Subaru, Jeep, Buick, or Dodge: Which Bad-Luck-Mobile Is For You?

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Happy Friday once again, Autopians! It’s Friday the 13th, so be careful out there. Don’t go walking under any ladders or petting any black cats (especially ours; she’ll bite you), and whatever you do, stay away from the lake at the old abandoned summer camp.

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Looks like it’s bad luck for our Chevy Venture from yesterday’s showdown. Should have gotten that Looney Tunes package. Then you would have at least had a couple of rabbit’s feet for luck. (Which I never understood; always seemed like bad luck for the rabbit. But I digress).

So with that, we have our four for the week. Let’s take a second look at them…

1988 Subaru XT6 – $2,250

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This AWD stickshift spaceship-on-wheels beat out a scruffy Celica convertible, and I think a big part of the reason why is this unassailably cool steering wheel:

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I mean, come on! No car has ever had a cooler steering wheel than that. Though I do wonder if it would mess with your perceptions until you got used to it. Maybe that’s what the nub on the left is for, to give you a clearer sense of where “straight ahead” is.

This is one of those cars I loved to gawk at in Road & Track when I was in high school. That wedge shape, the stunning interior, the high-tech specs… the future really was so bright, we had to wear shades. But looking at this car now, I don’t see the future; I don’t even see nostalgia. I see Weird Science – something that was cool when I was 15, but hasn’t aged well at all. (The movie, I mean, not the Oingo Boingo soundtrack. That has aged quite well.) I want to feel nostalgia for it, I just… don’t. I’ll rank this number 3 out of our foursome for me.

1978 Jeep CJ-5 – $1500

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David may not have liked the V8 in our scruffy Jeep, but I don’t mind. Honestly, as far as engines go, for me, condition matters a lot more than spec. If it runs reliably, it’s good; I don’t care about the output. [Editor’s note: I don’t like the engine precisely because it often doesn’t run reliably. Do I look like a man who cares about engine output?! -DT]. It’s all here, more or less, and it doesn’t need much mechanical work to get it going again.

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Lots of commenters feared it would be a money pit, and that might be true, if your intent were total restoration. But I look at this old Jeep and I see a reason to learn how to weld. It’s the one glaring gap in my auto-repair knowledge, the one thing I’ve never done, and that really ought to change someday. Patching up an old Jeep tub like this would be a great excuse, then give it a quick and dirty coat of paint (anything but flat black or olive green, I don’t like either) and bomb around in it as-is. This would rank number two for me.

1989 Buick Reatta – $1,900

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This sporty little number won by what might be our largest margin yet. And frankly, I’m not sure why. It’s an interesting relic, and would probably be a reliable-ish runner, but that CRT touch-screen just turns me off. Especially since it’s damn near impossible to retrofit it with a normal stereo and HVAC controls. Maybe I’d like a newer Reatta better, but then you lose that nice three-spoke steering wheel.

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Too much GM overreach here. They’re at their best when they stick to the basics. Other people seem willing to take these on as projects; they’re welcome to them. This is number 4 for me.

Which leaves…

1988 Dodge Grand Caravan – $2,500

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To be honest, I don’t have any nostalgia for this one either. The ’80s Chrysler product in our garage was a Dodge 600 ES sedan; we never jumped on the minivan bandwagon. But I have always liked practical vehicles, and they don’t get much more practical than this.

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The red velour seems to have given this one the win, and even if you’re not willing to concede the usefulness of a small van, you have to admit that Chrysler’s interior game was on-point in the late ’80s. First that blue New Yorker that won last week, and now these cushy captain’s chairs. And I have to say, now that I’m pushing fifty and have done my time in a variety of rough-riding sports cars and pickup trucks, the idea of nice cushy seats gets more and more tempting every day. This would be my top pick this week, and if it were a little more logistically feasible, I might be headed up to look more closely at it.

So that’s our week. Vote for your favorite, and feel free to rank them in the comments. I haven’t had time to figure out a different poll format yet.

Next week will be a little different; I’ll be writing two or three days in advance this weekend, because I’ll be traveling. But I’ve got leads on some really interesting stuff, and you’re going to have some great discussions, and I’ll catch up when I get back. See you then!

