Help me choose a new family car!
May 14, 2009 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Help me find/decide on options for a new, family-friendly car.

My 2000 Neon has served me remarkably well, all things considered, but now that we have a little one (attached to enormous car seats), we are in the market for a larger and safer vehicle.

I would really like something that meets the following criteria, more or less: a hatchback or station wagon, manual transmission, decent mileage, under $30,000. I am not averse to used cars, but I want something with modern safety devices, particularly side airbags (have you ever watched those horrible side-impact crash tests?), and something in decent shape (not more than 40 or 50 thousand miles).

We currently have one 1-year old daughter, and may be in the market for another child down the line (2-3 years). Rear-facing car seats behind the passenger seat in our current cars means one of us has to sit in the back. Packing the whole family with luggage and presents for Christmas is already almost impossible and could get worse. You get the picture.

I've been particularly taken by the Mazda5, which seems to be a very versatile and fun car. We have a 3 now, but the backseat is a bit tight. If the car is roomy, I'd consider a regular 4-door, but I like the style of hatchbacks and wagons, actually.

Any suggestions?
posted by dellsolace to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Subaru Outback or Forester. You can hit those things with a tactical nuke and they'll continue to run. Both boast incredibly impressive reviews everywhere and have great safety ratings. My dad has an Outback and loves it to death. I'm in the market for an Impreza myself.
posted by InsanePenguin at 10:44 AM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mazda 3 5-door (redesigned for 2010), mazdaspeed version too!
Toyota Venza (only available in 6 speed auto as far as I know)
Toyota Matrix

Mazda 5 is technically a minivan, but if you like the look, it gets decent reviews from users. CnD seems to think less of it, despite modding the heck out of it in some of their articles.

Subaru's are also amazing vehicles that really shine when you take them where the paved road ends.

Also, here's a link to Car and Driver's website of station wagons, broken down by price.
posted by liquoredonlife at 10:45 AM on May 14, 2009

I own a 2005 Pontiac Vibe, pretty the same car as the Toyota Matrix but with Pontiac branding, but I bought it for around $15,000 new during the GM's Employee Price sale they did a few years ago. I get about 36 MPG highway and 32 MPG city with my manual transmission, and I'm generally a pretty laid back driver.

We have four kids ages 9, 7, 5, and 2. I can fit all four kids in the car, so it's nice when I have to run them all around (our normal "family" vehicle is a minivan). What I like about the Vibe is it is actually pretty roomy inside even though it is a compact - very efficient use of interior space. I couldn't fit three car seats or booster seats across the back seat, but you can have one child-seat on either side, and the center seat can be used for our 9 or 7 year old without a booster seat since the seat belt comes off the back of the seat and is low enough so it falls across their shoulder correctly (that's the main reason you have booster seats - so the seat belt falls over the collar bone, not the neck). I never had any issues with rear facing car seats since my wife isn't that tall and didn't need the front passenger seat back all the way. Plus, since the car is a hatchback there's lots of space for things in the back.

After four years of ownership, I'm very happy with the car - it basically has performed well for me and I have no reason to replace it. I would guess the newer models of Matrix/Vibe have seen some improvements.

When I bought the Vibe, I also was looking into used Mazda 5-doors as well. While I did like their exterior better, I felt the interior of the Vibe was better functionally, plus the Vibe got a lot better mileage than the Mazdas. Another clincher that really sold me on the Vibe is the engine uses a timing chain, not a timing belt. I drove Hondas previously, and was tired of replacing the timing belts (and worrying about interference-based engines if they broke). So, I wanted a car that used a timing chain that is supposed to last the life of the engine. I'm not sure if the current generation of the Matrix/Vibe use the same engine platform and timing chain, but I would assume yes since the engine in the Vibe is the same as in the Celica, Matrix, and Corolla with minor performance differences. But, along with the good mileage, this reduced the long term cost-of-ownership for me.
posted by JibberJabber at 11:05 AM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

We have a 2007 VW Passat Station Wagon that currently has a rear facing Britax Marathon behind the passenger seat. I'm 6'2" and while I'd like a little more leg room, it's not too uncomfortable around town. I don't think I'd want to do a long drive as a passenger though. My wife is 5'8" and has plenty of room. It's reliable, has a lot of safety features and we bought it used for about $24k with <15,000 miles on it.
posted by IanMorr at 11:16 AM on May 14, 2009

posted by thilmony at 11:24 AM on May 14, 2009

I drive a (2007) Kia Spectra5 (hatchback). I have three kids - aged 12, 9 and 5 - who are anything but small. The youngest is in a booster seat. My husband is 6'1"-ish and I'm 5'6" and we both have no problems driving it or adjusting things to our preferences. The standard features are excellent (and the upgrades seem to be well-thought), the value for the price was amazing, and I wouldn't hesitate to buy it all over again.
posted by VioletU at 11:25 AM on May 14, 2009

Subaru Outback or Forester.

