if rust doesn’t kill the car first.

Actually, the rust doesn’t look too bad on this Prizm yet. The color makes it hard to tell, but I bet there’s more good metal left under this one than the Mazda. The worst rust I see is on the left rear: The wheel arch is unsightly but no big deal. Though that left rear jack point might be compromised. 

There are a couple other battle scars, but those can be an advantage in Chicago traffic. The ugliest car goes first, if it wants to. Besides, think back to the old Kenner Star Wars toys: there was an X-Wing Fighter,and a “Battle-Damaged” X-Wing Fighter, and we all know which one was cooler.

And there you have it: just about the two cheapest potential daily rides I could find in the “City of the Big Shoulders.” Which one would you rather be in, runnin’ south on Lake Shore Drive, headin’ into town?

Quiz Maker

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

55 Responses

  1. I owned a 5 door 5 speed 2005 Mazda3 that looked almost like that at that mileage and I, or my kid, drove it another 100K. It was seriously Swiss cheese at the end, but not in structural places. The S with the 2.3 had better suspension and more power and was genuinely fun to drive. Almost as reliable as the Prism but much more enjoyable.

    Surprised that the Prism is getting the votes here.

    1. I voted Chevyota, but would poke a key at (hopefully not through) a few spots underneath both before choosing. I’d go with whichever is less structurally compromised. If they were exactly even the Mazda wins.

  2. Neither. Already own 2 rusted, dented, over 100K miles pieces of shit. If I wanted another one, I would just drop by David’s house and make an offer on one of his 17 pieces of shit…Good day, I say.

  3. I would DEMAND $5 off the Mazda due to the missing cigarette lighter. How am I supposed to spark up a joint? However if they agreed to leave the stick-on air freshener in the vent I may reduce my demand somewhat.

  4. I voted for the Mazda 3, only because I owned a 2006 model. It wasn’t particularly great at anything (crappy automatic, not enough trunk space, anemic engine) but it replaced my first car which was a 1982 Ford Ranger, manual everything, no A/C, and mechanically a piece of shit. In comparison, the Mazda 3 was like a Bentley. It had power windows! And A/C! So I have some nostalgia.

  5. The Chevrolla is the smart buy in this price range. Damn it though, the Mazda will be a lot more fun for the year or two you get out of it. I also get major nostalgia looking at that interior because I had a 2004 3 sedan. It was as reliable as it was rusty the day I sold it.

  6. My parents had an actual Geo Prism. I hated that tiny little shit box. Me and my 2 sisters crammed into the back of that thing. No thanks. The Prism is probably the better buy here, though. Just don’t force your kids into the backseat.

  7. WHOA BOY! This is a though one! I’ve specifically been looking for a 1st gen 3 for a rallycross beater, and that one is mere miles from where I live. Unfortunately it is so rusted out, that I wouldn’t run it on the street. That much rust on a unibody car, means it’ll wad up like a beer-can in a crash. Since it’s an auto, I can’t flat-tow it to the track, which means now I need a car dolly at minimum. Regrettably, I must chose the Not a Geo but really Chevy but kinda a Geo but secretly a Toyota. That one is solid enough that I could drive it to the rallycross track without fear of imminent death.

  8. I grew up in the Western ‘burbs also and had to comment prior to finishing your article because… Dry? You order your beef dry?!? Inconceivable!!! At least I’m fairly sure you don’t put ketchup on your dogs. Right?

  9. My daily is a 2000 Geo Prizm so obviously I’ve already made my choice.
    It’s a great city beater. Though when I bought mine it was garage kept in the PNW with only 90,000 miles on it. It looked too good for street parking so I keyed it and kicked a “Camry Dimple” in the bumper so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

  10. I had to register so I could comment on this showdown. I owned a 2005 Mazda 3 from new for 11 years and nearly 190,000 miles, so I can vouch for its overall reliability. I’ve resided in Florida for the past 45 years, so mine didn’t have the rust this car is succumbing to. The ONLY rust mine had was on the passenger-side rear door window frame, which appears to be a common trouble spot for some reason. Mine was the hatch, with the 5-speed manual. The biggest problem I had with the car over all those years and miles was at about 130,000 miles, when one of the anti-chatter springs in the clutch disc broke and got lodged between the clutch and the pressure plate. The shop that replaced the clutch told me I probably only had another 10K or so miles of friction material on that clutch anyway. The only other major problem came at about 140K, when the big nylon nut that held the fuel pump in the tank cracked, making the car smell ALWAYS like the inside of a gas can until it was fixed. The other failures were all relatively minor: the passenger side inner CV boot cracked and was leaking lube at about 20K (fixed under warranty); the serpentine belt idler pulley (the original was plastic, the replacement metal) failed just outside of warranty; the thermostat stuck open at about 80K, and finally, it needed a rear wheel bearing at around 150K. Other than that, all it ever required was the usual maintenance items – oil, filters, tires, brakes, and a couple of batteries. Oh, and the A/C needed the refrigerant topped off @~ 8 years. Never even did an alignment the entire time I owned it. Tires always wore evenly, it always tracked straight.

    All that said, I’ll vote Prizm. As much as I loved mine, the rust on that 3 is way scary. And as long as they’re both automatic sedans, may as well go with the one that’s less likely to fold in half in the near future.

  11. Like most, I’m going to take the Prism because it is a Toyota. With that said I bought one for a beater work car about 8 years ago. The guy wanted 900 bucks for it and I offered him $750 and he took it too fast. I’m in Northwest Oregon. The Michigan license plate I found under the carpet in the trunk a couple days later explained everything. Drove it for 6 months, shredded a tire alongside the freeway so I called a tow truck cuz I had no spare. As he was winching it up the ramps on to his truck the exhaust hung up on the lip of the trailer. The car bent in half. It went straight to the junkyard.

  12. I’d take the rebadged Corolla. Neither of these would pass NH inspection, there is a severe beater-shortage here. Anything with a sticker goes for 5k at least.

  13. Jeez, neither one of these would be any fun. I almost went with the Mazda because it has a better-looking face, but I have to go with the Prizm because it’s less rusty, and not gray. Otherwise these would be pretty much interchangeable. But you get what you pay for.

  14. no way Jose would I ever buy a Mazda of that vintage from Illinois. The rust is just too much to overcome. I don’t see the Mazda being significantly more comfortable or frankly more competent overall than the Prizm – at least, not enough so to make up for the rust

  15. I think I’d honestly go for the boring old Toyota here, simply because it makes a better beater. I’d gleefully bump it into curbs and walls or lug around muddy dogs, since I couldn’t care less if it got dented or dirty. But since the Mazda is a legit nice car, I would care about damage, and might even spend money on fixing things. And when the time comes to trade up, or it rusts in half, I’d probably miss it.

    Also the MZR does have history of burning oil after 100k (not sure how prevalent, but enough that plenty of folks have experience replacing it with a later 2.5 from a fusion or escape, present company included).

    All that said, I still love my 2004 hatch and will probably drive it into the ground (which is likely in this market).

  16. Gotta be the Zoom Zoom. A little rust on a winter beater never hurt anyone. I’ve had 2 Mazdas of that era and both were fantastic to drive and own. And yes both rusted.

  17. Mazda3 hands-down. Biased because I owned an ’08 5-spd 2L. My first thought on that price was, it could be triple! Rusty, sure, but this one looks much better than most in the midwest. You get some pep in that step and a decently put-together interior, without the rattles and bangs of the Chevota. And those era Mazdas are pretty much as durable as a Toyota of the same vintage. Easy choice.

Leave a Reply