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Nerdy Old Econocars Suddenly Worth Thousands

Posted: May 16, 2008 10:27 a.m.

If you're holding on to a 1991 Hyundai Excel with 200k miles on the odometer, this might be the time to get rid of it.  It may be worth thousands more than it used to be. 

USA Today reports, "Some of the nerdiest-looking cars in recent automotive history are making a comeback, at least in resale value, as a growing number of value-driven drivers put gas thriftiness ahead of image."  According to Kelley Blue Book, "Early-1990s econoboxes such as Ford Festiva, Hyundai Excel and Geo Metro -- once the punch line of jokes -- have seen their used car prices climb from giveaway levels as low as $1,100 a few months ago to upward of $6,000 today."

Why would people want a Geo Metro or a Ford Aspire now?  Fuel efficiency.  The Charlotte Observer explains, "Of the 16 cars listed this year by the federal government as most fuel efficient in eight classes, only six get highway mpg of 35 or better. In 1994, there were 10. And the Geo Metro was in the 50-mpg range."  With gas over $4/gallon in some places, mpg is the new horsepower.

One recent survey even shows that women are more attracted to men with fuel-efficient cars.

Those early '90's econoboxes are getting expensive, and hard to find.  Phil Skinner, collector car market editor for KBB, told USA Today that "prices have risen up to 30% for the low-end 15-year-old jalopies."  Auto restorer Nick Skouteris "says he has fixed up and sold about 10 Geo Metros but is having trouble finding more at reasonable prices. He says he had his sights set on a Metro convertible on eBay a couple of weeks ago with rust holes and 175,000 miles on the odometer that went for $3,000." 

Kicking Tires says the trend is real.  "We took a look at Cars.com's Used Car Index," they write, "and indeed found an Excel going for just under $3,000, several Metros with asking prices of $5,000, and a 1991 GM jalopy with 180,000 miles on it indeed selling for six grand. We tell you this not to try to sell you these cars, but simply because it surprises the hell out of us, too."

So should you rush out and try track down a 1991 Geo Storm with a working tape deck? 

The automotive press is cautious about the trend.  Kicking Tires again: "The reason these cars get such great mileage is because they lack a lot of safety features, allowing them to weigh less (including airbags, which are kind of important)."  Consumer Reports managing editor for autos John Linkov, in USA Today, advises shoppers to ask, "What is your life worth for that extra 10 miles per gallon?"

We agree.  We'd also like to add this: few of those old cars are in decent condition.  Many of them can't get the gas mileage they were originally rated for without significant repairs.  Even then, they might not be as efficient as advertised -- the EPA has changed the formula it uses to calculate fuel efficiency since then, realizing that the old formula exaggerated the mileage of most cars.  Even if it were in perfect working order, that Geo Metro wouldn't be rated for the same mileage as a Prius today. 

In fact, the EPA gives mileage estimates under the new formula on cars dating back to 1985 on its website.  The 1991 Hyundai Excel, under the new formula, should get a combined fuel economy of only 26 mpg.  Even some current SUVs beat that.

Lastly, when calculating cost of ownership, remember to consider repairs…those cars weren't exactly reliable when all the parts were new and easy to find.

Still, if you've got an old Aspire in the driveway, you might want to put it on eBay before anyone figures that out.

Then look for a fuel-efficient affordable small car or hybrid with U.S. News car rankings and reviews