To buy, or not to buy, a car--that is the question (containing within it multitudes)
March 28, 2011 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Yet another "please help us buy a car" question with extra weirdness: buy now with generous parents' money (if so, what?) or wait until we can afford a hybrid?

We have a 16-year-old Subaru Impreza; it hasn't been well maintained (only partly our fault), and I'm no longer comfortable with driving it down to Santa Cruz or out to Yosemite. I've loved driving this car, but the seats are falling apart, it has oil issues, it has interior electronics and lights issues, the trunk doesn't unlock from the inside latch anymore, it has damage from two sideswipe incidents while it was parked, etc. It died spectacularly on our last trip to SoCal, and I suspect (more) major repairs are coming up.

One set of parents has generously offered money for a replacement car, since we're still struggling to find full-time teaching jobs. They've offered us up to $20,000 (!) toward a late-model used car, preferably at a dealership (since they feel that's the best value and safest). If we're not ready to buy now, they could give us $1,000 or $2,000 toward repairing the Subaru.

For years, we've been thinking we'd get those jobs any time now, and would be able to just borrow money from them and buy a hybrid, but we have no idea when we'll get those jobs. It could be this fall or years from now.

I get the impression that used hybrids are a terrible idea. (Neither of us know anything about cars or buying cars, for the record.) And because we live in the high-rent San Francisco Bay Area without being fully employed, throwing in a few thousand dollars of our own is not really an option.

I'm leaning toward going ahead and buying a non-hybrid, because it'd still be an improvement over the Subaru (it gets about 22 mpg on an average tank), but I don't know what to look at or where to go. I'm vaguely thinking a Honda Fit, but I'm not sure what else to consider.

I do most of the driving, but both potential drivers are somewhat tall, big people. My driving is a mix of in-town and highway (often 50+ miles), and we'd like to occasionally take longer trips, including hilly or mountainous/curvy routes. We have a rainy season here (no ice or snow, but I don't want a car you can't take on ice or snow at all).

Our main priorities, assuming we can fit into the car, are safety and fuel efficiency. I would like some flexibility with cargo space, because I expect to be buying furniture over the next few years. (The old Imprezas had horrible trunks!)

And I confess, I really want a USB interface in the stereo! I hear only 2011 Honda Fits have those, which makes me sad. I had a cheap USB stereo added to my Subaru, and I love it. (I do have an iPod Touch, so if there's a way to use those in late-model car stereos without driving yourself crazy, please tell me what to look for.)

I've seen some really thoughtful advice on other car threads here, and while our situation is similar to others', it's different enough that I figured I'd throw myself on your mercy and ask for your thoughts.

So what do you you think we should do? Get the Subaru fixed and hold out for a hybrid? Go ahead and buy a used late-model car with parental money? If so, what kind and where? The more details the better--my parents always bought new, cash; his parents have only owned a handful of cars, so your assistance is really welcome.

(I did check out Don't Get Taken Every Time, based on previous threads!)

Thank you!
posted by wintersweet to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total)
Best answer: I get the impression that used hybrids are a terrible idea.

Why? Some Prius's with lower miles are still under the Toyota warranty; I think it's good for 100K miles or something. Worth asking the dealer about, anyway.

For unrelated reasons, I was looking into getting a used Prius this weekend, and they can be found around the bay area for just under $20K, model years 2007-2008, around 40K miles.
posted by rkent at 12:16 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: First of all, any car manufactured in the last year or three that has a stereo more complicated than a radio is going to have a line-in somewhere. So you can hook up any mp3 player you want for the cost of a $3 cable.

Second, hybrids aren't the only way to do fuel efficiency. Hell, the 2010 Honda Civic does 29-36mpg out of the box. The 2010 Honda Fit does 33-35mpg. Hybrids are cool and all, but if what you're really worried about is efficiency as such rather than coolness, there are other options which are more efficient than your current vehicle and can be substantially cheaper than a hybrid, even allowing for differences in fuel efficiency.

It'll cost you $1225 to drive a vehicle which gets 43mpg 15,000, but it'll only cost you $1750 to drive a vehicle getting 30mpg the same distance. That's $500, which ain't nothing. But a hybrid could cost you can extra $5,000 in purchase price, meaning it could easily take you ten years to make up the difference in cost by savings on fuel.

Take the money, say thank you, and get yourself a Civic or something.
posted by valkyryn at 12:21 PM on March 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

The 2009-2010 Honda Fit Sports have USB stereo input, as well as aux line in. They also get respectable gas mileage and have excellent, usable, interior space.

