Which Whip should I Wish for? (Help me choose my next car)
May 12, 2010 2:44 AM   Subscribe

My car was totaled, (totally not my fault) and I'm in the market for a newer car (yipee!). I was in a 2003 Mercury Sable and found it was too much car for me, now I'm leaning towards a coupe or smaller hatchback. Help me decide!

I'd like it to be fun to drive, at least decent on gas mileage, and for it to last. My scope has been focused on a 2008 or newer Volkswagen Rabbit, 2009 or newer Toyota Matrix (preferably S), or a Honda Civic Coupe (2008 and newer). I've heard horror stories about Volkswagen maintenance costs and reliability but find that the newer Rabbits are highly recommended by Consumer Reports. The Matrix is by Toyota and well... you know their story, so I dunno about that. The Honda is the safe bet, probably most reliable and cheapest to maintain. I can't make up my mind!

What do I want?

Please share your experiences on the cars listed above and convince me what I should/shouldn't get. If you think there is another car that I'm neglecting, let me know. I want out of my rental and into the fast lane!

Bonus: Some of the above models may have the option of being a manual transmission and I don't know how to drive those, however, I wouldn't be against learning. Should I do it? What factors would a stick shift car change in the equation (Cost/Reliability/Fun)?

More Info: I'm 26, male, and live in Central California, and I like to go places (Monterey, LA, SF, PS, Yosemite, etc.)
posted by Advocate, I to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My personal experience with both Toyotas and Hondas is that they pretty much run on magic. Never owed a VW, but yeah, have heard from many owners that they're a pain to get fixed. I personally wouldn't worry about the safety of Toyotas. They took such a hit over the acceleration thing that I doubt a similar issue is going to come up again.

Now, transmissions. Basically the only pro to an automatic is that it's automatic. You don't have to worry about rolling back into a car behind you, don't have to do the constant shifting in traffic, etc. Manuals, on the other hand, have a number of bonuses if you're willing to actually drive the car. Not just sit in it, but be an active participant. Traditionally, they give you better fuel economy, though that gap is now closing thanks to locking torque converters. They're also much less likely to break because they don't have torque converters and all the crap that goes along with them (less parts, you know the drill). Overall, the best and worst thing about a manual is you. Like I said, you're an active participant. You are in direct control of what the car does. That can go bad if you're not too good with a stick, but it can also be a hell of a lot of fun once you get past the learning curve; and as small of a victory as it might be, it feels good to be involved with the actual operation of your car.
posted by Roman Graves at 3:15 AM on May 12, 2010

You should also look at the Honda Fit. It is a hatchback, like the Rabbit, but has the reliability of a Civic.

As for transmissions, cars with manual transmissions are more reliable. There is far less to go wrong with a manual transmission than with an automatic. Manuals are also more fun to drive, and it doesn't take very long to learn. I drive a manual, and the only time I think I would rather drive an automatic is when I am sitting in stop-and-go traffic.
posted by twblalock at 3:28 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: Like RG, I wouldn't worry about Toyota's problems. Their current mess is like a food scare -- some substance, but much more senseless hysteria. In fact, I would think this is a great time to buy a Toyota; demand is down, and I can't imagine the company would fail to correct any (probably unlikely) issues a car bought now might develop.

My wife's last car was a Honda which basically never needed anything but oil changes and brake pads. It got totaled about 6 years ago. Since then she's been driving a VW Jetta which has used oil since it was new, needed a brake caliper replaced at 30K miles, has had two engine sensor failures, needed a new catalytic converter (only because it's integral to a pipe that failed irreparably), a new passenger seatbelt receiver, and now needs nearly $1000 worth of suspension bushing replacement. And that's not to mention a few safety recalls that we didn't have to pay for. To be fair, the VW now has more miles on it (95K) than the Honda ever did. Also, the VW's interior is substantially nicer, and it's more fun to drive. I keep suggesting that our next car should be a Honda. My wife responds, "but I LOVE the Jetta!"

I used to drive stick shift all the time. I didn't get tired of it until my early-mid thirties. You'll love a standard shift while you're in Yosemite. You'll hate it in an LA traffic jam.
posted by jon1270 at 3:59 AM on May 12, 2010

Scion xB or Honda Fit. I have the xB and LOVE it. Both cars are safe, good on gas, and remarkably roomy inside.
posted by 4ster at 4:32 AM on May 12, 2010

I have an '09 Honda Fit Sport that I absolutely love. It's fun to drive, with the manual it actually has quite good performance and the steering and handling are awesome. I'm pretty large, 6'2 235#, and fit just fine in all four seats even the back seats. On the highway I get between 35 and 40 MPG and always higher than 30 MPG around the city.
posted by octothorpe at 4:34 AM on May 12, 2010