Make sure you fully know what you're getting into before you buy an AWD car. They are not like 2wd cars in surprising ways. For example, say one of your tires blows out. You can't just buy a new tire. You either have to replace all four at once, or have your new tire shaved down so the outer diameter matches the three older tires.

I love driving AWD cars but I'm not sure I want to own one.

Mr. Ant and I are planning to replace our 2001 Civic hunchback this fall. The cars we've shortlisted:

VW Rabbit/Golf/Whatever-it-is-this-year
Saturn Astra (It's an Opel elsewhere in the world, and built in Belgium)
Honda Fit
Honda Civic (No hatchback available in the US, sadly)
Nissan Versa

The Toyota Matrix didn't make the shortlist. We drove one - it's absolutely uninspired and bizarrely idiosyncratic. They don't offer a cargo cover in our market, but they do one state over. WTF? The Civic will have to kick ass to overcome its hatchbacklessness. We'd love a Mini Clubman but we don't have a Mini dealer here in Asselbowstan.
posted by workerant at 11:31 AM on May 14, 2009

No kids (yet), but one year as a Honda Fit owner and I am very pleased and I recommend it. I'm able to fit an impressive amount of stuff in the car even with passengers. Without passengers and with the seats down, I'm amazed and what I can carry, it is very roomy. It's got good crash test ratings, good mileage, and I think it's very affordable.

I bought this car knowing that I'd have a family within the lifespan of owning this car (5-7 years). I'm getting married in a month and kids are not far off, so I'm hoping I made a good purchase!
posted by tommccabe at 11:40 AM on May 14, 2009

I have a Pontiac Vibe, and think its a pretty good little car (and typically a very good deal on the used market) It's large enough for adults to sit comfortably in the back seat...You would have to check to be sure, but I would imagine your car seat would be fine.
posted by mjcon at 11:50 AM on May 14, 2009

We have a 2006 Subaru Outback, and it's not as roomy as you might think. When we had a rear-facing Britax Marathon behind the passenger seat, it was a little bit of a scrunch even for me (5'4"), but only enough to bother me on the longer (4-5 hour) car rides.

That said, I anticipate it will work well with two kids (our second to arrive any day now), where the older is forward-facing behind the driver and the younger is in whatever she needs to be behind the passenger. As for the bulky-ass gear for 2 kids on those long aforementioned trips, we are planning to get a Thule rack in time for Christmas.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 11:51 AM on May 14, 2009

Seconding JibberJabber - until it was totalled in an accident a few months ago, we absolutely adored our 2004 Pontiac Vibe. Great gas mileage, great seating and storage (we could transport five roller derby players and their gear with no problems at all).

A beautiful, beautiful car and I miss it very much.

(We now have a 2009 Scion xD, and while it is also a lovely, lovely car it's noticeably smaller than the Vibe. We only have one kid (who is almost out of a booster seat) and have no plans in the future for another one, so size in that respect was not an issue.)
posted by Lucinda at 12:00 PM on May 14, 2009

Subaru Outback or Forester. You can hit those things with a tactical nuke and they'll continue to run. Both boast incredibly impressive reviews everywhere and have great safety ratings. My dad has an Outback and loves it to death. I'm in the market for an Impreza myself.

Whatever you do, don't buy a pre-2002 Subaru Forester/Impreza/Outback. You'll be sorry -- loud, leaky, overheating engines; clunky auto trans boxes and gas-sucking, complex AWD systems.

All the other suggestions are great -- esp. the Vibe/Matrix. Perhaps a Honda Element? And though they're hard to find, a Hyundai Elantra GT Hatchback would be a great car, especially if you were pleased with your Neon -- same uninspired road feel, 10 times the quality and longevity.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:19 PM on May 14, 2009

Whatever you do, don't buy a pre-2002 Subaru Forester/Impreza/Outback. You'll be sorry -- loud, leaky, overheating engines; clunky auto trans boxes and gas-sucking, complex AWD systems.

I should have added that, yeah. Also, some early 2000 (read: pre-2002) models had head gaskets that would blow at the drop of a hat, which are expensive to repair.
posted by InsanePenguin at 1:01 PM on May 14, 2009

We have a Honda Fit. We totally love it, but it can really only hold one rear-facing baby seat (in the middle position). Putting it behind the passenger seat leaves the passenger's knees up to the glove box, and you certainly can't put one behind the driver. We're fine with the Fit right now for our little kiddo, but we may have to get something larger if baby #2 comes along.

Also, ditto the "no way" on pre-2002 Subarus. We briefly had a 2001 Outback and several very expensive things failed in spectacular fashion.
posted by zsazsa at 1:14 PM on May 14, 2009

I want something with modern safety devices, particularly side airbags

Electronic Stability Control is widely regarded as the most significant safety feature since the introduction of seatbelts.

