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The 10 Best Cars Under $1000: Our Chief Mechanics’s List

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Finding a decent car for under $1000 can be a challenge. These days, a fancy dinner can cost a grand, so it comes as no surprise that most cars that cost less than that either barely run or don’t run at all.

But if you spend enough time on Craigslist (or a similar website), you’ll eventually find an operable vehicle for under $1000. Just don’t expect your “new” ride to be pretty—or smell good.

The Most Reliable Cars Under $1000

Any car that you purchase for less than $1,000 is bound to have some mechanical and cosmetic issues. Still, there are some vehicles in that price range that are a better bet than others.

If you’re looking for the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to transportation, these $1000 cars are generally some of the most reliable options.

7th gen toyota corolla
The Toyota Corolla is the best-selling car of all time because of its unwavering dependability. Image source: Toyota

Seventh-Generation Toyota Corolla (1993 – 1997)

No, the Toyota Corolla isn’t exciting—it never has been, and probably never will be. The Corolla is, however, the best-selling car of all time, primarily because of its unwavering dependability. Many of the seventh-generation models (circa 1993-1997) are still on the road.

Since there are plenty of seventh-generation Corollas still kicking, finding one that costs less than a grand is totally doable.

1995 toyota camry
Nearly all Camrys, including the third generation, are known for being some of the most dependable cars on the road. Image source: Toyota

Third-Generation Toyota Camry (1992 – 1996)

If you’re looking for a clunker with a bit more cabin space than the Toyota Corolla provides, you can upgrade—if there is such a thing as “upgrading” in the ultra-cheap car category—to the slightly larger Toyota Camry.

Nearly all Camrys, including the third generation, are known for being some of the most dependable cars on the road. Also, if you’re one of those drivers who likes to remain incognito, a beige Toyota Camry will help you blend in wherever you go.

first gen toyota avalon
Aside from being a reliable hauler, all first-generation Toyota Avalon models come with a stout 3.0L V6 engine, plenty of conveniences, and ample interior space. Image source: Toyota

First-Generation Toyota Avalon (1995-1999)

In its day, the first-generation Toyota Avalon was considered to be quite luxurious. Decades later, even though the O.G. model has lost most of its allure, it’s still a reliable hauler. Plus, all first-generation models come with a stout 3.0L V6 engine, plenty of conveniences, and ample interior space.

The Avalon is an interesting and affordable alternative to the Corolla or Camry. If you fancy yourself as someone who goes against the grain, hop online and see if you can find one for less than $1000.

fourth gen honda accord
Like most Hondas, the fourth-generation Accord is dependable, A-to-B transportation. Image source: Honda

Fourth-Generation Honda Accord (1994 – 1997)

Like most Hondas, the fourth-generation Accord is dependable, A-to-B transportation. If you look around, you’ll still see many of these well-built cars on the road. You’ll also find quite a few weathered yet functional examples available online, some of which fall into the under $1000 category.

fifth gen honda civic
The fifth-generation Civic gets the job done when it comes to basic transportation. Image source: Honda

Fifth-Generation Honda Civic (1992 – 1995)

These days, a brand-new Honda Civic can cost as much as $40,000. If that’s out of your budget, don’t worry—you can forgo a car payment altogether by purchasing a fifth-generation Civic.

Despite being a bit dowdy, the fifth-generation Civic gets the job done when it comes to basic transportation. Comb through enough online classified ads, and you’ll eventually find an extremely cheap example that still runs.

2004 mazda 3
The 3’s sporty appearance and perky demeanor have made it an affordable favorite amongst enthusiasts. Image source: Mazda

First-Generation Mazda 3 (2004 – 2009)

Without a doubt, the first-generation Mazda 3 is the best-looking car on this list. The 3’s sporty appearance and perky demeanor have made it an affordable favorite amongst enthusiasts. What’s more, the first-generation is known for being reasonably dependable.

The Mazda 3 was available in two body styles—a sedan and a hatchback—when it was first introduced. Examples of both can be found online for next-to-nothing if you look hard enough.