QuizMaker

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33 Responses

  1. Man I love the XT, but if I were to answer pragmatically, you can keep the CJ running until the heat death of the universe with all of the after market parts available for it. The XT, not so much.

  2. Jeep>Subaru>Van>Buick

    The Jeep is my top because I know how easy it will be to fix up. Doesn’t look flashy, but I can get it to be what I want with a jack and a manual. The subaru is second, looks beautiful but I’m suspicious on how much wrenching is going to be needed to get it running how I want. Buick is last because I just don’t like Buicks.

  3. The only one of these I would even half consider is the Jeep.

    The combined real value of the other three wouldn’t buy you a case of Budweiser. Which is relevant, because trying to get them running or keep them on the road will drive you to drinking.

  4. I went for the Subaru based on the quirk factor. The Buick was a close second.

    Honestly, most of the these are good choices. The Jeep is more the project person while the others are drive and fix as needed.

  5. I looked at that Jeep and saw a flip opportunity. People are crazy for old Jeeps, and even with several grand dumped in, you’d come out ahead if you know what you are doing. It is something worth preserving. The Caravan is a great addition to your stable if you need a cheap hauler, but almost too nice for that job. The Subie is pretty interesting, but how is part availability? I just don’t ever see these on the road. Maybe someone can weigh in? The Buick is slick, forward-thinking for its time, and a bit of a novelty with that touch screen. It probably isn’t the most reliable rig, but it is a GM, so you should be able to find what you need to keep her going. It was a toss-up between that sweet sweet velour and the touch screen, but I ended up voting Buick.

    1. While I voted for the XT-6, I wouldn’t actually want to own it nowadays. Very few made it here, and, while much of the suspension was off-the-shelf EA82 parts, the specific to XT-6 stuff will be tough to source. They only came with an automatic, and my experience with ‘80s Subaru slushboxes was not good. I only owned one in the 17 years I lived&breathed Subaru among the maybe 2 dozen I pulled out of backyards, fixed, drove, and sold. Also, the -6 had an early electric power steering unit that had enough of a reputation back around 2000 that I opted to just remove the ps pump & loop the lines at the rack rather than rob one from a donor I had available (I put a Webber on my GL wagon, and the throttle linkage wanted to be where the pump was).
      If you like the look, get a 4-cylinder with fwd/4wd and toss the air suspension for old Legacy struts: mine was a blast even tho it didn’t go near as fast as it’s looks hinted it could. WAY too much fun blasting into a corner too fast in 3rd, jerk it back into 2nd whilst thumbing the 4wd button on the shifter, and cut the wheel. It’d do a 180, then all 4 wheels would be spinning while sliding backwards until they bit. Pop the button as I shifted to 3rd…then repeat for next corner.
      Well, damn: got all heated up writing that out. Might have to take the wrx out for a spin or two….

    2. Exactly. As I mentioned in the Jeep vote, a well restored CJ5 with a refreshed 304 can easily sell in the 20’s.
      The Caravan is anything but nice. The 6G72’s either due or badly overdue for major, expensive work that will make you wish you were dead. Parts availability for the XT6 is crickets.

      But the Buick is the worst choice of the lot. It’s a CRT Reatta with indications of a bad CRT, and the 440T4 transmission. Parts availability? No. There is none. Reattas were hand-built (no, seriously.) If the CRT’s out, EVERYTHING is out, including the security and the engine computer. GM wishes the 440T4 had never existed (it’s not a 4T60.) There’s CPS to support the CRT, plus BCM, ECM, HVAC, CRT, Compass, RKE, headlamp, turn signal, and TEVES computers – most of which are purest unobtanium. Only the engine control unit is a common GM part. And if you have an ABS problem with the Teves I ball-style, you are super fucked – you can only get them used (not rebuilt) and just the pump sells $500+, another $100+ for the controller, and then you gotta find someone with a Tech1 or the right Tech2. (BTW, you can’t bleed brakes without a genuine Tech1 or Tech2 either. Non-OBD and the Teves controller’s separate.) Used Tech1 will set you back $400+ without the Teves cable and ABS cartridge.
      Also don’t forget that you’ll need an entire new front bumper cover, hood, turn signal, headlight assembly, and paint on this one. That hood is not repairable, nor is the bumper cover, and the headlight arm’s bent.

