Baby you can pick my car
September 23, 2008 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Help choose a car for an outdoorsy, environmentalist city dweller on a budget?

My current car was slowly but now with increasing speed deteriorating into a small, unusable metal storage space. I need help narrowing my options to replace it. Currently I drive very rarely--once or twice a week, with occasional long trips into the back country--, but when I do my current tiny, sporty hatchback doesn't really cut it. My priorities in no particular order:

1) Fuel economy and overall environmental friendliness. I don't drive a lot, but I don't want to feel that my engine is a hole into which I throw wasted money when I do. Around 30mpg ideal.

2) Camping/mountain friendly. I'd love a wagon that could hold a decent amount of gear for 3 people and make it up the dirt road on a mountain without me feeling the need to say a dozen Hail Marys.

3) City parking friendly. One advantage my current car does have is the ability to fit into minute parking spaces. Giant, lengthy cars are not the best for my neighborhood.

4) Longevity. I'm not an avid consumer of cars, so I'd like this car to stay reliable for another ten years. It won't get a lot of mileage, but it will take a little abuse.

5) Easy repairs, without the "this simple repair costs more because its a ____" surprises at the shop.

6) Price. Willing to spend up to $20,000, but prefer closer to $15,000 (by that token, I'm more in the market for a used car).

My gaze keeps drifting to Mazda and Hondas hatchbacks/smaller wagons, but I can be persuaded otherwise. No brand preference. Thanks for your advice!

(alternatively, if you can recommend a search website that will take these preferences into consideration, I'd love that too).
posted by xaire to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Toyota Matrix AWD, or if you want to get spendier and fancier, a Subaru Forester/Outback.

Alternatively, you could just rent a car when you need one -- it'd be much cheaper.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:35 AM on September 23, 2008

Used Legacy Outback. I've taken my CRX places that no non-4WD vehicle should even consider, but the Outback will almost certainly by my next vehicle.

I've looked at my buddy's Mazda 3 wagon (or whatever they're calling it this year), but the "wagon" part has less space than my CRX! If you're willing to pony up for a nice roof rack to put a carrier on for more storage, you can go with a much short (easier to park) vehicle.
posted by notsnot at 7:35 AM on September 23, 2008

I imagine that Subaru had folks like you in mind when they designed the Outback Sport. The main item among your criteria that it doesn't live up to is its 20/27 city/hwy mpg rating, a bit low because of the all-time 4WD I imagine; also the new ones start at 20k and go up as you add features. (Maybe you could find one a year or two old that would be in your price range.)

Also, for your #5, you're going to find that, barring a bumper-to-bumper warrantee, most newish cars are expensive to repair because of all the bells and whistles they come with. Good luck!

On preview, as MCLoCarb mentions, many cities have "zip car" programs that are perfect for people who only want to use a car occasionally. Your profile says you're in DC, so you might want to look at
posted by aught at 7:43 AM on September 23, 2008

I have a Mazda 3 sedan, not wagon, but I can vouch for:

Gas mileage: 24 mpg city, and I've gotten up to 32 mpg on the highway (speeding, using cruise control)

City parking: I live in parallel parking hell, and I can maneuver my 3 into some pretty tight spots.

Can't speak to longevity, as I've only had it about two years now, but my driving is pretty low-mileage and I haven't had any problems yet.

I will point out, though, that the tires that came with the 3 suck. I can't get up my neighborhood's (steep) hill if there's any fresh snow on the ground. A colleague of mine bought Dunlop all-season tires and says they're much better, so if you're going to use this on anything but nicely paved streets, I'd recommend investing in better tires.
posted by olinerd at 7:44 AM on September 23, 2008

Which city do you live in?

