Most of us will remember going in search of our first car, accompanied by a P-Plated mate or two, a slim wad of $20s in the back pocket, a torch and small magnet to detect ‘bog’ wherever it might be hiding.Skills like these haven’t been required for some time but as more of us are forced into the lower end of the car market they might make a comeback.

People during the recent past and months to come have or will be facing the prospect of handing back a new or late-model vehicle. Or having it hauled away on the repossession agent’s tilt-tray. Still they are going to need transport, so the question comes down what is affordable and how to negotiate a vehicle buying process that is more risky than most have experienced in a long time.

Come with us on the Tough Times guide to buying a vehicle in the lower price ranges and revive some of the skills you will need to ensure you do a decent deal.

Needs Not Wants

As anyone who has owned a ‘classic’ car will agree, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with older cars. The trick is to find one today in your price range that suits your needs and still generates some pride of ownership.

The comfort and convenience of later-model vehicle are things that some people will struggle to live without. However, cars built 10-15 years ago and in the ‘affordable’ $3000-5000 price bracket will include at least some of the same comforts as your recently-departed later model.

First up when shopping for a low-cost vehicle is to list all of the things that a car or commercial MUST provide. Having a kickass stereo or leather trim might be nice but they aren’t essential so leave them off. Attributes to consider when making a list of prospects include the number of people the vehicle needs to regularly carry and if you need to accommodate large objects. Even a folded pram can take up all the luggage space in a small hatchback, so a station wagon or people mover might be required.

Is the road to your place paved or rough? If the latter then look at cars and maybe 4WDs that will deal with the surface in all weather conditions.

Price is a very important consideration and so is how you might pay for even a low-cost form of transport. Leaving a bit in the budget for associated costs like vehicle inspection fees, the registration transfer, insurance and immediate repairs is important too.

Can you pay cash?

Your prospects for securing a better car for the money you have to spend will improve if you do. If you need to seek finance, how much can you feasibly allocate to monthly payments? It pays to also check your current credit score, especially if a car has been repossessed. If there’s a problem, consult a financial advisor or a community financial counsellor for guidance.


Practical cars are not by necessity boring or ugly. You can own a car that is cheap to run and provides all the space your family needs without having to hang your head in the drop-off zone. Japanese and Australian models generally offer the edge in this department. These models have over several decades built reputations for being durable, affordable and easy to maintain.

If you need to carry more than the average load of two adults and two others, think about a seven-seat people mover or 4WD. These will be larger, heavier and usually have bigger engines than an average car but how you use the vehicle will influence what it costs to run.

While smaller engines will use less fuel in city running , they struggle on the highway and especially when heavily laden. A six-cylinder engine running at a fraction of its capacity will use the same amount of fuel or perhaps even less than a hard-worked ‘four’.

Diesel-engined passenger models have become less acceptable in urban areas and by mainstream motorists. In the ‘bush’ though the diesel is still king and smelly hands after refuelling (carry paper towel and some liquid soap) is a small price to pay for the economy and mechanical longevity that these engines offer.

Choosing an older model without the features that today are deemed essential is a mistake. In a country with our extremes of temperature, air-conditioning is no longer optional and regularly-used vehicles without it have become rare. Nor should you skimp on ABS brakes, air bags and even power steering. Some small vehicles can be driven quite easily with unassisted steering but will be tough to resell without it.

But What If…

Justifications such as “we might want to go camping or tow something” or “I might need to carry extra people” are not valid reasons to saddle yourself permanently with a big 4WD or people-mover.

If at odd times you need to tow something or to carry more people than normally then hire one suited to the task. The overall cost will be way cheaper not to mention more convenient than driving something bigger and more unwieldy than you need every day.

Look especially at the weight and engine size of the vehicle you choose. These factors can affect the amount you will spend annually on registration and insurance. They also influence tyre and maintenance costs. Consider who will drive the vehicle and whether that means excluding younger family members or others who will add to your insurance bill.