We are purchasing a car for my teen son to drive. We live in the west so eventually he may take this vehicle to the mountains, so we'd like a 4 wheel drive. We'd like to spend $4500 or less.
20 years ago we had teen drivers and they all drove Olds 98's, older models. We only insured them PLPD, the minimum.
Old's 98's were one step below Cadillac and when you slammed the door closed you could tell the quality, they thunked instead of ting'd.
My recommendation is to buy an upscale brand with some weight to it, around $2500 to $3000 and put it in the shop for the rest of the money. If you spend $4500 to begin with sure as shootin' something will go wrong.
You may have to spend more than $4500 to get a decent 3 wheel driver. Jeep Cherokees with 4 wheel drives are supplied with at least 2 different transfer cases. I do not recommend the one with "part time" only (has no center differential). It has limited uses and can be used only on slipery surfaces. Undue drive line stresses result if the "part time" drive is engaged on surfaces where all 4 wheels can get traction; it handles awful and fights making turns.
The "full time" type is the best all around choice. It has a center differential, however, this permits any wheel to spin while allowing the others to idle with the only torque output being from drive line frictions. The transfer cases I've had had both part-time and full-time options and this is the best. But the driver must be educated in it use.
If managing a dual drive transfer case proves troublesome, then the next best choice is AWD (all wheel drive). The AWD is engaged all the time and allocation of torque to the 4 wheels is handled sutomatically.
Four wheel drives require more maintence and repair than 2-wheel drive. On Jeeps, the weak spots are the joints at the front wheels, and transfer case seals. The front drive joint at the wheel may be a U-joint or a CV type. The CV type will be covered with a boot. My experience with the U-joint is these need replacing every 3 to 5 years. Salt water eventually invades the joint and ruins the bearings. The front wheel assenbly has to be taken apart to replace the joint and the half shaft pulled out of the front differential. There is a chance that the seal in the differential will get damaged when the new shaft is inserted. The labor bill is expensive.
For AWD vehicles, the AWD mechanism may be a trouble spot. Have this checked before buying.
Chrysler Sebring has a 5 star crash test rating and you won't find anything for near the price with the same safety.
2.7 V6 engine has bit of a reputation, I think the fours may be the most reliable.
The cheapest 4WDs would be the Suzuki/Geo Metro models. They're good offroad, but a bit rough around the edges otherwise.