The swamp of terror
Used Car Comparison – Audi A3 1.6 (1997), Opel Astra 1.4 Ecotec (1998), Renault Clio 1.4 TechRun (2001), Seat Cordoba 1.4 (2000)
Here in Eastern Europe, €2-3000 is quite a sum. For an average family with double income and two kids it takes some years to save up that kind of money. If you are a youngster with a job but still living with your mum and dad, you could stack it up in a few months if you can do without the girls and the parties. Like we said, it is a lot of cash. And if you chose to spend that on a car you would be expecting a real car – no room for mistakes here.
Here is the story of four used cars, handpicked straight from the market
The four of us had pretty straightforward expectations his time. Since we had been forced to settle for industrial waste when previously we had tried to find used cars for under €1500 in an earlier survey of the market, we had every right to expect quality for double that amount.
Mind you: our standards for quality are not exaggerated. Steven drives a 16-year old Audi A6, Anrdás's Audi is nearing thirty, Tibby's BMW E28 is almost old enough to be considered a classic car, and my MB W115 is turning 42 these days. All of these are fully functional cars with working heating, lighting and wipers. They are fairly comfortable, reasonably reliable and quite suitable for travelling abroad. None of them are expected to present serious failures any time soon.
The cars we were about to survey were worth two-three times as much as our cars. These were supposed to be good cars. Nice cars, even. I am sure some of us were hoping for a functioning climate control in some of them...
For this review we found a new dealership with impeccable conditions and a well-organized layout. It's clean and orderly, with the cars lined up in four rows, with plenty of space to walk around them. The vehicles themselves are cleaned inside–and outside , you feel like spending your money just looking through the chicken wire. Of course we knew that the area this dealership is located in, is also infamous for lots of suspicious ventures, but not this one we visited; it has got a good name on the market.
Selecting our test cars was not as easy as we had hoped because the cars were not sorted by value. €7000 cars intermingled with €5000 ones, with a bunch of €3000 rides in between. It took some effort to find the cheapest of the bunch, because that's what we came here for. “There is a lot of demand for cheaper cars in Hungary nowadays but they are hard to find and most of them are just lost cases to begin with. We simply cannot build an inventory based on those,” the manager of the dealership explains.
Junk or not, those modest price tags pull you in like a vortex. Check out this silver one, what a beauty for only 6 grand. But look, that blue one over there is just a few years older yet costs half as much. And this green car here, ever so slightly older and available for two and a half thousand?! Indeed, metallic paint with its glitter is unfading on the weathered body panels. The fireproof nylon headlining repelling dirt over the years deceives the mind and presents these cars in a surreally youthful state. Cars of earlier times used to have a way of growing old with rust patches, sagging seats, smoky exhausts, but these modern ones keep their face and dignity while getting undeniably long in the tooth.
It is perhaps this false glamour, the unkeepable promise of youth, or perhaps the stagnation of the Hungarian used car market, unable to strike up a customer base that is willing and able to pay for cars, while years and kilometres keep taking their unforgiving toll on these vehicles, but one thing is certain: €2000 today is not worth the same as €2000 back in 2007. It is worth a lot less. There are a lot more people today looking for a lot worse cars, because their own wheelswere taken back by the bank after theyfaiiled to pay the installments on the lease contract. And now you have a new situation: you just cannot find enough cheap cars on the market.
I suppose it must be the metallic paint and the new status quo that turned this comparison test into what it is. We picked out four cars that could perhaps be haggled and begged to pass under the €2500 radar. We had a quick drive in each one of them, just a few minutes really.
Two of the four presented faults so serious we were contemplating getting a trailer for them. For obvious reasons we chose not to. We cooled them back to life instead and played all the car voodoo tricks ever revealed to mobilized mankind to massage them back to the dealership but you can imagine it was a tough decision. The other two passed the test with flying colours – if running a few hundred metres without breaking down is something to be proud of. But fun to drive they were not either.
To make a long story short – here are the reviews, read them, ponder over them. There will be no puns, no jokes, no funny gag lines. We didn't feel like having such here. With the prospect of spending a few hundred Euros on imminent repairs and then some more on unavoidable fixes really turned us down.
