What kind of vehicle should we get?
September 2, 2010 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I have to buy a new (used) vehicle but know little about whats out there, so lets hear your suggestions!

We have a 4 year old and 18 month old (and don't expect more). Need 4wd or Awd, because it gets snowy here. My last car was a Subaru outback wagon, and it did great until a year ago when the engine died, so we bought an engine re-build and it too has died. Would consider another one, or an suv or a mini van. I'd like to spend around 15k. Bonus if its hybrid or good gas mileage. (I know I want it all!) Thanks everyone! I appreciate your suggestions!
posted by hollyanderbody to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It will depend a little on what you're looking for and what else you'd be using it for. Since you have a 4 year old I would think that you will soon need room for your kid and your kid's friends or you might need more space so that you can take trips with your family of four and a family of four worth of stuff.

My initial gut reaction is to buy another Subaru, either another Outback or a Forester or something other model. If you need/want the space a van will be the way to go but it will a more boring driving experience which you may or may not like.

If you go with a van, there are TONS of great options for you so will be a matter of finding out what you can get in your price range and then taking some test drives to see what you like. Being able to change around the seats quickly and easily should be a big priority but I wouldn't worry about how the flat the floor is. I used to sell new cars at a Nissan dealer and people would always point that the floor wasn't perfectly flat when the seats were folded down but the seats (at least the middle row) moved around with ease and most of the stuff I'd be packing in it doesn't care if the floor is flat and it always bugged me.

Minivans are going to get okay gas mileage especially when compared to SUVs and I really doubt that you're going to find something in that price range that will have the space you need and be a hybrid.

Something like a 2008 Mazda5 "compact" minivan might be a good way to split the difference.

It would also be helpful to know what you plans are for this car. What will be important in how you use it? How long do you think you will have it? How old a car are you comfortable buying?
posted by VTX at 6:31 PM on September 2, 2010

Need 4wd or Awd, because it gets snowy here.

There is little to no benefit to AWD or 4wd if you are driving on paved or good gravel roads with snow on them. Good snow tires make a huge difference and good driving skills are important too. AWD or 4WD only makes it easier to get started it you end up in a big snowbank or if you have to start on a very steep, snowy hill. Generally, if you have AWD or 4wd, you pay a price in fuel efficiency.

Have you considered something like a Honda Fit, Mazda 3, or Toyota Matrix?
posted by ssg at 7:07 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure about long-term customer satisfaction, but I test drove a suzuki SX4 sportwagon, which has AWD and is about as roomy as an outback. It felt like the body of the car wasn't as heavy or well built as the Subaru, but it had 4-5 star crash test ratings. New ones, basic standard models, run about $15,000 and they get good mileage (31/36). I went with a Volkswagen diesel to get an alternative fuel tax credit and awesome gas mileage, but the suzuki was significantly less expensive with a longer warranty.

You might like a Honda CRV, which is like a mini SUV. Not sure if it has AWD though. Hondas rate high on customer satisfaciton and long term cost of ownership and reliability. Subaru's are the best in the snow, though!
posted by shortyJBot at 7:12 PM on September 2, 2010

Our Volkswagen TDI wagon is one of the best cars I've ever owned. Might take some looking to find one used, but they're fantastic. We get between 40-50 mpg, depending on who's driving and where. Repairs aren't cheap, but probably similar to what you were accustomed to with the Subaru.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 7:18 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

A note about your engines dying; Subaru boxer engines are pretty darn reliable. Whatever you buy in the future, here are a few things to keep in mind:

#1: be sure to take the potential purchase to a mechanic for a quick compression check -- isn't costly, and will let you know if there are imminent problems;

#2: be sure to change the oil every 3,000 miles and keep up with maintenance -- two engines blown up is 1-2 more than most people experience with modern cars in a lifetime, so I have to assume something's up there.
posted by davejay at 7:24 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Subaru would probably be my recommendation in that price range. But I personally can't stand minivans and don't think SUVs are generally a very good value (there are some I like -- you just don't get as much for your money), so my perspective is limited. I'm not a huge fan of wagons either, but they're what I'd choose if I had to. About the only wagons I really like are Audis, but they're both above your price range (at a reasonable age) and likely to be less reliable.
posted by sharding at 7:46 PM on September 2, 2010

I would also recommend another Subaru wagon (a Legacy or Outback), because wagons are immensely practical with two kids, and because you want AWD. Subarus have also distinguished themselves in terms of reliability and safety - they're all IIHS top safety picks.

