In the market for a new (well, new to me) car! Don't even know where to start...
December 28, 2010 10:46 AM   Subscribe

In the market for a new (well, new to me) car! Don't even know where to start...

I was lucky enough to inherit a barely used '98 Toyota Corolla from my dear old Grandpa. It's what I've been driving since 2002, is my first and only car, and has given me zero problems. It's got less than 90k miles on it. I know I can probably get a few more years out of it with no trouble but the interior is falling apart (it's spent one too many broiling summers parked outside), and I'm being encouraged to look for something new before this kicks out on me one day and I'm stranded without a car--in other words, not to wait until I HAVE to buy a new car (and when I say "new" I mean "gently used" -- I am willing to consider as far back as 2002 unless someone convinces me otherwise).

Because I've had such a good experience with the Corolla, I really want to be smart about my next car and get something equally reliable/head-ache free.

What I liked: It's pretty compact, light, "zippy" (has good get-up-and-go), and gets great gas mileage--really great, I fear I've been spoiled by it. I also have an awesome insurance rate, (but I don't know how much of that is my provider).

What I didn't like: Nothing really--I just don't REALLY want to get a newer Corolla. Like I said, it's the only car I've ever had so I'd kind of like to get something different.

Another factor: I am a thrift store/flea market/furniture rehabbing junkie, and unfortunately with a Corolla, my purchases are limited (in terms of size) to what I can fit in my backseat. I don't REALLY want a truck or an SUV, but would be willing to consider them if someone could clue me in to some good ones.

However, I think I will most likely end up with a smaller sedan or hatchback. I like the Volkswagen RTI/Rabbit/Golf...and I also kind of like the Scion sedans (those hatchbacks are pretty tiny though). My brother has a Mazda--a Mazda 3 I think--and I like the look of that, and he likes it as far as I know but I don't think he's as discerning as me. I'm also very willing to consider Toyotas, since obviously I've had good experience, as has everyone I know that has had one.

I've started looking around on, autotrader, etc. but it's a bit overwhelming--if you can't tell, I know next to nothing about cars, so any advice anyone can give about what I could be looking at, based on my criteria, is much appreciated!!
posted by lovableiago to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Honda Fit sounds like what you're after.
posted by jeffkramer at 10:55 AM on December 28, 2010

If I were you, I'd get a one month subscription to for under $6. They test drive and crash all kinds of cars and give really good recommendations, too. They even have a section specifically for small cars and reliable used small cars.

My last two cars have been Mazdas and I really like them.

Hatchbacks and station wagons sound like they'd work best for you and your thrifting. ;-)

Good luck!
posted by jillithd at 11:06 AM on December 28, 2010

I would consider the 3, the Fit, the Scion XB if it's the old version and the Toyota Matrix.

The Fit has insane interior space for the size, but IMHO the 3 is a little more fun to drive.
posted by selfnoise at 11:08 AM on December 28, 2010

And of course the venerable and indestructible Civic if you go sedan.
posted by selfnoise at 11:09 AM on December 28, 2010

@Jillithd: Yes I will probably end up doing that! The crash reports would be helpful because, as I somehow neglected to mention, safety is also a huge factor...I rear-ended someone many years ago, in the Corolla and even though it was a low-speed impact, the front end crumpled like tin-foil--I shudder to think what would happen if I was involved in something more serious.
posted by lovableiago at 11:12 AM on December 28, 2010

the front end crumpled like tin-foil

Actually, they all do that. Cars are designed with "crumple zones" which dissipate energy so that the deformations don't project into the interior cabin.

Check out some crash test videos on Youtube. They're incredibly fascinating. Especially the one where they crashed a 1950's Impala into a 2010 Impala.
posted by hwyengr at 11:25 AM on December 28, 2010

Although a Dodge Ram is obviously not what you're looking for, I got rear ended in mine and it totaled her Ford Focus while my truck came out with a dented exhaust tip. So if safety is a huge factor, then I'd do a little more looking at into trucks/SUVs if you think it's worth sacrificing a few MPGs.

Having had a Toyota Land Cruiser, I'm willing to pile on support for the 'yotas, and I'd say that a Tacoma or a 4Runner might do pretty well for you.
posted by LarrenD at 11:30 AM on December 28, 2010

Front ends are designed to crumple. They take the impact to dissipate the energy of the crash so you don't have to.

If you want to trade up from a Corolla, and like Toyotas, but don't want another Corolla, then try a Rav 4, an SUV for people that aren't in the market for an SUV but want some carrying capacity and fuel economy.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:30 AM on December 28, 2010

The Toyota Matrix and the Prius are both hatchbacks with a decent amount of cargo room.
posted by electroboy at 11:41 AM on December 28, 2010

Since it's already on your radar, at least give a VW Golf (or Rabbit, its the same car) a test drive. I'm on my second (well, technically my first was a GTI, but it's the same car just a different engine), and I've already convinced one friend to get one, which they love. If you can find a low mileage one still under warranty I'd go that route, because their one big drawback is they can be expensive to fix. That being said, they're zippy, have way more interior space than you'd think (fold the seats down and don't tell me you can't haul a lot of crap in there!), and the interiors always look like they belong to a more expensive car. Plus, they're just fun to drive. VW is always overshadowed by Toyota and Honda, but most people don't realize they sell the third most vehicles in the states, and for a reason.
posted by cgg at 11:42 AM on December 28, 2010

After my much-beloved '95 Civic was crushed, I wound up buying a (longtime AskMe favorite) Pontiac Vibe... it's kind of a unique car (it was made in a joint venture with Toyota, and IS a Toyota Matrix with different badging, just a loooot cheaper... especially now that Pontiac is no more).

