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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Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
10 months ago

I unironically love that Saturn. 500$? That’s a great deal this day in age, for something that needs some sorting but could be a totally respectable daily for someone out there, with a pretty minimal amount of risk.

If the Saturn wasn’t included, I would have opted for the RC car over the Lebaron. That POS clearly needs insane amounts of work to end up with… a still beat Lebaron? Woof.

Six Inna Row Makes it Go
Six Inna Row Makes it Go
10 months ago

Having a kiddo that will be driving in a few short years, I like the idea of the $400 Saturn to learn to drive and wrench on. This is what my own dad did for me with a $300 1977 Chevette with a 4-speed manual and a bad flywheel (it ate starters like candy.)
I think it’s good to have a first car that generates a lot of good stories to share at parties later in life.

Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
10 months ago

Yeah both of those cost less than my Tamiya CR-01 and what I have in to it. Now that I think those two cars are each less than my DF-03MS too. Pretty crazy. I’d take the Saturn though

SAABstory
SAABstory
10 months ago

The answer is never K car.

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
10 months ago
Reply to  SAABstory

Unless the question is “what is the vilest excuse for a vehicle to come out of Detroit in the past 50 years.”

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
10 months ago

I’m not an RC guy, but I’m also not a $500 car guy, so maybe I’ll become an RC guy. I used to enjoy wrenching, but I did the brakes on my daily this weekend, and had zero fun. Job was easy, but no fun at all. Maybe it’s time to wrench on something different?

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
10 months ago

I love k cars! It would be an easy choice for me if it had anything else powering it, but that engine is a garbage fire. Saturn it is.

Lhn91
Lhn91
10 months ago

Had a 1992 Saturn SL2 with the 5spd and the DOHC motor. Honestly was a good car. I did have some cooling issues – I think the fan wasn’t working, but it kept cool enough once the vehicle was rolling, so I ignored it for a while then sold the car.

The only worry I have is the parts situation. Parts for the Saturn’s are getting hard to obtain. My Grandmother was still running a 96 SL1 until a couple months ago, when the shop told her it needed bushings, but they weren’t sure they could get suspension components if anything else broke in the process – they had already been pulling parts from the wreckers for a couple years at that point.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
10 months ago

Saturn is the easy choice. Clean it up and sort the overheating problem — could be thermostat, fan, a plugged radiator, a bad expansion tank or some combination of the above — and none of them are that terrible or expensive to tackle, especially with an otherwise decent car for short money.

Sure, it’s just the SOHC engine powering it, but at least it’s a manual. Fix it up, have some fun, and then flip it, likely at a profit, because there are die-hard Saturn fans out there who would happily snatch it up to use as a thrifty runabout/daily commuter.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago

When troubleshooting a modern car with electric fans, check the fan motors themselves: just because they come on does not mean they stay on!
-my gf got a Saturn with suspect head gasket for $500 once. An afternoon with it showed that the fan would come on, but went out on internal overload in just a few minutes and therefore the car overheated. $25 fan motor later it was g2g.
Voted manual Saturn

Nsane In The MembraNe
Nsane In The MembraNe
10 months ago

I went Saturn because I have an irrational love for the brand that’s entirely nostalgia driven. I’d give you shit about wasting money on RC cars but my primary hobby other than cars is one of the single most expensive and least useful ones there is…I’m a goddamn guitarist. I have over $5,000 worth of guitars, amps, and other musical gear in my basement that have literally never seen a stage and never will.

But then again that’s the cool thing about being an adult with disposable income…you can dedicate a chunk of it to being able to nerd out on your hobbies. I’ve long been critical of the nostalgia industrial complex (you’ll never see my ass going to one of these shameless millennial cash grab music festivals that have been popping up, for example) but teenage me would lose his shit if he saw early 30s NSane’s guitar collection and you know what? I don’t care if I’m being exploited by capitalism, to me that’s cool as hell.

RC car away. Hobby away. Life is short, you only get one, and existence is a real chore most of the time. Might as well enjoy yourself 🙂

PresterJohn
PresterJohn
10 months ago

I’m not an RC guy, so that was out. Among the real cars, the Saturn wins easily. Some light work will make that a very competent beater.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
10 months ago

For under 500 neither is a bad choice. Flipped a coin and the Saturn won.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
10 months ago

This is like having to choose between Rosanne Barr, Jane Fonda, or Christina Ricci. I’ll take the spinner: RC it is.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
10 months ago

It was a tough choice between the Saturn and the RC car. I ultimately chose the real car. Although at these prices … why not both?

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
10 months ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

Ditto. The Saturn is shouting “Lemons” at me!

