Oh look it's my special snowflake car thread
December 12, 2010 7:25 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I would like to buy a new used car... the perfect vehicle would be a reliable wagon with a nice ride/interior. I have 15k. What are your thoughts?

We currently have a 99 civic. It runs reliably but is a bit old and busted. Due to living in Portland, Maine it has been hit by a snowplow (some minor bumps and bruises), broken into by junkies, driven into a snowbank, etc, typical Portland stuff. Mrs Selfnoise would like to drive a car with less hits from the ugly stick, and I would like something with a nicer cargo space.

I would like a car with more space to haul things and somewhat more space to sit in (just in case there are any new family members in the future, if you know what I mean, and also my butt keeps getting bigger as I slide towards decrepitude). Mrs. Selfnoise would like a slightly "nicer" car, by which I think she means a car with a quieter, smoother ride and somewhat more interior space.

We're not looking to spend more than 15 grand total and would like to have the car a long time, so tend to shy away from high mileage. I think I was thinking along the lines of a station wagon, but of course that is not the most option-filled category in the US.

We drove some other cars recently... neither of us liked the Matrix we were in because of the side-rear visibility, although we did like the cavernous back. We liked a rental Hyundai Sonata(she liked the very sedate ride and I don't need an exciting car), but it's a sedan which I'm not wild about (although the truck is big enough to sleep two) and...eh... I guess Hyundais are supposed to be more reliable now but I still feel a bit queasy about them.

So what should I be looking at used? I have the Subaru Impreza hatch on the list, Mazda3 (maybe a bit small?) Many of the Subarus up here tend to be beyond my price range (or be really old/high mileage)... I mention this because their whole thing is nice station wagons, so I know that's an obvious choice.
posted by selfnoise to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I truly love my Nissan Versa, but it might be a bit small for what you're looking for (although we put our baby and 80 lb dog in the backseat just fine). The ride is fantastic and it's great in the snow/ice-- I got the one with antilock brakes. (I'm in Portland too.)

My husband just bought a used Jeep Compass and really likes it. His doesn't have the 4wd but I think some models do. I think he paid around 11k, it's an '07.
posted by miss tea at 7:30 AM on December 12, 2010

Since you live in Maine, I'm guessing you won't want RWD.

How do you feel about SUVs and/or minivans?
posted by box at 7:33 AM on December 12, 2010

My wife loves her 3, and it is a smooth ride. I also just got a 2006 Jeep Liberty for about 12 from Carmax. We're both loving that, but it is being compared to a 95 Explorer that decided it didn't like shifting anymore.
posted by theichibun at 7:44 AM on December 12, 2010

Response by poster: A small SUV would be okay if it fit in the price range... minivans fill me with dread but maybe they drive better now? The Caravan I drove 6 or so years ago was a meteor of unsteerable death.

Yeah I agree that the versa is a bit small but I appreciate the suggestion. I'm looking for something that's overall bigger than the civic.
posted by selfnoise at 7:44 AM on December 12, 2010

Funny. We're in Portland, too, and are planning on an Impreza Hatchback, once we can figure out the difference between Imprezas, Sports, Outback Sports, Impreza Outbacks, and whichever one Crocodile Dundee drives. I decided AWD will be useful in the side streets around here. We're considering something around 2008, since it will hopefully be a 10-year car for us. Also, note Subarus seem to be the official car of southern Maine.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:46 AM on December 12, 2010

The '09 Jetta SportWagen is scraping the top end of your budget (and the TDi is out of it) but fits the kind of specs you're after. FWD only, though, and the wagon/4WD combo is basically owned by Subaru, as you already know. That said, newer Subarus are much more SUVish in build (which hasn't pleased some fans) so you'll probably want to look pre-2009.
posted by holgate at 7:57 AM on December 12, 2010

Love my Subaru Forester - we can haul a lot of stuff, it's very sure-footed in snow, has AWD like all Subarus. My husband and I both find it comfortable to drive and we're almost a foot different in height. We expect to run it for 250,000 miles and are at slightly less than half that now.
posted by leslies at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I drive a 2005 Pontiac Vibe, which is roughly the same as a Toyota Matrix... I'm pretty short, but I don't have problems with the side-rear visibility. Maybe the lines are a tiny bit different - regardless, the last model year for the Vibe was 2009.