Ready? Here we go...
Pista - Audi A3 1.6 Automatic (1997)
At first, it honestly crossed my mind: this could be a car I would recommend even to female readers. It had a good brand name (Audi), a nice colour, automatic gearbox coupled to a 1.6-litre engine, automatic climate control, four airbags, three doors and it looked good from a short distance. This could be a pleasant, albeit slightly slowish partner with its four-speed A/T.
After all, the 1.6-litre petrol is one of the VW engines made in the biggest numbers, ever. Any decent mechanic can repair it without much ado. The four-speed gearbox is no wizardry either, and basically everything, including the running gear, is standard VW issue, you can find plenty of aftermarket spare parts at a good price.
The proverbial paper on which this Audi looked good turned out to be best suited for toilet use. While the A3 seemed acceptable if not attractive on the outside, there were unmistakable signs of rust and rot behind the peeled-off chrome strips and the rubber seals on the doors. There was also rust around the suspension towers, something highly unusual for a car of this age. Of course, there was a reason for all this premature corrosion, it's just that we were not prepared for it.
Waxed and lubed as it stood in front of us it looked quite the car. Any unsuspecting customer would probably get over those silly brown spots. The engine bay was all clean, nothing missing, with a functional remote control and a rattle-free central lock, although the door had begun to sag a tad. Because the Audi A3 had oversized, heavy doors and petite hinges this was to be expected after a while. All it takes is some realignment and they would be as good as new.
The door closed with a satisfying thud. Ah yes, there's the premium car for you. Never mind the standard VW door opener with its coating all peeled off... now hang on a second. Our family Seat Leon began to shed its trim and upholstery around 100K, while this car claims to have run 150K. Could that be? The Alcantara seat is fluffy, the leather-clad steering wheel is worse for wear, and there is a hole in the floor carpet, obviously worn out by the heels of the driver. 150,000 km? More like 230K if you ask me. The engine started like a charm but there was some unwanted chirping coming from the four cylinders. The noise disappeared as soon as I closed the door, kudos to the efficient noise insulation. And more than anything, this car had air conditioning. With the tropical heat outside I was going to be the cool king of this test.
Except, of course, the A/C was out of order! Stuck compressor, that's what it was. This is where I would have really started to feel bad about spending €2500 on a car that was worth no more than €1500, maybe less in reality. For this much money you do expect air conditioning, especially if it says so with huge letters on the advert. Although they never claimed it was functional – that much is true.
After the utter disappointment, driving the car was not as bad as I had feared. The interior was civilized, no creaks or rattles. The audio system was working properly. It was like a car should be. The only tangible fault was some loose blades in the air inlet, akin to the Seat Cordoba (see below). Brakes were acceptable and well balanced, and I didn't find anything wrong with the suspension, although, our very own COTY member Zsolt said the right front was all washed out. The Audi drove like a proper car, much more so than the Cordoba that was hardly better than a drunken ox over ice, or the Clio with its ever increasing vibration. The Audi felt as good as the Astra which definitely had the best suspension of them all.
Based on a short test drive, you could still easily sucker someone into buying this car. It would be difficult to explain why the automatic gearbox was hectic and hesitant at the same time, with tides of driving torque coming right before gear shifts, and why it took a heroic effort for the ‘box to shift up to third, then fourth gear. The central screen was keen to display the engaged gear as well as data from the board computer (I once caught a glimpse of the average fuel consumption, standing at a horrendous 14.9 l/100km) but the backlighting was so feeble you could hardly make out anything – and whatever you could see was in German anyway. The speedometer, on the other hand, was bright as a boy scout's bonfire.
With the A/C off I melted my way out of the car and concluded that the engine is already knocking on heaven's door. There is some serious rattling, a dry cough coming from the hydraulic tappets, possibly other faults too. The cylinder head is in dire need of an overhaul, with a minimum cost of €500 (in Hungary labour costs are cheap, don't forget) including parts and work-hours. But, that may not be the end of the story. The ailings of the A/T gearbox could perhaps be healed by replacing the oil and the filter, no need to open it up right away. The A/C compressor needs to be overhauled, and then there is the unavoidable cost of replacing the timing gear, filters, spark plugs and lubricants (these are so obvious, we never even add them to the immediate costs).