Any late model stereo with an aux input will allow you to use your ipod as an input source, though you'll need to select the song on the ipod directly. This turns out to be superior to most stereo integrations.
posted by genrand at 12:22 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

We had fabulous luck with our '05 Prius-very reliable. Excellent safety, as well, as we learned when we walked away from it after a high speed head-on collision. It was totaled, of course, but my friend, my 3 year old, and 6-months-pregnant me were essentially unharmed. We really miss the car-and I think you could easily get a used Prius for under your budget.
posted by purenitrous at 12:28 PM on March 28, 2011

If there is biodiesel available anywhere somewhat close, you could get something with a diesel engine now.
posted by annsunny at 12:43 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: I just made a big comment in another thread with useful links and info for buying small cars. (I won't repeat the links here, so jump over there for linkage)

General advice: I would take your parents' generous offer and do a bunch of homework and get a great used car that fits your budget. It will almost certainly be significantly safer than your old car.

Look at Edmunds and Consumer Reports for lots of info and "best picks". Edmunds has the useful "true cost to own" feature (which includes maintenance, insurance, fuel); Consumer Reports has a bit more info, they run their own detailed tests including lots of things that you wouldn't think of which make a difference (eg how far do the headlights illuminate? I ignored this in the ratings of the Civic, and it turns out to be a real problem, the headlights are very poor), and they collect info from their readers on which major car repairs they had to do in which year, etc. Both sites have articles about how to buy a car, tricks to watch out for etc - well worth reading.

Both sites will have safety ratings too; you can also look directly at the site of the IIHS and the NHTSA (the two bodies that conduct the safety tests).

You can get a hybrid for your budget, but it will be a few-years-used hybrid. We bought a few-years-used hybrid last year. So far it's been fine (knock wood) but when we bought, nobody had any reliable information on how long the hybrid batteries last. They last pretty good, but we couldn't find any solid info on what percentage crapped out after n years. They are expensive to replace (around $3000 I think), although they can be replaced. We have been happy with ours but the financial case for a hybrid is not a slam-dunk.

If you buy a small car, it will be more fuel efficient. Two tradeoffs to keep in mind:
1. safety. Smaller cars, especially as small as the Fit (which is smaller than the Civic or Prius), are significantly less safe in crashes.

2. handling in bad weather. If you want AWD, the car will be heavier and thus less fuel efficient. Look up fuel efficiency numbers for a range of models you're considering, and you'll see this.

Not all hybrids are created equal - different manufacturers use different types of hybrid drivetrains and they have different advantages. The Civic uses a hybrid system that really comes into its own with longer highway trips and doesn't have as much of an advantage with shorter lower-speed trips. The Prius has a big advantange (IMO) on trips where you'll stay under 40 mph

Look at the mileage figures for small or mid-size conventional cars and they can be quite good. (Especially manual-transmission diesels can be great if driven correctly.) You may find the mileage advantage of a hybrid isn't going to be as big as you think. Also, be aware that to get the advertised mileage for the hybrids, you'll alter your driving style a bit, and that the altered driving style can help you increase your mileage even in a conventional car.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:48 PM on March 28, 2011

We've had several used Prius. Great luck with them, they fit EVERYTHING (got a queen sized bed into our '06) and buying used is the ticket. We got our most recent one, a '07 with 60k miles for about 12k.

I pushed the purchase of our first ones for environmental and budgetary reasons, Mr. Arnicae who is a speed demon and loves performance vehicles is now the Mr. Prius, we're not buying anything but Priuses anytime soon.
posted by arnicae at 12:52 PM on March 28, 2011

Also, this is a previous thread explaining Why newer cars are significantly safer than older cars; lots of good info there about why it makes sense to upgrade to a car from the 2000s if you can.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:56 PM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: We're interested in a hybrid for environmental as well as personal budgetary reasons, if that helps. On the other hand, we do have to think about our wallets in terms of repairing it in the future/replacing the battery! It's those concerns about how long they last and all that resulted in the confusing information I was reading about buying used ones.

I've given up on AWD due to those fuel concerns for the time being. My dream car has always been a hybrid or electic Subaru, but it's not going to happen here anytime soon, so ... as long as the car in question isn't too flimsy and handles well enough, it should be fine. I expect there might be something to get used to going from AWD to not, but...

Manual transmissions are not an option, and biodiesel is intriguing but probably not practical...Thank you for all the ideas so far! More advice is welcome!

(And LobsterMitten: Yes, we're only interested in a late-model car if we buy one, but that does make sense in terms of adding another tick to the "buy" column. Especially when we often drive 880!)
posted by wintersweet at 1:00 PM on March 28, 2011

I get the impression that used hybrids are a terrible idea.

We bought our 1st gen Prius used, off craigslist no less. This was...eight years ago? It's still running beautifully. We will have to replace the battery this year, but our garage - a hybrid-only specialist - offers several different battery replacement options, and we'll pick one that's some combination getting the most we can for not too much money.