I think the Outback is a nice choice because it gives you a little more ground clearance in deep snow. If you prefer a crossover, then the Forester is probably the best choice.

I would say consider a Ford Escape Hybrid, except it flunked the IIHS roof test spectacularly.

Don't forget that a set of winter tires is way, way more important than AWD for winter driving safety. Get yourself a set of Bridgestone Blizzak WS-70s or DM-V1s (depending on whether you go the car/SUV route) this winter.
posted by Dasein at 8:07 PM on September 2, 2010

I did the used car thing recently, and had a conversation with my mechanic and his end went like this "The Mazda 3 is a good car, better track record than other Mazdas. Any Toyota is a good car. Yeah, Subaru wagons are pretty reliable. No, Don't come crying to me if your Audi TT breaks, which it will, and often. What do I think of Mini Coopers? Not much. Expensive to maintain. A Nissan's a Nissan. Parts are plentiful and cheap. No, I wouldn't even consider an American-made car."

So it came down to this:

Mazda 3

American anything

Other Mazdas besides the 3

I went with a 2002 Toyota Celica and despite being a little on the ugly side, and too popular in the ricer community, it is a FANTASTIC car. 2 neighbors have boughtten Priuses this year and give big thumbs-up. Cow-orkers with new-ish Mazda 3s and Toyota Matrixes are very happy.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:09 PM on September 2, 2010

I have owned VWs, Subarus, Volvos, Saabs, and Civics. I would say that the Subaru and the Civic were the most reliable and the cheapest to repair. The VW and the Saabs sometimes made it hard to love them, but they felt more solid and were more fun to drive. The Volvos felt even more solid, but were expensive to repair and surprisingly crappy in the snow (not 4WD, though).

Some above spoke the truth about using snow tires, but you have to be willing to buy them and put them on and off.

I would say get another Outback, as we may well, but it makes me a little sad to contemplate. So many, so sensible, so uninspiring. Just don't get the green one.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:22 PM on September 2, 2010

I have a little experience with some of the models mentioned and also live somewhere with a lot of snow. The Ford Escape hybrid gets terrible gas mileage- I think we averaged 28mpg or 2.5 years with it as a work vehicle. Comfy though and a good people hauler. Subarus are great in the snow but the new ones have significantly less interior space so check that out and the gas mileage just keeps getting worse. Noisy as hell too. Prius have very little clearance (seemingly about an inch) which is a major concern in snow though they seem to have good traction and handle city snow driving OK so there's that. Might be interesting in anything deeper than 2 inches though, a friend of mine has one and is pretty careful where she takes it! The Mazda minivans are quite awesome imho: you can get AWD, they handle well, ride well and get better gas mileage than anything comparable that I know of.

Honda CRVs and Elements are great little vehicles and seem to hit a sweet spot between interior roominess, MGP and overall size. Extremely good resale too. The back seats in the Element might not work for you though.

I test drove a Suzuki and liked it but it seemed built for a shorter person than me and the seats weren't very comfortable so I didn't buy it. The push button FWD-AWD-4WD is a nearly unbeatable perk and they were huge inside for the size of the car so I would definitely check them out in case they fit you better. They were also noisy, though not quite Subaru levels.
posted by fshgrl at 8:51 PM on September 2, 2010

There is little to no benefit to AWD or 4wd if you are driving on paved or good gravel roads with snow on them

Pardon my french, but that's BS. Although, yes, good tires and driving technique count for a lot, AWD can still make a tremendous difference. Driving a Volvo S70 (FWD, and a considered a very good "snow car") and an Audi A4 (AWD) back to back in the same snowstorm on the same roads, there was a world of difference in terms of traction, handling, and how "safe" I felt in the car.