To get this car in proper running order you'd need to fork out €3500, probably more because there is no way you can haggle the asking price down as low as we'd like to see it. But to prove that honesty does prevail, we discovered the original user's guide and the service booklet – both German – in the shallow door pocket
This explained the rust, given that German roads are heavily salted in the winter, especially in the mountains, and saline solutions are the enemy of anything made of steel, Audi or not. Then I opened the service booklet and everything fell into place.
The last entry was from 2005, stating 205,000 kms on the odometer. Now, eight years later it purported to have 154 K. Whoever buys this Audi will soon be singing with the rapper Fat Joe – “the Sh*t is Real, I gotta get cash”.
Steve about the A3
+ decent appearance, nice colour
+ pleasant, noiseless interior
+ four airbags, factory fitted audio, smooth switchgear
+ good straight line stability, solid brakes, healthy half shafts
+ prestige that comes with the badge, whatever that means
- corroded under the decor strips and around the towers
- defunct A/C compressor
- engine in need of a cylinder head overhaul and possibly a lot more. A real cat-in-a-box
- hectic A/T gearbox
- heavily hacked odometer with pricing to go with the falsified mileage
- running figures in the service booklet are not in line with what is stated about the car
Audi A3 1.6 automatic (1997)
Price after haggle: €2600
- Overhaul of cylinder head (hard to tell): max. €167-500
- Repair of A/C compressor: €170
- Repair or replacement of A/T gearbox: €170-340
András - Opel Astra 1.4 16V Club (1998)
I really didn't want this Opel, or any other Opel, cross my heart. I was looking for a car with air conditioning because we chose the hottest day of the year to do this review and I really hoped that for €2000 I could honestly expect a car to come with an A/C. But it was not to be. Even Steve, who was overly generous with the €2000 limit we set for ourselves, couldn't get the automatic climate control to work in the Audi, no matter how he tried.
While I was walking up and down the rows of cars, looking for the almighty word “AIRCON” behind the windscreens, the others found their cars, leaving me with little choice but to go with the unavoidable lowest low of our test, and to be the sucker who ends up with the Opel. At least that's how I felt at the moment.
But later on, we grew to realize that among the four cars selected, this Astra is the only one that actually deserves to be called a car. Here's proof that everything is relative.
We knew exactly who this car had belonged to because, in his desire to personalize his three-door Astra G, the previous owner would go to the extent of having his name written on the white instruments. Behind the cheap, battered alloys, the calipers and drums were painted vivid red. He didn't forget to black out the rear lights and to install blue LED lighting in the interior. Removing the badge from the grille was the icing on the cake, really – you could not get more boy racerish than that. One thing he didn't spend on was the sports exhaust – he simply let the original silencer rust and rot to get that earthy athletic tone.
As much as I was disgusted to touch this 1.4 Ecotec, there is one thing you've got to admit. Pimped out cars stand for more than flame motives on the hood thatneed to be painted over. Usually they are owned by people who love cars and take care of them, albeit with an overall sense of aesthetics that makes us boring people sick. You could honestly tell this Astra had received tender loving care and was not patched up in a rush to make it presentable at the dealership.
For one, this was the only car of the quartet with a proper suspension. While the ancient winter tyres allowed for rather moderate cornering speeds, you could tell that the dampers were new, there was no wobble or knock even on the roughest of roads, no slewing at all – it was like an Astra G is supposed to be. Which is a lot to say after 200,000 km. While the odometer read 178K it was obvious from various signs of wear that is was only an approximate value.
The interior was moderately worn, with a slight stench of cigarette smoke, even though it had obviously been subjected to the sophisticated cosmetic surgery all advanced used car salesmen apply to their cars. Little did we know the centre console was home to the most disgusting, horrendous thing imaginable – the previous owner had left a Kylie Minogue tape in the Blaupunkt radio. Apart from the audio, this car was basic spec – which is actually good news at this age, as there is little to break down – and everything was operative. This car was nearly faultless.
