Can you help me find a new car?
September 19, 2004 11:09 AM   Subscribe

I need a new car, but I don't know what I want. Perhaps you can help. [More Inside]

My current car, a '95 Pontiac Bonneville, has seen better days. It started life as a rental car, then in 1996 my parents bought it for their use. In 1997 it was in a horrid accident, completely rebuilt, and then when my parents moved away in 1999 I inherited the car. Now it's really beginning to show some wear ("beginning", hah!) and it's time to move on before it requires another serious repair.

So I need a new car. The problem is that I know very little about cars aside from driving them and setting the radio presets. I know what I want in a car, but I don't know a thing about makes and models and so forth. Ideally there should be a website where I can input the accessories and price range I want and it would eliminate cars that do not meet that criteria. I can find no such site though. So I though I'd ask you all for some input. Based on the following criteria, what kind(s) of car do I want?
  • Must have air conditioner, radio, CD player, etc. (i.e. the usual features)
  • Must be automatic transmission
  • Should be low maintenance (best case scenario: under the hood is a giant on/off switch and when something goes wrong with the car and I just reset the switch to fix it)
  • Should get good gas mileage
  • Must be a four-door vehicle with plenty of room. I'm a tall person and have already had to sell one car because I no longer fit inside it height-wise.
  • Really should be about 2-3 years old, used, and in great condition. My car has over 112,000 miles on it. The car I'm buying must have far less than that. Under 20,000-30,000 would be nice.
  • Must have a heads-up display for the speedometer (i.e. the current speed is visible on the interior windshield. Both cars I've had possessed this feature and now I'm addicted)
Based on this information does any particular model stand out? Or do you know of a website that can help in my search? Please help me get started in searching for my next car.
posted by Servo5678 to Shopping (23 answers total)
If you can go into HUD-withdrawl you might want to look at a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry, both of which have pretty good reputations as far as maintenance and gas milage go. I think that if the HUD is a deal breaker it's going to severely limit your choice, and you may have to pick between the HUD and ease-of-ownership.

Also, the rule of thumb for milage is 12,000 miles/year. You're aiming for the low end of that so expect to pay a premium.
posted by revgeorge at 11:38 AM on September 19, 2004

AFAIK, you're not going to get the heads up display feature anymore. I haven't seen it mentioned in automotive press since GM tried it as a gimmick in the mid 90s. As gimmicks go, it didn't really convince too many prospective buyers, and I'm pretty sure they phased it out. So you might want to throw that thought right out the window.
If you're tall, you might look into an SUV. Yeah, I know all the reasons to hate them, but I fit into them way better than all but the biggest of full-size sedans. Even small SUVs like the Ford Escape. Actually, they're planning to introduce a diesel model of the Jeep Liberty here in a few months; it's likely to get decent fuel mileage (and lately diesel prices have been more stable than gas prices; bear in mind that diesel prices always go up in the winter, also) and would allow for bio-diesel usage, if you're of an environmentalist bent.
It looks like you live in Florida, so I reckon you probably don't need all-wheel drive; I understand the 2wd version of the Mazda Tribute (the Mazda version of the Ford Escape) is very affordable and gets shockingly good gas mileage for an SUV. It stands to reason that the same would apply to the 2wd Escape, though, if you prefer to pay a little more.
Myself, I'm a sucker for a Saab. I'm actually trying (mostly failing) to talk myself out of trading my just-failed-inspection SUV in on a few year old 9-5 wagon. I'm 6'4" tall, and I find all the Saabs I've been in very comfy.
What kind of budget are we talking about here? The recent Mercedes-Benzes with diesel engines get excellent gas mileage (35-ish MPG in a big, solid car), and are reputed to be bullet-proof in terms of reliability, but they're pricey; I daydream about someday affording one even though I'd find it both too ostentatious and too expensive to ever really consider.
posted by willpie at 11:38 AM on September 19, 2004

Also, check out the manufacturers' certified used car programs. They all have locator websites, and they usually feature 1-3 year old cars with low mileage and no crash history.
posted by willpie at 11:40 AM on September 19, 2004

" Ideally there should be a website where I can input the accessories and price range..."

