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Buying a car, especially used cars in Australia, involves some leg work. Australian cars are dominated by Toyota, Ford, and Holden. The Ford Falcon and Ford Futura and Holden Commodore and Toyota Hiace are extremely popular models when buying a car. Ford Falcons and Ford Fairmonts aren't stellar cars, but they're easy to service. If you want a 4-wheel drive (4WD), consider a Toyota Landcruiser for a used car.

Buying A Vehicle

"The most important decision of my entire life lay before me:  should I buy it a stick shift or an automatic? "  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic
buying a vehicle in Australia
Automobile Club MembershipVehicle Insurance  |  Vehicle BureaucracyFuel PricesVehicle Purchase Links

For any visitor coming to Australia for longer than 2 months, buying yourself a vehicle -- or vehicles, in my personal case -- is something I cannot stress enough. It'll wind up cheaper than most of the alternatives.

Let me tell you what your alternatives are if you don't own a vehicle:
  You will book tour after tour after tour
  You will book flight after flight after flight, and then once you arrive at your destination, tour after tour after tour
  You will hitch ride after ride after ride and then book tour after tour after tour
  You will rent a car for the very short term and then book tour after tour after tour
   You won't book any tours or fly any flights.   You'll just sit on your rear over and over and over again in a large city in Australia, probably Melbourne and Sydney, and do nothing over and over and over again you couldn't have done at home

Look at a map of Australia.  It's what's in between the capital cities that makes Australia worth a visit.  I don't know how to put this lightly.  If you're going to fly this far not to buy a car, you're nothing less than an idiot. 

Pick A Car, Any Car
Ford Futura wagon Ford Fairmont sedan
Ford Falcon Futura sedan Mercedes S Class

Cars and costs:  (clockwise, from top left, as of February 2006):   beige 1996 Ford Futura wagon, AUD 4800; red 1993 Ford Fairmont ED Sedan, AUD 3700; black 2006 Mercedes S-Class, AUD 275,000; blue 1996 Ford Falcon Futura EF II sedan, AUD 4500.

"But I cannot afford a car,"
I hear you saying.   Rightee oh, mate.   But you can afford a flight over to Australia,  the binge drinking you'll make a semi profession of after arrival, and the overpriced tours you'll have to book without a car? Start working those spreadsheets and prioritize.  If you can't afford the up-front expense of a vehicle, hook up with one or two other travelers and buy a car together.  You'll probably hate each other after traveling in such close quarters for months at a time, but at least you'll be able to afford to buy something.

If your home country's license is already in English, you won't have to procure an international driver's license. Driving with a non-Australian license has its perks. When a policeman pulls you over for any reason, he's going to ask to see your driver's license. It's a routine. Because your license isn't "in the system," s/he can fine you (though not fully enforce if you pay it) but won't be able to apply any points to your driving record, points that for an Australian will raise one's insurance premiums and could result in loss of the driver's license itself. Unless you're doing something so heinous as drunken driving, you'll probably just be let off with a warning. I was pulled over once for driving 20 kph over the speed limit in a city area. I was pleasant to the cop, and when he saw my license he said didn't want to ruin my holiday with excessive traffic fines and would just issue me a written warning. When I didn't admit to any permanent address in Australia, he changed the written warning to a verbal one.  
buying a car Australia

Types Of Cars Not To Buy In Australia

Audi Q5 Bentley Continental GTC BMW M3 Sedan
Great rides but not where you're going:  (from left to right): Audi Q5, AUD 59,900;  Bentley Continental GTC, AUD 375,000;  BMW M3 Sedan, AUD 145,000.