You might wanter to consider zipcar (or other similar services) if you really only need a car a couple times a month.
posted by steinwald at 7:53 AM on September 23, 2008

Can you try using public transit, car pooling, and/or a zipcar for your weekly trips? If so, you could use a cheap rental car for the camping. You'd at least buy more time for considering your options.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:08 AM on September 23, 2008

I love my Subaru Outback. The mileage is a little less than you hoped for - I average about 24 between city and highway driving, but otherwise it's perfect. The AWD and ground clearance should take you almost anywhere with no problem (it was great in some really nasty snow this year) and it has tons of cargo space. I also have to park it on a crowded street and haven't had any problems. And the Subarus have a good reputation for lasting (my neighbor has over 300,000 miles on his and it just keeps going). I got mine a couple years used for around 17k.

Alternatively, my fiance has a Honda Element that gets similar gas mileage, has insane storage space (multiple bicycles standing up is no problem, nor is the Great Dane with tons of headroom left when she bumps her head in every other car), but it's shorter so you might be able to park it a little easier. And don't discount it because of the looks - he absolutely hated the Element until he went with me on a test drive, and suddenly he loved it.

One more thing...about the Mazdas. I know this is just one person's experience, but my fiance previously had a Mazda 6 that was just crap. The interior didn't hold up, and after 2 years (despite regular oil changes) the engine seized. The dealer wouldn't cover it under warranty because we didn't have every single oil change receipt.
posted by thejanna at 8:09 AM on September 23, 2008

Another vote for a used Subaru Outback (with roof rack). Bought used for $7k and is going strong at ~140k miles and counting. Everything fits in/on this car. It's not a Prius wrt efficiency but I don't feel guilty driving it just to get groceries.
posted by headnsouth at 8:23 AM on September 23, 2008

I bought a car about a year ago with an almost identical list of criteria. I ended up with the pontiac vibe, and I like it a lot. I average 30mpg, and that's almost entirely with stop-and-go city driving. It's even better on the highway. I drive it around MN in the winter, and I haven't had any problems with sliding around in the snow. The back seats fold down flat with hard plastic on the back, so I can throw my muddy gear in the back and just wipe it down later. It's roomy enough that three people + backpacking gear for the weekend is still comfortable, but it's not so gigantic that I can't parallel park. So far it's been very reliable (though admittedly it's only been a year). And the price is within your range, too. My only complaint has been the lack of a built-in aux. audio jack, which wasn't even available as an option last year (I don't know about this year), but it's not that expensive to get one added by some car audio guys. Somebody else above recommended the Toyota Matrix, which is a very similar car (I've been told they're even built in the same factories), so check that out too.
posted by vytae at 8:24 AM on September 23, 2008

There's some tension in your criteria. A car that can make it up a mountain easily is more likely to be four wheel drive, which eats more gas. But your criteria are still quite doable, I think.

The car that first popped to mind is the Subaru Impreza Wagon/Outback Sport. But the fuel economy isn't quite where you'd want it (the EPA gives a few different ratings for what seems like the same engine, and some of them take premium fuel (though I think that's only the WRX STI) - check it out on

The Matrix AWD also seems like a good choice, though it also falls a bit short on fuel economy, though not too much.

I would take a good look at the 2009 Honda Fit. They've just redesigned it, and it's probably the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid on the market. It's significantly better than the other two - 28 MPG in the city, and 35 on the highway. It's probably more in your price range. It's got seats specially designed to fold completely flat, all the way up to the front, so you can store lots of gear. They market it as a car for an active lifestyle. It's a hatchback/wagon. The only concern would be that without AWD it would not be quite as sure of itself on rougher roads, but quite honestly I think you have to ask yourself whether you really need AWD. People have generally been tricked by car companies into thinking that you need AWD anytime you leave a paved road. The truth is that you only need it for accelerating in deep snow and mud. Dirt roads on mountains will be handled fine by any new car.

Any of these cars will be reliable. Honda won the most awards for initial quality from JD Power in 2008, and the Fit was the top-ranked compact car. The Subaru Impreza was the second-ranked sporty car. Toyota has had some quality problems recently with its Camry and its trucks, but it's still ranked very highly overall, and I'm sure the Matrix would be reliable.