I saw an advertisement for a service like this on television, but I can't vouch for how reliable it is or how helpful it might be in narrowing down your model choices.

The best thing might be to go to a nearby dealership for your favorite auto makers, and sit in a few floor models. Then go google around for reviews of models you liked to see if they meet your needs from a reliability and maintenance standpoint.

"Based on this information does any particular model stand out?"

I don't know about HUD -- I had no idea cars were even shipping with heads-up displays -- but the rest of your criteria sound like an Accord or something in that range. Caveat: I'm short and wide, I have no idea how comfortable cars are for tall narrow people.
posted by majick at 11:41 AM on September 19, 2004

You might also want to read the comments on this Autoblog post. The height and maintenance requirements seem to match yours.
posted by revgeorge at 11:43 AM on September 19, 2004

You can still get HUDs on 4-door Pontiacs and Corvettes. But the day that GM cars are low maintenance or even just not-unreliable will be the day you see four robed gentlemen riding horseback.

If you really really want a HUD, you can get aftermarket ones that wire into your ECU module. Just google for it, or for defi HUD.

Otherwise, if you don't know what kind of 4-door with a bit of headroom that you want, just go get an Accord. Accords and Civics seem optimized to be good cars for people who don't know exactly what they want in a car, and they're more or less bulletproof.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:47 AM on September 19, 2004

Judging from the number of elderly people I see driving around in Toyota Avalons, I'd assume you could get one of those with pretty low mileage at a decent price. They're like Camrys, only bigger.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:53 AM on September 19, 2004

If it fits your headroom criteria, a used, certified Camry (yes, as in from a Toyota dealer) should meet the rest of your needs too (except the speedometer thing; I've never seen that). According to this search, you should be able to find a couple-years old model for between $17 - $19K. They're immensely reliable and get great mileage. The bodies usually last 8 - 10 years here in Ohio, so I'd predict you'll get even longer wear in Florida, and a Toyota engine will easily give you 120,000 miles.
posted by boomchicka at 11:55 AM on September 19, 2004

Yes, or an Avalon. :)
posted by boomchicka at 11:56 AM on September 19, 2004

The Camry/ Accord suggestions are given reflexively any time someone asks about a reasonably roomy, easy-to-maintan car.

I would strongly suggest looking at the Nissan Altima and Maxima, as well, which IMO are better values (and more fun to drive) than the Accord and Camry.

I think that you're screwed on the HUD.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:03 PM on September 19, 2004

I've got a friend with a pretty new Altima and it's got a decent but spare interior. It doesn't seem quite as well thought out as a Honda interior. As far as reliability -- or at least the ability to drive 250,000 miles without a whole bunch of fooling around under the hood -- I don't know if recent generations of Nissans have proven to match Honda (or Toyota, for that matter, although Honda's my reliability vehicle of choice) in that arena. The Civic/Accord platform is considered reliable for a reason; you'll want to do some research before you look into something else.

Those Altimas are peppy little cars though.
posted by majick at 12:10 PM on September 19, 2004

This may not be exactly what you asked for, but you might want to check out edmunds and autotrader for pretty much any kind of information about buying cars.
posted by epimorph at 12:38 PM on September 19, 2004

I recently purchased a Volkswagen, and I was very impressed with the engineering, the build quality and the performance of the cars I drove. I recommend them highly. Mine's one of their new TDI diesels, which is much quieter than the old ones, has tons of torque and averages 40 miles to the gallon (admittedly, with manual transmission).
posted by JollyWanker at 12:57 PM on September 19, 2004 is the go-to site for car shopping. Accept no substitutes.

You don't mention price, but you can get a nice new car for less than $20k these days. Check out the five-door version of the Mazda 3 or maybe the Scion xB (if you don't mind the styling).
posted by schoolgirl report at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2004

There's a reason the Accord or Camry are reflex answers to "reliable car." They just work.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:28 PM on September 19, 2004

Given that you care about reliability, I suggest you buy a one-month Consumer Reports subscription and cross-reference repair records with listings. Head-up displays aside, there are easily two dozen cars, sport-utility vehicles and wagons on the market that fit your basic criteria.
posted by werty at 4:55 PM on September 19, 2004

Don't spend money on a Mercedes/BMW/Saab since it looks as if you can't afford. I don't mean to be condescending but I seriously was considering a luxury car earlier (I thought I would pay for the reliability, etc.) and upon further inspection everything is expensive about it. Yes they last forever but you never want to be in a situation where you can't afford to repair a car.