Have you considered the Mazda 3? I have the 2008 S touring sedan with a manual transmission, but there's a hatchback version as well. It's fun enough to drive that I'm looking forward to the 14 hour drive I have to do later this month. I haven't had any issues with it, though I obviously can't say anything about long-term reliability.
posted by capsizing at 4:37 AM on May 12, 2010

I haven't tested any new cars, so I can't give any advice on which of those is best. But I can say I have owned 2 Hondas and they both were excellent cars and I plan on owning more Hondas in the future.

nthing manual transmission, I didn't have a clue how to drive one, and withing a month of getting my manual transmission Integra I decided I wont buy an automatic for a long time. Driving is much more fun with a stick shift, you have a lot more control over how your driving. You can get excellent gas mileage, or terrible gas mileage, it depends in your mood (bad gas mileage is more fun, right until you have to add more gas).
posted by token-ring at 4:43 AM on May 12, 2010

I've heard horror stories about Volkswagen maintenance costs and reliability...

That has been my experience with a 2002 VW Jetta. Never again.
posted by R. Mutt at 4:55 AM on May 12, 2010

Okay, I'm a bit biased, but if you're looking for fun, good mileage, and downsizing, might be worth at least looking into a MINI. Those were my main criteria and I absolutely *love* my car. My commute to and from work is a blast! How many people can say that?

I can't comment personally much on the reliability (mine's 1.5yo, problem free).

Regarding transmission, my cars have always been manuals. I don't sit in traffic during my commute, but it'd still be hard to convince me to buy an automatic if for no other reason than driving a manual is so much more fun. I'd take a slow car with a manual transmission over a faster car with an automatic any day.

I could go on and on. If you have questions, feel free to me-mail me.
posted by Tu13es at 5:20 AM on May 12, 2010

nthing the Fit Sport. We have a 2009 with a manual and *LOVE* it.

We get awesome millage: ~40 in the winter and, so far, ~45 in the warmer weather.
posted by chiefthe at 6:10 AM on May 12, 2010

We are also evangelists for our (2007) Fit Sport. Unfortunately, it's an automatic, and there's a slight hit on fuel economy, though on a long trip, I can average >40mpg.
posted by JMOZ at 6:22 AM on May 12, 2010

I would consider the Mazda 3, the Subaru Impreza and the Toyota Matrix. All of the Mazda cars are very fun to drive (Zoom! Zoom!), the Subaru is very reliable and sturdy and the Matrix is just a solid, good-looking car -- roomy even though it's quite small.
posted by camworld at 6:34 AM on May 12, 2010

Check out the Kia Soul! Don't be scared by Kia, they've been doing really well in the last few years.

I love my Soul+ like it was my child.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:10 AM on May 12, 2010

Last summer I picked up a well-equipped new Nissan Versa 5-door for under $15k. It's HUGE inside (mr. workerant is 6'2" and he can cross his legs in the back seat with the front seat all the way back) and gets 30ish mpg. It's available with a couple of transmissions; the best are the CVT (quick and fuel-efficient) and the 6-speed manual (way fun).

The Kia Soul came out a month after I bought my Versa; if it had been on the market I'd have looked at one of those also.
posted by workerant at 7:29 AM on May 12, 2010

I test-drove a Versa and Mazda3(both hatchbacks) this past weekend. The Mazda felt a lot more fun, but we went with the Versa because we got a nearly-fully-loaded, brand new one for $15k, whereas the Mazda had fewer bells and whistles, and nearly 40K miles on the clock, and the dealer was asking a similar price to the Versa.

So far, my wife is loving it. Power-wise, it doesn't hold a candle to our Altima(2006), but the handling is much tighter and more responsive.
posted by owtytrof at 7:52 AM on May 12, 2010

I heart my Matrix. I'm a Toyota gal and I love hatchbacks. I've had for about 5 years (purchased new) and I am yet to (knock on wood) have a maintenance issue that wasn't covered by the warranty.

Originally I was going to wait for the Yaris to come out as it's a bit smaller. But my car situation changed and I got the Matrix. I was surprised how big it is inside. I haul a lot of crap often and also road trip with Mr. Shotty and our dogs. We tested the scion xb too, but it was a little too small and made me worry that if we were ever in an accident we'd be smooshed.

My dad downgraded from a pathfinder to a Versa and the couple times I've driven it I was surprised about how well it handled.

Oh also, don't shy away from a used Pontiac Vibe either. It was developed in conjunction with Toyota and is basically a Matrix with some additional trim.

