Home » You Could Get A Real Car For That Much: 1984 Chrysler LeBaron vs 1995 Saturn SL1

You Could Get A Real Car For That Much: 1984 Chrysler LeBaron vs 1995 Saturn SL1

Sbsd 8 28 2023
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Welcome back to another week of bargain-basement automotive silliness! Today is all about choices. Well, I guess every day is all about choices on here, but today’s choice is between two real cars, and a toy car. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s find out how Friday’s roundup went down:

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Interesting! I expected the Lincoln to do better, from the support it seemed to have in the comments. But that Benz is an awfully nice car. Or at least, it could be, if you dragged it out of the ditch and washed the poor thing.

Now, as many of you know, I have a serious interest, bordering on obsession, with radio-controlled model cars. I’ve been involved in the hobby for thirty-seven years now, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. I’m not the only Autopian writer who has been bitten by the RC bug, either: Adrian Clarke, our favorite grouchy goth, races a Tamiya touring car at the club level, and has some other RC models as well, I believe. And Peter Vieira, our social media and art guru, was once the editorial director of RC Car Action magazine. And aside from RC, I think all of us have sizeable model and toy car collections of some kind or other.

I’m contemplating another RC purchase, and it’s a bit on the spendy side: Kyosho’s re-release of their legendary Optima Mid 4WD buggy. I’ll spare you what I could turn into a very lengthy history lesson, but this car was A Big Deal in the RC world in its day, and has become a highly sought-after collector’s item these days. I had an original one about fifteen years ago, stupidly sold it, and have been drooling over the re-release since it came out.

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One of the more irritating comments that non-RC people make about RC cars is that “You could get a real car for that much!” But can you? And more to the point, would you want to? It seems like a worthy thing to investigate. The Optima Mid kit is $389 without any running gear; figure $500-600 to get it up and going if you’re starting from scratch. I found two kinda-sorta-running “real cars” that need a little work, and could probably be back on the road for not much more than that. Let’s check them out.

1984 Chrysler LeBaron convertible – $450

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.6 liter overhead cam inline 4, three-speed automatic, FWD

Location: north of Hillsboro, OR

Odometer reading: 46,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Ran when parked, will start if you pour gas in the carb

This car has been for sale for quite a long time. I’ve almost featured it a couple of times, but resisted, usually because it popped up again for sale right after I had already subjected you all to some other K car. But now, since the theme is $500 cars, this old LeBaron’s moment to shine has come. It’s the first-generation LeBaron convertible, featuring the worst engine – the Mitsubishi-built 2.6 liter four. This boat anchor somehow seemed to work all right in Monteros and Mighty Max trucks, and a turbocharged variant powered the beloved Starion and Chrysler Conquest coupes, but for some reason when it was turned sideways and stuck under the hood of the K cars, it decided to suck.

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This one ran when it was parked, the seller says, and will still start up if you supply it with fuel directly to the carb. My guess is that the fuel tank and lines are all gunked-up from sitting, and cleaning everything out would help matters a lot. Of course, there are all kinds of other systems in cars that don’t like downtime either, so I would imagine there’s quite a lot of work to do here.

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Unfortunately, during all that sitting around, the top has been in tatters, and if I’m reading the ad right, the driver’s side window is also broken, leaving all sorts of points of entry for our soggy Oregon weather and all the flora that it brings with it. I can imagine the smell inside this car, and it’s not pleasant.

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Outside, things are much better. It appears to be rust-free, and all the trim is intact. But the paint is shot, and the chrome is peeling off all the plastic parts. You might find some rust in the floors if you pulled up the carpet, depending on how much water actually got in. But that little crystal hood ornament is still present and accounted for, so that’s something.

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You might be saying to yourself, “This guy has finally lost his mind! What possible use could I have for a nasty old LeBaron convertible?” I’m glad you asked! Paint it green, apply some woodgrain shelf-paper to the sides, burn the interior (which you might have to do anyway), dress up in a parka, and you’ve got a perfect Planes, Trains, and Automobiles -themed Gambler 500 ride. Just make sure the radio still works.