Can you imagine reclining on the leather interior of a Mercedes S-Class or an Audi Coupe for a cool, crisp ride?  You press your foot to the pedal and off you go!  But where are you planning to go?  To the fancy club to snort coke with 'the boys' in a chic Sydney or Melbourne neighborhood or to the semi-remote coast of northern Western Australia?   As nice and as expensive as these vehicles are, and even if you can afford them, you'd be a moron if you drove one of these into any remote areas of Australia.  You may as well have a MORON sign affixed to your license plate.  You'll have trouble getting these serviced.   You probably won't ever get to the stage of having it serviced.   Someone will recognize you as the sucker you are, and you'll either have the car stolen in one shot or gradually, part by part.   Flash your money around, if you have it, in Buenos Aires (the girls there will love leeching off your wallet) or in front of an aspiring actress in Los Angeles where you can further take advantage of her by describing yourself as a producer.  buying a car in Australia

Types Of Cars To Buy In Australia

1999 Toyota Echo 1980 Holden Commodore Wagon 1995 Ford Falcon EF 1986 Ford Fairmont XFII 1983 Toyota Hiace Van
Blend into the crowd with a car the masses own(ed): (from left to right, as of June 2009) 1999 Toyota Echo, AUD 10,990; 1980 Holden Commodore Wagon, AUD 900; 1995 Ford Falcon EF, AUD 3,800; 1986 Ford Fairmont XF, AUD 3,000; 1983 Toyota Hiace Van, AUD 2300

Welcome to Lemon Central, mates. When looking for a car Down Under, in some ways you have to think of the opposite of what you'd buy at home. In the United States, I drove a 4-cylinder Toyota Corolla. It's not a flashy car, but it's reliable, gets great gas mileage, and is easy to park in the crowded hellhole of Los Angeles which I then called home. Toyota Corollas are just as reliable, just as great with fuel, and just as easy to park in Australia as they are in Los Angeles, but I didn't/wouldn't buy one here. Why?  Because I wasn't living in one place in Australia. I was traveling among many, and many of my days were spent in small, middle-of-nowhere type locales. And this is how you should be thinking: what kind of car would someone living in a middle-of-nowhere type of locale in Australia buy?

In the big Australian cities and on practically the entire Eastern coast of the country, any car will do. There are dealers and service centers for all makes. But if you're planning to drive into the interior (and you should), then you need a car that if it breaks down or requires a spare part, you can get it with a minimum of fuss and time.

Buying a car in Australia involves a bit of mental time travel. You'll be looking at cars well past their primes.  The vehicle you buy will be a make and model that enjoyed popularity 10-15 years ago and still has some following, either because enough people still drive around in these relics and/or because succeeding generations of that make and model continue to be popular among buyers in Australia.

The big four car manufacturers in Australia, in order of market share, are Toyota, GM Holden, Ford, and Mazda. Toyota assumed the throne in 2003 and has had it ever since, with about 23.6% of the market in 2008. Holden had 12.9%, Ford 10.3%, and Mazda 7.9%. What that tells us is that come 2013-2018, there will be plenty of older used Toyotas on the market, and buying a Toyota should be a no-brainer, as these cars will be the ones which are easily serviced throughout the country.  When buying your car, you have to think back to 1997 and beyond, to the years of the cars you'll likely be examining.  Back then, the Holden Commodore, Ford Falcon, and Mitsubishi Magna held 35% of the market. 

My advice on which vehicle to buy is simplicity itself: pay as little as possible for something as reliable as possible. Most of the counting-every-penny backpackers do not adhere to this advice. They pay only as little as possible. It's quite possible to pay AUD 500 for a backpacker mobile that's 25-years old and has been ridden more times than a mummified Las Vegas hooker.  This car may actually make it around Australia for your entire stay. It's also quite possible and ever more likely this quarter-century backpacker mobile will gasp its last breath when you're driving it through a sparely populated location.  Most of Australia, need I remind you, is a whole bunch of nothing.  