I keep telling Mr. Shotty that he should get a Matrix too, if only so we could have matrices in our driveway.
posted by mrsshotglass at 8:01 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another vote for Hondas in general and the Fit, specifically. My CRV is the best car I ever drove, and I have 150,000+ miles on it right now. Tires and oil changes are the only expenses so far. We bought DD a Fit last year and I'm looking forward to driving it when she leaves for college this fall. It's great on gas, fun, VERY roomy inside, seats fold down to carry just about anything, and heck, it's just so cute.
posted by raisingsand at 8:06 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: I'm also looking for a hatchback in the near future as well. Before this thread, like you I was going to look at the Honda Fit and Toyota Matrix -- and maybe a Mini (if I could afford it). I currently own an '02 VW GTI (the sportier, more powerful Golf) and although I love it and it pains me to not own that much raw power in such a cute little package, I don't need it, and I don't need the VW repair bills. If I could justify it, I'd buy a GTI or even a Golf again. My heart says yes. My brain says no. *sigh*

But my story is about my stick shift. I knew when buying my GTI it just had to be a stick; an auto would just not do. I'm not even sure GTIs come in auto. I bought the car, brand new, without really knowing how to drive a stick. (Aand trust me, this goes directly against my usual personality.) I had a grand total of about an hour's experience total on my dad's pickup and my brother's Talon. My dad actually had to drive the car from the dealership to his house out in the sticks. And then I just learned. I jackrabbited like a crazy woman, but eventually I got the hang of it. (Note -- make sure you're in 1st, and not 3rd accidently...). I practiced hill starts. The first couple days I drove A LOT, but then I just went back to my daily routine. I was competent in a day or so. I was completely comfortable in 2 weeks. And a month in, I realized I wasn't even thinking about it, ever.

In a nutshell -- I will never drive an auto again. Less to worry about mechanically, and it's just FUN. You have so much more control over your car. It sucks in rush hour, but after a while you don't really notice. Just do it. You'll figure it out, it's not hard.
posted by cgg at 8:48 AM on May 12, 2010

I would add the Mazda 3 to your list.
posted by nestor_makhno at 9:18 AM on May 12, 2010

Another vote for anything Japanese. Those cars just work. VW's are possibly more fun to drive, but they can be real repair headaches. Take a look at Consumer Reports (subscription) or Edmunds (free) for details about any particular year and model.

Stick is a huge improvement in a small car. They tend to be underpowered anyway, and an automatic transmission just makes it cludgier due to the slippage it needs. A little Honda or Toyota will feel quite snappy with a manual transmission.
posted by rtimmel at 9:35 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: I would agree with pretty much all the above statements but also take a look at the stuff ford is putting out, there new fusion and fiesta models are getting great reviews and everyone is saying the build quality is getting pretty good, comparable to the average japanese car. Definately get a standard unless you are driving in stop and go traffic every day (like LA freeways). My take on all the manufacturers (and they all have good cars in this style)

-Toyota-great cars if you like driving an appliance. Reliable, dependable, predictable and kinda boring
-Mazda-well made cars that are little different and usually very fun to drive
-subaru-well made cars that are the easiest japanese cars to work on, and have a different engineering philosophy than other japanese cars
-honda-best engines in the world, well made cars that are fun to drive-and you pay for it (I currenlty drive a honda prelude and before that was CRX), they also make a great motorcycle
-Huyndai/KIA(its the same company-like buick/chevrolet)-really neat innovative cars that are a bargain and probably the equal to Honda/Toyota 10 years ago
-GM-clueless bureacratic dinosaur that can build a great pickup but can't manage to build a small car as good as japan did in the 80's.
-Ford-great cars, solid engineering, good build quality, good price but nothing ground breaking
-Anything German-Cars with character and usually the best performing car in its class-when new, nothing breaks faster and harder than german engineering.
-Chrysler-if you aren't buying a jeep just look elsewhere. If you are buying a jeep than make sure you NEED a jeep and be prepared to pay extra to maintain it.
posted by bartonlong at 11:01 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers thus far, please keep them coming.

From consensus, it looks like I should avoid VWs, focus on more reliable cars, and make it a manual.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Scion tC, are they that bad or is it not the car of choice in the MeFite community?

I was initially interested in the Mini and I'd bet they'd be fun to drive, but they're essentially BMWs and so German engineering rears it's head again. I would imagine the costs would be equally as high if not more than a VW.

That Genesis Coupe looks cool, damn that sexy styling!

Thanks again.
posted by Advocate, I at 11:20 AM on May 12, 2010

My 2006 Mazda 3 has more than 50,000 trouble free miles so far. I recommend it. It's reliable, very fun to drive, and carries lots of stuff in the hatch.
posted by Jon-o at 7:43 PM on May 12, 2010

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