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Good morning guys,

I'm a former Ford fanatic looking to convert to the one true faith of commuter cars after being burned on bad transmissions under 60k on a Focus and under 70k on a Fusion, both purchased new.

Many years ago my wife bought a 2001 Camry as her first car and that thing was a tank, despite being owned (and abused) by a teenager it held up until she sold it instead of spending the money it needed on brakes, suspension, and a leaking head gasket at 200k.

Now, I drive a 2012 F-150, which I love and actually use on weekends, but during the week I have an 80 mile round trip commute every day. Fuel + wear and tear on the truck is killing me on a teacher's salary, or was before gas dropped to nearly nothing.

I'm expecting fuel prices to go back up and know the demand on the market for fuel efficient cars is dead at the moment, so I'm looking to jump into a Camry as a daily driver once school starts again in the fall. I have a couple questions, based on what is available in my market.

1. My main concern is reliability. I'm not leaving this school anytime soon, so I'm looking for something I can drive without too much time in the shop, but regularly maintain and put 20-25k per year on for several years. Regular fluid changes and tire rotations are fine, doing larger services over the summer in my garage doesn't bother me. I just don't want to be taking the thing apart in January. Are there any significant differences between the 4th, 5th, and 6th generation Camry I should be aware of or concerned about? Which is easiest to buy parts for, or track down at somewhere like LKQ to strip?

2. Based on what I've read the real winner here in reliability and economy is the 4-cyl engine, is there any reason I should consider the V6, or is sticking with the 4 like I'd planned the winning solution?

3. I'm indifferent on automatic vs. manual. 35 miles of my commute each way is on the highway anyway. My wife would prefer I buy an auto since she doesn't drive stick, but I'm not really counting on her ever driving the car anyway. Again, reliability wise, am I looking at one or the other being a better option?

4. I'm most likely going to strip the factory radio out of an older car and throw in a basic, but modern system. It's easier if I avoid anything where I need to bypass a factory amp, is this going to be a concern on any specific trim level?

5. Most of the vehicles I'm looking at have higher miles (at or around 200k,) what are the expectations of what should be wearing out around this point on a Camry? Any special things I should be looking out for when checking out a car?

6. From my understanding a Solara is just a 2 door Camry. Accurate? To you guys who have owned both, is it worth just buying the Solara for the right price and accepting that finding panels and such may be more difficult at junk yards later if I need them?

7. Lastly, I have the garage space, tools, and time in the summer. Better off to just buy a car that is clapped out for under a grand and fix everything myself before putting it on the road, or buy a decent car for around $2500-3000 and start updating/replacing things in order of need as time goes on? I'm talking about doing a full suspension rebuild when it's time for control arms, a full brake replacement when it's time for rotors, etc. I'm looking to buy this car as a longer term investment that I can keep as a highway commuter for several years at least, without a structured monthly payment.

Any advice you guys have, I appreciate it.
 

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2001 Camry LE
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Many years ago my wife bought a 2001 Camry as her first car and that thing was a tank, despite being owned (and abused) by a teenager it held up until she sold it instead of spending the money it needed on brakes, suspension, and a leaking head gasket at 200k.

I know what you mean... I have two of these. Absolutely bulletproof.

1. My main concern is reliability. I'm not leaving this school anytime soon, so I'm looking for something I can drive without too much time in the shop, but regularly maintain and put 20-25k per year on for several years. Regular fluid changes and tire rotations are fine, doing larger services over the summer in my garage doesn't bother me. I just don't want to be taking the thing apart in January. Are there any significant differences between the 4th, 5th, and 6th generation Camry I should be aware of or concerned about? Which is easiest to buy parts for, or track down at somewhere like LKQ to strip?

4th gen 97-01: 4 cylinder bulletproof. V6 is not bad, but was prone to sludge if oil was not changed regularly. Buying a used car, this is a real risk.
5th gen 02-06: 4 cylinder is OK. 02-04 models were prone to strip head bolts if they were overheated. So, if you do buy one of these, I would recommend making sure it had never been overheated. The V6 is a carryover engine from the 4th gen, but the sludge issues were supposedly fixed after 2003 with a new PCV valve design (I'm not sure that was the true cause of the sludge, I think it had more to do with high operating temperatures).
6th gen 07-11: Avoid the 2.4L from 07-09, oil burning issues. The 2.5L from 10-11 is a good engine.
You should have no problem getting parts for any of these cars.

2. Based on what I've read the real winner here in reliability and economy is the 4-cyl engine, is there any reason I should consider the V6, or is sticking with the 4 like I'd planned the winning solution?

I don't see a reason to need the V6. 4 cylinder is fine. Keep in mind the V6 will use more gas and be more expensive to maintain. If you get a good deal on one though, definitely consider it.

3. I'm indifferent on automatic vs. manual. 35 miles of my commute each way is on the highway anyway. My wife would prefer I buy an auto since she doesn't drive stick, but I'm not really counting on her ever driving the car anyway. Again, reliability wise, am I looking at one or the other being a better option?

The automatic should be fine. Most of the cars you find on the used market will be automatics anyway.

5. Most of the vehicles I'm looking at have higher miles (at or around 200k,) what are the expectations of what should be wearing out around this point on a Camry? Any special things I should be looking out for when checking out a car?

Normal stuff - check the cooling system, suspension, etc.