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1995 Saturn SL1 – $400

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.9 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Beaverton, OR

Odometer reading: 206,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but overheats, and also needs brakes

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Not buying it, huh? Figuratively or literally? All right, then, how about the pride of Spring Hill, Tennessee? Here we have a late-run first-generation Saturn SL1 sedan, featuring the single overhead cam version of the “Saturn Power Module” (that’s an engine, to the rest of us) and a five-speed manual transmission. It’s a ways north of 200,000 miles, but still starts and runs. Unfortunately, it can’t go far before overheating, and the seller says it’s going to need brakes soon as well.

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The tags are only just about to expire, but the thickness of the dust tells me that it has been sitting for at least a while. They’ve also dropped the price from $600 to $400, which tells me they’d take even less. It’s parked at an apartment complex, where the property managers generally don’t like extra cars hanging around, especially ones with expired tags. All of this information, taken together, leads me to ask only one question: Where’s Stephen Gossin when you need him?

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Surprisingly, the inside is not half bad. Everything looks intact, and for whatever reason that Saturn industrial-gray interior cloth wears like iron. The seller notes that the CD player in the aftermarket stereo doesn’t work – it looks like the same Pioneer unit that was in my old Corolla when I got it. That one didn’t work either.

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Mostly this car just looks old and tired, and in need of some freshening up. These aren’t great cars to drive, but they’re acceptable, and they do seem to hold up well to neglect and high mileage. The seller suggests that it would be a good car to teach a younger driver how to drive a manual. I’ll add to that notion, and say that the mechanical repairs would be a good learning opportunity as well. Buy this for your kid, and spend a couple of weekends with them whipping it into shape, and then they’re invested in it , and might be less inclined to just trash it.

I’m old enough to remember when functional, if not exciting, $500 cars were easy to find. Those days seem to be gone. I’m also old enough to remember that Tower Hobbies originally sold the Kyosho Optima Mid for $169, which seemed like an unattainable fortune to a high school kid. Nowadays, I can swing the Optima Mid, and I have no need for a $500 car, so I know which way I’m going. But what about you? Which, if either, of these appeals more to you than a 1/10 scale toy?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
9 months ago

Saturn all the way! I wish I would have seen this yesterday, but it looks like it won without my help. I drove the same car in high school except it was an automatic. My older sisters used it before me, so it wasn’t in the best shape when I got it. These have the tendency to burn a bit of oil, and my older sister ran it dry at one point which didn’t help things. Ours was a great 90’s-tastic teal. It survived some light off-roading and several wrecks before my dad traded her in. I ended up with a tan ‘95 SL2 with a manual in college which was a great little car. It was still running great when I got rid of it at 180,000 miles.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
9 months ago

> this old LeBaron’s moment to shine has come

There is no star bright enough in the welkin above capable of making that heap shine.

That is the most reprehensible vehicle ever featured in this column. Even Gossin’s fungal Buick is a better option.

STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
9 months ago

Im so sure. The moonroof sprung another lean and it turned back into a bathtub this week. Updates to come shortly.

LeBaron for this guy!

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
9 months ago

Wow.

STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
9 months ago

Typo on the above: * I’m not so sure*

I kinda missed the boat on those 1st gen K-Cars with being 43, although my grandfather had a Plymouth Reliant. He thought it was amazing since it had a bock heather that plugged into the house to help with startups in the brutal Upstate NY winters (back when the planet was cooler).
By the time I was able to start the Backyard Shitbox Rescue business, they were gone.

A car like this LeBaron sounds like a fun adventure/challenge! That Saturn is cool too, but much less unique in today’s market/landscape.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
9 months ago

Isn’t the environment better off with that LeBaron operating as a Pepsi can, rather than a motor vehicle (inasmuch as it ever was one)?

