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

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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.

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GM L61

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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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Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
2 months ago

An electric motor. Any ICE needs regular fluid and filter changes. Even a Mercedes 240D can be killed by lack of maintenance. I suppose a service plan would help, but only if it’s used.

Clark B
Clark B
2 months ago

Well, two of my recommendations are on this already: the Toyota and the GM. My friend, who used to be bad about car maintenance, had a Sunfire and a second gen Prius. She never had an engine fault in either one, despite the Prius racking up 250k+ miles. For a while she thought the oil pressure warning light was an oil change reminder…she knows better now but who knows how many times that thing drove around with almost no oil pressure.

I don’t recall the exact engine code, but it’s the Mitsubishi V6 that was in my grandpa’s Mitsubishi Mighty Max and I think (but could be very wrong) was also in my ex’s dad’s late 90s Plymouth Voyager. They both burned a ton of oil but wouldn’t die. The farm truck had over 200k, a warped head, and would still start every time. The Voyager managed to hit 350k+ miles, with not a single oil change after 150k. There was something hateful about that van, and I’m glad it’s gone.

Von Baldy
Von Baldy
2 months ago

The hyundai beta is a rather jaunty lil sea tune of anger, the alphas are also rather rotund if not gutless dudes as well.

Fun fact, the con rods to a beta are forged, idk why but only know this because i finished of an elantra with severe rod knock from a blithering idiot of an owner

Cam.man67
Cam.man67
2 months ago

Vulcan. The famed(or infamous?) 3.slow will run longer than most V6s care to exist. Early ones had some head gasket issues but by the 90s they were near bulletproof, particularly in the Ranger. Provided one replaces the oil pump drive every 150k or so, the 3.0 will last multiple hundreds of thousands miles with minimal maintenance. Albeit slowly.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
2 months ago

Ford 300/4.9L straight six, hands down. Overbuilt truck engine, no timing chain or belt, skips oil changes no problem. It’s too bad they didn’t evolve this motor as the 4.2 V6 that followed was horseshit.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
2 months ago

Jeep 4.0, gm 3800, the pre-ecotec 2.2 gm pushrod. All 3 basically unkillable!

Jim Warren
Jim Warren
2 months ago

Chrysler slant 6, tough to kill, always the body/suspension that gave out 1st

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Warren

Allow me to also shout out the Chrysler LA series 318. My dad bought a new 1985 Fifth Avenue (Mike Ehrmantraut’s car from “Breaking Bad and “Better Call Saul,” except white with navy leather) as a comfy, roomy traveling salesman’s road car, which it was – possibly the most luxurious car my parents owned until they bought their 2015 Enclave. He was shit on maintaining it, though, regularly forgetting oil changes for ten to fifteen thousand miles. My family hit some rough financial territory in the 90s, and he ended up keeping it far longer than he ever planned.

Despite his neglect, that 318 remained dead reliable for nearly 500,000 miles, outlasting three Torqueflite transmissions, until a failed rear main seal finally parked it in 1994. While it was sitting behind our mechanic’s shop as my dad pondered what, if anything, to do with it, Hurricane Opal hit my town and washed it away.

If a 318 could survive my dad, it will survive anyone.

greatfallsgreen
greatfallsgreen
2 months ago

It seemed like the consensus was around 2002 was when the timing chain issues for the 2.2 Ecotec were mostly cleared up. So the L-Series was mainly affected, and they had quality issues beyond just that engine anyway.

Yet somehow GM didn’t learn its lesson (well, of course not) and the first years of the 3.6L V6 and the DI 2.4 Ecotecs both had timing chain issues all over again.

Boeman
Boeman
2 months ago

Any electric motor when put in turtle (sorry, eco) mode. Battery degredation will end the life of that EV long before the motor wears out.

eggsalad
eggsalad
2 months ago

The 4.3 in my ’02 Silverado (L35) is one of the last (I believe) true descendants of the 1955 small-block Chevy. While all the V-8 Silverados were LS, the V-6 didn’t switch to LS architecture for a few more years.

As such, the engine in my truck is the produce of FORTY-SEVEN YEARS of development and improvement. It is a 300k mile engine that can be largely ignored.

Shotz718
Shotz718
2 months ago
Reply to  eggsalad

The 4.3 may not be a tower of power, but once it shed the “spider injector” it was rock solid.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
2 months ago
Reply to  eggsalad

Yep, 4.3s are fantasticall long runners, had over 300k on our asto when the 2nd tranny went.

Jnnythdrs
Jnnythdrs
2 months ago

I’m going with the 3.0 Vulcan V-6 as found in innumerable Rangers and Tauruses(Taurii?). Yes, it doesn’t get good gas mileage for its power output, but it will live virtually forever, considering it doesn’t make enough power to hurt itself.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

A little model-specific, but the Ford 2.0 4 cyl Duratec is a little wonder.

Almost 100k miles on mine and zero major problems plus minor upkeep. Plus, its rev-happy Mazda nature shines through winningly.

ffoc01
ffoc01
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

All the non-turbo variants of that motor are utterly bulletproof. Ranger, Focus, Fusion, Escape, 2.0l, 2.3l, 2.5l it doesn’t matter. It’ll run forever.

mdharrell
mdharrell
2 months ago

My friends have seen my cars. They don’t ask me for automotive recommendations.

