New and used cars are bleeding expensive, and it feels like there’s no way around it. But cheap cars still exist, and in fact, you can even find fun stuff in the sub-$5,000 price range right now. We want to prove that fun, interesting, or just outright practical cars still exist at an affordable price. Here's a selection from one of the best places to spot cars: Los Angeles, California.
Rising costs resulting from a variety of factors like the pandemic and inflation have made $5,000 the new $2,500. Old, used, but high-quality crapcans will probably never be the same after the chaos that was the 2021 car market. But when brand-new cars are regularly marked up five grand or more, why wouldn’t you spend that otherwise wasted money on a perfectly fine bit of old automotive engineering?
Heads up: The Garage’s “five under five” highlights five cars listed under $5,000 within a specific geographic region. The idea is to keep a finger on the low-end car market’s pulse and provide some context on the current state of what’s on Craigslist. Be advised: We don’t know these sellers and haven’t seen any of these cars in person. We’re just sharing them based on what’s apparent in the ad, so break out your wallet at your own risk!
2007 Mini Cooper S
- Price: $3,999
- Miles: 145,492
This 2007 Mini Cooper S with a manual transmission is a perfect example. I originally sought an R53-generation supercharged Cooper S for this list but could not find a suitably decent one, as most of them have exploded. This Cooper S is the R56 model with the turbocharged N14 engine based on an old PSA Group engine design called the Prince engine.
I will caveat this one by saying these are known for being problematic, primarily with oil leaks, cooling system issues, and turbocharger issues, but can be incredibly rewarding for someone who is a decent wrench and won’t cower at the words “service position.” It does the job of being a hot hatch well because it’s lightweight, small, and tuned well, but it also looks quite fashionable. These cars are perhaps a bit forgotten, but they offer a lot for little money. Keep this one in your heart.
2007 Honda Accord
- Price: $3,000
- Miles: 220,114
For those who aren’t as brave of heart or just want reliable transportation, the Honda Accord is a go-to. The only real issue with them is that they can be a boring way to get around, so I specifically searched for a V6-powered example. This one is automatic, unfortunately, but that does make it a hell of a cruiser, especially with the dignified 3.0-liter J30 V6.
These Accords do have something resembling sporty about them. It won’t impress you on a back road, but it does have dual-wishbone front suspension and reasonably decent steering if memory serves me. It’s erring heavily on the comfortable daily driver side but they can be made decently fun with some suspension tweaks. This car also holds the honor of being the least unhinged car I will suggest to you, which brings me to our next cut of automotive sirloin.
1986 BMW 325e
- Price: $4,500
- Miles: 180,000 (reported)
Most of us recognize that the E30 market is in shambles and most of them are expensive, so don’t hold your hopes for a $5,000 325i or even a 318i. The best we can hope for now is the positively soporific 325e.
The engine might consume gasoline, but it delivers power in an uncannily diesel-like way. Genuinely, this 2.7-liter low-revving economy engine is a dog, but everything else about the car is still the same brilliant E30. And for the $4,500 this costs, save some pennies and swap in something better. Old E36 M50 engines are cheap these days, and the swap isn’t that hard.
2001 Nissan Pathfinder
- Price: $3,500
- Miles: 192,550
The public loves SUVs and trucks right now to the point that it’s even hard to find affordable quality examples that are 20-30 years old. I’m giving away a major secret here, and it’s called the 2001 Nissan Pathfinder. It’s pretty much the last cheap, properly four-wheel-driven SUV money can buy. The aftermarket for these might not be as strong as what you'd find for Land Cruisers or Jeeps, but these were popular internationally and definitely have potential.
Finding a manual 4x4 under $5,000 is difficult, to say the least, and it will most likely be beaten to near death. This truck looks reasonably clean, uses an excellent VQ35 V6 engine, and with decent tires should wheel up a proper trail with minimal fuss. You can have it all folks, and it’s called an old Nissan Pathfinder.
2008 Volkswagen Golf GTI
- Price: $4,800
- Miles: 143,000
For the final entry on this list, I chose familiar territory. As a GTI person myself, I know the intricate details of owning one. This 2008 GTI is of the Mk5 generation, the first of the modern VW GTIs. With a new clutch and some services, this one should be set to drive for a while. Most importantly, this car is cheap, blends excellent performance with van-like practicality, and is a great car to modify.
They also only have a minor tendency to explode. Seriously, these are great cars. But they do take attention and care. If you do that, I can say confidently that this car is worth the headache for the breadth of talent it possesses.
Doing this list has shown me that all is not grim in the car market. I will concede that the choices are much slimmer than they were just a couple of years ago, but there are still choices and that’s the important part. Some are projects, some will just work, but all are interesting or good in their own right. I also may buy that Pathfinder if nobody else does.