How do I pick a car to buy?
October 12, 2010 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I am considering buying a car, but I have little idea what kind I want.

Growing up and going to college in Texas, I had a series of used cars. They were always breaking down and sometimes it felt like they spent more time in the shop than on the road. I think I spent more money repairing each of those cars than what I spent on them initially. I decided I didn't want to repeat that experience, and then spent seven years living car-free. I currently use public transit, Zipcar, and car rentals but have been feeling that it might be time to get a car again.

I had it in my mind that I wanted to get a new car to avoid the repair revolving door, but maybe I can do that by getting a late-model used car of a reliable model.

Priorities: I'm 6'2" and have long legs, and want to be able to fit comfortably. It was a big problem in compact cars 10 years ago, but doesn't to seem to be much one of one today. I would like to get a car that is easier to parallel park. I'm probably going to be driving mainly on the weekend and not that much at that, so gas mileage isn't important enough to spend lots of extra money on a hybrid.

I can spend up to $30,000, but would prefer to spend less. I'm in no particular hurry, so I can buy at a particular time of the month or even time of year if that will get me a better deal.

Strategy? Make? Model? Year?
posted by grouse to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There's a shitload of rebates for electric cars these days. You end up basically getting a free car out of the mess.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:05 AM on October 12, 2010

For $30k, you have a lot of choices. Late-model used is definitely a better way to go in cash terms. Japanese cars (Honda, Toyota) lead the pack in dependability, followed closely by less venerable Asian brands like Hyundai.

Other than parallel-parkablity, what do you need in a car? Will you be hauling big stuff? Other people? Short errands or long trips?
posted by jon1270 at 8:11 AM on October 12, 2010

Response by poster: I won't be hauling big stuff. Most of my trips will probably be just me, or maybe one other passenger. Usually short trips in the city, and occasional trips to go hiking of 1–3 hours each way.
posted by grouse at 8:27 AM on October 12, 2010

I recommend the Mazda 3. I have a 2009 automatic, and my husband is about your height and fits fine in it. It was about 15k last year when I bought it, and I insisted on the moonroof package as the only add-on. It's a great little car, but the tires that come with it, the Eagle RAs, are absolute garbage. I'm at 35k miles and all 4 are being replaced in the next 2 weeks.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:39 AM on October 12, 2010

Honda Fit.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:42 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Big fan of the Mazda3. Mine is four years old and is still running great. Agree on the tires -- just upgraded mine (at 30k miles) to some Yokohama all-seasons and the performance is already noticeably better.

I parallel park daily in my neighborhood and it fits into some tight spots.

Also, it's just fun to drive.
posted by olinerd at 8:43 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Came in to recommend a Mazda 3 as well. Mr. Darling has an '05 and it's been great.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:49 AM on October 12, 2010

You could get a one-year-old Honda Fit for half your budget. Very parkable, excellent mileage, perfect for the city and short road trips.
posted by jon1270 at 8:51 AM on October 12, 2010

We have a 2005 Scion xB, and it's fine for tall people -- like me, and Mr Corpse -- even though it's a compact. Good millage. Ours has never needed significant repairs (other than having the back third replaced after we got rear-ended, which wasn't Toasty Car's fault). The back seats fold flat, so you can cram a lot of stuff in there. You should be able to get one really, really cheap.

The only things I dislike about it: not the best safety record ever, and you get quite a bit of road noise while driving. I don't know how it compares to other cars in terms of parallel parking, as I haven't driven any other recent compacts.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:01 AM on October 12, 2010

You might take a look at the new Honda CR-Z. I am not a big fan of hybrids generally but I am about your size and one of the cars I have owned that fit me best was CR-X. Without trying to cram in a back seat they left a lot of room for the two front seats. When I slid the seat all the back in that car i could not reach the pedals. The CR-Z gets pretty decent mileage, supposedly handles well and is kinda fun to drive according to unbiased reviews, but it is no sports car (even less than the CR-X was). Hondas are generally reliable and I have had really good luck with several (I recently bought a ten year old prelude and am very pleased with my fourth honda in 20 years).

