Tech Tips > Used Car Tips

Buying a used car?

We can inspect a Volvo, Toyota, Lexus or Scion the day you call or, at the latest, the next day. We need the car for about 4 hours.

It's worth having the car checked out by a shop that knows that make and model of car. We can put any issues we find with the car in perspective, and we will not give you lots of unimportant information.


Notes on buying a used Volvo

People often ask us what used cars we recommend. Don't forget that the particular car and the shape it's in are usually more important than it's type. Also, don't forget to get any used car checked out at a good shop, preferably one that specializes in that make of car--they'll know what's normal and what's not, and they can give you a good idea of what you have to look forward to in the life of your new car.

Over the years, we've come up with some generalizations about cars we work on. These opinions are the result of our experience and not scientific research, so take them for what they're worth and take them at your own risk. Here are our ideas about some years and models of Volvos:

S70 and S60(sedans) and V70(wagons): The S70 and V70 were introduced in 1998, with the S70 giving way to the S60 in 2001. They are basically improved 850s and are very nice used cars, although the 2001 S60s and V70s seem to have had more than their share of glitches. Most of the 70 series information also applies to the 850 series (see below). There are 3 levels of performance available most years (high-pressure turbo, low-pressure turbo, and non-turbo) and your choice of manual or automatic transmission on most models. The high-pressure turbo often comes on cars with a rougher ride and more expensive tires due to their high-performance suspension. Starting in 1999, the service and timing belt intervals were extended resulting in lower maintenance costs.

All Wheel Drive (AWD): The V70XC (Cross Country Wagon) and some sedans and wagons come with all wheel drive. If you don't have a specific need for AWD (going to the snow a lot, for example), it is best not to buy a cross-country wagon or the AWD S70 or V70. All the AWD cars require precise tire-matching (which in turn requires that you occasionally discard one or more tires that aren't really worn out). The purchase and maintenance costs are also higher. If you do need AWD, we suggest that you get a 2003 year model or newer, since the system was changed to be more forgiving of tire variation that model year.

S80 Models: Luxury cars. Very comfortable, very safe, good performance, higher maintenance costs.

S60 Models: First made in 2001, the S60 replaced the S70(last made in 2000) in Volvos sedan slot.

S40 Models: The smallest Volvos available, they are popular with our customers that own them. They are not, however, as nice as the fuller-sized cars.

850 Models: These cars have front wheel drive, which was a radical departure from Volvo's traditional rear wheel drive construction. As a result, the steering has a different feel, so check it out--you may either like it or dislike it. It's best to avoid the first year--in this case 1993. We recommend looking for a 1995 or later model.

960 Series (and S90 sedans and V90 wagons): 960s are the luxury Volvos of their era. We strongly recommend not buying a 1992 960--the timing belts that year were poorly designed. In fact, we are giving a "Don't Buy" recommendation for the 960s and the S and V90s despite the fact that they're rear wheel drive, comfortable, and very safe. At first they were quite reliable, but in recent years they have had too many large (read "expensive") problems.

940 Series: The 940 series is the last iteration of the noble 4-cylinder engine family that first appeared in the 1976 240 with cast-iron blocks and aluminum cylinder heads (called red engines). Cars come in turbo and non-turbo models and, like the 740s and 240s before them, are rear wheel drive cars. We think they're a good choice as a used car. Try driving one before you buy it and check for visibility to the rear, especially if it's a sedan. And remember the cautions in the 700 series section below about 16-valve motors and Regina Rex injection systems.

700 series: First, stay away from 6-cylinder engines and ZF transmissions (a transmission with design flaws found in some 700 series cars from 1985-1987 --if your automatic has a button on the side to switch in and out of overdrive, it's not a ZF). It's also best to avoid the Regina Rex fuel injection system (a somewhat rare setup found on some non-California, non-turbo models) and 16 valve motors (usually found in 740 GLEs from 1989 on and in some 940s).

700 series cars come with turbo and non-turbo engines. Turbos are more fun; non-turbos are simpler and therefore less expensive to buy and maintain. With a little luck, the difference in maintenance and repairs between the two is not as dramatic as you might think, but it's crucial to keep a turbo's cooling system (radiator, hoses, water pump, etc.) in top-notch shape. We can install a coolant-low warning system as added insurance. The 740 is the basic model, the 760 the luxury model. 700 models were given safety features like a driver's air bag and anti-lock brakes sooner than 240 models, especially 760s. Starting in 1988, 760 turbo sedans come with independent rear suspension.

1989-1993 240 models: Good safe cars. Starting with 1990 they have driver's side air bags, starting with 1991 they have anti-lock brakes, and the 1993 models have air conditioning designed for modern refrigerant so you don't have to worry about retrofitting away from R-12 (the older refrigerant that is no longer being produced for environmental reasons).

1985 DL and GL models and 1986-88 240 models: Good economical used cars. Worth keeping up due to their Volvo-ness; they're safe, comfortable, and long lasting workhorses. The fuel injection and ignition systems are among the most reliable found on Volvos, somewhat simpler and more reliable than the 1989 and up 240s. The 1987 and 1988 manual transmission cars have a 5-speed transmission that can break and is expensive--automatics preferred.