For the next few years, I'd continue to stick with the Holden Commodores, Ford Falcons, and Ford Fairmonts for your standard 2WD.  The Mitsubishi Magna never controlled a massive amount of the market in the mid 1990's to be worth risking on your drives into Australia's remote areas. Contrary to oft-quoted advice I heard while in Australia, the Holdens do not age better than the Fords. They depreciate at the same rates as their Ford cousins, whereas the Toyotas hold their value better, a phenomenon observed worldwide.   Since you're trying to spend as little money as possible but buy as reliably as possible, you'll find that a given price will buy you a newer used Holden or Ford than a Toyota.   For 4-wheel drive vehicles (4WD), stick with a Toyota Landcruiser or a Jeep.   You'll only require a 4WD if you're really getting off the beaten track or covering areas like the Gibb River Road in northwestern Western Australia. 4WD's are gasoline guzzlers and not recommended unless your itinerary absolutely demands one. You'll pay a premium both to buy one and to keep it pumped up.  A 6-cylinder is preferred over a 4-cylinder for the long rides you'll be undertaking.

Make  Year  Average Km (x 1000)   Cylinders  Price (AUD) new  Price (AUD) 10 years later 
Toyota Hiace van 1999 200-300 4 31,996 8,000-9,900
Toyota Echo 1999 150-250 4 19,790 5,700-7,400
Ford Futura sedan 1999 150-250 6 34,490 3,100-4,500
Holden Commodore sedan 1999 150-250 6 30,500 2,700-4,100
Toyota Landcruiser 1999 150-250 6 56,302 18,000-20,800
Ford Holden Toyota

Matching A Car To Your Objectives

I'm saving you a lot of thinking. I pondered this problem and even bought a station wagon before realizing the ideal vehicle for me. The ideal vehicle for me, however, may not be the ideal vehicle for you. Feel free to donate money to my retirement account for allowing your brain to vegetate further.

Are you single and planning to sleep in your car a lot?   I thought I would, so I bought a station wagon. In a month in Tasmania, I wound up sleeping in the station wagon only twice. I realized sleeping in a car wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and I also didn't like the fact all my valuables were constantly exposed. If you're single and not planning to sleep in your car (I don't recommend it), buy a sedan instead. You'll find camping more enjoyable than sleeping inside your vehicle. Should you need to sleep in your sedan from time to time, the front seats fold back.  Below is a short and sweet table where I match types of cars to circumstances.

Type Of Vehicle Good For # of Persons Perfect For
Sedan One or Two A single person, buddy, or couple who plan to stay in backpacker hostels or camp.
Station Wagon Two To Four A pair of friends or couple who plan to sleep in the car on a semi-regular basis or three or four friends planning to stay in backpacker hostels or camp
Panel Van Couple or two good friends Two people who are accustomed to living in close quarters with each other. A panel van can be plugged into an electrical outlet at a campground, and for less than the cost of a dormitory bed, two people can cook meals, use their computers, watch television. Because self sufficiency is high, the panel van experience can also be somewhat isolating.
4-Wheel Drive Two To Four Two to four friends or one or two couples who plan to camp or stay in backpacker hostels. Because 4-wheel drives are more expensive than standard two-wheel drives, buying one justifies more people chipping in to use it. Those interested in driving out into the unknown to make their own trails and camp out under the stars would make best use of a 4WD. A single traveler would probably find the cost of buying and regularly filling up a 4WD prohibitively expensive.

I discuss the standard gasoline (petrol) vs LPG (liquid petroleum gas) debate here.

Australian cars

Doug Knell Doug's Personal Story Doug Knell
In the year of our Lord, Two Thousand And Five, a youngish man receiveth a vision, to goeth Down Under, purchaseth a vehicle, and driveth from coast unto coast. This vision, unfortunately, did not include what type of car he was to buy.

I arrived in Melbourne to stay with someone who was, but is no longer, a dear friend. That story belongs on another web site. This former friend had a brother-in-law who worked in the used car trade, a rather bald guy named Deano.   I know what you're thinking. A used car salesman is a licensed swindler, utilizing car salesmen tricks found here.  No, Deano didn't swindle me, not directly.   Deano assured me he'd profit off me only on the back-end, when I sold the car and if I sold it back to him. I have a good memory, and I recall him saying he'd buy back my car at AUD 1,000 less than what I paid him for it.  Deano's memory turned out to not to be so swell.