If you want something bigger with seating for four the nissan juke looks promising (although its actual looks are somewhat...less promising)for a cheap, easy to drive runabout kind of car that can handle all kinds of weather as long as you are on some kind of road.

I have also been impressed with the Kia Soul as good car for people who just want a car to get around in and aren't looking to make some kind of status symbol out of. It is inexpensive, feels and looks well built, has a great warranty and lots of cool and useful options. The top of the line sport edition will only be about 20k. As for long term reliability this is probably the best bet of the three cars i listed since it is standard technology without any thing like a turbocharger, hybrid system or innovative engine technology, but it also going to get the least mileage and be the most mundane to drive. But that might be what you are looking for from your post.

If you fit in one, the honda fit is also a great choice (I found the front seat did not go back far enough for me and like I said above i am about your size at 220 and 6'2" with a 34" inseam).
posted by bartonlong at 9:01 AM on October 12, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the great recommendations. I also have a 34" inseam and weigh 180 lb.
posted by grouse at 9:09 AM on October 12, 2010

I'm 6'1.5, and I have a Yaris. My father (traded in his SUV and) got a Fit. I fit in both rather comfortably and would be happy with either.

Gas economy on the Yaris is stunning, and it doesn't look like super dinky in my opinion (I have the sedan, it's basically the same size as the older Corolla).

It was about half your budget, because it was my first new car, really first financed anything, and I had to be reasonable about it. I also had a succession of used cars and in at least 2 of them, got to the point where the $1000 or so of work needed about a month before they gave up the ghost REALLY pissed me off. So I made the decision to have a higher regular payment and vastly increased reliability.

So far, so good (It's been 2.5 years).
posted by tremspeed at 9:12 AM on October 12, 2010

Toyotas are also great for tall(ish) people. You would fit in the Yaris/Echo. Mazadas, on the other hand seem to be built for people who are 5'8". I'm six foot and my head hits the roof in some Mazda's and the seat is back all the way. VW's aren't great either. Hyundai's are ok, but Honda and Toyota are better for taller people.
posted by bonehead at 9:13 AM on October 12, 2010

Response by poster: Can anyone comment on the desirability or reliability of getting a dealer/manufacturer-certified used car?
posted by grouse at 9:14 AM on October 12, 2010

"Certified" means they're selling you an extended warranty at a rather bad price. Generally not worth it if the car is new enough to have a chunk of its original warranty remaining, as most certified cars do.
posted by jon1270 at 9:18 AM on October 12, 2010

Used cars from a reputable dealer are usually a safe bet. However I would stick with either a recent us (mostly ford) or Japanese make if you go this route. I think buying used cars is mostly a crap shoot for people without some kind of car knowledge (mostly being able to evaluate mechinical condition). If you buy a used car i would get one off a highly rated dealer lot (franchise dealership like honda, toyota, etc) less than 3 years old with most of its original warranty still on it. Otherwise stick with a new car. Yes you will take a hit in depreciation but if you keep the car for 5-10 years there really isn't a big difference financially. And every year the cars get nicer and more equipment (also more to break but that is what the warranty is for). This is big reason I don't recommend korean cars more than 2 years old. They really started getting well made in the mid 2000's and are quickly closing in on japanese quality and a much lower price point. A Kia is about the most car you can get for the least amount of money out there right now.
posted by bartonlong at 9:26 AM on October 12, 2010

I'm 6'3" and have no problem driving my wife's Versa hatchback. I have to admit the Mazda 3 we test-drove when looking was more fun than the Versa, but it was also 2 years older, 40k more miles, and the dealer was asking the same price for both. Better deals may be had in your area, shop around.