1998 chevrolet prizm
The third-generation Chevrolet Prizm is, in fact, a rebadged Toyota Corolla. Image source: MercurySable99 | Wikimedia Commons

Third-Generation Chevrolet Prizm (1998 – 2002)

The third-generation Chevrolet Prizm is, in fact, a rebadged Toyota Corolla. Underneath the Prizm’s thinly veiled disguise, you’ll find legendary Toyota quality and reliability. But because the Prizm is a Chevy, most examples cost less than a similar Corolla.

General Motors also produced a nearly identical Geo Prizm alongside the third-generation Chevy Prizm. Occasionally, both versions pop up online for less than $1000.

first generation pontiac vibe
The Vibe is a rebadged version of the Toyota Matrix.

First-Generation Pontiac Vibe (2003 – 2008)

If you find the Toyota Matrix appealing, but a little out of your price range, you might want to consider its chassis-mate, the Pontiac Vibe.

The Vibe is a rebadged version of the Matrix, much like the Prizm is a rebadged version of the Corolla. Naturally, the Vibe costs less than the Matrix because, well, the Vibe is a Pontiac—and the Pontiac brand doesn’t even exist anymore.

1996 nissan sentra
The fourth-generation Sentra has a maintenance-free timing chain rather than a timing belt, which requires periodic replacement. Image source: Nissan

Fourth-Generation Nissan Sentra (1995 – 1999)

Even though the fourth-generation Nissan Sentra is a total snooze in the looks department, it’s a pretty sound car overall.

The vintage Sentra is also noteworthy because, unlike most cars from the same era (including many on this list), it has a timing chain rather than a timing belt. Unlike timing belts, which require periodic replacement, timing chains are supposed to be maintenance-free.

first gen nissan altima
The top-tier first-generation Nissan Altima GLE model came with an impressive list of features, including a head-up display. Image source: Nissan

First-Generation Nissan Altima (1993 -1997)

The Sentra’s big brother, the Altima, made its North American debut in 1993 as a replacement for the Stanza—a car that few people remember.

Although the base Altima XE had few creature comforts (manual locks and windows came standard), the top-tier GLE model came with an impressive list of features, including a head-up display.

Today, if you look hard enough, you may be able to find a first-generation Altima for less than $1000.

Where Can You Find Cheap Cars for Sale for Under $1000?

Now that you have an idea of which ultra-cheap cars are likely to be the most reliable, you might be ready to start looking for a clunker of your own.

But where do you start?

Online classified ads, such as those posted on Craigslist, are usually the best place to begin your search. Classified ads often have a lot of listings from private parties, which are more likely to have cheap cars than your local dealership will.

Dealerships that are backed by a vehicle manufacturer (i.e., Ford, Toyota, etc.) rarely keep super cheap cars in stock. Instead, to protect their reputation, most dealers send older cars that are at risk of breaking down off to auction. Though sometimes, dealers sell junkers as “back-lot specials” that come with a liability waiver.

Independent used car lots are a different story. Buy-here-pay-here used car lots are often willing to sell you anything—including a clunker that’s on its last leg. And they probably won’t make you sign a waiver to get the car, either.

checking used cars for sale online
Online classified ads often have a lot of listings from private parties, which are more likely to have cheap cars than your local dealership will.

Should You Buy a Cheap Car for Under $1000?

Purchasing a cheap car and avoiding a monthly payment can give you a sense of accomplishment. You might feel like you found a loophole and beat the system.

But wait—not so fast. A cheap car can quickly bury you in debt with repairs. Unless you’re a DIYer who’s handy with a wrench, you might be better off spending a little extra money to get yourself something more reliable.

Also, keep in mind: Any cheap car you buy could fail catastrophically without warning. You need to be ready, both emotionally and financially, to go find another cheap ride at any moment.

Think you can raise your budget to $2000? Check out our list of the most reliable used cars under $2000.

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