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
2 months ago

Chrysler 5.2L with single point fuel injection. Change the oil and it will run 300k+ with no issues. Good torque and surprisingly decent fuel mileage.

popopopo
popopopo
2 months ago

5S-FE 4 cylinder in the 1992-2001 Camry (also in base Celicas around that time). I have a 1999 Camry LE with it and I just drove it on a 2750 mile road trip with no issues. It leaks some oil, and I have often forgotten to keep the oil level maintained properly. I have checked it more than once and the dipstick was bone dry. Original engine and transmission and it currently has over 258,000 miles and has been a Pennsylvania car all it’s life. You literally can’t kill these things. Shout out to the 3rd/4th Gen Camry Krew FB group. Also, you can see where my 90’s Camry adventures at @chip_and_ausonia on Instagram.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
2 months ago
Reply to  popopopo

I’d endorse the 5S-FE as well. I cared for one from 170k to just before 320k miles. Oil changes & timing belts at regular intervals. Spark plugs every 60k. In a 92 Camry it was perfect for a non-enthusiast: soulless, but unstoppable

Concurrently, a neglectful friend had a 94. Only changed oil when I badgered her. Transmission fluid looked like my diesel’s oil-but with glitter-when it started slipping around 260k, but the motor was still smooth

ghostpedalsyndrome
ghostpedalsyndrome
2 months ago
Reply to  popopopo

Good call.

tacotruckdave
tacotruckdave
2 months ago

I believe any engine in a crappy low powered no options car will last a long time. Unless you mess with them. They are built for more but with low power no option it is like having a car motor on a motorcycle. Never runs at more than 80% and no extras to kill it by accident.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
2 months ago

That was basically my list. My dad who manages to kill cars regularly hasn’t yet managed to kill his 2010 Yaris. Slow, noisy and the 5 speed stick is like rowing through mashed potatoes despite us changing the fluid.

Add in the 2AR-FE found in RAV4’s and Camrys since forever and the K series. Those are long lived if the oil is changed sometimes.

rabob128
rabob128
2 months ago

You sure you’re using the right fluid? My Toyota takes GL-4 and it HAS to be GL4 even if the viscosity is the same.

rabob128
rabob128
2 months ago

Toyota 2TR-FE. 6 quart oil capacity for a 4 cylinder. Hydraulic valves so no adjustments. Ridiculously long mile spark and coolant intervals. They use it in Toyota Tacomas in the US but it gets used in literal city busses in developing countries. Barely can get out of its own way but will chug until the end of time as long as its got oil.

HammerheadFistpunch
HammerheadFistpunch
2 months ago

My nomination would be any Toyota UR engine, except maybe the 2UR-GSE…even then I’d bet its solid. The 1UR-FE and 3UR-FE? Yeah, those are going to run forever and ever.

Runner up is the obvious choice – LS. It’s almost never the engine that scraps a GM truck, its the everything else.

HammerheadFistpunch
HammerheadFistpunch
2 months ago

I can’t count the number of L61’s I’ve helped fixed for friends and neighbors. It’s never anything huge, it’s always something like alternators, or cooling system issues or coil packs. The engineering might be good but its still cheap parts.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
2 months ago

Back in the late 80s or early 90s, any Japanese four banger in a small car was going to last and last and last with basic maintenance done. Mazda 323, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla: all of them next to bulletproof.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
2 months ago
Reply to  Rollin Hand

Shoutout to the 22R-E in my 1983 Celica GT, possibly my favorite car I’ve ever owned.

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
2 months ago

The GM 3800 was a go-to for the longest time. They all must have over a quarter million miles on them now, though

v10omous
v10omous
2 months ago
Reply to  TheHairyNug

Nah, enough old people owned Lesabres and the like that you can still find lower mile examples.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  v10omous

Its been long enough since they were last in production that most of them have either been handed down to the original owners’ fentanyl enthusiast grandson, or abandoned in the far corner of the retirement community’s parking lot and turned into a mouse and moss colony. Getting harder and harder to find ones that aren’t totally trashed, but they are out there.

Cam.man67
Cam.man67
2 months ago
Reply to  TheHairyNug

Can confirm. My FIL’s Olds was ridden hard by every member of the family as a backup vehicle for years. Aside from the coolant standpipe issue the engine ran without complaint and racked up tons of miles.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago

The air cooled VW engine – there is LOTS of regular maintenance that you need to do to keep them running properly, but, if you forget, repeatedly, over the course of a year or several, they’ll still fire up (eventually) and run poorly, but still run in some fashion, enough to get you around town at least. It takes a lot of wilful neglect before they turn into static paperweights, assuming you start with a good one in the first place before destroying it

ZanzibarBuckBuckMcFate
ZanzibarBuckBuckMcFate
2 months ago

I have had both a Cavalier and Sunfire. Multiple Sunfires, now I think on it… Can confirm the durability. Both sides of my family are from Ohio.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

I’ve always had a soft spot for Sunfires. I even liked the last gen with the controversial futuro-wedge front end.

4jim
4jim
2 months ago

Ford 300ci I-6 or the Jeep 4.0L I-6
stone simple run forever

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