Once you've decided on a model, get quotes from multiple dealers and let them fight for your business.
posted by owtytrof at 9:27 AM on October 12, 2010

Used BMW 3 series. Something with ~20k miles and still under warranty. Everyone is going to poo-poo this suggestion, but before you listen to them, at least go drive one.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:47 AM on October 12, 2010

This is maybe not super-insightful, but just sort of a general commentary on your price range and expectations: you should not have to pay anywhere NEAR $30K to get a car that will be dependable for years and years. For instance, I got my 2005 Civic back in late 2007 for around $10K and it's been pretty much invincible since then - no engine problems whatsoever, and all I do is take it in for servicing way less often than recommended. I know 3 years is not a long time, but it's also nowhere near replacement time for this car.

If your hesitancy is with buying a used car as opposed to new, think nothing of it. With late model cars (Honda and Toyota in particular), you should have absolutely no problems with a ~3 year old car and you can save a bundle. Like, if you do end up going for some Honda, I think your absolute maximum price paid should be like $13K, and less if you end up picking a Fit. Just pick a reputable dealer; if the "certified used" program makes you feel more comfortable, go for that instead of buying new (after all, there is some reconditioning involved; it's not TOTALLY pointless).

Look at it this way: you're sort of taking a chance, but with the money you save, you can buy a whole 'nother CAR a few years down the road if things really go south (and anyway, they shouldn't).
posted by rkent at 9:47 AM on October 12, 2010

nthing Mazda 3. You can't really go wrong with any of the Major Japanese cars (Honda, Nissan, Toyota, or Mazda), it will largely be a matter of preference. I would also look at the mid-sized Hyundia and Kia offerings. Typically, this years Kia is last years Hyundia. You would be looking at the Hyundia Sonata or the Kia Optima. My sister in law has a 2008 Sonata and loves it. It is just a good all-around car.

I would also highly recommend looking at either a one year old rental return (of whatever model you choose). Rental companies take excellent care of their cars and they don't really get driven has hard you're afraid they do. Another good bet is a two year old lease return (or trade in). There are a lot of cars that get leased for two years and the cars are always in great shape at the end of the lease. Either of those options will be a FAR better value than buying new and reliability will probably be about the same either way and you can alway buy a service contract (assuming you go to a reputable dealer or find a reputable service contract company) to give piece of mind. In many cases, the manufacturers have a certified pre-owned program that extends the factory warranty a little bit too.

After doing the paper research (or internet research as the case may be), it is a matter of going out driving some cars to see what you like and what you don't. Try to stay rational about it (and as a former car salesman I can tell you that this is tough for most people) and don't be shy about letting your salesperson know when you want to buy the car.

When you get closer to buying the car, you'll probably find it useful to look at some of my other car-related posts as a lot of the buying advice there is pretty general and you should find it useful.
posted by VTX at 9:58 AM on October 12, 2010

What rkent said about reliability and budgets: if you squirrel away savings for the inevitable maintenance costs (whenever they arise) you'll still get a lot of car. What you get for the additional money up-front is a swishier interior and bells and whistles, but $10k should be enough to buy you something that's fundamentally sound.

I'd really like to point you to the Focus (or possibly even the Fiesta) as an alternative to the Japanese marque reliables, but to get on the next-generation ladder, you'd have to buy new. (I suspect that Ford dealers will be generous with their warranties for these models, given that they're the cornerstone of their new strategy, but you'd still be a bit of a test driver for them.) Conversely, the Fit and Yaris/Echo are reaching the point in their model life where there's decent used stock available, and you should definitely give them a test-drive.

Seeing where you are now, possibly a Subaru? I'm not a fan of the shift towards more overt SUV builds in the very latest models, but a wagon-style Forester or a non-boy-racer Impreza from 2007/8 might work too.
posted by holgate at 10:12 AM on October 12, 2010

I found the Mazda3 really fun to drive, but ultimately bought a Honda Fit because it has better gas mileage, more flexible/rearrangeable seating, is substantially smaller, and was a bit cheaper. If I were looking for a car this year, I would definitely consider the Mazda2, which is Mazda's subcompact hatchback.