Last edited 10 months ago by FloridaNative
Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
10 months ago
Reply to  FloridaNative

I’m more of a rallycross guy myself. It’s even cheaper to compete in.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
10 months ago

You know what’s expensive, racing! That Saturn is cheap. It’s time to start you own racing program, on a budget. Yes the single jingle is slower than a weekend in a cabin outside of cell reception with your in-laws. I’m totally convinced a Saturn Powerplant Module can actually overheat. That would imply something more is going on there then the lazily turning of gravity that powers this thing. You do get five gears though, less than a hundred dollars per gear. That’s sub bicycle per gear pricing. So, you future Saturn race car pilot. You may not be the fastest, but more speed only helps you get divorced faster. You can be the one race car driver with a healthy marriage, where your partner actually knows how much money you have in your hooptie. Practice pulling off to the side while you think about your enjoyable well rounded life in your new to you SL1.

Chronometric
Chronometric
10 months ago

sat·ur·nine adjective /ˈsadərˌnīn/ — slow and gloomy.

LeBaron – “Le” means “the” in French, and “baron” means “warrior” in Old English.

I took slow and gloomy over the middle aged warrior.

Ricki
Ricki
10 months ago

I’ll take the real car with the plastic body, but the small fake car with the plastic body might be fun, too.

I will never, ever pick a LeBaron. Ever.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
10 months ago

My freaky side wanted to vote for the LeBaron, because you can rip what’s left of the top off and use it as a fair weather car just for laughs. My logical side went with the Saturn because you could actually come out the other end of that project with a useable all-weather beater. Logic wins today because that Saturn is honestly not bad for the price. You could probably have it running well enough for less than $1,000 all in.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
10 months ago

Assuming something like the head gasket hasn’t gone, the Saturn will be an easy fix – it’s probably a failed ECTS or thermostat, or maybe a failed cooling fan or leaky line/air in the system. All very easy fixes.

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
10 months ago
Reply to  Tristan Hixon

The head gasket may not have been the original problem, but I would bet that it has been fried due to it by now. Still not necessarily a deal breaker, but out the other side, you have a Saturn with 200k on it… Not interested in the least.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
10 months ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

If it was the twin cam with the Gen 1 interior I’d be all over it, but as it is, it’s meh. Easy enough to tell if the head gasket is gone – just check the coolant and oil.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago
Reply to  Tristan Hixon

You reminded me about those ECTSs: prone to cracking & subsequently giving bad readings.
Saturns were a whole different world when I started working on them

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
10 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

One of the revisions of the part was made of brass instead of plastic. It’s an easy drop-in upgrade that prevents the cracking problem from occurring again.

Last edited 10 months ago by Tristan Hixon
V10omous
V10omous
10 months ago

A Saturn that clean has to be worth at least $400 in parts if nothing else.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
10 months ago

SL1. That LeBaron is going to need a lot, and in the end, not be worth much more than they are currently asking. Even at a few hundred bucks, it’s still a money trap.

Max Headbolts
Max Headbolts
10 months ago

This is the first time I can say that I’ve driven versions of both of these cars. The Saturn is both a lot more engaging to drive, and also not a soggy piece of moldy cheese to deal with.

Saturn FTW!

Toecutter
Toecutter
10 months ago

I’d buy the Saturn, fix the brakes, and build a budget EV conversion off of it from scrap golf cart parts. A lucky scrounger who did all the custom fabrication work themselves could get a 48V conversion up and running for under $1k in addition to the cost of the SL1, but if you used all brand new parts, you could get a 50 mile range and 35 mph top speed for about $3k.

Alternative: drop a Kubota diesel into it. See below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se68fQ-7IA8

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
10 months ago

If you are going to piss away $500.00 on a lark, it has to be the Chrysler. The Saturn isn’t a lark. It’s a blender with a leaking jug. It’s a stapler that’s hopelessly jammed. It’s a thing that does nothing for anyone, except take up a parking spot and stain the concrete. Fixing it would result in a crappy stapler or blender.

The Chrysler is like buying a scratch off lotto ticket, because at least there you’re getting a shot at some happiness.

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
10 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Green

Thank you! I actually went for the RC car, but removing that as an option I would still have never considered the Saturn. Those things make Corollas look engaging.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
10 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Green

See, I’d go the opposite way. Spent a fair amount of time in these Chryslers back in the day, and there’s very little that’s happiness-inspiring; it’s really hard to convey how terrible the driving experience is. The Saturn has a decade of improvement behind it, and while not exactly enthusiast material, is more engaging than an ’80s Chrysler.

Alexk98
Alexk98
10 months ago

There’s something charming about the SL1, and while I’m sure parts availability isn’t the best, having a car that is at least running, and stick instead of a 3-speed slush box makes this a slam dunk win in my book

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
10 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

I see nothing charming about the SL1. Not even having the right transmission makes that worth driving.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
10 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

A ’92 manual SL1 was my second-ever new car and apart from being driven to distraction by the rattling of metal (hood) against plastic (everything else), it was a good, solid car that with the stick (and a giant sunroof) was kind of fun to drive. I voted for the Saturn here too.

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