Fuel efficient, fun-to-drive hatchbacks for < $4500
August 23, 2009 5:27 AM   Subscribe

Which hatchback should I be looking at? Plus: diesel vs. gas engines...

So I'm looking to trade in my boring wagon, and get something more fuel efficient, compact, and fun to drive. Ideally this would be a hatchback - but I'm also considering the idea of a compact pickup truck.

I'm not really sure where to start my search. I know that I like the Subaru Impreza Outback (though bad gas mileage), the Honda Civic hatchback, and the VW Golf.

My ideal vehicle would have good fuel economy: 30/mpg +, manual transmission, fun to drive, have room for stuff. Any other vehicles I should be considering? Thoughts on what I'm already interested in?

My budget is no more than $4,500.

Also, I was wondering what the general opinion of diesel engines is. Are they much worse, emissions wise, than gas (even with the Golf TDI getting 50mpg)? Outside of biodiesel and veggie oil conversions, is it a total sin to own a diesel? Keep in mind my budget...I'd probably be owning a late 90's/early 00's vehicle... I'm also interested in the idea of biodiesel or veggie oil conversions.

posted by pilibeen to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Any plain old 4-cylinder golf or civic or corolla or sentra is going to get you around 30 mpg and will be both fun to drive and relatively reliable.

In terms of air quality diesel is probably a wash. The TDI is a pretty clean motor, but it's still going to be a bit dirtier than a gas engine. NOx is higher than average, CO and HC are probably lower than average. You can probably get a decent ~2003ish Golf TDI for around $4500 if you hunt for a bit. They're in high demand, though.

That said, the cost of ownership for a Golf is going to be higher than for a Civic, so money-wise you may be looking at the same per-mile overall cost with both. The Golf TDI is a vastly nicer, safer, more entertaining car than any $4500 civic, though. It's not faster in a race, but it'll feel WAY faster around town.

Do you need cargo space? For fun and decent mileage, it's hard to beat a Miata.....
posted by paanta at 6:17 AM on August 23, 2009

I can't think of any pickup truck sold in the US since that tiny little diesel VW pickup back in the 80s that got more than 30mpg. The little 4-cylinder gas engine Toyotas could get into the 20s, but only barely, and less if you get 4wd. Anything diesel (excepting the old VWs I mentioned, and the very rare old diesel Toyotas) is going to be not just full-sized but heavy duty; 3/4 and 1 ton pickups, even with diesel engines, are lucky to break 20mpg downhill. So if you are hard and fast on your mpg figure, you don't want a pickup, basically.
posted by Forktine at 6:47 AM on August 23, 2009

Consumer Reports usually has good information. (Links might be behind a subscription login.)

Most reliable used cars (by model year)
1999: Toyota Tacoma (4-cyl.), Lexus LS, Toyota 4Runner (4-cyl.)
2000: Toyota 4Runner (4-cyl.), Toyota Tacoma (4-cyl.), Lexus LS
2001: Toyota Echo, Toyota Tacoma, Lexus GS (V8)
2002: Toyota Echo, Lexus GS (6-cyl.), Toyota Prius

Best used cars for fuel economy (under $10,000)
2000 Honda Insight (manual)-51 mpg
2001-03 Toyota Prius-41 mpg
2000-05 Toyota Echo-38 mpg
2003 Honda Civic Hybrid-36 mpg
1999-2001 Acura Integra LS (manual)-32 mpg
2004-05 Scion xB (manual/automatic)-32/30 mpg
1999-2000 Toyota Corolla LE-31 mpg
2004-05 Scion xA (manual/automatic)-31/30 mpg
2007 Hyundai Accent GS (manual)-30 mpg

