Good morning! On this special Friday edition, we’re asking the question “why shitboxes?” by pitting all of this week’s four winners against a single challenger for the exact same price. Is it better to have a fleet of cheap clunkers than one modern-ish reliable all-rounder? We’ll see.
First, we need to know what our fourth winner is, and to my slight surprise and absolute delight, it’s the Audi.
I do still think it would be fun to own a manual shark-nose BMW for a while, and that 528e isn’t a terrible deal at all, but up against that Audi, it doesn’t stand a chance, at least for me. Nor with most of you, it seems.
I personally own three cars: a 1971 MGB GT, a 1989 Chevy K1500 Cheyenne, and a 2013 Chrysler 300C. The Chrysler is a nice, sensible, modern car, but the only reason I have it is that I inherited it from my father. The car it replaced in my fleet, a 1995 Toyota Corolla, was absolutely a shitbox, and a damn fine one at that. Boring as hell, yes, but dead-reliable, cheap to run and insure, and a car I felt no qualms about parking anywhere. If I didn’t have the Chrysler, I’d be driving another cheap old car, I’m sure. And my plan is to rack up a good couple hundred thousand miles on Dad’s old ride, so with a little luck, it will be a shitbox someday too.
And my trio obviously pales in comparison to some of the fleets owned by writers here. Ask Mercedes how many cars she has, and she has to think for a minute. David has crappy old cars stashed all over the world. And Gossin’s going to have to apply for a dealer’s license pretty soon, the way he buys and sells. And like me, I’m sure they’ve all been asked the same question by non-car-people friends: “Wouldn’t you just be better off with one good car?”
The answer is obvious to us: No. I need all of them. Each one serves a different purpose, and no one car can cover all that ground. Besides, if you have one car and it breaks down, you’re taking the bus. If you have multiple cars, just grab a different set of keys. But is it really that obvious? To find out, we’re going to lump all four of this week’s winning cars into a package deal, and compare them heads-to head against one car the exact same price. Will the constant needs of the many outweigh the reliability and economy of the one? You decide.
The first vehicle in our foursome is the oldest, and also the most expensive: a picture-perfect example of a classic “squarebody” Chevrolet pickup truck. It has the venerable 350 small-block V8, two-tone paint (three if you count the surface rust), and gobs of character. It’s also a reliable runner, and more than able to earn its keep hauling stuff around.
Next up is another General Motors product, this time a full-size front-wheel-drive sedan from GM’s coolest former brand: Pontiac. They may not have always built excitement, but in this case they built a pretty nice ride. It’s powered by another famous hunk of cast iron, the Buick-designed 3800 Series II V6. This one spent its life in the upper Midwest, so it may have some rust issues, but it runs like a champ.
Did I call that Bonneville “full size”? Excuse me; I was mistaken. This ’78 Chrysler makes it look like a toy. You’re looking at more than nineteen feet of good old American steel, slapped together on a shoestring budget by the perpetual underdog of the Big Three, in perhaps its darkest hour. And yet, here it sits, with a good-running 440 under the hood and red tufted seats that would do a bordello waiting room proud. It has been sitting for years, so it needs some work, but you could have it sailing down the highway in no time.
Last, but certainly not least, may I present The Art Of Engineering: Audi’s infamous 5000S sedan. Designed to be a world-class highway car, and done dirty by a media hatchet job, this sleek German land missile has racked up 260,000 miles, proving the naysayers wrong. Sudden acceleration? You’re damn right. No, it’s not a turbo, but it still has enough pull to effortlessly sustain triple-digit speeds. And it’s a five-speed, the only manual of the bunch, so you get to have some fun along the way.
If my math is correct, that brings our grand total for all four cars to $10,599. What sort of “normie” car can you get for that much money? Let’s see.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead can inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Boise, ID
Odometer reading: 119,000 miles
Runs/drives? I should hope so
I’m pretty pleased that I was able to match the dollar amount exactly. I wasn’t sure where to look for a car like this; Craigslist seemed like a bad choice, Facebook even worse, and I couldn’t waste a bunch of time searching every dealer’s inventory. Then I remembered Carmax – the 800-pound gorilla in the used car game. No-haggle pricing, clean and inviting dealerships, and a huge inventory make Carmax a popular choice for people who don’t really care about cars. And here it is – a car no one really cares about. I had to screen-shot the photos to get them off Carmax’s website in a useable format; please ignore the “back/next” arrows.
I actually have some experience with the Versa; I’ve rented a couple of them. You probably have, too. It’s a perfectly acceptable car to drive for thirty bucks a day for a few days. It goes, it stops, it turns, it carries stuff. The air conditioning is cold and the stereo turns radio waves or digital files into sounds. It’s fine. This one is an S model, which is one of the trim levels offered, and it has a 1.8 liter engine that turns a small amount of fuel into a commensurate amount of horsepower, and a normal automatic transmission instead of a CVT. At least, I think it does, based on the shifter, but Carmax isn’t really clear; the listing just says “automatic.”
This actually felt like one of the better choices available for the price. There was a whole batallion of Kias and Hyundais, mostly with the self-grenading engine option, and several Ford Focuses and Fiestas burdened with that awful PowerShift transmission. The Versa is boring, but it’s probably better built than the other options. This one has 119,000 miles on it, which seems like a lot for the price, but if you buy a car from Carmax, you’re not just paying for the car. You’re paying for the infrastructure, the no-haggle sales experience, and the ostensibly thorough pre-purchase inspection and certification. It’s like going to the mall – it’s the same old boring stuff everyone else has, but it’s a known quantity.
I did try to find a more interesting color than fog-gray, but apart from a red Fiesta and a blue Kia something-or-other, every car in their inventory was monochrome. I do like the greenish seats in this one. I wish I knew if they were supposed to be green, or if they started out gray and slowly faded to green in protest. Either way, it’s kinda cool. I mean, for a Versa.
There’s nothing wrong with the Versa, and I wouldn’t fault anybody for simply choosing it, or something like it, over a whole drivewayful of older, cheaper cars. I’ve tried that path before myself, and I was bored silly. But if all you need is a way to get around, and something to carry that papesan chair home from World Market, any little hatchback like this will do. It will start every morning and be easy to park and not use much fuel. Life will be good. But some of us, I’m afraid, just can’t do it. We need a beat-up old pickup truck, and a big land yacht sedan to impress the folks at Cars & Coffee, and the fussy German classic to tinker with, and also a sensible but old “normal” car for daily use. Having that many cars either makes no sense, or perfect sense, depending on the sort of person you are. So which sort are you?
(Image credits: Versa – Carmax; all others – Craigslist sellers)