I don't know why a used hybrid would be a more terrible idea than a used non-hybrid.
posted by rtha at 1:00 PM on March 28, 2011

Oh, I should add that the car will be 11 years old when we replace the battery, and that cost will be the most expensive thing we've done to it yet. The car has over 130K miles on it.
posted by rtha at 1:06 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: Here's my question from when we were considering buying: can you give me info about hybrid car battery life? The answer was mostly: almost everyone that has a hybrid really likes it, and hasn't had problems with the batteries.

All indications from when I was doing this research (a year ago) are that the hybrid batteries last pretty well. BUT, I asked the Honda dealer if they had an extended warranty that I could buy on the battery, and they said no, and they don't know of anybody that offers one. This is surprising if the batteries are really super-reliable, since the dealer would make money selling an expensive extended warranty. This suggests to me that either the batteries aren't as reliable as it seems from all the owner-experience information I've seen, or else that the insurance industry just doesn't think it has enough information to set a rate for such a policy. The long and the short of it is, they seem to last pretty well, but we don't have solid information on exactly how well. I think it's not a bad idea to buy a used one, especially if it's still within its original warranty (they often have separate coverages for the drivetrain and the battery - varies by manufacturer, you'll just need to check). You're just accepting a little extra uncertainty.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:09 PM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: I'm trying not to threadsit, but to correct the idea that I'm dead-set against buying a used hybrid, I'm thrilled to hear that used hybrids may be an option! Now I just have to figure out what models, years, and price ranges, and where you buy one! Eep... (Too bad Luscious Garage is a little far for us; it looks awesome.)
posted by wintersweet at 1:11 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: All car characteristics aside: this is a gift from your folks to significantly reduce your expenses and your risk, in terms of safety and piece of mind. Let them buy you a car, take a vehicle maintenance course while you're still looking for that teaching position, and keep the car so well-maintained that you won't need to worry about your transportation for the next five or six years.
posted by mdonley at 1:20 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should be able to easily find a 2010 Prius for around $20000. Or, with some digging, get a new 2010 model that's been sitting on a dealer lot for around that much. We had to sell our 2010 Prius last month and we had a very hard time of it - apparently Toyota made way too many 2010 Priuses so the dealers had a ton of stock well past the intro of the 2011 model. Granted, this all happened before the current gas price spike, so I bet demand for Priuses is going up, but I'd give that a shot.

That being said, our other car is a Honda Fit and it's been awesome. Its cargo space is far, far more flexible than the Prius's, due to the tall roof and the "Magic Seats." The Prius has a very high floor in the trunk and the roof slope doesn't help anything. Both compromises due to the location of the battery and aerodynamics.
posted by zsazsa at 1:21 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: What I would do is:
1. Go to Edmunds or Consumer Reports and see what their "top picks" are for different categories of car (eg small, hybrid, commuter, etc). This gives you a starting point. Write down those model names.

2. Go to a used car website and look up the range of model years of cars you're interested in, in your area. Figure out what model years are within your budget for these cars. (For example, it looks like 2008 Priuses are in the 18K-23K range for San Francisco. 2009 Civic Hybrids are in a similar price range.) These will be the model years you'll research.

3. Go back to Edmunds and/or Consumer Reports (CR requires a subscription but has more complete information) and find out everything you can about the model years you're considering. Some years are bad, some years are good. Sometimes they do a redesign so the difference between say the 2005 and the 2006 is much bigger than the difference between the 2006 and 2007 models. Sometimes they change parts-suppliers, and you can get a whole year worth of cars that have bad transmissions. Sometimes they upgrade major safety features, eg adding airbags or electronic stability control. You want to find out if any of the model years you're considering are much better or worse, or if you can shave off some money by buying a year-older car that is basically the same car with just a few more miles.

4. Go back to the used car sites and make a list of where your target model-years are being offered (in certified models, in the color you like, whatever), and at what prices.

5. Now you're thinking about price and your buying strategy. Edmunds tips on buying a used car has some good starting info. You want to read about how the dealer sets their price, how you can figure out much profit they stand to make (and thus what offers they can accept from you), what their negotiating tricks are (read "Confessions of a Car Salesman" and understand how dealers use the misleading math around your loan, monthly payments, interest rate, length of loan, etc to raise the price of the car) and how they use the price of your trade-in in misleading ways.

