Home » What Engines Do You Recommend To Folks Who Are Bad At Maintaining A Car?

What Engines Do You Recommend To Folks Who Are Bad At Maintaining A Car?

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Until fairly recently, or maybe still now, I feel like I was a car guru in a sea of car dummies. Okay, maybe car “dummies” is kind of a harsh term, but I have historically had a lot of friends who need vehicles to get around. I live in Ohio, where public transit is completely useless, and these folks are probably decent enough at driving, but I don’t know if I could trust them to correctly follow the instructions on the back of a Betty Crocker box of brownie mix, let alone maintain something as complex as a car.

Yet, I know they need a car. So I do what I can to help. 

Maybe you’ve been in this situation too; you know someone who needs a vehicle, and you want to suggest something idiot-proof and hopefully bulletproof. I’ve got my picks and favorites of a handful of engines that I know will likely hold up to the abuse and neglect of a kind, yet oblivious owner.

Toyota 1NZFE and 1NZXFE

2000 Toyota Echo 1.5-L 4 cylinder with VVT-i. Photo: Toyota

This little 1.5-liter four-cylinder wasn’t exactly the quickest engine Toyota ever made. It only made anywhere from 103 to 106 horsepower, depending on the application. Nor did it go in any of the most interesting-to-drive vehicles, as it was the engine found under the hood of any Scion xA, xB, Toyota Echo, Yaris, and second-generation Toyota Prius.

It’s got a timing chain, so no weird belt service intervals that’ll be put off for miles until it snaps, like every Honda Civic before 2005. Outside of the engine, these are robust vehicles that don’t come with any strange CVT weirdness (except the Prius, which isn’t a true toroidal CVT), or strange GDI engine technology that’ll gunk up the intake valves. There’s a reason why my old roommate’s 2005 Scion xB has 335,000 miles and counting.

[Editor’s Note: I’ll back Kevin up here, as the engine in my old xB was pretty much bulletproof. I changed a starter and some coilpacks over the years, but that was it, and it had an absurd amount of miles. – JT]

I have now owned six versions of this engine, including the Atkinson-cycle engine found in my Toyota Prius. Anecdotally, they only really break after severe neglect. Out of the six I purchased only two truly needed engines, one of which was due to a strange freak accident where road debris had punctured the radiator, causing the car to overheat.

GM L61

Photo: GM

Now, I’m gonna take a lot of flack for this one. The GM L61 isn’t the most refined motor; you probably know it as the 2.2-liter Ecotec that first showed up in the Chevy Cavalier, and quickly spread its way to every GM shitbox of the early to late 2000s. It’s the base engine found in the Malibu, Saturn L-Series, Saturn Ion, Chevy Cobalt, and Saturn VUE, and a gaggle of other bailout-era crapboxes.

I know these engines sometimes have timing chain tensioners that fail, and they’re installed in some of the worst examples of “Old GM” to ever disgrace North America. But the L61 seems to hold true to the old adage that GM vehicles will run badly for a long time, longer than some vehicles will run at all.

I grew up not far from the old Lordstown plant that churned out GM’s insipid J-body cars. It seems like a teal and rusty Sunfire or Cavalier with half an exhaust and noisy timing chain should be the state car because it seems like damn near every family had one, or knew someone that did. I remember family members being upset that Chevrolet had discontinued the Cavalier, insisting that the conglomerate had done so because “the car was just selling too damn good.” I don’t think that’s how it works, but, okay. I guess.

Are those cars good? Absolutely not, but it’s remarkable how long they’ll drive around in a dilapidated state. For the ultra-budget buyer who won’t buy a foreign car (or can’t find one that is roadworthy), the Chevy Cavalier or Cobalt with an L61 will embrace you with open arms, and a clattering timing chain. 

Hyundai Beta Engine

Large 2621 2005hyundaielantra
Photo: Hyundai

For a long time, I’ve avoided Hyundai products, probably because I fell for the trap where my midwest parents and peers insisted South Korea could never ever build a car as good as GM or Ford. Well, in my late teens, I stopped listening to them after my brother’s 1999 Grand Prix went through two transmissions and an engine. Yet, that man had the audacity to call his Grand Prix “reliable.” Reliably terrible, maybe.

My personal experience with the Hyundai Beta engine came from a friend or two with the 2001-2005 Hyundai Elantra, and later when I purchased and reconditioned a 2008 Hyundai Tiburon. Technically, this engine seems to be mediocre. Unlike the above two engines, the Beta uses a heavy-as-hell iron block. It’s an interference design, with a timing belt, so ignoring the intervals will ensure it dies a terrible death with bent-up valves and gouged-out pistons.