Note the word “nearly”. While proper cleaning and a lack of faulty equipment can hide a car's proper age, the Ecotec engine could not. More often than not it would let out bluish grey fumes and make rattling noises – it must be something with the ignition. Also the water temperature gauge just cannot reach 90°C despite the infernal ambient conditions which means the thermostat is either defunct or just stuck – at least there were no visible signs of head gasket failure.
But the ailing engine is not the real issue with the Astra. These small faults are nothing your friendly neighborhood car mechanic could not fix. The thing is that the residual value on a 200k+ Astra G with three doors, no A/C and a mere 1.4 for an engine ain't going to be anything pretty. Even if it is worth almost as much as the agreed price (€2300) at the moment, it will soon turn into a worthless heap of turd. Just think of how little you would have to pay for a three-door Astra F with a small engine these days...
And yet, I'd rather bet on this one than the Audi A3 that we had so high hopes for before we started to drive it. And I'd sooner pick the Astra than the three-door Clio which could have achieved used car greatness had it not died on the spot. And I won't even talk about the Cordoba, the walking dead of the bunch. It was a major achievement we could drive that thing back to the dealership.
Honestly, I was hoping to get more for our money. But apparently if you have €2K to spend on a used car you are entering a price zone where dealers take the trouble to clean and polish unworthy wrecks in hopes of luring unsuspecting clients into buying their trash. These cars look nice because buyers are supposed to fall in love with them at first sight and consider the test drive a mere formality. The truth is, if they picked anything but the Astra, they'd be in for a lot of disappointment.
András about the Astra
+ everyday common car with cheap spare parts and ease of servicing
+ very little repair needed before use
+ should last a good few years without major issues
+ appears to be well maintained
+ practical, economical, spacious
- three doors only
- no climate control for this price
- a lousy investment, hard to sell in this configuration
- you will be stuck with the heritage of a boy racer
- rather cheap interior
Opel Astra 1.4 16V Club
Price after haggle, cca.: €2340
- Ignition repair: €67
- Replacement of thermostat & coolant: €33
- Replacement of rear exhaust silencer: €100
- Set of new tyres: €200
- Total repair costs: €400
- Total costs: €3140
Zsolt - Renault Clio 1.4 16V TechRun (2001)
As a new car the Clio used to be one of the more attractive superminis. While its shape was not exactly modern, it was well suited for men and women, the young and the elderly alike. The 98 PS 1.4 16V engine introduced in 2000 made it downright sporty. That funky “Get up!” commercial with the headbang and the James Brown song “Sex machine” was not completely fictional.
As a new car I used to love the Clio. Its huge seats provided great support and it was head and shoulders above anything other superminis could offer. The Clio could corner, could oversteer upon easing off the throttle in a turn, it had excellent brakes and even the gearbox was not as bad as Renault's other transmissions, subject to frequent criticism. And the engine – that was just a pearl.
A decade has passed and I still fancy the car. The shape itself has aged with grace, it still has character, it is easy to recognize even from behind. This specific car comes from a non-smoking owner, it almost has that new car smell – there, I said it. Although the battery was dead it took only a quick jump start to allow the engine to fire up at the first turn of the key, with a solid idle, no belt slip, no chatter, no nothing. Even the two electric windows were functional (although the right side one was slower than a sloth on sedatives) along with the central locking. That one had better be, since there is no other way to open the hatch – none of the two keys would fit in the lock.
I was expecting the little car to start complaining very soon and I was not disappointed. It played the full repertoire, with the Check Engine light, the airbag fault light, and the CODE message on the radio, followed by flashing lines signaling that the radio has forgotten the security code. It could be worse though, this is a sports hatch, you don't want to listen to the radio anyway.
I found it rather strange that the gear lever had trouble engaging the first and second gears, but all the others, including reverse, were smooth and relatively exact as they should be. But if I pulled up the ring separating forward gears from reverse I had no problem shifting the first two gears – so it must be some sort of a gate-related issue.