      And at the end of the day, your beautifully restored and fully functioning Reatta coupe is worth maybe $8-9k on a good day. (Don’t expect those to continue.) That’s it.

  6. Buick>Jeep>Subaru>Caravan

    The Buick is a cool little car that would be fun to drive, and easy to keep running. That dumb CRT is it’s only thing that’d be tough to deal with.

    I already have a Jeep that’s barely a step up from being a shitbox. I don’t need a second, but I can’t in good faith rank it any lower. Is this how DTism starts?

    The Subaru is an oddity, a time capsule from the 80s on wheels. Back in the 80s, we thought cars in the future would be full of cars like this XT6, but it turns out that he future of cars would be more like the Caravan.

  7. Jeep to Caravan, that’s about it. If I had to the Reatta, but I’d probably buy a bike before then.

    In any case, I’d likely swap engines in whatever I ended up with. Jeeps should have straight sixes, Dodge/Chryslers that old should have turbo 4-cyls with a manual trans, and Buicks deserve something with a Roots supercharger.
    I guess Subarus should have something that doesn’t have the head gasket pop when you look at it funny?

    1. My experience with the ‘80s Subarus was that they had no bigger head gasket problems than any other manufacturer. In fact, much as I abused (and I do mean abused!) them, I never blew a hg in 17 years of owning those old ones. Wheel bearings, tierod ends, & ball joints were consumables given where & how I drove, but the motors just kept running until the body rusted away around it.

  8. Never understood why they didn’t name it the “Regatta,” would have made way more sense. Also, I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of that automatic shifter GM bought.

    “We must use ALL of those things, no matter how outdated they look”.
    -GM motto – 1973-Current

  9. The nub on left side the wheel of the Subaru is a thumb rest. If the wheel is straight ahead, the spoke is the rest on the right side.

    I test drove one of these when they were new and it was underwhelming but it’s the best of the beaters this week.

  10. Forgot to say, I have no nostalgia for the Caravan, we had an Aerostar from 1990-97, and I’ve bought several as an adult. Have ridden and driven those earlier Chrysler vans, but not so much as a kid. I think the first one I rode in was as a teenager, our neighbors bought a new bodystyle Grand Voyager in 1996. In purple of course.

  11. On my shittiest shitbox day (or even the best) I wouldn’t buy a minivan. I already have a 2011 Odyssey and while it doesn’t have red velour, alas, it does minivan better in every way. I pick the Jeep because it’s a shitbox with potential to transcend shitboxdom. Actually if I had the energy and the spare dough to throw away, I’d combine all four. Upholster the Jeep with the Caravan seats, install the Subaru’s goofy steering wheel, and install the bezel of the Buick’s CRT in the Jeep’s dash, but behind it just wire in an ancient color TV and an Atari 2600 for gaming off road.

    1. Yes. That Caravan will always be a shitbox, no matter what. Nobody will ever want it for its intended purpose of family hauling, because it is hideously unsafe compared to any modern car. If you want to haul cargo on the cheap, get a beater truck or cargo van. It will always be a pig to drive, even perfectly restored. It will always be embarrassing to be seen in. The only thing I can think to do with it would be to throw an LS in it and turn it into a sleeper, but that’s a lot of money and work for what is essentially a mild practical joke.

      That van makes me think of slumlords and hard times. Not the romantic kind of hard times that make for good stories afterward, either. Just grinding, humiliating struggle with no end in sight.

