I have some interest in picking up a commuturd. For those not familiar with this term, a definition: a cheap car that gets used almost strictly for going to and from work. My commute is about 24 miles each way.

I have a few strict requirements:

  • A manual transmission
  • Air conditioning
  • The ability to get at least 40 MPG without serious hypermiling.
  • A price tag as far under $1000 as possible, under $500 if it can be accomplished.
  • Mechanical systems in decent repair

Naturally there are some things that would be nice, but are not required:

  • Cruise control
  • Four doors
  • A workable radio and CD player

The goal here is to have a car that will last long enough (2-3 years) without major repair costs that when it finally dies, I can look for a car just like it and start over. If I’ve got to get a loan and put full insurance coverage on it, then it’s not worth doing. I’ve also got kids that will be driving relatively soon, and if they can keep up with it, they’ll need a car.

My ’91 Camry was averaging about 25 MPG before I started hypermiling, now I can occasionally get a little higher than 30MPG. That car will be a great thing for my wife to drive for ferrying kids around most of the time. It would be better than the huge van she uses now, which gets about 10-12 MPG. We will still need the van, but if we can drive it a lot less, we’ll save money.

I’ve been told that the Honda Civics from the early to mid 1990s might meet my requirements. I’d like to know if anyone out there knows of any other models that would qualify, or even better would be knowledge of specific cars I can look at.

7 responses to “commuturd”

  1. I have a 94 Saturn that is used for just what you are talking about, it doesn’t even have a radio in it, since it has been stolen twice, the car, the stereo has been stolen 4 times :(. It is a manual with A/C and it gets about 34 mph without hypermiling. These cars tend to last a long time if minimal maintenance. The major repairs that I have done in the 10 years that we have owned it is we have replaced the radiator and the starter. Along with normal maintenance. They don’t tend to hold thier value very well so you can pick them up pretty cheap.

      • Mine is an SL2 with the fancy DOHC (dual over head cam) engine but other than that there is nothing special about it. I should mention though at 221K miles the clutch is going out and I am expecting to replace it with in the next month or 2. Saturns do tend to burn oil and after a while they will also start to smoke. It is a good idea to take it for a test drive and have someone watch the tailpipe to make sure there isn’t any smoke coming out of it.

  2. There have been some great articles in Wired magazine about this very subject.

    I’m going to quote from the June 2008 issue page 163:

    “Buy a decade-old Toyota Tercel, which gets a respectable 35 mpg… Better yet, buy a three-cylinder, 49-horsepower 1994 Geo Metro XFi, one of the most fuel-efficient cars ever built. It gets the same average mileage as a 2008 Prius.”

    My 1995 Saturn SL1 is currently getting 41-44 mpg and matches all your criteria (and I think they are selling for less than $1,000). I commute 22 miles one-way to work (44 round trip) making my cost per day about $4.

    The thing that has helped most, however, is carpooling. I now carpool with two others from my office who live in the area and I now need to fill up only once every 3.0-3.5 weeks cutting my cost to drive down to about $50 per month averaging about $2.5 per day.

    Good luck on your search!

    • Carpool would be great, but isn’t practical. I do have a cow-orker who lives close by, but I take the girls to two different middle schools in the morning and his kids are in elementary school.

  3. What the car guys say about civics (CVCC if you want the proper term) is very straightforward – they’re like bellybuttons. Everyone’s got one and they’re nothing special, but people would look at you funny if you didn’t have one.

    They are absolutely the common man’s beater car – expect 200-400K out of a well maintained engine (which involves getting the timing belt and oil replaced on or ahead of schedule), and the usual other things that crap out over the miles, but expect all repairs to be exceedingly inexpensive since the parts are practically ubiquitous. I would urge a certain amount of caution about the early 90s automatics though – their transmissions have a known design flaw in that they weren’t well matched to the engine (my room mate’s ’94 is having that issue occasionally). Also, just don’t set yourself up with a carburetor – make sure it’s an Si or Fi model (sports injected / fuel injected) – the injectors keep the exhaust running cleaner, the fuel mileage up, and are easier all the way around to keep street legal if you have smog tests.

    The other suggestions you have here are also great – though I’d shy away from a tercel (or any toyota) – but that’s superstition on my part, nothing having to do with the actual mechanical value of the machine, it’s just that I’ve almost died in too many toyotas, and there really is no “after the accident” for those cars – one good hit and they’re beyond repair.

    Of course that’s true of any lightweight japanese body from that time period. I have driven a metro Xfi – quite enjoyed it, but it’s not a freeway car in my opinion.

    Many of your criteria may be met by a subaru legacy wagon, but they tend to be money pits in terms of mechanical upkeep (though the all wheel drive is nice in winter).

    The best advice I could give you is to think about what you’re using a commuturd for… is it really important to have a car sitting in the parking lot for eight to ten hours, or are there public transport options? Two trips to the middle schools and then to the nearest park’n’ride would save more money on gas than any vehicle selection.

    • Great information on the Civic. I don’t want an automatic transmission, and that problem is even more reason to avoid them. Fuel injection is definitely a good idea.

      As for Toyota, I don’t have a terribly aversion to them, despite sharing one of those near death experiences you’ve mentioned. I think that I’m likely to find better luck with a Honda, though. The Metro is even more of a tin can, and since I drive on I-215, that won’t be my first choice.

      Thankfully this is the last year of middle school for the girls, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be bussed to high school. One of the middle schools is halfway to work, and about two blocks from the nearest Trax station. I tried taking Trax a few years ago, but since I have to drive half the distance anyway, it just wasn’t worth it for the extra amount of time it takes and the expense of the pass. They’re just barely starting construction on a new Trax line out west, and there will be a station about two blocks from my house, so I’ll give it another try in a couple of years when they’re done.

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