And yet in the real world, at least anecdotally, these engines tend to hold up really well. They’re not known for any serious issues. Sure, performance, refinement, and fuel economy won’t be as good as a typical Honda or Toyota of the same era, but who cares?

You need a solid car, that will take the abuse only a kind, but clueless car owner can dish out. Also, if the engine does explode, a used replacement engine can be had for as little as $350 from your local junkyard. Far cry from the thousands of dollars necessary to find a good-running replacement, the Hyundai Theta engine, which replaced the Beta engine in many applications.

So, that’s my (probably misguided) list of engines I recommend to people who I know are on a budget, and don’t have the wherewithal to maintain a car correctly. How about you? What engine, or cars, do you recommend to your friends who you know aren’t great at maintaining either?

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75 Responses

  1. had a 94 saturn sl2 which my sister lost the oil cap to… the replacement wasnt quite right and would regularly pop off spewing oil throughout the engine bay. generally you would know it happened by the smell of alot of oil on the exhaust (there was always some so it always smelled a bit). you would then pull over and top it back off. topping it off counting as changing the oil in our book so it went 6 years or so without a filter change. Still ran great to the day it was totalled by a vandal breaking most of its windows

  2. Basically all Toyotas… the 3.5V6 was particularly good as was the 2.5 I4. Mazda 2.5. I’m a big fan of larger capacity engines, especially V6s as they don’t spend their lives having the tachometer pegged at the red just to go up a small incline.

    1. RE: small engines run hard, I disagree with you. I own a 170 000 mi Renault Clio with the tiny 1.2 D7F that spends his life WOT at the red line and that thing is unkillable.

      I think a small atmospheric engine is fine, but I’m wary of turbos.

      1. Oh wow, it took me a while to find out what WOT meant in this context. That’s an acronym I could use. I daily drive a Renault 4 with the 1.1L C1E, which is now at about 161000 miles (driven over the course of 32 years), and sure enough I drive it WOT whenever I can. That small engine also feels unkillable.

    2. Another vote for the Mazda MZ family of 2.0, 2.3 and 2.5s and the related for Duratec 4s ( non turbo, non DI anyway). Timing chains, relatively large displacement for a 4 cyl, seem to hold up to neglect far better than the trust prone bodies Mazda installed them in anyway.

  3. L15A gets my vote (1st gen Honda Fit). After 1k mi break in period (with a few red line trips), I flogged it regularly for 160k+ with only the service reminder oil changes (roughly every 8k) and whatever service code went with it. If you understand oil should be changed and that’s it, this is the engine for you.

    2nd place is a D-series. Really the pinnacle of easy maintenance is ~’96-00s. Gotta go OBDII for ease of diagnosis but less restrictive emissions and other controls that are in later designs.

  4. I’ll throw in a vote for the L61. When I was a post-recession college grad trying to stretch $50 into a month’s worth of groceries, my 08 Cobalt XFE never once complained that maybe I went a few thousand miles too long between oil changes. It was the chariot of my 20’s and never once failed me. I still see it around town after long since moving on to better vehicles, so I’m proud to see it serving its current owner with the same humble dignity.

      1. Nope. Bad maintenance for this example strikes me as just deferring maintenance excessively. With non interference engines you can usually lose a belt and just replace said belt and retime it, if your timing chain goes on an interference engine you’re best case going to need a to get the head inspected, more likely though it’ll be a several thousand dollar repair, or even worse a valve grenades itself through the block and you need a whole new engine.

          1. you are probably from the era of small timing chains with cams buried deep in a block. These days timing chains are somewhat dainty by comparison, four times as long and the failure mode is usually the plastic guides. I agree that it makes little sense to make Interference engines in general. the old 3.5 DOHC was NI up until the mid 1990’s and then went interference for no good reason.

  5. It depends, do you mean ones that are hard to kill ie still runs after bad things happen? or one that can stand any abuse, eg tons of sludge? Anything mechanical, non interfering valves should be okay even timing belts are snapped. Sludge etc.. I would say Toyota 3S or 2S?

    In my neck of the woods, more cars are being written off due to catalytic theft more than anything, even cops map where the cats are being stolen

  6. 1ZZ-FE
    Even if you forget oil is a thing and it eventually kerplodes.
    You can get a whole new engine (new to you) for under a grand.
    The little cars built around them are pretty solid and inexpensive to repair as well.