  12. Subaru>Reatta>Caravan>Jeep
    The asymmetrical steering wheel on the Subaru never bothered me at all. As you guessed, the nub on the left side is directly opposite the spoke, so it feels pretty normal. The cruise buttons are in a nice spot, too.
    For me, I would chose which of these don’t have a good modern equivalent. The Subaru best fits that case for me. Not much else out their manages to be as weird yet still functional and fun as the XT6. There are kits out there to swap the EJ engines in those, if you are scared of the ER27, which was a pretty solid engine.
    The Reatta looks good, and the interior is interesting. Its powertrain is a bit boring (I don’t have much desire to own an automatic coupe…), but there are plenty of options out there to swap it, that shouldn’t be extremely difficult.
    The Caravan was a somewhat useful van back in its day, but they were just bad to drive. Growing up in a big family with a car ADD dad, we had almost every van out there. When the Caravan came out, it was pretty good compared to everything else, but by the late 80’s/early 90’s almost everything else was better. Those seats were terribly uncomfortable, and something was always broken on it…
    I wanted to like the Jeep, but looks too bad. Having escaped the rust belt, I have no desire to work on something that rusty again. I love cheap off roaders, but I fear I’d spend more time fixing that one than taking it off-road…

  13. 1. I’d have the Jeep already if it were closer, even if it were just the relatively clean frame, axles and VIN. Everything else included at this price is a bonus. The awesome wheels, V8 and 3 speed manual are huge bonuses. I’d invest in a whole new body shell, which you can easily have brought to your doorstep for under $10,000. This should be an easy win for the Jeep. The asking price is so low I thought it was surely a scam ad.

    2. The Subaru would make a nice project car because it’s an oddball. XT6s are better than OK to drive, and it shouldn’t trouble you too much once it’s done. I bet you’d get lots of curious looks these days, and that’s worth extra.

    3. I wouldn’t keep the Reatta stock. Making space for a supercharger could make a fun performer out of an ordinary street cruiser. But this isn’t a project that currently interests me, so it falls down the list.

    4. The Caravan still has a lot of pure transportation value. It wouldn’t become a toy like the rest, so it has to meet some objective standards. The seats would become couches in my garage, and I would use this more or less as a box truck because I couldn’t in good conscience take others along in something with safety features that are this outdated. It is still a very good value if it suits your needs.

    I still don’t see the polls on these articles, but this is how I rank them and why.

  14. The Jeep is the only one I would want, parts are easily available, it is the only one you could take an eraser to and create a blank canvas and start afresh. Definitely a project which will eat money but you can make it “yours”. That and a twisted part of my brain considers the CJ-5 the last real Jeep. I must admit I’d probably go to GM for a V8 though.

  15. AWD turbo coupe with a pistol grip shifted manual and that steering wheel? Gimme the doorstop inspired XT6. Because it’s the most fun choice, even if it spends most of its time doing the exact same thing as a door stop, nothing.
    “The kind of car Mercedes might have built if they were a little more frugal and a lot more inventive.”

  16. The Subaru XT6. It has the lowest drag coefficient times frontal area(Drag coefficient of 0.29) and one of the lowest curb weight(2,900 lbs, only bested by the Jeep CJ5, which has terrible drag) of the choices. It is also a manual transmission, and AWD. Thus, since getting parts is an issue, it is a great candidate for an EV conversion.

    It wouldn’t take a whole lot of money to make it go fast or far. The AWD would allow a very nice hookup at launch to take advantage of an electric motor’s torque curve. It could be turned into a 150 mile range conversion that runs 12s in the 1/4 mile for under $20k in off the shelf parts, plus cost of restoration. It would look really cool with a cyberpunk aesthetic and a custom digital dashboard.

      1. The Jeep would cost a lot of money in batteries to have a decent range. It will need roughly 2.5x the energy as the XT6 to maintain 70 mph on the highway.

        The Reatta would likely need 1.5x the energy of the XT6 to maintain 70 mph on the highway, and it would be a heavier, less fun car by far.

  17. Forget the other cars, I have had great reliability with the Caravan 3.0 v6 (Mitsubishi) with the 3 speed trans. the 4 speed was a joke for a while with my past experience. Leaned to drive in a Plymouth Voyager and even hit the house with it when I was sixteen! learned foundation repair that night.

  18. I have to go with the Grand Caravan because it’s the only vehicle I could see myself buying. The Accord and Mazda3 hatch my wife and I own are very good cars, but neither can hold a dresser or a sheet of plywood. A cheap van that can haul like a pickup would be great for my weekend projects. That maroon on more maroon survivor is almost too nice to use as a hardware store mule.

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