1983-1984: Although many of our customers get a lot of use out of their 1983 and 1984 DLs and GLs, we don't recommend buying these years as used cars. The B23 engine was only made for 2 years and is gutless even for a Volvo. Their cost of repairs, which is higher than for the years before or after, seems too high to make these cars worth it.

1977-1982 4cyl.: Workhorse cars but very old by now. A candidate for the low-budget owner or for the learning-to-drive teenager.

1981-1985 4cyl. turbos: Too high on maintenance, too low on performance.

Cars with 16 Valve Motors: Strongly not recommended.

All cars with V-6 motors: Strongly not recommended.

Before 1977: Too old to even consider.


Notes on buying a used Toyota

Hybrids: Prius design was a great start to producing cars with better environmental impact. Introduced in 2000, the Prius uses a hybrid system which consists of a gasoline engine and an electric motor to provide good performance with excellent gas mileage and low emissions. The Generation I Prius (2000-2003) was good but has been improved on by the Gen. II (2004-2009) and the new Gen. III. Starting with 2004, the Prius has the now-familiar "hybrid shape" and an improved hybrid system, including more extensive use of the electric motor and regenerative braking. As a result, it has better performance and better gas mileage. The Gen III has a larger gas engine which is more powerful and counter-intuitively gets even better gas mileage as it runs on gas less often. Generally, a Prius owner only needs to add gas, service the car regularly, and buy tires.

Other Hybrids: The Camry and Highlander are available in hybrid versions, providing a larger car or SUV with small-car-comparable gas mileage and emissions. Note: Before you buy an older used hybrid, check the remaining warranty on the car and the main battery pack, and for its accident history (we do not recommend buying a salvaged hybrid). Be aware that all hybrids are complex vehicles which may some day require high repair costs (this remains to be seen). So far Toyota has corrected (under warranty) many of the significant problems our customers have run into, and other repairs have been few and far between.

Corollas: Corollas have always been good cars. Many very high mileage cars of the 1990's are still going strong. There was a large design change in 1998 which caused the newer Corollas to handle differently and made them somewhat noisier, but all Corollas are extremely reliable.

Matrix: The Matrix has a Corolla drive train. It is the closest thing to a station wagon that Toyota currently makes. We often see damage to plastic lower body panels due to its low ground clearance and decorative spoilers but this is usually not too hard to repair and is mostly esthetic.

Camry and Avalon: Good, comfortable and reliable for the most part, although the 4 cylinder cars of the mid to late 2000's have had slightly more necessary repairs than earlier models. We recommend 1995 or newer V6 motors. The four-cylinder is less expensive to maintain, but the V6 is a pleasure to drive. We don’t recommend buying a V6 made before 1995. Avalons are V6 Camrys only more luxurious. Avalons as a type can provide good used car values—a luxury car at a reasonable price.

Tacomas, Pickups and 4Runners: These vehicles are very reliable. The 4 cyl. engine has the advantage of having a timing chain rather than a timing belt (a belt requires periodic replacement), but sometimes needs moderately expensive engine repair. Try for a 1996 or later model if you choose a V6 engine. It can be hard to find a good used truck or 4Runner as people tend to hold on to them: a pre-purchase inspection is therefore especially important. An additional note about trucks--if you do not need or want 4 wheel drive or raised suspension or giant wheels, don't buy a truck that has them.

Highlander and RAV4: Despite their sport utility appearance, these vehicles are more similar to a Camry than to a 4Runner or a pickup truck. As with pickups and 4-Runners, we recommend 2-wheel drive unless you really need 4-wheel drive.

Cheap Toyotas: The best bets are the older Corollas. Echos and Yaris' are good choices in the 2000 and later category. The Echo replaced the Tercel in 2000, the Yaris replaced the Echo in 2007. The Yaris is available in a sedan or hatchback style. So far the Echo and the Yaris seem to be good and very inexpensive cars.

Echo: The Echo replaced the Tercel in 2000, the Yaris replaced the Echo in 2007. The Yaris is available in a sedan or hatchback style. So far the Echo and the Yaris seem to be good and inexpensive cars.

Scion: There are several different body types for Scions, all based on Toyota models from the Yaris to the Camry and their performance is comparable.

Sienna and Previa: These are both reliable and durable vans. Maintenance costs are occasionally high— for example, the Previa requires the mechanic to remove the passenger's seat to get access to most of the engine compartment. There are many high mileage Previas still around but most are nearing the end of their useful lives. The Sienna is supposed to be one of the safest vans on the market.

The Big Boys: We don't work on any of the big vans or pickups (Tundra, Sequoia, etc.).

Advice

Please have a good mechanic, preferably one familiar with that make and model, inspect any car you are thinking of buying before agreeing to buy it. As with all advice, please take our recommendations as our considered opinion but not as the results of a scientific study or as the sole basis of a used-car decision.