They also have detailed reliability reviews for the three you mention. Generally, the best of the three is the Honda Civic, then the Subaru Impreza, and last the VW Golf/Rabbit. But, none of these three got as good marks as the ones listed in the "Most reliable used cars" list.
  • The Subaru Impreza non-turbo looks like it has problems with engine, transmission, exhaust, drive system, etc., from 1999 - 2004. From 2005 - 2008, it gets all neutral, good, or very good marks. For the WRX/STi, they only have reliability reviews from 2002 - 2008. Paint/trim is bad for all these years, but other than that 2002 seems pretty bad all around, 2006 has a bad mark for "minor transmission", and 2007 has a bad mark for "squeaks and rattles".
  • The Honda Civic hatchback generally gets very good to very good marks. The exceptions are 1999 - 2000, with very bad marks in "exhaust", 2001 with bad marks in "major transmission", and 2006 with bad marks in "suspension".
  • The VW Golf/Rabbit got mostly bad marks, in every year. For the Golf from 1999 - 2003, there is not one year in which it did not receive very bad marks in most categories. The Rabbit from 2007 - 2008 is better, with 2007 still receiving some very bad marks, but 2008 looking solid.

    Since I noticed that the Toyota Echo made the list for "most reliable used car" and "best used cars for fuel economy", specifically for 2002, I looked up the Used Car Invoice. The retail price range for the 2002 Toyota Echo is $2,890 - $4,725. It is not very sporty looking, though.

  • posted by Houstonian at 6:54 AM on August 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

    Having owned a 2002 VW Jetta (mechanically the same as the Golf) of that vintage, I can't recommend it. The 4th generation Golf/Jetta platform is known for myriad electrical gremlins. I was admittely seduced by the "solid" German feel and upscale interior, so I traded my Honda Accord for the Jetta. In 3 years and 40,000 miles, the Jetta had to go in for problems too often, and a few of the trips required a tow. I liked the Jetta a lot, but it was too much of a problem. I traded it for another Honda, which has been trouble-free in the 5 years since.

    Obviously my experience is anecdotal, but Volkswagen consistently ranks low on reliability surveys.

    Consumer Reports

    JD Power

    $4500 will definitely buy you a newer VW than a Honda, but Honda values remain higher for a reason.

    On Preview, Houstonian has provided much more thorough statistics than I have.
    posted by Fleebnork at 7:04 AM on August 23, 2009

    The TDI cars tend to hold their value really well and it might be hard to find a really good one for $4,500.

    I'm also interested in the idea of biodiesel or veggie oil conversions.
    The newer the car, generally speaking, the harder it is to convert to veggie oil. The newer systems have finer tolerances and are less forgiving to the alternative fuel. If you're not really careful, you can wipe out expensive injectors or fuel pumps with the wrong fuel. I recently bought an 84 Mercedes 300SD for this purpose and I haven't had any problems with the veg oil (only with the car being 25 years old.) You could look into a diesel Rabbit from the 80s, if you're really serious about that conversion. Or a 124 Chassis Mercedes TD wagon. The older mechanical diesel injection systems are really lenient about the fuel they run on. The other day, I didn't have enough fuel and I had to prime a fuel filter with used motor oil. The Benz ran like a freakin champ. I'd NEVER do that with a late model VW. In fact, I went to Audi's TDI training recently and our instructor, who himself had owned several old diesel Rabbits, couldn't discourage us enough from using alternative diesel fuels in the brand new TDI vehicles. That applies mostly to the brand-brand new stuff (like the Audi 3.0 diesel Q7) but I'd still use some caution with running veggie oil in a new TDI.

    cost of ownership for a Golf is going to be higher than for a Civic
    Oh, that's a guarantee. I used to own a Civic Hatch, and loved it completely with all of my heart. At this point, I'd be hard pressed to choose between the two. But I think having access to VW parts and repair manuals is what might make the Golf a real competitor against the Civic. If I were just any old consumer, I'd make the same decision I made in the past and buy the Honda.

    the Toyota Echo made the list for "most reliable used car" and "best used cars for fuel economy",
    But then you're stuck with a Toyota Echo. And that's like eating dry toast at every meal.
    posted by Jon-o at 7:29 AM on August 23, 2009

    I LOVE my Forester which has the same drivetrain & suspension as the Impreza. Fuel economy isn't spectacular, but it's fine & both they and the Impreza are spectacular cars. As a driver's car, it's great. It handles well and the AWD performs spectacularly. The AWD is the reason for the lower fuel economy and that's going to be the case with any AWD/4WD vehicle.
    posted by thekiltedwonder at 8:11 AM on August 23, 2009

    I owned a 96 Toyota Tacoma 2WD pickup and got around 25-30 mpg on the highway. Around town it was a little better than 20, but not by much. I had an automatic, so you might be able to do a little better in a stick.

