Few things can ruin a day as quickly as going out to get in the car in the morning, cranking the ignition, and hearing nothing but clicks. Almost as bad would be backing out of a parking spot, only to find a slowly separating puddle of oil mixed with coolant spreading out from under where the car just sat overnight.
Most people these days seem to buy cars based on amenities like sunroofs and Bluetooth connectivity. In older days, though, automotive advertisements focused on reliability, which is a crucial component of longterm car ownership.
For anybody on the hunt for a great used car for cheap, here are 18 cheap options that might seem wonderful at first but will undoubtedly end up costing an arm and a leg to keep running.
Audi stunned the world when they unveiled the TT concept in 1995. What was even better was that the TT hit the market without many major changes and even included Audi's legendary Quattro all-wheel drive, which could be paired to a six-speed stick shift and a 225-horsepower four-banger. But as great as the TT is, it also struggles from reliability that's worse than a Tinder date.
The Eagle Talon is another car that seems great on paper and can be found for quite cheap on the secondhand market today. With an ECU tune and some suspension work, they're capable performers. But the Talon was built as a team-up with Mitsubishi—maybe whoever led the project couldn't quite translate their instructions into Japanese.
Mitsubishi has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in car culture these days because of how quintessentially 1990s the 3000GT is. And for its day, especially in VR4 trim, the car was impressive. But features like four-wheel steering and active aerodynamic bits are a nightmare to work on today, as is its crammed-to-the-brim engine bay.
Land Rover has always been known for producing capable off-roaders that should never go too far from the mechanic's shop. As the company moves towards more luxurious offerings these days, potential buyers should remember the Discovery. Sure, they're easy to find under $5,000 but they'll cost more than that every year to keep running.
Subaru's WRX and its steroidal big brother, the STI, have earned a serious fan club. It's hard to argue against the cars and there's even the bonus that anyone who owns them gets to learn how to wrench a little bit. With head gaskets blowing out left and right, a WRX can be perfect for a backyard mechanic—or someone with very deep wallets.
Around every corner in every traffic-clogged city sits another Fiat 500, the modern iteration of one of Italy's most classic car models. The new version is perfectly cute, eminently affordable, and drives respectably. But the proof is in the pudding: Fiat won't even lease out a gas-powered 500 because they sure don't want to have to worry about reliability after three years on the road.
Ford's entry-level model has long been the Fiesta. Unfortunately, the car is anything but a party. The reason Ford can keep the model's price tag so low is that the car is assembled out of the cheapest materials possible. Fiestas are even cheaper to buy used—at least, until the cost of ownership gets factored in.
The Scion FR-S, Subaru BRZ, and Toyota 86 are a set of triplets that offer spectacular handling, slick styling, and just enough power in the straights. Best of all, they're cheap! There are basically no competitors in their class, though unfortunately, these models are shooting themselves in the foot with engine recalls racking up seemingly by the day.
The old saying goes that anyone who wants to get a Jaguar should get two because one will always be in the shop. Jaguar has always made beautiful cars with luxurious interiors and respectably powerful engines. The cars are expensive when new but depreciate as quickly as anything on the market. As cheap as they are now, they are as high-maintenance as a brand can get.
Another Audi that seems like a solid bet to buy for cheap on the used car market is the mid-2000s S4, especially in station wagon or "Avant" form. Where else is there a six-speed, all-wheel-drive, V8-powered wagon? But the S4 is a notoriously complex car to work on—just Google timing chain guides to start the storm clouds circling.
Saturn as an entire marque was an attempt to market cheap cars to low-income youngsters that couldn't afford the cars they actually wanted. Nothing about the project seemed wise and anyone who has ever owned a Saturn will attest that they've either wisened up quickly or had to pony up huge amounts of cash to keep their clunker on the road.
Pontiac has a name that brings to mind some absolute gems. Models like the GTO established the GM subsidiary as a solid force back in the 1960s and 70s, but by the end of the 20th century and the first few years of the new millennium, that glow had faded. Case in point is this dejected Sunfire, which looks like nothing's wrong—of course, everything is wrong.
Nissan generally makes reliable commuter cars, like the Sentra, and a few stellar sportier offering, like the lineup of Z-cars and the Skyline GT-R variants. Generally speaking, they're reliable as reliable gets. But in the 1980s and 90s, they had the 300ZX, a wonderful car that just couldn't get out of its own way in terms of high maintenance costs due to unneeded complexity.
When BMW brought the modern incarnation of the Mini Cooper back to life, the design was paired with a powerful engine lineup and a sweet interior. Sadly, since then, the Mini has become a source of derision. Its tiny engine bay had to be packed full as if the engineers were playing Tetris, making even basic maintenance a serious chore.
The Chrysler Crossfire has terrible styling, an ugly interior, and notoriously rough reliability. Just about the only thing it has going for it is everything still left over from the Mercedes-Benz product upon which it was based. But this is more than just a rebadge mistake—of which there have been plenty—it's an all-out disappointment.
The Volkswagen Phaeton may be the most technologically advanced car available on the used market today at the lowest price imaginable. No car can match it in terms of luxury for under $5,000. But VW essentially took an Audi A8 and dropped in a W8 engine and a huge pile of model-specific parts. Reliability is one of the Phaeton's issues; expensive parts to fix what's broken is an even bigger problem.
A Porsche Cayenne can be found used these days for under $20,000 easily. Even the most diehard Porsche snobs have to admit that the SUV has been successful because it drives so well. But as sweet as owning a Porsche SUV for cheap might sound, it's nothing more than a pipe dream. Cayennes—and their Touareg and Q5 siblings—are so complex that the engine basically has to be dropped for anything more difficult than an oil change.
The PT Cruiser is probably the third worst retro-styled car to come out of Detroit in the late-1990s and early-2000s, after the Chevy SSR and the Plymouth Prowler. But where the SSR and Prowler were completely absurd, the PT Cruiser seemed rather pedestrian and actually usable. But maintenance issues pile up with the little van so quickly that most owners just drop them off at the junkyard rather than even attemping to keep their PT Cruiser running.
Sources: Jalopnik, Wikipedia, and The Truth About Cars.