When I was looking for new cars, there was a Suzuki SX4 that I liked - very smooth ride, very nice sightlines. My holy grail as far as automobiles go, though, is a Subaru. They are just incredibly, incredibly reliable. My first car was an Impreza sedan and it remains the best car I have ever driven - if it hadn't met an unfortunate end with a Ford Explorer, I'd probably still be driving it.
posted by honeybee413 at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2010

If you're going for the Subaru, don't get the Impreza, it's really not that large. Go for the Forester. But it's hard to find one for 15k that doesn't have high miles. That was what we looked for a couple of years ago-- nothing.

(BTW significantly more space in the Versa than in the Civic. But I will get off my hobby horse!!)

Don't get the Jetta, the maintenance records on those aren't very good for the price, if I remember correctly from my research.
posted by miss tea at 8:03 AM on December 12, 2010

A bit of an outlier opinion perhaps, but would you consider a small 4 door ("crew cab") truck, like a Colorado or Canyon? These smaller trucks are easier to enter/exit than full size pickups, and generally have a ride quality that is better too. Available RWD traction control/vehicle stability/ABS systems mean that, with good snow tires, you probably wouldn't miss AWD at all, if you don't go off road, or unless have to negotiate miles of unplowed rural or gravel roads in winter. Furthermore, in Maine, even small trucks generally hold resale value better than cars, past 5 years or so, meaning you'll likely get more of your money back when you get rid of the vehicle later. And having an actual cargo bed in back is really handy, when you want to haul stuff.

Just a thought...
posted by paulsc at 8:03 AM on December 12, 2010

My wife has an 04 Santa Fe, and it's a very reasonable car. If you look at who's inside Santa Fes, they're almost entirely middle-aged men who research the hell out of their car purchase. It has plenty of cargo room without being outrageously huge, and it's got decent gas mileage. It has never been to the shop except for oil changes.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 8:07 AM on December 12, 2010

A small SUV would be okay if it fit in the price range... minivans fill me with dread but maybe they drive better now? The Caravan I drove 6 or so years ago was a meteor of unsteerable death.

I don't know if you can get one for <$15K in Maine, but a Honda Odyssey has turned out to be our family's favorite car of all time. With the stability control and snow tires it takes us anywhere, anytime. It's a joy to drive and is almost like another room of your house that you can take with you. It did take Mrs. Fairmettle a while to overcome the social stigma of being a minivan owner, but now has fallen for it as much as the rest of us.
posted by fairmettle at 8:09 AM on December 12, 2010

I have no idea about price range, but my roommate has a first generation Honda element that I think would work for you quite fine. Plenty of leg room for passengers front and back, the whole interior is water resistant and super easy to clean, and fold up the seats give it massive amounts of storage. It is front wheel drive with part time all-wheel drive when it loses traction. If you can get over the fact that it looks kinda like a box and the hilarious doors to get into the back seat I would give one a look.
posted by token-ring at 8:17 AM on December 12, 2010

We have an '05 Honda Odyssey that, like fairmettle, changed our minds about minivans and being minivan owners. We specifically bought the Odyssey because it drives and handles like a car.

However, given that you are currently without children, I think a minivan would be too much for your needs, especially given the gas mileage hit you would take relative to a station wagon/crossover SUV.
posted by puritycontrol at 8:22 AM on December 12, 2010

This might be a bit older, but check out the Malibu Maxx. Especially the SS version. (Roughly the same power as a '97-'04 Supercharged Monte Carlo) Their styling is love it or hate it, but my dad has one and it rides really nice, and has lots of room.

Also check out the higher end Honda CRVs of the last couple years. Shockingly "nice" for a Honda. (Hondas are fine cars, but I've always thought they didn't ride/drive all that comfortably. This one does.) The one I've driven was a 2009 4WD EX (or EX-L, not sure) and I think they got it for about $19,000. This was late 2008 when they were dealing pretty heavily on price though. I bet a used one is right in your ballpark.

