When you think of the word reliability, the 1990's may come to mind. Many of us, not including me, can remember a time in which we owned Toyota or Honda in the 90's. If this is you, how long did it last until it died (If you owned it up until that point)? Right now is a great time to analyze the reliability of vehicles from the 1990's. It is one of those factors you cant really measure until 20 or 30 years of driving. Sure, you can test a new car on a treadmill until the odometer hits 300k, but nothing shows the age and dependability of a car like three solid decades of harsh winters, learning to drive, commuting to work, missed oil changes, and maybe even a few fender-benders. Now, these qualifications for my top 10 are by no means definite. If one were to ask me what car is the most dependable under $3k, my choice would probably be one of these cars. So, if you are a broke college student, or just straight up cheap, here's what you can probably get for a few grand of your money's worth, in no particular ranking or order.
1) 5th Gen Honda Civic (1992-1995)
These things are everywhere. Yes, it is hard to find one that is unmolested, but by chances, whatever condition it is in it will never die. There is a local Honda shop near me that services old Hondas, and they have a 300k mile owners club with several of these. Strongest point I'd say being the amazing b16 engine. EPA rated 48/55 mpg. Plus they were easy and simple which makes a great car to work on.
2) Volvo 900 Series (1990-1998)
The swedes really hit the jackpot on this one. Most likely trying to compete with Mercedes' durable executive sedans, Volvo put out the successor to the 700 series in two variants, wagon and sedan. Both were powered by a 2.0L DOHC i4, or a turbocharged 2.3L i4. Both excellent and came with RWD. This car is also known for its revolutionary safety technology. They're still everywhere, but it is hard to find someone willing to give one up.
3) Mercedes W124 300D (1987-1995)
3.0 of turbocharged diesel "power" were available on the W124, and it is no secret these guys are still everywhere. Many of us are familiar with a similar wagon variant being used to transport a fish tank across Africa in the season 2 finale of "The Grand Tour" by James May. Enough said.
4) 2nd Gen Toyota Tacoma/4runner (1990-1995)
The 2nd gen Tacoma/4runner are mechanically identical, which is a good thing. Toyota's masterpiece engineering really defined itself in this vehicle. Anybody remember from the earlier seasons of Top Gear when Clarkson attempted to destroy one of these? He bought it with a few hundred quid, set it on fire, dropped a caravan on it, lost it in the ocean, drove it down stairs, and detonated a building on top of it. After all of this, it only took wrenches and no spare parts to start it back up. These are ridiculously indestructible.
5) 5th Gen Honda Accord (1994-1997)
This generation introduced the 2.7L V6 to the Honda Accord. An excellent option, if you are willing to exchange mileage for power. And equally as reliable to the 2.2L 4-cyl option. These are very common even today, and in such little demand you could probably pick up a base model for a few hundred bucks.
6) Jeep Cherokee XJ (1984-1996)
The Jeep Cherokee XJ was such a well designed anomaly for Chrysler. In this time Chrysler was under fire for a lot, mainly reliability issues. The fact that the XJ was so excellent in so many areas is impressive. A sturdy set of axles underneath a well balanced chassis, powered by a torque-y 4.0L i6 mated to an excellent variety of automatic and manual transmissions. Beefy suspension, and steering components means that the XJ is still a very popular choice for off-road enthusiasts. Engineering at its finest... from a 1990's Chrysler?
7) Toyota Camry XV20 (1996-2001)
This generation of Camry was the first to really build that reputation for reliability. These are plentiful nowadays, for two reason. First off, they just will not quit. Built to last, it is a common thing to see examples of these over the 300k mile mark. Second, people bought a ton of these. They were praised for looking like the same generation Lexus ES sedans from that time period.
8) 1st Gen Subaru Outback
A derivative of the Subaru Legacy wagon, this Subie was revered for its rugged durability. Commonly bought by the outdoorsy type, they were honestly and accurately marketed as a reliable and safe mode of transportation. A 2.2L Flat 4 engine proved very sturdy over the years, and fairly consistent in its mileage per gallon capabilities. A classic wagon, responsible in part for defining the reputation Subaru has today for it's ability to make long-lasting vehicles.
9) 8th Gen Toyota Corolla (1995-2002)
The Toyota Corolla is probably the first car that comes to mind when you think of reliability. I think the best proof of these tanks being indestructible, is the fact that the following generation, (commonly bought by returning customers of the previous generation) is the record holder for the most cars sold in a single year in the US market. Yes, I am referring to the 2008 model. Just think about it, how many "Champaign" colored corollas do you see roaming around everywhere? You could practically get one for free if you tried.
10) 1st Gen Mazda MX-5 (1989-1997)
Mazda had yet to really define themselves as a reliable auto manufacturer, next to the Japanese auto giants Toyota and Honda, how could they squeeze in the market? Their answer was the MX-5 Miata. It came with a 1.6L i4 mated to either a 4 speed automatic transmission or a 5 speed manual. Both were great options, and seeing thate majority of these around are just ruined by the dark corners of street culture, being beat up and treated like garbage... but STILL running. Impressive, Madza. Welcome to the US market.
Lincoln Town Car/Ford Crown Vic/Mercury Grand Marquis, Volkswagen Jetta TDI MK3, Honda Odyssey, Buick Roadmaster Estate, Ford F-series, Nissan Maxima. Toyota Prius.
Did I miss any others? Tell me what you think below in the comments!