Personally, I'd choose the Fit, since I think it's the best balance of a car that's cheap and efficient for toodling around the city when you're not camping, and providing lots of space when you need to take stuff with you. But I'm sure you'll be well-served by any of the choices listed in this thread.
posted by Dasein at 8:37 AM on September 23, 2008

nthing Zipcar! If you need a small car, they've got small cars, if you need a pickup, they've got those, too. We sold our car close to eight years ago because it had reached the same state as yours -- it spent most of the time parked in front of our house, except for the times we would drive it to the garage for repairs. We bike for most of our in-city commutes, and use Zipcar if we want to get further out of town on weekends and so forth.
posted by larsks at 8:38 AM on September 23, 2008

Honda Fit! Honda Fit! I am in love with the Honda Fit. Though I read an article that they can be difficult to find due to their popularity. The article suggested the Nissan Versa and the Chevy Aveo as alternatives.
posted by kerning at 9:50 AM on September 23, 2008

I was going to suggest the Fit too, kerning. Consumer reports recommended it as one of the cheapest cars per-mile. Even though it is small you can cram a lot of stuff into it because of the way it's designed. Plus it's a Honda so you know it will be reliable.

Yes, I am living vicariously through you.
posted by radioamy at 10:12 AM on September 23, 2008

The Fit rules (we've had one for almost two years) but ground clearance may be an issue on dirt roads if there are any big rocks in the way.

As for Subaru, for a while I had an Outback with a couple $2000 "this simple repair costs more because its a ____"-type problems (transmission-related things that were made much more expensive by the inclusion of AWD).
posted by zsazsa at 10:49 AM on September 23, 2008

Regarding the Element: It's got huge amounts of storage space, true, but I can vouch for the fact that the backseats are incredibly uncomfortable for long rides. If you test drive one, take a friend to sit in the back, and drive it as long as you can.
posted by rtha at 11:47 AM on September 23, 2008

The Suzuki SX4 Crossover is an option - build quality and fit and finish are supposedly greatly improved over the old Sidekicks of years ago. I'm thinking about looking at one myself in a few months. Still gathering data on long-term reliability, but fully loaded for under 20grand - gotta at least take a look.
posted by pupdog at 1:40 PM on September 23, 2008

My 2005 Scion XB more or less meets all your criteria.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:18 PM on September 23, 2008

My requirements are similar to the original poster, and I went with the SX4 Crossover. It's a fun car to drive. Mileage is so-so, I think I'm averaging about 27 in a couple days. Feels kind of like a mini-mini-suv. The seat folding is funky but results in tons of cargo space, more than the fit. I haven't gotten it dirty yet, but it looks like the lock awd will extend the capabilities just a wee bit.

The Fit is an amazingly cool little car. Everything about it screams great design and useability. it feels like a cross between a golf cart and a luxury sedan, and it's fun to drive. Mileage is consistently over 35 (with lots of freeway, and the car makes you want to hypermile). The seat configurations are clever, and quite useful. I've slept two in refresh mode fairly comfortably which is a lifesaver on late night road trips. My one gripe is that the rear seats don't recline in refresh mode, but I guess they were worried about people's heads in the crumple zone. The automatic with the paddle shifters is fun and offers a little extra control over rpms for those who don't drive a stick.

I haven't driven the Fit in challenging conditions yet, but I am concerned about the safety. The car is a bit "twitchy" both in handling and braking. That combined with the high wind profile, light weight and tiny tires could spell trouble in slippery, stormy conditions. The plush package with ground effects has little clearance and is clearly not intended for off pavement. If that's a dealbreaker then you can pick up an awd SX4 for around 16k. Fits are in greater demand and cost a couple grand more.

posted by Manjusri at 12:57 AM on September 30, 2008

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