I doubt a small truck will feel more stable than a minivan, especially in snow. I do know what you are saying about the minivans, the lower end ones do have a sort of lack of precision. The higher end ones (like the CRV above) have better suspensions and brakes. And some minivan lines have AWD.
posted by gjc at 8:30 AM on December 12, 2010

Mazda 5- Same frame and engine as the Mazda 3- but with more flexible cargo space. You could get one with low miles in your range. My wife loves it, I haul stuff in it and if you end up with kids, more than enough room for all the stuff you'll need.
posted by rryan at 8:32 AM on December 12, 2010

Response by poster: Both the Santa Fe and the Odyssey look to be just a bit out of my price range. I do agree on the Fe, though, I drove a diesel version in Ireland a few years ago and it was an amazingly nice car.

CRV, again, they look nice but are expensive used up here, it's on my list though.

Miss tea, I apologize, you were right about the versa being bigger, I will take a peek at those. And yeah, the Foresters around here cost 20 grand or have 100k plus miles, and while I do think Subarus are quite reliable my anecdotal experience has been that they tend to have more problems after 100k than say a Honda.

Honeybee, we actually tested the Vibe, and yeah, visibility no likey. For some reason it's a real issue with my wife and I, we really liked the civic because it was easy to see.

The Element may be a non-starter with Mrs. Selfnoise, she finds it irredeemably ugly. But maybe I can swing a test drive.

Rryan - How do you feel about the ride on the 5? I was intrigued by that vehicle, although Consumer Reports has some worrying data on suspension reliability.

Thanks for all the ideas so far! I think what I am really looking for is a car with a nice balance of sitting space and cargo space, which is why I consider the Impreza (which, agreed, doesn't have the best cargo space out back.)
posted by selfnoise at 8:41 AM on December 12, 2010

Ford Taurus X is an overlooked player in this segment. Doesn't inspire passion, but everyone I know who has one thinks highly of it.
posted by dzot at 8:56 AM on December 12, 2010

Since you already know how great Subarus are, I won't proclaim their virtues. (I will say that I like the Forester the best.)

How large a range are you shopping in? Perhaps extending your shopping range to a large chunk of the west coast would be a good idea. You might find a good deal a short plain ride away. A few hundred dollars in airfare and gas (for the ride back) could save you several thousand dollars on the car. It worked for me. I live in north-central Florida and bought my Subaru in Georgia for a great deal. (Actually I didn't even fly I drove my old car and traded it in at the dealership, then drove home in my new car.)
posted by oddman at 9:02 AM on December 12, 2010

My parents drive a Kia Rondo. It's kind of like a little minivan, or a tiny SUV. It has a TON of space inside (I've ridden in the back with 2 other adults, and there's a load of legspace), but it drives like a little car; easy handling, great turn radius, and some pretty good mileage.
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:06 AM on December 12, 2010

For a similar price range and needs, I bought a 2005 Subaru Outback. Its worked pretty well for me so far. I had chosen it after putting together a spreadsheet comparing Subarus, Mazda 3 & 5, Toyota Scion, Audi A3, Scion xD, and the VW Sportwagen. It came down to the Sportwagen and the Outback. They have the most cargo room by far, close to the amount you'd get from a SUV or van, but without the overall bulk. Ended up getting the Subaru because according to the little anecdotal evidence I had, the Subaru would likely be more reliable. And it was cheaper. (The Sportwagen was a lot more fun to drive though, admittedly.)
posted by Hither at 9:45 AM on December 12, 2010

Seconding the Santa Fe. Yes, we researched a whole lot before we got ours. We have had it since 2003 and it is just getting ready to hit 100k. No problems at all! It's very reliable.