    I also had a 94 Honda Civic hatchback. Those cars are lots of fun. Great pickup, great gas mileage, parts are cheap. Prices for these might be slightly inflated because people like to drop Acura engines in them for racing.

    Subarus are really reliable. I'd stay away from VWs, as they have reliability issues. However, my first car was an '81 VW Rabbit diesel, and while it struggled to get up to highway speeds in a stiff breeze, that thing got 45 mpg and was dead simple to work on.

    You can't really go wrong with any of the cars you've chosen, with the exception of maybe the VW.

    In general, you're making a tradeoff with diesel. You're using a higher energy fuel that's typically a little more expensive, which may bring the price per mile driven about equal with an efficient gas engine. Diesels also put out a lot of particulates, which can damage lung tissue.
    posted by electroboy at 8:54 AM on August 23, 2009

    What Forktine said--if you think an Impreza gets bad mileage, there is no pickup truck that will satisfy you.

    The compact pickup is my preferred automobile. I've owned a couple Toyotas, a Ford Ranger, a Nissan Hardbody and a Chevy S-10. Regular cab, extended cab, 2wd, 4wd, manual and automatic, 4-cylinder and V6. And, in mixed driving, I don't think I hit 25mpg in any of 'em. Unless you're talking about a 4-cylinder, 2wd, manual-transmission truck, neither will you (and probably not even then).
    posted by box at 10:04 AM on August 23, 2009

    I love and miss my VW golf dearly. It got good mileage - around 20-25 city, 35+ highway (fyi, it was automatic-transmission). I did not own my 2005 and 2006 golfs long enough to comment on their long term reliability, but they were fun to drive, and I've gotta vouch for their safety.

    Six months after I bought my 2005 golf, I was involved in a 3-car highway crash. I was hit from behind, pushed into the van in front, and sandwiched/squished in between. My VW was totaled, but I only had a couple of very small bruises (and I bruise sort of easily) and 2 tiny scrapes, no bigger than a cat scratch. When looking for a new car from the insurance payout, I didn't hesitate to get another Golf. I loved driving it, and while it didn't hold up well in the crash, I didn't second guess feeling safe driving it. Hell, I'd already been in a pretty bad crash!

    I've since sold my "Volf" because I moved, and have no need for a car. Of the four cars I've driven, it's the only one I get misty eyed when I see one. Yeah, I'm pathetic, I know.
    posted by raztaj at 12:29 PM on August 23, 2009

    I had a similar experience to raztaj with my first 2001 TDI Golf; got pushed off the road and into a ravine by a drunk driver doing about 90, rolled several times before coming to rest, climbed out of the wreckage nearly unscathed (minor thumb fracture caused by the steering wheel airbag) and went and bought another one. It's not the most reliable car I've owned, but the mileage is great and it's a blast to drive. If you're inclined you can get a VAG-COM scanner and do a lot of the diagnostics and minor repairs yourself. Depending on where you live, it might still be tough finding a TDI of that vintage in your price range.
    posted by contraption at 1:44 PM on August 23, 2009

    Volkswagens are junk. I have a 2000 Jetta (as Fleebnork pointed out, basically a Golf with a different body) and it started falling apart shorly after we drove it home. Get a Japanese car.
    posted by radioamy at 6:16 PM on August 23, 2009

    I would like to reitterate that I too have heard a number of realiability issues with VW lately, despite the fact that they make really cool-looking cars. Just a thought, but I just bought a new Impreza Sport Outback as part of Subaru's financing deals and got 0% financing for 5 years - which is a great deal if you think you can qualify....also if you were to put the $$ you were going to use to buy the used car down you might have a better chance of qualifying....AND you wouldn't have repair costs of buying a used car (**hopefully**)

    Anyway, I like the Subaru Sport Outback v. much so far :-)
    posted by Carialle at 10:59 AM on August 24, 2009

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