Lucas Wozniak
Lucas Wozniak
9 months ago

This wasn’t even a challenge for me. For one, I hate Chrysler products (but I do have an odd fascination with pseudo-brougham 80s shitboxes). Anyways, I digress.

The Saturn was an easy choice for me because I grew up riding in one; a ’99 SL. The thing had exactly two options on it when my mother and step father bought it off the showroom floor (literally) one brisk Saturday evening in March of 1999: a cassette player and air conditioning.

My mom enjoyed driving a manual transmission back in her younger days, so she skipped the automatic and saved something like $995. She had never previously owned a car with power windows, so the trusty ole crank windows didn’t bother her. Her only requirement was that it had air conditioning.

She failed to realize that the base SL lacked power steering, something that turned out to be somewhat of a challenge for all 95 pounds of my mother. This was the main reason she only kept the Saturn for 5 years before convincing my step father to take over the Saturn as his commuter and get herself a new Kia.

That very same car is sitting under my carport outside right now. My parents gave it to me when I turned 16 since it was deemed not valuable enough to trade in on my step dad’s new Hyundai back in 2006.

In it’s nearly 25 years on this planet, it has caused our family very little trouble. A couple batteries, a couple sets of front brakes, a few sets of tires, and of course a fair amount of extra 5w-30 between changes.

It’s not a particularly exciting car to drive, but it puts a smile on my face almost every time I drive it. At this point I’ve been the car’s longest owner, having had it since 2006 when it had a mere 52,000 miles on its digital odometer.

I always get a kick out of pulling up at a stoplight next to a punk kid in a civic with a fart can on it and giving him a run for his money. All 100 horses of the 1.9 “single jingle” engine are enough to chirp the tires on the 1-2 shift, but that’s about it. That said, I have clocked it twice on the interstate at nearly 47mpg.

I’m in my 30s now, and have owned probably 20+ cars since I turned 16. I haven’t been able to bring myself to sell my little blue Saturn, and I don’t think I ever will.

Unclesam
Unclesam
9 months ago

The Saturn was easy to vote for, however all the comments saying it’s good first transportation for a kid are scary.
I learned to drive stick in the wagon version of that Saturn (+- a model year, anyway) when I was in high school. It was fun to drive then, especially in contrast to the minivan. However, one winter evening I drove it to the movies with my gf, and a storm blew through while we were in the theatre and the temperature dropped to about zero. I had enough sense to drive home cautiously on the unpaved roads but taking a moderate downhill with a 90 degree turn at about 15mph, I turned the wheel but the car just kept going straight. We bumped the guardrail and I got to learn what an airbag to the nose feels like. All that plastic on the front drivers quarter basically shattered in the cold, the frame bent, and the car was toast. We were both fortunately unhurt, but given how rough the car was, I shudder to think what a crash at normal driving speed would have looked (or felt) like.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
9 months ago
Reply to  Unclesam

Saturn used to tout that with the spaceframe construction, the body panels didn’t need to be structural (hence plastic), so it may not have been so bad. Even when the IIHS tests were new they did decently when a lot of cars both big and small faired poorly.

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
9 months ago
Reply to  Unclesam

It really depends on the condition of the crash. In the cold, those body panels get super brittle, so it’s no wonder they shattered.

I had a ’97 SC1 coupe that I literally bounced off the front fender of a Honda Civic at a 40 MPH differential sideswipe (he jumped from a stopped lane of traffic on the freeway into my lane without looking, and I was just idiotic enough to think driving at 50 next to a stopped lane was a good idea).

The Saturn suffered exactly zero permanent damage. Just a big rubber streak on the right quarter from his tire, which buffed out with a little elbow grease. His Civic suffered a fist-sized dent in the left front fender. We both just went “phew”, agreed not to be that dumb again, shook hands, and went on our respective ways.

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