We have a Honda civic, too. The Hyundai service dept. is not quite as nice as the Honda service dept., but since we just go there for maintenance it's ok.
posted by Ostara at 10:10 AM on December 12, 2010

Regarding Kias, we have a Sedona minivan which I loved until it was paid off. Pretty much nothing broke for 5 years, then since the thing was paid off, we've replaced several parts of the air conditioning system including the dryer and the compressor. (When the Compressor went, it broke the serpintine belt which took out the harmonic balancer. $1585.) We've replaced the water pump, the power steering pump, the timing belt, brakes, some ball joints in the front end and the list go on. We're at the point where we should have just bought a new car and saved money, but we are apparently not very smart about that "Sunk Cost" rule. (At this point we've spent so much we should just keep fixing things, right?) Nothing that broke was ever covered by the warrenty. Everything waited until we were out of the part of the warrenty that would have covered it.

Sooo, it was great until it wasn't.
posted by artychoke at 10:30 AM on December 12, 2010

I have a 2004 A4 wagon and I would guess you could find a nice used one for under $15k in the greater Boston area. By your mention of preferences and other likely car candidates, I would think it would meet your needs nicely.
posted by Dick Paris at 10:32 AM on December 12, 2010

Audi makes the best wagons. You can get a used all-road (based on the A6) in your price range. It's exactly what you want but most are going to have 60k+ miles.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:41 AM on December 12, 2010

And yeah, the Foresters around here cost 20 grand or have 100k plus miles,

Just glancing at your local CL, I think there may be more out there than you think (and if you are willing to drive or fly somewhere further away, you have tons of options). I mean, you can buy a base model Forester brand new for about $20,000, so there are reasonably priced used ones around. I've driven both the Forester and the Impreza, and the Forester feels much larger inside.
posted by Forktine at 10:42 AM on December 12, 2010

I live in Maine (waves at Mainers) and have some steep roads on my commute. I have a 97 RAV4 that I love. It doesn't have 4wd, and that's rarely an issue. The only problem with a small SUV is that the center of gravity is a bit high, so it took some adjustment to drive well. The height gives it good clearance, a huge help in snow. Great cargo space, and I like the 5th door way better than a trunk; it's easy to load groceries in and out. AAA+++ would buy again.
posted by theora55 at 10:51 AM on December 12, 2010

My cousin in Boston swears by his Honda Fit. He's a drummer and hauls his equipment all over the northeast.
posted by mareli at 11:14 AM on December 12, 2010

I just bought a Volvo V50 six months ago. I was looking for something very similar to what you describe. More cargo room, more spacious seats and a little bit of luxury. I am soooooo happy with this car. Mine is a 2007 and had 30,000 miles on it so it cost $20,000. But you could easily get one with slightly higher mileage in your price range. I highly, highly recommend this car.
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 11:28 AM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Impreza has almost no legroom in the back and it's mighty cozy up front for 2 adults. Also doesn't haul that much stuff. The Jetta is a much better choice for normal sized people. The Audis are really nice, although they use essentially the same AWD as the VWs. All three are expensive to work on though.
posted by fshgrl at 11:29 AM on December 12, 2010

I live in the same general snow belt and I've had a Honda Accord [terrific, but I wanted AWD] a Subaru Legacy [awesome, but too old and eventually got rusty] and my current Forrester. I love the Forrester but mine is somewhat old ['99 w/ 70 K miles] but 15K could get you a not-very-used one here or an Outback. You might also want to look into the Honda CRVs if you like the Hondas generally. My dad and sister both drive them. They are excellent on snow, have a more luxury feel than any of the Subarus, are giant and I'm really surprised at the mileage they get [24-26 driving around town]. Not sure what exactly you could wind up with for 15K but they're definitely nicer cars, not your traditional AWD workhorse.
posted by jessamyn at 11:45 AM on December 12, 2010

Consider a Honda CRV. It has great space, cargo and otherwise, and wonderful reliability.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:00 PM on December 12, 2010

We have a Sonata and I'd buy another in a heart beat. The trunk is, as you noticed, huge. And with the back seat folded down I've put a 6 foot ladder in it and still been able to use the passenger seat. We've got a fairly large car seat in the center back seat, and I've ridden in the back seat on a 5 hour road trip without feeling like I was overly compressed. It's a 2007 and my brother (a car guy) told me they extensively revamped the model that year, so anything newer will compete with the Hondas and Toyotas in terms of longevity. We're going to hit 70k miles on it this week and we've had zero maintenance issues thus far. And while we don't have much in the way of hills, I'd say the winters here are probably comparable to yours in terms of road conditions and I've never felt that it was an issue control-wise. Speaking of which, I have to head out to work shortly in the brand new snow and wind.
posted by Morydd at 12:04 PM on December 12, 2010

I live in Portland as well. If you're in the actual city, you should probably do what everyone else and their grandmother does: suck it up and get an AWD Suburu.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:46 PM on December 12, 2010

I drive a Volvo XC70 (only now it's the V70XC or the EIEIO70 of B70 Valkyrie AWD or something like that) I think 15K was about what we paid for it when it was 6 years old.

