Good morning! It’s cold and rainy here in the Pacific Northwest, so for today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re heading to sunny San Diego, California, to look at a pair of sedans. They’re both in beautiful shape now, but one has a reputation for breaking its owners’ hearts (and bank accounts), while the other one just chugs along, mile after coma-inducing mile.
But before we can do that, we should finish up Friday’s festival of speed. I regaled you all with a tale of illicit speed from my younger days, and offered up two cars capable of besting that speed. I meant to ask you all to share your own tales of triple-digit tomfoolery, but I apparently didn’t need to; many of you included your own tales of speed in the comments, which were fun to read.
In the end, the striped Dodge won, based largely on the Corvette offering too little for too much. I still want a Corvette someday, I think, and the C5 seems like a “sweet spot” between the old thrashy ones and the increasingly-clinical newer models, but I agree: Twenty grand for that car is just too much. Besides, how can you say no to a Hemi with a stick?
Now then: When a car model is new, we have no way of knowing for sure how reliable it’s going to be. You can make some generalizations: Toyotas and Hondas are usually safe bets, Minis will cause you some heartache but be so much fun to drive you’ll put up with it, and so on. But you can’t know for sure until some more time has passed and some more miles are accumulated. Twenty years down the line, however, the picture is a lot clearer. At that age, a car’s reputation precedes it, and certain problems become a matter not of if they will happen, but when.
Today we have a pair of sedans, close in size, price, and mileage, both in quite nice condition. One of them is a shining beacon of reliability and durability, but it has all the driving dynamics of a Sleep Number bed. The other is a fine road machine, reponsive and joyful to drive, but its reliability reputation can best be described as “Do you feel lucky, punk?” The choice is yours.
Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed automatic, FWD
Location: San Diego, CA
Odometer reading: 130,000 miles
I’m so disappointed in this car. I’m a VW/Audi fan from way back, and I really liked the B5-generation Passat and its cousin the Audi A4 when they were first introduced. I couldn’t afford one back then, but I thought they might make good used cars one day. The ensuing twenty years have not shown this to be the case. There are those who love these cars, and try time after time to make them work, but from what I can tell, doing so is as futile as trying to kick a football held by Lucy Van Pelt.
What is it that brings these lovely, pleasant-to-drive cars to their knees? It’s not just one thing, sadly. Some cars have an Achilles heel, but this one adds a trick knee, a bad hip, sciatica, and a shoulder that likes to pop out of its socket. This car is powered by the 1.8T engine, a twincam inline four with five valves per cylinder and a turbocharger. Its possible problems include ignition coil pack failure, water pump failure (plastic, like some BMWs with similar failures – what on Earth were they thinking?), timing belt failures (admittedly mostly due to neglect), and oil sludge. Yes, despite the fact that we’ve been baking engine components in dead dinosaur gravy for more than a century, we still apparently sometimes don’t get the recipe right.
This Passat allegedly has none of those issues. In the seller’s own words, it “cannot run any better.” I presume this means it runs perfectly, but it’s a strange way to phrase it. Everything works flawlessly, they say, and at the moment, this car needs nothing but fuel.
But on the subject of fuel… There is one troubling sign in the photos: a shot of the dash showing the trip computer displaying an average of eight miles per gallon. Now, according to G Love, “that’s some highway sailin’,” but I don’t think he meant in a Passat. I can’t imagine having a heavy enough foot to use that much fuel in this car. It’s probably inaccurate, and there’s probably an explanation, but you have to admit it’s a bad look.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.3 liter dual overhead cam V6, five-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Spring Valley, CA
Odometer reading: 135,000 miles
Runs/drives? Of course
The Lexus ES is sort of an also-ran in Lexus’s lineup. It has never really been much more than an extra-fancy Camry. Originally cobbled together from a Japanese-market Camry variant just so Lexus could have a second model in showrooms alongside the mighty LS400, the ES250 felt half-assed. Later ES generations managed to differentiate themselves a bit more from their Camry roots, but the only real reason to buy an ES over a top-of-the-line Camry was the badge on the grille.
That’s not to say that the ES isn’t a really nice car, because it is. I have a small amount of experience with the ES330; my mother-in-law had one for a while, and I drove it once or twice. It is a toweringly dull car to drive, with numb handling and a transmission that can’t be bothered to kick down ever, but it is extremely comfortable, very quiet, and feels like it’s machined from a solid piece of steel.
This one, despite the misfortune of being painted white, looks really good for its age. It has only 135,000 miles on the clock, a mileage at which it’s just hitting its stride, and it should have a good decade of life to give. The headlights are a bit cloudy, but other than that, I’m having trouble finding fault with it. If you had four grand to spend on a used car, you really couldn’t do much better. I mean, as long as you’re not looking for something fun to drive.
But then again, for daily use, “fun” is overrated. Comfort, competence, and reliability matter a lot more. This car has great seats, probably a better-than-acceptable stereo (with a cassette deck!), good AC for when it’s too hot, strong heat for when it’s too cold, and a nice big sunroof for when it’s just right. If you want handling, get a Miata to play with on the weekends.
Reliable cars are wonderful things. Being able to count on getting where you’re going, and back again, is really the bare minimum we should expect from a car. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and anybody who loves cars has fallen for a zippy engine or razor-sharp handling or turn-back-and-stare-at-it styling, overlooking any number of faults in the process. Sometimes we just can’t do boring, no matter how much sense it makes. So what about you, Autopians? Are you smitten by the high-tech but fragile Volkswagen, or would you rather play it safe with the tried-and-true Lexus?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)