I've loved it so far... Toyota reliability at Pontiac prices? Hatchback (lotsa room in a not-so-huge form factor)? Peppy and GREAT gas mileage? The Vibe has all of these, and is cute to boot.
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:47 AM on December 28, 2010

If you can find a used Pontiac Vibe, I would recommend it. I have a 2004 model, and it is a workhorse. It gets decent mileage, and there is tons of room to haul stuff when you put the seats down.

I've only had to replace the tires twice (it has over 120,000 miles on it, all of them driven my ) and the struts once, and the struts may well have been due to my impatient driving on roads that are filled with potholes. It has the same engine as the Toyota Matrix (they are almost the same car).
posted by aspiring polymath at 11:49 AM on December 28, 2010

"all of them driven by me" is what I was meaning to type.
posted by aspiring polymath at 11:50 AM on December 28, 2010

Your 98 is in the sweet spot of post-OBDII and post-R134a, but before a lot of BS. At 90k miles it's probably really not that worn out mechanically. If something breaks on it, it doesn't leave you stranded and needing to buy a new car, it probably just means it needs a repair.

Replacing it with a hypothetical '02 car with unknown reliability and maintenance doesn't make you immune to occasionally needing a repair. It probably does the opposite because you are trading a car with no known problems (!) for a car that someone has already rejected for a reason unknown to you.

If it doesn't blow smoke from the exhaust you could just happily keep driving it. You say in mysterious tone that you're "being encouraged to" buy a new car to prevent future nebulous hand-wavey disasters. Sounds like someone is manipulating you into making a big investment you don't need to (and don't want to?) make.

Also don't be fooled into buying the biggest car you EVER need. You can rent a pickup for a day (or pay for delivery on something, or ask a friend for help) once in a while and have it be much cheaper than the incremental fuel/insurance/repair costs of driving something big and heavy all the time.

I have an '03 VW GTI that I dearly love, but I promise you I've had more problems with it than you've had with your older Toyota. This is OK for me - I can fix almost anything myself. If you can't, maybe you should avoid the VWs.
posted by fritley at 11:57 AM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

OMG, sell your 1998 Corolla to me!

I'm still driving my 1990 Corolla (with 175,000 miles.)

I agree with fritley, unless you simply just want a new car for the new-ness, I'd stick with the Corolla until something seriously goes wrong.
posted by vespabelle at 12:49 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think fritley and vespabelle are right. I personally have a 1998 Corolla with 84,000 miles, and I want to hold on to it as long as I can.

This question I asked not all that long ago may be of some direct help to you. My rationale for considering another car was safety, but I'd think the conclusion I reached - to keep it - might well apply to you, too. Good luck.
posted by cheapskatebay at 1:28 PM on December 28, 2010

I would also vote for keeping your corolla. they really are great cars, and the era this one is from is some of the best work toyota ever did. interiors can be replaced, and done fairly cheaply, and way more cheaply than a new car if that is all that is wrong with it. In fact it is almost always cheaper to get an old, good car fixed than buy a new one.

How to fix a car interior cheaply (warning-it requires paitence, a manual and probably a few bloody knuckles)

Call around your local junk yards, and ask if they have any corollas that have arrived on the lot in the last day or two (most cars are stored in junkyards with the windows down so hte interiors go quick) or since the last rainstorm if you are doing this in the summer (which is recommended so you can work in good weather). If so swing by and see if the interior is ok for the parts you need (be prepared-sometimes there is blood). Then buy the parts. If they don't have one in that recently ask them to call you when they do (they probably won't-so check back in often). I have resuructed about 5 cars this way in the last 20 years.

This works well for seats and door panels. Dashes are really hard to change-just buy the carpet covers and go with that. Actual floor carpets on cars are almost always bad so just buy a new high quality kit and get it installed if you are not experienced working on cars. Getting the carpet to lay right and look good is hard. Seats are usually just four bolts and a couple of wires that need to be unplugged. Door panels can be challenging but not impossible if you have a good manual and couple of extra tools (that you can get at sears). If you don't want to change out the parts most body shops and upholstery shops will do it for you pretty inexpensively (compared to dealerships and buying a new car). you can also buy seats off of ebay pretty cheap (compared to dealership prices) but be careful-car seats are the only one I have ever been scammed on ebay for. If you need a new steering wheel-take it to the dealer-they contain an airbag and are dangerous.