Where I went wrong was putting too much trust in Deano.  You see, I'd never bought a used car before, much less one in a foreign country.   Finding a good price on a reliable used car is notoriously difficult even in one's own country, so I considered myself lucky to have Deano as an asset. Deano drove me around neighborhoods in Melbourne and pointed out various cars and what they did and what they had. Since I'm not a car buff, most of the stuff coming out of his mouth could've been a dialect of Swahili. Deano was against the panel vans. He insisted they were flimsily constructed. He firmly suggested I stick with a Ford or Holden station wagon 10 to 15 years old. This wasn't his first suggestion. He originally told me I'd be best off purchasing a brand new 4WD -- and I thought people who bought brand new AUD 57,000 cars, only to sell them at a predictably great loss less than a year later, were certifiably insane. Little did I know how much money incineration I would be up to in a year in Australia.
1996 Ford Falcon Futura wagon 1993 Ford Fairmont sedan 1996 Ford Falcon Futura sedan
Car 1:  Feb 18 to March 31, 2006 Car 2:  April 3 to June 18, 2006 Car 3:  July 6 to December 2, 2006
The man who couldn't get enough Fords

Deano didn't possess his own car lot at the time. He bought and sold cars based on supply and demand through a wide range of dealers throughout Australia. I waited around in Melbourne for a semi-painful month until Deano sourced me car #1, all the while my relationship with his sister-in-law deteriorating and me hankering to get the hell out of there. I was revved up to sit behind the wheel of this Ford Futura wagon. Deano got me quite the deal on this one. I paid him AUD 4,800. When I went to insure it, it was valued at AUD 8,300. But there were problems. Shortly after I got to Tasmania, the car failed to start several times, one time when I was trying to load it onto a ferry and then another time when I was trying to drive it off. It was a starter motor issue, but I didn't know that at the time. I actually had bigger issues. The left back door wouldn't lock. The Ford Futura wagon came with an electronic click-lock mechanism; you could only lock all the doors by clicking the remote device attached to the keychain. You could not manually lock or unlock it. I only found out about the door locking fault three weeks into Tasmania after leaving my car unattended on a 3-day trek. Lucky for me that Tasmania is a safe and honest area, because all my belongings were fully exposed in the back of the wagon. With an unlockable door, I might as well take out advertisements in the paper to come rob me.

When I came back to Melbourne for a week before continuing on with my journey, I pointed out this problem to Deano. I could tell Deano thought I was being unreasonable. If fixing the door would have cost me AUD 100 or less, I would've gone for it. But Australian labor costs are high. Their standard of living has to be funded by somebody.  No one could venture how much a fix would cost. If it were a more comprehensive wiring problem, I could see the costs escalating up to AUD 700 or more. And then there was the yet undetermined starter motor issue.  It could've turned into an expensive problem. Small problems you'd fix without thought at home, when you buy a permanent vehicle, become benefits that the next owner will reap from, not you. I decided to cut my losses, especially after Deano told me he had car #2, a red 1993 Ford Fairmont Sedan with even less miles on the counter than my wagon, already waiting. Deano docked me AUD 250 on the wagon for the stamp duty he'd have to pay when the car title was retransferred, and another AUD 200 for detailing and cleaning costs. It was a bit of a ream for having had the car for a little over a month, but I didn't make a big deal about it. I preferred to cut my losses. And really, it wasn't even a loss. The sedan was AUD 1,100 cheaper than the wagon.

The sedan was great. After 2 days in it, I vastly preferred it to the wagon I left behind in Melbourne. But after a month driving it, in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, the car failed to start in the same way the wagon had. I found out from the automobile club that I had a starter motor issue. I had to fork out AUD 190 to get the starter motor replaced. The mechanic showed me the starter motor he removed. It had, he said, maybe a day to one week's worth of ignition starts left in it. Lucky me!