A few hundred metres into the test drive, the front began to wobble in a most peculiar way. Left, right, left, right, it felt like I was two months old again with my mother rocking me to sleep, left, right, left... There must be something horrible up front on the right side shoving the car this way and that. Possible candidates were a damaged tyre, a bent wheel rim and/or a warped half shaft. I didn't feel like pushing the car. I have a family, a mortgage and lots of classic cars, I could not afford to die in the Clio.
It's not that the engine was devoid of power. It ran smoothly, pulled from down below and was happy to reach high revs, the valves were working diligently, all sixteen of them. There's Formula One experience well used. Once I learned how to operate it, the gearbox worked superbly, all of the synchromesh was functional. Even though the car had spent the last year sitting at the dealership, the brakes worked surprisingly well. Mind you, never leave your car on gravel or grass for long – it's just not good for its health because of humidity coming from below.
Amazingly, the car began to heal itself. The Check Engine light went out, the airbag warning light turned black, the radio – no, the radio kept asking for the code tenaciously. I could have easily loved this car if it hadn't been for that pestering wobble. You could hardly tell it was an old car, except maybe for the worn look of the steering wheel and the gear shift knob. The odometer displayed 71,000 km – which was nonsense, since I have seen a Clio on a 100,000 km reliability test at one of my former magazines. We drove that one hard and the steering wheel didn't look half this bad.
And then... disaster. I needed to turn tight, and the front of the car exploded into an incredible cacophony of chatter and bang. The steering wheel started bucking in my hands with the car wildly jittering. Whatever it was, no bent wheel, warped half shaft or damaged tyre could do this. My guess was one of the engine brackets must have snapped. That would also explain why the gearbox gate was out of alignment, why I needed to pull up the ring for the first and second gears
But it was not over yet. I stopped the engine to take the group photos but the battery had taken no charge, we needed to push start the Clio. No biggie, I could always buy a new battery had I been forced to buy it. I set the car in the shades to take the interior shots. I left the engine running, because I really hate to push cars around in this heat. While I was clicking a bit further away, my colleague jumped inside and killed the engine. “The water is boiling,” he said before I could erupt into a chain of indecent monologue.
It wasn't exactly boiling but almost, the needle of the gauge was dead vertical, there must have been something wrong with the cooling circuit. By the time I finished the photo shoot the engine cooled back down to normal. A year of inactivity had really taken its toll on the electric connections. Those for the airbag (under the seat) and the engine management revived pretty soon but the cooling fan was taking its time. I assume it started by the time we finished the test drive, which is why the water cooled down eventually.
Time for a quick summary: I would need at least one, probably two engine brackets, a new battery, a new wheel and tyre for the right front end – all this before I would want to drive the car another metre. Also, I would probably take the Clio to an experienced automotive electrician to clean the connectors and check all transmitters because you don't want to drive any significant distance with this ailing network.
Even though the Clio technically died on me during the test drive, I still say this is a well maintained car and could become a great little user after the pinpointed failures are addressed. Proving my point are the mainly original paint job, the impeccable interior, and the overall lack of makeshift repairs. I would buy it if I had to – but I would have my second thoughts about it.
Clio - The good and the bad
+ swift, dynamic, frugal
+ original mechanical components
+ immaculate interior
+ comfortable seats
+ high specs except for A/C
- three doors only
- no air conditioning
- broken engine bracket, right front suspension failure
- dead battery
- electric mishaps
Renault Clio 1.4 16V TechRun
Price after haggle: cca. €2170
- Engine bracket (work-hours included): €50
- Right front wheel and tyre: €100
- Thorough check-up of electric network: €50
- New battery: €60
- Total repair costs: €260
Tibby - Seat Cordoba 1.4 Stella (2000)
I named the Cordoba ‘Ferenc Suba'. This was the name written on the headlining, in barely legible ink. It must have been difficult writing upside down with a biro.
Ferenc Suba was a repossessed lease car. It was a victim of hate crime, nothing less. Its air inlets were forcible removed, the door panels torn off, the headlight switch defiled, the tape player raped with a wrench. This must be the lousiest worn down piece of crap I have ever seen in my life.