    If you are terrible at vehicle maintenance, get something that won’t cost you too much when those major repairs inevitably come.
    Do you want to buy a new car when your transmission goes wonky?
    No, you want to pay a shop as little as possible to replace your transmission.

    If you ask me what creature will survive a nuclear winter, I’ll say cockroach.

    What engine?

    P.S. I love this question and can’t wait to read the comments section (I’m interested in learning what wiser minds than mine recommend).

    1. Came here to mention this engine.
      Once they fixed the oil blow-by problem in ’02 or ’03, these things rose to the top level of invincibility.
      I had the blow-by variable valve version of this engine in a 2000 Corolla and I’ve had oil-change guys tell me they’ve seen these engines come in running absolutely normal with zero oil.
      I have an ’07 as well and the oil level never moves on that dipstick.

      1. My wife and I both have 2000 Prizm’s as city driving dailies.
        I call them the cockroach twins.
        On the few occasions I’ve had to replace anything on them I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the price.
        Two valve cover gaskets, $70.
        New rotors, pads and drum brakes all around, under $100.
        Total purchase price for two running vehicles with under 90,000 miles each, $5,000.
        They just work until they don’t, then you scrounge around the car collecting enough spare change to make them work again.

  7. The old stand By from Toyota, the 22RE.
    Honda’s best in my opinion was the K24.
    Nissan’s RB26DETT
    2000-2006 LS designated GM small block V8. I personally think the best is the LS1 350 in this gen.
    Jeep 4.0 HO seems to be on many lists
    Ford 4.9 inline six
    Chrysler Slant Six is also often on short lists, though I can say that the 3.6 Pentastar has some people that appreciate it over some of the stuff that came before it.
    A basic TBI GM 305/350 is reliable. I think the most problematic part was the ignition module in the distributor.

  8. I had a Civic in college with the D16Y8 motor. It got college student maintenance….meaning the oil was changed when I was flush with an extra $60 to throw at the car. Once employed after college, it got the best occasional maintenance from Jiffy Lube. Still ran great at 215k.

  9. All the old underpowered gm v8s. My brother had a olds 88 with a 305 that he drove for a few months. One day it wouldn’t turn over very fast. He tried until the battery died. He came and told me his battery was dead and Alex me too help him out. I charged the battery and a no go. I checked the oil after wishing him on the symptoms and there was none showing up on the dipstick. PO told him that it needed a quart every 1000 miles, but he hadn’t bothered to check since he bought it. I put 5 quarts in and it still didn’t show as full on the dipstick. Started right up though.

    His next car was a Nissan 200sx that he mistakenly thought was the same as the 240 but with a smaller engine. It threw a rod on the highway. I asked him when the last time he checked the oil was. “Oh no. This is a Japanese car. Engines are so much better. They don’t burn oil.”

  10. I had a 1979 motorhome with the venerable Chevy 350. Unbeknownst to ignorant old me, there was a coolant leak. Because there was no coolant, there was nothing to cause the temp gauge to move. I stared at that dial for ages thinking, “man, this thing is at perfect temp, no matter what myself or the weather is doing”. Who knew coolant was optional?

    I’m guessing the engine still runs just fine to this day.

    1. My 307 smallblock sprung a rad leak and got so hot that when my buddy turned it off, it kept dieseling. Had to put it in 3rd gear to stall it. Got it towed home, changed the rad and it started right up and kept running for years.

  11. Toyota 2UZ-FE: I’ve lost count of how many of these I’ve seen with 200k on the original timing belt that was supposed to have been replaced at 90k.

    Chevrolet small-block: Every redneck and taxi driver that ran a 305 and 350 forever and ever on a “when I get around to it” maintenance schedule while overworking the things can tell you how long they’ll last.

    Ford 300ci Inline 6: Ignore it until the fiber timing gear gives up, slap a new set in, and continue to ignore it… repeat.

    Saturn LK0: I can tell you from experience that these will run on the factory spark plugs forever, will run at least 20 miles making tapping sounds with no oil visible on the dipstick, and just keep going, and going, and going… you can’t kill these bastards.

    Ford Lima 2.3/2.5 SOHC: See Toyota 2UZ-FE. I’ve owned three of them, I bothered to replace the timing belt on one.

  12. Can confirm, anecdotally, that the Toyota NZ is something else. I bought my ’07 Yaris (from its original owner, even) with 220k+ miles and, as I discovered, <2 quarts of oil in the engine. Sounded okay, somehow, and so far has been much happier with twice as much oil through it.