Pros - Seat warmers. The engine has the reputation of being eternal, but that's just the engine itself. It deals very well with mud and snow. Also, my first Volvo (a 740 wagon) encountered a Ford Expedition the hard way. The Expedition guy left on a backboard. I called my wife, cleaned out the back and yanked the stereo out of the dash before the tow truck arrived.

Cons - The suspension system is kind of lackluster. Parts are expensive and all those things that take gas to, or exhaust from or coolant to and from the engine aren't any more durable than any other reasonable quality car. (Though it's not that hard to work on if you're willing to twirl your own wrenches and track down torque specifications on the web.)

Meh - mileage is lackluster.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:51 PM on December 12, 2010

Note about my earlier answer. I forgot that Sante Fe is a Hyundai. I sort of equate all Kias and Hyundais without actually knowing exactly how related the two companies are. If Hyundais are better than Kias, please disregard.
posted by artychoke at 1:58 PM on December 12, 2010

The Element may be a non-starter with Mrs. Selfnoise, she finds it irredeemably ugly. But maybe I can swing a test drive.

just popped in to say, definitely test drive it. i HATED the look of the Element before I actually got into one. they're a great ride. they're small, but REALLY spacious. plus, i have only known people to own Hondas forever, so they're good cars. have her at least give it a go.
posted by itsacover at 4:14 PM on December 12, 2010

Keep in mind that most Subarus get pretty shitty gas mileage. I can't really speak to its performance in snow, but our new Prius is pretty awesome and has lots of cargo space.
posted by electroboy at 8:34 AM on December 13, 2010

Keep in mind that most Subarus get pretty shitty gas mileage.

It's not a Prius but my 2006 Legacy gets almost 30 on my daily commute. My other Subarus haven't done as well (I have owned 5), but they are all very competitive.

I'd look for a good used Outback wagon (a little more room in the back than an Impreza wagon, and better/nicer features) if you can find one. I bought one used that had 70k miles on it, drove it for another 70k, it was perfect and immaculate until it was totaled at 140k miles.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:48 AM on December 15, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, all! I ended up getting a Toyota RAV4.

Reasons for selecting this car:

-It has 4WD, traction control and stability control, but the 4WD is elective so I can save a little on gas.

-I liked driving it a bit more than the Outback I tried, and the gas mileage is actually competitive with the Impreza, which has much less cargo space.

-The second row seemed roomier than the Subarus I tried.

-Also, as many reported, the Subarus up here that you can find used have really high mileage or cost barely less than the retail sticker.

-It has a TON of cargo space, plus neat little features like the seat kickdown levers in the back that make it easier to use. But it drives nimbly like a car.

-I ruled out the Mazda5, which appealed to me, due to suspension reliability issues reported by various sources.

-Hyundais were ruled out due to not being any cheaper up here despite lower reported MPG and reliability (Tucson and Santa Fe).

-CRVs I decided not to look at because the used inventory is significantly more expensive up here vs the RAV4 and I didn't want to fall in love with it. It seems similar to the RAV, though.

-Euro wagons etc ruled out due to cost of repairs.

Again, thanks for all the suggestions! It helped me to create a field that I could then narrow.
posted by selfnoise at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: By the way, also thanks to Ask Metafilter at large for an incredible amount of useful information about how to do this process!

Thanks to Metafilter, I waited patiently for the right car at a reasonable price, had it inspected by my mechanic, then insisted on negotiating through email. It was SOOO much more pleasant than my last used car buying experience.
posted by selfnoise at 2:09 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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