I thought the Nissan Versa handled like a giant boat, and the Yaris was slow to accelerate and didn't have the same level of details.

All of those cars are below 20k new, with the exception of the Mazda3 hatchback, which is only slightly more. The sedan is 15-17k.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:43 AM on October 12, 2010

I'm 6'2" 250# and fit just fine into my Fit, even in the back seats. It's really an amazingly good little car, fun to drive, great economy, easy to park and fits lots of stuff in the back.
posted by octothorpe at 10:54 AM on October 12, 2010

Mr. Cyndigo has a Volkswagen TDI and we love it. Good gas mileage, handles well, reliable, fun to drive.
posted by cyndigo at 11:03 AM on October 12, 2010

I got a used 2002 Honda Accord in 2006 @ 50k miles for ~$13k; it is now 118k miles (yeah, lots of highway driving!). All I've had to do was normal manufacturer recommended maintenance. No breakdowns, no issues at all. The only big ticket item so far is the timing belt change. You can't go wrong with a Honda Fit or Civic or Accord.

My wife just got a new Nissan Versa. It is so deceptively spacious inside. The 1.8 SL with CVT is pretty snappy (not sluggish at all like the 1.6 engine). I've driven some of the newer Nissans (rentals), and I really love the driving experience in them. If I have to get a car now, my choice would be the Nissan Altima (1 or 2 yrs old). Take a test drive!

I don't personally like Toyotas -- they feel underpowered and sluggish and don't have much of a road-feel, but of course reliability is not a concern (ignore the recent big recall news; just an anomaly).

You mentioned you would typically have just yourself and maybe one passenger -- maybe you can consider a coupe instead of a sedan? On the other hand, it might be more flexible to get a sedan/hatchback anyway given that you can afford the extra cost.

I'm approximately your height, and I feel really comfortable in the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit, and those are supposedly the "sub-compacts"! So there shouldn't be any issues with any cars mentioned here.

Mazda3 is also a real nice car. If you have the time, I'd recommend that you do a test drive of a Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and a Mazda3 (all on the same day if possible). Then pick the one you feet most comfortable with.
posted by thewildgreen at 11:24 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I looked online for used Honda Fits in my area. There is a 2010 with 6000 miles for $18,788, which is more than the $18,010 sticker price on a brand-new Honda Fit. What am I not understanding?
posted by grouse at 11:29 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is either listed as the wrong trim level or they are hoping to find a buyer that doesn't understand math. Even if it is the highest trim level the "Sport VSA", that price seems high. The invoice on that car new is $19,171.36 (which you should be able to get close to if you buy new).

It looks like the Honda certified pre-owned program extends the manufacturer's 5yr/60,000 mile power-train warranty out to 7yr/100,000 miles. I think the price looks high because of the warranty.
posted by VTX at 11:40 AM on October 12, 2010

I'm 6' 3" and the girlfriend has a Honda Fit. I don't like the lack of leg room. I drive a 2003 Mini Cooper and if I put the seat all the way back, I have to stretch to reach the pedals. (This does mean however, that the person in the back seat literally cannot have legs.) Moral of the story? If you're not worried about people sitting behind you, get a car that lets the front seats go way back. That's how me and other tall people fit into tiny cars.

My RSX (I love it and cannot wait to get rid of this car, I'll probably get another RSX, used this time since they don't make them any more) similarly had tons of leg room in the front.
posted by Brian Puccio at 12:43 PM on October 12, 2010

nthing the Fit. I'm the same height as you and use my '08 Fit for largely the same activities you would and it's been pretty much perfect for me. If you can drive stick, I'd even be happy to let you take it for a spin.
posted by Cogito at 12:47 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I looked online for used Honda Fits in my area. There is a 2010 with 6000 miles for $18,788, which is more than the $18,010 sticker price on a brand-new Honda Fit. What am I not understanding?