I had then had no more issues with the car, and when I got up into the Northern Territory, in the center of the Outback, Alice Springs, I took the sedan into a mechanic for a routine checkup. This was akin to a man visiting his doctor for a comprehensive physical, then dying in a plane crash just days later. Less than a week after the tuneup, on my way to Kings Canyon, I swerved to miss three kangaroos hopping across the road. I lost control of the car while listening to Billy Joel's "Only The Good Die Young." The car rotated several times and was tossed onto the opposite side of the road into the bush. I emerged with hardly a scratch, but the right front side was completely demolished. The car was still drivable and I was able to drive it the several hundred kilometers back to Alice Springs. There, the adjustor pronounced the car Dead on Arrival. Fixing it up would cost AUD 6,300, while its value on the insurer's books was only AUD 3,800.
This put me in a bind. I emptied everything from my car -- spare tires, jerry cans, stoves, sleeping bags -- and stored it at my hotel while I planned my next move. What should I do? Buy a new car in the overpriced Northern Territory? Have Deano send me another car from Melbourne? I dreaded waiting around Alice Springs until he could produce one. I eventually hatched a plan to transport all my gear from Alice Springs to Adelaide (South Australia) by train. I'd be entitled to a rental car for ten days and could wait out my time there at a friend's place until Deano could have another car delivered.

Deano's customer service was less than stellar. He promised me the car within days of my arrival in Adelaide. I was there nearly two weeks before it arrived, and he never gave me a heads up the car was ever on its way. This was car #3, another sedan, with the same year and make and mileage as the first wagon. This being a Ford, it did not go without me having to replace some part mere months after I got it. In Townsville, Queensland, about 9 PM, the car suddenly stopped accelerating. I managed to pull it over to the side of the road before it died. The auto club towed it to a shop. The car required a new fuel pump. Bye bye AUD 350. The mechanics did not put the pump in correctly. Less than two weeks later, the car was leaking fuel and I had to have the fuel pump reinserted in Rockhampton.  Another AUD 90 evaporated from my wallet.  The mockery of all this was that I was set to get rid of the car in just six more weeks.

Once I returned to Melbourne in late November, I had the car inspected by a mechanic to see what work was required before I was legally allowed to sell it. The mechanic pointed out only superficial things, but this mechanical work, like changing all four tires to meet Victoria Roads roadworthy standards for sale, would amount to around AUD 1,000. He was, I feel, intentionally vague about how much the work would cost exactly. I didn't think it was worth investing AUD 1,000 in a car I was hoping to get AUD 3,200 and for which I paid AUD 4,500. Investing AUD 1,000, even if I got my asking price I'd only effectively be getting AUD 2,200.  I figured I might as well sell the car back to Deano. I must've been an idealist to think that Deano would actually take it back and for just AUD 1,000 less than I paid for it. He blew me off for a week. With just days left in Australia, he finally looked at the car and told me the transmission was shot. The car was in "limp home" mode.  He said I was fortunate I got it back to Melbourne.   He didn't want to touch it and was pissed off I hadn't told him about the faulty transmission I hadn't even known about.  Doug and Deano
I would've preferred  superb customer service over the free shirt
Out of the goodness of his heart, he'd pay me AUD 1,000 for it. This came as somewhat of a shock to me, since the Melbourne mechanic who'd examined it just a week prior never mentioned I needed a new transmission.

I turned down Deano'a "generous" offer and immediately drove off to the Melbourne suburbs of Ringwood, known for its used car lots.  I'd gone to Ringwood shortly after I arrived in Australia to look for vehicles. To avoid being fleeced by a dealer, who'd likely offer me a paltry price if he knew I was leaving the country in days, I invented a story that I was a permanent resident of Australia and had just been granted a company car. I located one dealer who bought and sold Fords. He didn't bother giving my car a test drive after he looked at my mechanic's inspection, which made no mention at all of the transmission issue. He offered me AUD 2,000. I took it and fled.

In the end, I suppose I didn't end up too badly. I owned three cars in the span of 10 months. If you add up all the money I spent to buy cars and then subtract from that figure sale or trade-in prices and insurance payouts, I only spent AUD 2,850. Add in another AUD 1,500 for the repairs, the extended car registration, and the prematurely terminated insurance policy on my second car. On a day-by-day basis, the costs came to about AUD 15, much cheaper than any long term rental.