Another good way to prepare for an older car having problems is to create a sinking fund that you pay a small amount into every month (like 50 or 100) until you have enough saved up for a good down payment on a new car-say 3 or 4K. Then when it craps out you can either repair it and pay cash or buy a new car easily.

The current market for good quality, lw mileage used cars is actually not a big discount from new cars and probably won't be for at least a few years and may never be again considering how good cars are now. The most for you money is to keep a good car like you have until it starts costing you what a new car will-and that will most likely be years.
posted by bartonlong at 1:49 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to what bartonlong says about fixing up the interior, you might consider checking to make sure your CV boots are intact (just have a look or ask the mechanic during your next oil change?), and if your timing belt has never been replaced it may be time to do that - check your manual. These are important parts that wear out and you don't notice it.

When I go look at new/used cars on the lot, I like to picture my existing car parked in line with the rest with a price tag of $0, 0% APR. At the bottom of the tag it says "Free! Drive me home right now! Insurance is all ready, there's gas in the tank, and you don't have to talk to the salesman! Quick before he sees you! He's coming this way!"

If you need a timing belt or whatever, think of that price on the window instead -- less than a car payment or two, probably.

Sorry if this is a derail - I'm just trying to help with the "I'm new at cars" part of your question. I've gone through a lot of cars! I will quit hogging the thread.
posted by fritley at 2:15 PM on December 28, 2010

Ah, the quintessential question…when to unload an older car. I think there is some validity to advice you’re getting to unload it before something serious goes wrong with it.
Holding on to it is a bit of a gamble. It’s not going to last forever, you’re going go have to replace it at some point. Say you could sell it for $1500. now and put that towards a newer car. If you decide to keep it and the trans goes in a month the car’s worth nothing. You didn’t make the wrong decision you just lost the bet. And if the trans goes I suggest you might be stranded, the fact that it’s a Toyota not withstanding. Then again I’ve seen new a Mercedes on the side of the road with its hood up a few times so…

There’s really no right answer. If you want to get the absolute most out of your car purchases then I guess you should drive them all into the ground. But there are other parts to the equation. You might be tired of driving around with a trashed interior and not inclined to go through the trouble of replacing it on a 13 year old car. Could make a good argument against doing that. (Imagine doing all that work only to find the interior you got had mold or pet odors you didn’t notice until the car was closed up again?).

I’d agree that trading your car for one only a few years newer and of unknown origin would be a big mistake. But unless you can’t trade up for financial reasons at some point continuing to hold onto an old car realizes diminished returns. If you could be certain that the car would be relatively trouble free for a year or two would you keep it? If yes, then you probably should.
posted by PaulBGoode at 6:25 PM on December 28, 2010

I think you really can just keep driving your corolla, but since you ask for suggestions I'll also say Honda Fit! :)

I just got a new one a few months ago and so far I love it. My family is totally a Toyota family, so when I first started shopping for a car I thought I was just going to end up with another Toyota. My main requirements were Japanese brand (I know, I know...nothing wrong with american/german...just a family preference), good mileage, enough space, safety, reliability. My previous car was an old 1993, 21 mpg station wagon clunker (built like a tank, but just too expensive/inconvenient for my long daily, no AC!) so really anything was an improvement. I had it narrowed down to corolla or comparable honda civic (in my price range)...then I just test drove the Fit on a whim, and it stuck.

It's definitely compact (I can fit into spaces I would never attempt with my old station wagon! Parallel parking is a dream!). It's light, sometimes alarmingly so...but I think that that's just because I was so used to driving a heavy car. I regularly get 30 - 36 mpg with a mix of fwy/surface street driving, and like others have mentioned, the interior space is incredible. I think it would actually be perfect for your thrifting needs. When the seats are all folded down it creates a huge (and very level) space--you can fit an incredible amount in there. There's also a nifty "magic-seat" configuration that allows for two fairly roomy, but separated, storage sections. The Fit has gotten fairly great safety reviews, and I didn't know really know it before I got one, but Honda cars are apparently some of the most durable/reliable out there.

Sorry to turn this into what is essentially a Fit advertisement, but if you plan on really considering it here's my tl;dr sum-up:

pros: Good gas mileage, reliable, tons of space, fun to drive, good safety ratings, etc. Also, perhaps irrelevant...but has an incredible sound system and for some reason, 8 cup holders. :P

cons: I affectionately call my car "zippy" but it actually isn't THAT zippy when it comes to fwy driving. I think it might just be a Honda thing, since my friend (who owns a civic) has the same complaint, but when you're trying to get from 60 to above you have to push quite a bit.

Okay, sorry for the essay...but hope it helps!
posted by sprezzy at 6:41 PM on December 28, 2010

Thanks to everyone -- fantastic input (I can't even really pick a "best answer"). I think I may hang on to the Corolla for a while (it was my mom encouraging me to to trade up--nothing in it for her, just didn't want me to be stranded someday--but even she was convinced after hearing what you guys had to say!) When I do eventually start really looking (maybe next year?) I will have some great options to look at. :)
posted by lovableiago at 8:26 AM on December 29, 2010

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