    A 1ZZ treated my ex-girlfriend well, too, until I was distracted by a prior accident and rammed her Vibe up someone’s ass.

  13. For those wanting a cheap older subcompact,Toyota’s 2NZFE motors are also solid.
    Their biggest fault is they can run *slightly* bad as they age, but not bad enough that the cause is obvious.

  14. There are different kinds of abuse. The one that I am most familiar with is a car that doesn’t get driven very much – you should run your car around the block once a week or so.

    The Nissan VQ in the Infinity G37x that I inherited has been great and has only needed oil changes. It sat multiple times for six or more months without being started, and does not burn any oil. It is also powerful and makes the G37x a pleasure to drive (hard). It could have better mpg, but other than that seems unbeatable.

  15. Even the later series 3800’s should be included on this list. I saw one that was abused beyond any reason that just wouldn’t quit.
    Things it survived included using the wrong oil, running lean, running for years on 5/6 cylenders.

  16. For all the bad reputation Renault has amassed in terms of reliability, they do have an engine family that I think qualifies as bulletproof, so I won’t miss this chance to spread the gospel of the Cléon-Fonte engines. Now, let’s make one thing clear: if you absolutely 100% refuse to touch your engine, you shouldn’t expect miracles. But if you can be arsed to at least take a look and poke around to find out what’s wrong, this engine is just so damn forgiving. It really motivates you to do basic maintenance and repairs because it’s just so damn easy to fix most stuff. And even when it’s running badly, it still runs. The way I see it, an engine that motivates people who are bad at maintenance to learn about it and get their hands dirty is better than one that just takes the abuse forever, because there’s no learning in that.

    There’s some ownership bias of course; I daily drive a car with the C1E, aka 688 engine. Last week I drove about 200km thinking I was maybe looking at a carb rebuild, because the engine simply wouldn’t idle unless I choked it all the way, and even then it was running pretty rough. It literally stalled whenever I put it in neutral. Just double clutching was enough for the engine to stall. I put off taking the carb apart for a few days because I didn’t want to get stranded – I didn’t have a carb rebuild kit, and if it was a bad gasket like I was suspecting, it could disintegrate once I started poking around and just make everything worse – but once I had some time and could afford to get stranded, I went in there to try my luck. As soon as I started unscrewing the air filter nuts, I could tell the whole carb was loose; looking at the intake manifold, I immediately noticed the 2 nuts holding the carb in place almost completely unscrewed. I screwed them properly and the car went back to running just fine. If I was good at maintaining my car I would’ve discovered the problem as soon as the car started to have trouble idling. I put it off for 4 days and the car still managed to go around and drive at highway speeds.

    So if in this case bad maintenance = no maintenance at all, this engine probably won’t take it forever. But if you mean putting off scheduled maintenance, doing questionable DIY repairs armed with nothing but a 10mm wrench and a YouTube video, or just generally noticing issues and hoping that stepping a bit harder on the gas will fix them, Cléon-Fonte engines have got you covered. They’ll take the abuse and have some fun with it, and you’ll end up learning a thing or two.

  17. I can’t believe there’s no love for the GM LS motors in here. I’ve seen them go through all kinds of neglect/abuse without an sign of failure (especially in the iron block 4.8/5.3s who’s owners didn’t care about cars enough to opt for a 6.0/6.2). As long as it’s after they fixed the hydraulic lifters (2001 maybe?), they seem to be unkillable.

    Now, it’s GM… So I’m quite sure that most of the rest of the vehicle will have failed before you ever have to journey inside the motor.

    I’d express my love for the reliability of VW TDI 1.9/2.0s… and they have been remarkable in my experience (I’ve owned 6 and put over 600k on those cars combined with less than a dozen total, non-maintenance repairs). However, I’ve begun to believe that these are only reliable if you are a religious zealot about their maintenance schedule.

  18. The “pre Series 1” 3800 has to probably be the most reliable engine ever made. Its robust, made decent power for the time, and gets surprisingly decent gas mileage. Other than throwing the cam sensor occasionally, they will spin longer than the Earth itself will.

    The Toyota Echo 1.5 has to be a close second. There are tons of Echo(es) racking up 400k+ miles. Especially with a manual transmission.

    Lastly, the ole GM Iron Duke. Its a tractor engine for sure. But it never made enough power to hurt itself. If you fix the phenolic timing gear it’ll never die. The cars will all rust to pieces around it.

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