I also drove a Toyota Minivan in this same storm, and still get heart palpitations whenever I'm near one because of just how scary it was. My parents had two Siennas -- the first had frequent mechanical (ie. get the car towed) problems as well as doors that would consistently get stuck closed, while the second one had some of the worst traction issues out of any passenger car I've ever driven (it felt like a rear-wheel drive pickup truck without enough weight in the back). The thing would skid on dry paved roads with new tires (which it consumed like candy). It crash-tested well, which was good, because there was no way to drive the thing safely.

On preview: Get another subaru, and take care of it. Subarus are good, reliable cars. Either you're incredibly unlucky, or aren't taking proper car of your car. I doubt you'll have the same experience again.
posted by schmod at 8:53 PM on September 2, 2010

nthing another subaru. I have a friend who put 60k in 2 years on a Forester with no issues. It only cost him $10k.

The Mazda 3 did have a recall for the engine falling through to the ground. You might want to take that into account.
posted by Giggilituffin at 9:01 PM on September 2, 2010

At your price point the auto sites are loaded with nice, low mileage Toyotas, both fwd and awd. Not sure how your winter snow compares with ours--I'm in lower Michigan--but I've had AWD Subarus and Toyotas, currently have a fwd Saab, and have driven a full range of fwd and awd American cars, plus one RWD Volvo. Other than the RWD Volvo, everything has been good in the snow. The Subaru was probably the best overall in the snow but not so great on the gas mileage. Mine was a 1993, though, so I imagine they're better now.

Nthing VWs make it hard to love them. I am a sucker for VWs, but successfully trained myself to look for love in other places. I have been been tremendously pleased with both the 9-3 Saab I had and 9-5 Saab I now have. (9-3 would be too small for your needs, but the 9-5 wouldn't). Having looked extensively at the pre- and post-GM-ized 9 series (call it 1999-2003; after that, GMs heavy hand showed in the details small & large), I could not steer you toward the newer ones.

Toyota has had a rough ride of late, but for 15K you can get a certified, warranteed, relatively low mileage 2007 or so. Someone else will have done you the favor of taking the biggest depreciation hit, and you will get a hugely reliable car.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:21 PM on September 2, 2010

The Subaru was probably the best overall in the snow but not so great on the gas mileage. Mine was a 1993, though, so I imagine they're better now.

They're worse. I have a 2007 that gets about 22 city/ 27 hwy. And it's a stick. Given the frequent and outrageously expensive maintenance schedule ($450 every 15K miles to change fluids. $60 windshield blades for the rear window. $250+ to put crossbars on the factory racks, $1000 for a tuneup) it's an incredibly expensive "cheaper" car to run. I'd rather have another VW. At least you can hear the radio.
posted by fshgrl at 10:54 PM on September 2, 2010

here is little to no benefit to AWD or 4wd if you are driving on paved or good gravel roads with snow on them

Other potential benefits that may or may not exist aside, there's one big benefit to AWD if you are driving on paved roads that have been plowed: whether you park on the street or in a driveway, it's a lot easier to get through the hump left behind by the snowplow with AWD*. Also, if you park on the street on heavily-crowned roads, getting up onto the upper part of the crown from a tight parking space is much, much easier with AWD.

Worth noting, of course, is that AWD does *nothing* to help you turn or stop. One of the AWD dangers is that you'll feel more confident driving, and as a result overestimate how much traction you have for turning/stopping.

*FWD is better than RWD, certainly, and tired make a huge difference -- I'd take FWD with snow tired over AWD with performance tired any day -- but assuming the tires are the same, AWD is the way to go in a snowbelt state.
posted by davejay at 10:46 AM on September 3, 2010

I used to drive a Honda CRV when my kids were about that age. I loved that car. It was reliable and the high clearance meant it could drive on roads that were a little sketchy. The CRV is based on the chassis of a Civic, and it gets fairly good mileage. A few years ago, we sold it and bought an Odyssey because we wanted to be able to fit more people into the car. The CRV can comfortably fit four adults, which is all you need nearly all the time.
posted by Loudmax at 9:47 PM on September 3, 2010

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