Have you looked into a truck? Dodge, Ford are all very ubiquitous and easy to work on. They are also reliable (in my experience). I personally don't like pickups but they have a lot of room and you can change the oil and spark plugs without looking... say that about your Mercedes or even Japanese car with everything packed in so tight.

Then again, the love you take is the love you get. You'll get out of your car what you put in. You say you hate (or don't know how) to open it up. I hate doing it to but when I brought my aging Jeep into the dealer to get the motor mounts replaced... he said it ran better than anything he's seen with half its age. I don't do anything special, I just take care of it when it needs it and do more than regular oil /air filter/break jobs. And if you end up getting a car you like, you'll love and take care of it more.

Using economics terms (not derogatory, so don't read into the wording) but all "inferior goods" in the car market seem to be at the point where they work well past 100,000 miles. When you move up to the "luxury goods" is when things begin to break. I have a friend with a Porsche that drips rattles and all kinds of stuff you just accept for getting a Porsche. They're not made to be highly used sedans and I believe they're designed with the idea that most people baby them and get rid of them at 40,000 miles. Anything else will get the job done.

Oh and whatever you do, DO NOT buy from a private seller. I've had a bad experience related to my earlier car buying thread. I won't go into it right now as currently I have a lawyer involved (you guys should thank me, I saved you an AskMefi thread), but please, please get in with a dealership as there you at least have some protection.
posted by geoff. at 6:17 PM on September 19, 2004


Won't break, roomy, safe, great handling. Take your pick: Impreza wagon (most fun to drive, great looks (most attractive wagon ever made), lots of room for its size); Legacy (a little less attractive but lots more room); Forester (about the same as a Legacy but taller). Sorry, no HUD unless you want to mod it. There's a reason the aftermarket for Subarus is small and pricey - you can run them into the ground and they won't complain. Between our two cars we have 250000 miles in 10 car-years with no major or critical problems whatsoever.

Lots of Hondas and Toyotas would fit your bill too. I avoid all American cars.
posted by azazello at 6:41 PM on September 19, 2004

Sorry for the derail, but especially considering how they are driven, Porsches are remarkably well-engineered, well-assembled, durable cars. They score impressively in initial quality, as well.

60% of all Porsches made are still on the road today.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:41 PM on September 19, 2004

I suggest you buy a one-month Consumer Reports subscription

Take anything you read in consumer reports with a grain of salt. Their ratings especially are fairly bogus because of the self selecting nature of their feedback. Indentical cars sold by different manufactures (Toyota/GM) have had ratings differ by as much as 20%.

IMO if it comes down to an Accord or Camry I'd go with the Camry. Honda's always seem light duty in some way I can't quite put my finger on. Plus Civics are pretty popular with the ricer crowd and get attention from cops, Camry's not so much.
posted by Mitheral at 8:59 PM on September 19, 2004

FWIW, a good friend of mine who is 6'5" and a bit of a car nut drove a Miata quite happily until recently. So I tend to be skeptical of the big guy = big vehicle equation.

The arrival of twins forced him to buy a new car. He got a VW Passat. VWs have a reputation for reliability problems, but they also come with long warranties. And they drive nice.

It was on his recommendation that I wound up getting a Subaru WRX, which he can also fit into (bought which would be wasted on an automatic). I've had no troubles with it and like it quite well. My old car was a Civic, which had 170,000 miles on the clock before I decided it was no longer worth fixing.
posted by adamrice at 9:31 PM on September 19, 2004

If you buy a used car, make sure you do your research, especially in light of recent events.
posted by grateful at 7:26 AM on September 20, 2004

Thank you for your advice, everyone. I'm going to start my search with an Altima as I've already heard good things about them. From there I'll just go down the list and check things out. And while I really want a HUD, I'll probably have one installed aftermarket if it comes down to it.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:32 AM on September 21, 2004

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