6. The basic strategy is to know what other similar cars are selling for in the area, test drive several, and then choose your price and stick to it.
You call up a dealer and say "I'm interested in test driving this car" then you go for a test drive. When it comes time to talk price, let them know that you are looking at other cars of the exact same year, color, etc and those cars are priced lower. You'll say "let's not talk about the loan or trade-in, let's settle on a price. We want to pay $x." Then there will be hours of theatrics ("let me run that by my manager, I don't think we can possibly go that low but I'll go to bat for you") and you eventually say "ok, we'll leave. Give us a call if you reconsider" and then be prepared to actually leave. Either they'll cave in, or they'll cave in several days later and call you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:32 PM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: zsazsa, I see we live in the same part of the country, but it still looks more like $25,000-$30,000 to me when I look online! $20,000, really?!
posted by wintersweet at 1:55 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: I bought a 2010 Honda Insight last year (after my 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid was totaled by an asshole bad driver who t-boned me). I LOVE the Insight. It's small, but comfortable, with massive cargo space. It drives really well, is zippy, and has the tiniest turning radius of any car I've ever been in. We regularly got ~45 mph in the Civic Hybrid--please note that starting in 2006 the Civics are a lot bigger than my 2005 was and the hybrid doesn't get nearly as good mileage now--and the Insight is pretty similar.

We considered the Prius, but I just don't enjoy its annoying bells and whistles, like the massive touchscreen and the non-key key-thing. I test drove a Fit, and liked it a lot (the Insight is built on the fit body). But ultimately the Insight had everything I wanted and is a delight to drive. The bottom end 2011 model retails for ~$18,000. If you're considering the Fit and Prius, definitely check out the Insight.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:58 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Our Honda Civic has a USB interface for the stereo too. It's either 2009 or 2010 but I can connect both my Blackberry or my wife's iPhone without trouble. My old iPod (circa 2003) wasn't able to connect via USB but I could still use the line-in for that. I would expect that there are lots of cars out there with USB, or failing that a line-in.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:00 PM on March 28, 2011

I have a 2010 Fit and I am pretty sure the Sport model had a USB input. I bought the regular model (because I am cheap) and it just has an aux input. But it works fine, I just have to use the iPod to change the song.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:06 PM on March 28, 2011

As a long time Subaru driver, why not just go with a 2010-ish Impreza wagon or 4-door? The mileage would be very good, and it will hopefully last you another 16 years.

How much driving are you doing that hybrids (if gas money is your primary concern) is going to impact your budget? And the Subaru all wheel drive comes in handy on those all terrain drives.
posted by getawaysticks at 2:44 PM on March 28, 2011

Never, ever, buy a car based on it's existing audio system. Those can be replaced for a couple of hundred dollars.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 3:05 PM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: getawaysticks, there's a substantial chance that a 100-mile/160-km 5-day-a-week RT commute is in my future. I can't say I'm not tempted, but their mileage just doesn't look good to me compared to the other cars I'm looking at, and it doesn't really fit with my overall attempt to reduce my use of energy and so on. :/ When will they make my dream car?!

And thanks to various people for the audio input (ahem) so far--it definitely wouldn't be a deal-breaker on a great car (the local guys who speedily put in my cheap-o Target system the morning before we left for Yosemite were great!), but it could be a tie-breaker on two similar ones just to avoid hassle later. Embarrassingly enough, I seriously don't ride with enough other people to have had a sense of how modern systems work.
posted by wintersweet at 3:27 PM on March 28, 2011

If I were in your position, I would look for a late-model Impreza hatchback. The AWD no doubt adds some to the fuel consumption, but it pays back much more in driveability and safety. I've had a Subaru Liberty (sold as Legacy in the US, I think) as my work car for about 4 months (~12,000 km) now and there's no way I'd buy any other brand if I were looking for a new or used car around this size. We are looking at buying a new (personal) car this year and it will be an Impreza.

Our work fleet has a number of hybrids and my experience is that, for real driving, the economy isn't all that it's cracked up to be, although I live in a sub-tropical climate so maybe more use of the air-conditioning impacts on that. In fact, for my commute (a combination of 110 km/h highway for 50km or so and stop-go traffic for 15 km or so), the Liberty gets slightly better fuel consumption than a Civic Hybrid used to. I would expect an Impreza to be better again.

In the position you are in, where you have a one-off opportunity to set yourself up with a decent car but limited on-going capacity to pay for major maintenance, the idea of a hybrid would scare me. Nobody really knows how long the batteries will last and the only certainly is that they will cost more than you can afford to replace. Environmentally, I'm not convinced that the hybrids of today are that far in front, when you factor in manufacture and disposal of the batteries.

In short, take this one-off chance to set yourself up for worry-free driving and play it safe – if you want to save the planet, buy a bike as well.
posted by dg at 8:29 PM on March 28, 2011

I drove my manual Honda Fit (2010) from the Bay Area to Tahoe last week in the snow, and three different drivers agreed that it was fine for a car that gets occasional use in the snow. It doesn't much like accelerating up hills at highway speeds, but other than that it's a great car - for what it's worth, I drove a 2nd generation Prius up the Rockies and it wasn't much better.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:21 PM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: (Thanks again, everyone--even most of the answers I didn't mark as best answer contributed significantly.)
posted by wintersweet at 4:42 PM on April 9, 2011

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