I learned several things from my Australian car-buying experiences. Apply these pearls of Doug Wisdom to benefit yourself when you're on the block looking for a vehicle.  
Doug Knell's wisdom

 Don't buy a car from Deano. I have changed his name here and not listed his address so that you cannot be tempted to hand him some cash, have unsatisfactory experience, and then threaten or sue yours truly. Deano didn't screw me or take advantage of me. I don't believe he sold me a lemon or a knowingly defective car at any time. And he gave me a great deal on my first car and fair deals on the next two. Overall though, I was dissatisfied, and Deano's lack of customer service didn't help. I also can't help but think that all three of my cars had problems with them. Maybe that's par for the course on a used car. I wouldn't know. I haven't bought a used car before or since.

 Check the starter motor and do a cursory check that all the doors, locks, and air conditioner work before you consider buying any Ford at least 10 years old.   Now I know why I don't buy Fords in the United States. Henry Ford was an anti-Semite who admired Hitler. That's enough to turn me off before even turning the vehicle on. The reason I advised Ford (and Holden) was not for their brilliant engineering and craftsmanship. It's because of their popularity 10-15 years ago. There are a lot of these cars around, and they can be serviced most anywhere by even a mentally retarded mechanic.

 Buy and sell the car in the same Australian state, ideally the same city. I go over this in more detail here. Sydney and Melbourne have the best car markets, but you could also buy your car in Perth or Adelaide, as long as you were coming back there at the end of your trip. The Northern Territory is the worst place and offers the worst choice for cars. Allow enough time to get rid of your car. I was naive, thinking I could get the car checked and approved to Vic Roads standards and then advertise and find a buyer, all within 2 weeks. Australians would rarely face a sell-by deadline on a vehicle like foreigners regularly face. We travel around their country and pull into our port of embarkation shortly before we fly out. Two weeks is actually a luxury when selling a car. My opinion why so many lemons traverse Australia is because too many backpackers had to sell their cars in a hurry and thus received low prices. Knowing through the grapevine that sale prices are low, no backpacker wants to invest serious dough in maintaining a car he'll have to dump rapidly. If you're trying to sell your car for a decent deal, when visiting a used car lot, invent a reason why you're parting with it, some reason where you don't admit you have to leave the country in a hurry. Seller desperation only leads to a bargain for the buyer.

 Don't be too easily seduced by backpacker mobiles.   These cars can be seductive. They're the cheapest, the oldest, and sometimes come with a lot of freebies like camping gear. Backpacker mobiles have been owned by dozens, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of owners. Well, it seems that way. Apart from maybe the first owner or two, these cars have been driven up and down Australia by impoverished backpackers who poorly maintained them. These cars are like Ponzi schemes. People've done well by them. You'll find backpackers swear by the wagon with 500,000 km on the odometer, but the whole scheme has to collapse sooner rather than later. Pretend you're forced to play a game of Russian roulette, which is a bit like buying a used car in Australia. Wouldn't you rather play with a gun that had thirty-two chambers instead of one which had only six? If cars were likened to people, a backpacker mobile would be like a nanogenerian, on its last legs but impossible to predict when the final collapse will occur. Is that a risk you want to take? Saving AUD 2,500 up front might seem tempting, but if you're the one behind the wheel when the scheme expires, how much will it cost you to continue with your journey? Don't be shortsighted.


Copyright © 2017. All Rights Reserved.


Computer Comprehensive Companion

 Are you up for buying a car in Australia? Good on you, mate. Are you looking for a 2WD or a 4WD? 2WD is recommended. Easier on the wallet. You can purchase a 10-yr old Ford Fairmont, Ford Falcon, or Ford Futura for under AUD 4,000. Holden Commodore goes for the same price. More expensive, but aging better, is the Toyota Hiace, Toyota Echo, and for 4WD, the Toyota Landcruiser. Used cars in Australia abound. Now go out and find them.