7. Lastly, I have the garage space, tools, and time in the summer. Better off to just buy a car that is clapped out for under a grand and fix everything myself before putting it on the road, or buy a decent car for around $2500-3000 and start updating/replacing things in order of need as time goes on? I'm talking about doing a full suspension rebuild when it's time for control arms, a full brake replacement when it's time for rotors, etc. I'm looking to buy this car as a longer term investment that I can keep as a highway commuter for several years at least, without a structured monthly payment.

Either way should work. As you drive a lot of miles, though, I would recommend looking for an older, lower mileage car. The lower mileage won't "cost" much more and you will benefit from it since you drive a lot of miles. Yesterday I was browsing my local craigslist and found a 2004 XLE with 84K miles for $3,500. My recommendation would be finding a car similar to that.
 

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08 Toyota Camry 2AZ-FE R9K Tuned
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  • 5S-FE is "bulletproof" provided that it has been taken care of and stays maintained.
  • 02 - 06 2AZ-FE is a really simple engine to maintain despite its issues. These are known for stripped head bolt issues & disappearing.
  • 06 - 09 2AZ-FE is of course the same except it has potential to burn oil.
  • 2AR-FE has so far seems to be a very good bulletproof engine however lately it seems it has had oil burning issues granted by this point some of these engines have see significant wear and tear.
  • A25A is a brand new engine and its reliability will be tested. From the threads so far, it seems decent.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
I guess another reasonable question is, if I were to buy a car with no maintenance records at higher mileage, then go ahead and replace the head gasket anyway as a part of making the car "new for me" replacing the bolts in the process, am I pretty much alleviating the issues in the 2AZ-FE engine so long as I don't overheat it?

Also, is it ALL of the 4cyl engines that use a timing chain instead of a belt or just the 2AZ-FE? I do like having replacing a timing belt every 75-80k taken mostly out of the equation.
 

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The head gasket and head bolt replacement is a big job. Not really something you would do preventatively. If there's no issue with the engine when you buy it, as long as you don't overheat it, it should be fine. The thing is, you might not know if there's anything wrong with the engine until you drive it for awhile.

All 2002+ 4 cylinder use a timing chain (2AZ-FE and 2AR-FE). 2001 was the last year of the timing belt. Personally, I don't mind the timing belt replacement since the water pump gets replaced anyway. I don't like the idea of taking a long road trip with a 100K+ mile water pump, so I would probably change the water pump on a timing chain car as preventative maintenance anyway.
 

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+1 on the 4 cyl as well as looking for an older but lower mileage car. It's not just the engine and transmission with all those miles on it, but every accessory, steering, and suspension component as well. I would also encourage you to take your time searching as I would assume you won't begin commuting regularly again until the fall. In older cars low miles typically don't add that much value to the value because a 2002 is still a 2002 and it's really hard to get someone to spend $5K for a 2002 period, so looking at older cars with lower miles may be the same or less than a newer car with higher miles.

You don't say where you are located, but it has always amazed me at how much the market for a certain car changes from market to market, so watch other markets around you for possible better values if yours is high. Also, I try to avoid cars from major metro areas especially if they are known for bad roads. The cars coming from Chicago for example are beat to hell in 100K miles with all of the heavy traffic stop/go traffic and the steering and suspension components are shot. My '07 Honda Odyssey still has all original steering/suspension save for one outer tie rod end at 223K miles.

Another tactic is to watch estate sales or other non-traditional marketing sources as those don't get the traffic of the popular advertising channels like CL, FB MP, etc. Searching in markets that are heavy retirement areas can turn up some steals too as sometimes cars get parked for extended periods of time while an elderly person goes from living on their own to assisted living and nobody deals with the car until the person passes.

Good luck!

PS yes on the Solara just being a 2 door Camry and worth noting that many times they can be had for a few hundred less for similar year/miles/condition just because 4 doors are more popular unlike 40 years ago when I was teen. My son wouldn't even consider a 2 door car when he got his license while I would have been caught dead in a 4 door at 16. The only downside is parts availability for things like door panels, headlights, etc., simply because of the lower production numbers.
 

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^Good point about cars from major metro areas. I recently bought the same car Pkrface has (2007 Odyssey) from a seller in Long Island NY who used to live in Brooklyn. I'm only at 84K miles but I already replaced both drive axles and one sway bar link. I suspect I may need to do the struts soon as well. I also looked at a 2010 Odyssey from a seller in PA with 87K miles and that car was noticeably less worn than mine. Not a huge deal since these parts can be replaced (just costs money) so if you do choose to buy one that was driven on bad roads, make sure the price reflects it.
 

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08 Toyota Camry 2AZ-FE R9K Tuned
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Life is about taking chances. The 5S-FE will have a timing belt. The 2AZ-FE will give yo warnings of its issues whether that is over heating or low oil. To me, the real issue with the 5S-FE is just age. Now a fully rebuilt from the factory 5S-FE and transmission, then we got something...
 

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Another consideration, if it's important to you, is the availability of safety equipment like side airbags and stability control.

Side torso airbags were optional starting in 1998 but very few cars were equipped with them. Starting in 2002, the side airbag option included side torso airbags AND side curtain airbags, but again, very few cars were equipped with them (mostly XLEs). This was made standard for 2007.

I think traction/stability control was optional on V6 models starting in 97, but I know they weren't an option on the 4 cylinder models until 2005. Again, very few buyers opted for it. It became standard starting in 2010.
 
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