I think they figure that it can't hurt to ask.

My wife and I bought a Fit this summer. It was ~10 months old and had ~11K miles on it. It was being sold by a VW dealer, after being traded in on a new BMW at their sister dealership. The advertised it at almost $17k, but they sold it to me for $13k. I had just read Don't Get Taken Every Time and was well prepared for the sales tactics we encountered. Cars have gotten much better in recent years. Car dealers, however...
posted by jon1270 at 12:58 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd recommend that you do a test drive of a Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and a Mazda3 (all on the same day if possible).

That sounds like a good plan. Thanks for the offer, Cogito, but sadly I only know how to drive an automatic.

Don't Get Taken Every Time

posted by grouse at 2:05 PM on October 12, 2010

We just got a 2010 Mazda 3 hatchback, and really like it. No buyers remorse at all; I think it is the best 20k-ish car out there at the moment.
The info I really wanted to pass on though is that we ended up buying it through Costco's auto buying program. They apparently negotiate a low, fixed-price for car with just one dealer in the area, who presumably benefits from high-volume sales rather than high-margin. I'm not sure if you need to be a Costco member (we are) to qualify.
Anyway, it was an excellent deal and process. Lowest quote for the Mazda3 from dealers was $20500, Costco price was $18900. No buggering about too; the dealer happily told me that figure in their very first email to me, and it didn't vary. Told them the color we wanted, ready for pickup a couple of days later. 0% financing too, which completely justifies buying new over slightly used to me, since interest rates on the latter are 4-6% at the moment.
posted by Mundungus at 3:18 PM on October 12, 2010

I'm sure there are advice websites out there for dealing with dealers that would offer more comprehensive advice than me, but some of the basics are:
* always haggle
* don't buy any extras you're not 100% sure on - chances are it's completely unnecessary
* buy towards the end of the month, they may have monthly sales targets to meet.
* buy early next year rather than later this year, and get a model that's "a year older".
posted by wilful at 4:14 PM on October 12, 2010

Just to throw another model out there, take a look at the Nissan Cube. It's relatively new in the US. Good gas mileage (I average about 26 MPH), good hauling capacity for a small car, feels big inside but is small on the outside. My husband is also 6'2" (and considerably bigger than you) and fits easily in the driver's seat. New from dealer, fairly loaded (Bluetooth, satellite radio, fancy carpets/speakers/hub caps) was $20,000. You do need to be comfortable driving a funky looking car, though.
posted by booksherpa at 7:28 PM on October 12, 2010

Response by poster: After reading this comment with a link to a video of a simulated Fit-Accord collision at 40 mph I am reconsidering the whole small car thing. Other than that, a small car seems like the right choice.
posted by grouse at 8:08 AM on October 14, 2010

I don't think the fit did that bad in the collision test considering what was going on. An accord is a much bigger car and momentum always will win. But while the damage was bad, the intrusion into the passenger compartment wasn't horrible. You would likely survive with injuries to the lower legs and lots of bruising.

In any case the Fit does so much better than cars even 10 years ago (of which i drive one that turned 11 this year), that it is a really remarkably solid little car.

My suggestion is still to go at sit in several cars and see what fits you best. If you were like me and felt the fit was too small for your legs the damage would likely be far worse than to someone who found it had adequate legroom.
posted by bartonlong at 10:41 AM on October 14, 2010

Recently got a Mazda3 GT (manual, five-door, with moonroof option) from University Mazda in Seattle for invoice. My 6'2" 220lbs boyfriend feels quite comfortable driving it, and it's not a problem for me at 5'0" either. We had an excellent, zero-hassle experience with the sales rep there, and I can give you his name if you'd like.
posted by halogen at 4:35 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

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