It was destroyed slowly and systematically. As monthly payments rose out of proportion, so grew hopelessness and bitterness, and the owners started getting really dirty. Poor soul, it must have done a good job in its early days. I can recall some Cordobas were used as taxi cabs. Not this one, not any more. When the owners were absolutely sure their car would be repossessed by the bank, they must have gotten brutal with the car. Revving the cold engine, driving with the hand brake on, vile things like that. You can almost smell anger inside the car.
The chassis is a heap of randomly organized metal. It rattles no matter what you do, accelerate or decelerate, run straight or turn the corner. Even standing still, while I was turning the steering wheel! The first noise we heard from the engine were the hydraulic tappets, then there came other metallic sounds. The brakes are uneven, the rear ones tend to get stuck. It must have spent a considerable time waiting for someone to buy a whole lot of repossessed vehicles. This one was probably just a cling-on, passed along with other, more valuable cars.
The clutch fails to decouple any more – probably a result of the systematic destruction process – and its biting point is completely erratic. Brakes are worn unevenly. I am sure this car used to live a happy life. Maybe it was the first non-Eastern-Bloc car of a family. They must have loved it, then traded it in for a new one. I hope they didn't crumble under the lease crunch like the second owner of this poor fella.
Headlights are worn matte, all body panels show signs of repair, some have been repainted. The towing eye cover is gone. Door panels feature both manual and electric window control but only the manual ones work – I suppose the wrecker's yard didn't have anything else in a matching set of four. Seat adjustment controls and door knobs are broken off. It must have taken the dealer a Herculean effort to turn this pile of crap into something that can be displayed. This is not a car and should not be treated as such.
Airbags were probably sold off before the bank passed the case over to the debt collection agency. The winter tyres seem newly purchased – used, but still. The roof-liner has been punched to pieces, with all insulation gone from underneath. The boot is all scratched up, maybe it was used to transport rotary hoes. Look at the cross member below the parcel shelf – you except to see steel panels crumbled to this extent on firefighters' websites. Could this car have been hit by two 18-wheelers, one on each side? Unfathomable fate.
This is the kind of car you should not be able to find in dealerships. Cars like this usually surface from garages of pensioners who are too old to drive any more. This car cannot, or will not pay for any maintenance. The simple fact that it is being sold at a dealership makes is uncompetitive on the market.
All this, plus the fact of being a repossessed car! Its sheer condition gives a graphic demonstration of just how people react to a crisis and presents us with a slice of reality that, normally, you should not be able to find in Europe, no matter how far east you go within the Union. This is disconcerting, to say the least.
If someone has bought the car, please, try to find its former owner, Ferenc Suba, and ask him why on earth he did that to his car.
Cordoba pros and cons
+ everyday common car with cheap spare parts and ease of servicing
+ relatively spacious boot
+ practical, economical, spacious
+ cheap tyres
+ four doors
- not a car per se, you need to buy another one instead
- no climate control for this price
- horrific mechanical condition: imminent repairs needed on engine, clutch, chassis, brakes, body and everything else
- completely trashed, even supporting and frame members have been repaired
- confusing coexistence of both manual and electric windows
Seat Cordoba 1.4 Stella ABS
Price after haggle, cca. : €1340
- Oil change with filters: €67
- Replacement of timing gear, two belts, rollers and tensioners: €167
- Replacement of clutch set: €185
- Water pump: €37
- Two sets of new tyres (used, installed): €167
- Total repair costs: €623
- Total costs: €2566
Organ donor car: €2150-2350
This has been an ugly story. I am sure some people are quick to remark that we could have gone elsewhere to look for cars. Some would even happen to know someone who has just sold his mint Golf Mk3 for €2500 with only 100,000 kms on the clock. Yes, we know: miracles happen. However these tests are designed to model the situation your average car buyer would face – you know, people who don't know someone with a mint Golf, who have little experience in buying cars and most of all, have a limited amount of cash they saved up with their blood, sweat and tears. These people have no friends in the know, all they see is adverts and used car dealerships with gravel yards and nicely cleaned up cars.
And the moral of the story? Sometimes you need to turn your back on the reasonable bunch and go with the boy racer. That's something of a lesson, isn't it?