The 2009 and 10 Pontiac Vibe, already mentioned by has this as a standard feature, and because(?) of the termination of the Pontiac line, sells for thousands of dollars less than its twin, the Toyota Matrix.
posted by Neiltupper at 1:18 PM on May 14, 2009

I'm a happy Matrix (2005) owner. The car has been a brick for 5 years now. It's pretty good in snow (with the right tires) if that matters to you. I love it because I can fill the back with topsoil or bags of concrete and then just brush out the cargo area. The plastic interior is very practical and it's got loads of space for its size.

We looked at the Fit when the other half needed a car last fall; it's like a smaller version of the Matrix and also looked like a quality car. It was the most expensive in its size category though, by about 15%. We ended up with a (much cheaper) Yaris. If it's affordable, the Fit is an excellent car though.
posted by bonehead at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2009

Another vote for the Matrix. We bought a used one a couple of years ago and it'll turn over 100,000 miles on our road trip this weekend. We've had only one issue with it (needed a new clutch shortly after we bought it, don't think the previous owner had driven a standard before). It has side-impact airbags, enormous cargo space, and a roomy back seat.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:18 PM on May 14, 2009

I'm not going to give you specific car recommendations, but instead some car-shopping advice. I just bought a new car because a) my old car had decided to try and bankrupt me with endless repairs and b) baby#2 is due next week, and we really didn't have the back seat space for two car seats - esp as my partner is 6'1".

So anyway, I spent a lot of time doing car comparisons on and made up a spreadsheet with the rear legroom numbers for all the various cars I was interested in. I can now say with certainty that rear legroom measurements are completely misleading and useless :) This is a case where the devil really is in the details. We test drove two cars which (according to the numbers) had just under an inch difference in rear legroom. We took the car seat and the toddler with us, and installed him in the back seat for the test drive. The difference between the two was astounding, it felt more like 4 or 5 inches difference than 0.9". Its down to how the front seating area is configured (which determines how the person in the front adjusts their seat, which then squishes up against the rear-facing car seat). Also the shape of the rear seat - flat or buckety - sloped or not - changes the space the car seat takes up when installed.

If you're all about safety, then i will throw out that you could consider buying a used Mercedes or something, since their safety features are generally light years ahead of everyone else's. Their rear seat space leaves a bit to be desired though, IMO. I noticed that the new VW Tiguan SUV-ish thing has adjustable rear sets, so you can slide them back to make space for the baby seats and lose a little trunk space. Kind of cool, but I didn't want an SUV so I never checked it out. I think the Honda Element was on my list of cars to grudgingly check out too.
posted by Joh at 2:45 PM on May 14, 2009

We love our '05 forester and would be keeping it forever if we weren't about to have our third-no room for that. I've put 115K on it and have done nothing but change oil and tires. I get 30 mpg on the highway. I'm short, but passenger legroom was still tight with a RF snugride. Now we have a FF Britax and it's fine- our 12 year old is out of a booster, of course. Excellent safety ratingz and fab on snow. My sister has the same car in flagstaff an has had no problems with winter driving. In addition, she was just rear-ended, then hit the car in front of her. No damage to her car, significant damage to the car that hit her.
posted by purenitrous at 3:52 PM on May 14, 2009

If you like your current 3, what about a Mazda 6? The 2009 model is currently only available in 4-door variants, but the 2008 model came in 4- and 5- door (sleek looking hatchback) models.

They did offer the 6 in a wagon model (I've seen precisely 1 since I arrived in the US), but the 2007 model is auto-only - you need to go back to the 2006 model to find a manual-boxed wagon.

Disclaimer - I drive a 4-door Mazdaspeed 6, and I love the thing - best car I've ever owned. Might not be practical enough for your family, though.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 5:23 PM on May 14, 2009

We have a Mazda5 and two friends of ours have followed suit. Especially if the small size is valuable, like for city parking, and if you care about fuel mileage, the vehicle is tough to beat for family needs. It's also surprisingly affordable. The third row seat really does seat adults.
posted by tonci at 5:58 PM on May 14, 2009

I had virtually the same list of criteria when I went shopping for my new car. I loves me my little 2008 Yaris. It has all that, plus fuel economy so good the Canadian government issued a tax reimbursement to those who purchased or leased the vehicle.
posted by LN at 9:45 AM on May 15, 2009

Hey, I don't know how it fits your safety criteria, and it doesn't have a manual option, but you might want to take a look at a Toyota Prius. We were in a similar situation last year, and looked at a lot of the same cars you are and are being suggested here, the Mazda 5, the Subaru Outback, etc., but someone suggested we take a look at the Prius and we *loved* it. It had way more room than we expected (we expected it to be small because its a hybrid), and of course the gas mileage is great. I have to tell you, I love the fact that the engine shuts off when you're stopped at lights, etc. Its like, "ahhhh..."
posted by Reverend John at 1:39 PM on May 15, 2009

Let me add that we get two car seats in the back, and a double stroller in the hatch area, with both adults comfortable in the front seat, so, it works from that perspective.
posted by Reverend John at 1:40 PM on May 15, 2009

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