Commuter car recommendations
June 16, 2005 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations for a commuter car.

I plan on buying a new car by the end of the year. Since I have the time, I would like to think this through and get the best value for my money. My ideal car is affordable ($15-20k nicely loaded including pwr windows/locks, cruise control, CD player & auto trans), gets good gas mileage (>30 mpg), will fit a 6'-2" frame, will last 100k+ miles, and is a wagon or hatchback. Not ready for a hybrid, yet. Cars I am considering:

Domestic nameplates:
Ford Focus ZX5
Chevy Aveo Wagon
Dodge Neon
Chrysler PT Cruiser

Euro nameplates:
Cooper Mini
VW Golf

Japanese nameplates:
Scion xA
Toyota Corolla
Toyota ECHO
Nissan Sentra
Mazda3 5-door
Honda Civic

Almost Japanese (i.e., Korean):
Kia Rio Cinco
Kia Spectra5
Hyunda Elantra 5-door

This car will be replacing a Ford Aspire (made by Kia) that has served me very well. I'm just curious about other people's experience with these cars and their recommendations. Also, are there any cars I should add to the list?
posted by Doohickie to Travel & Transportation (53 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The ECHO is not a bad choice. Lots of headroom for so small a car, gets > 30 mpg with city driving. Mine was a no-frills option that didn't have power windows/locks or cruise control, but those are available as options.

However, I've heard that Toyota isn't making them any more after the 2005 model year. Could be a problem later.

On the plus side, I've never had any problems with mine and all I do is the oil changes and the occasional recommended maintenance.

It handles fairly well, can go fast on the highway if you're not paying attention, and can be lively on wet streets or in high crosswinds.
posted by staresbynight at 9:35 AM on June 16, 2005

The Scion xA is a close cousion to the ECHO (basically a hatchback version with better styling) and is currently very high on my list. Does tyour ECHO have a center-mounted instrument cluster? If so, is it easy to get used to? (I hated it when test driving the Scion xA.)
posted by Doohickie at 9:42 AM on June 16, 2005

Of your choices, I'd probably go with the Honda Civic for reliability, or the Scion xA for style, or the Hyundai for value. The Honda gets bonus points for holding its value.

If you are insistent on getting a Focus, I'd probably buy it used. Maybe it's a regional thing (I'm in the Northeast), but those don't seem to hold any value at all. You'd be upside-down on it as soon as you drive it off the lot.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:46 AM on June 16, 2005

The ECHO I have does use the center-mount cluster. It took maybe 5 minutes to get used to. I love it, but I don't love the way it lacks a tachometer.
posted by staresbynight at 9:53 AM on June 16, 2005

Definitely consider the Mazda3. I have a Protege5 (the predecessor of the 3), and I absolutely love it. It's good-looking, functional, and can carry a ton of stuff. Get a manual instead of automatic, and it's a blast to drive. Highly recommended.
posted by paschke at 10:05 AM on June 16, 2005

Me and my fiancee have a Toyota Matrix. It's basically the wagon version of the Toyota Corolla. I think it's a great car. We get between 34 and 40 mpg depending on how much highway driving we do. It's got a lot of room inside for it's size, it rides a bit higher than most cars so it has good visibility. Toyota has a good warranty (engine/powertrain 6yrs 100k miles, the rest of the car is 4 years 60k miles, I think). We got a 2003 Matrix used for about 12k. I think that all the options you are looking for should be available in your price range on a new Matrix. Consumer Reports gave the Matrix good marks in reliability.

It looks kind of like a low riding SUV, which could be good or bad depending on your taste, but it gets the gas mileage of a small car. All but the driver's seat fold down, so it's a nice car for moving things around.

Overall, I've been very pleased with it.
posted by jefeweiss at 10:06 AM on June 16, 2005

Why not a Hybrid? Price? Other factors?
posted by sourwookie at 10:09 AM on June 16, 2005

I purchased a year-old Nissan Maxima from Hertz last year for about $18K. The car came with CD/tape deck, sunroof and power everything. I'm 6'2" and fit in the car fine. In fact, I think the Maxima is a good bit bigger than many of the four-door sedans out there. Most people who ride in the back of my car remark on how comfortable it is.

A V6 engine is standard on the Maxima, which was a big selling point for me. The last car I owned was a Toyota Corolla/Geo Prizm with a V4 and it had the worst pep. Merging on a highway was a pain.

The two things I'm unhappy about with my Maxima are the gas mileage and lack of side-impact air bags. I live in the city and driving means a lot of stop and go traffic. I average about 19 mpg with city traffic.

I also investigated into Honda and Mazda when I was looking for a car. I wanted to buy a used car that was less than two years old, so this may not apply to you, but I had a hard time tracking down a Honda with a V6. I also found that Hondas hold their value so that there wasn't a significant discount in buying a used car over a new as there obviously was for the Maxima.

Not being much of a gearhead, I also spoke with a few mechanics about Mazda, Honda and Nissan. I was told, "If you're considering a Mazda, just buy a Honda." Honda got the thumbs-up from everyone for their reliability.

I hope this helps. If you can't find what you want new, you may want to consider used. I was pretty happy with Hertz. I think they represented the car accurately and they had a fixed price, which was several thousand less than Carmax, another no-haggle used dealership.
posted by Sully6 at 10:18 AM on June 16, 2005

I second the Echo. I got mine back in 2001 and have been very happy with it. I'm 6'0" and am very comfortable in it. I also second the fact that the center console is extremely easy to get used to. The one thing I do not like about it is that it isn't a hatch, but the trunk is surprisingly spacious. I've had many comments to the tune of "I can't believe you got all of that in there...".

Having sat in the Scion xB, it is very similar to the Echo, and is probably my next choice for a car (though I'm not really in the market for one). Plus, it has the hatchback, which is a big plus in my book. One warning though: the xB's price tag is pretty attractive at the base, but I hear it gets a little crazy once you start adding options.

My first car was a 1990 Honda Civic and that was a trooper as well. I got it used with 80k, passed it to my brother with 120k and then he sold it to someone else with 180k. Though, I'm not sure if Honda plans to release a "regular" Civic Hatchback. They may continue the route of the Civic Si.
posted by bwilms at 10:27 AM on June 16, 2005

I have a 2003 Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback which has been very reliable (33,000 miles). I wouldn't say it's quite as well made as a Toyota, but you sure do get a lot of stuff you'd pay extra for on other makes: disc brakes on all 4 wheels, side curtain airbags, leather seats, fog lights, Kenwood MP3 CD player (they didn't have this in 2003 when I got mine) -- even floor mats, which are extra on a lot of cars... the only weird thing is that the ABS and moonroof are only available in a package together, so if you want one without the other you are SOL.

I got mine "loaded" for $15,500, which was two or three grand less than I would have paid for a similarly-equipped Mazda or Toyota or Honda. The Toyota or Honda will probably get better gas mileage, but that's because the Hyundai has more power. It handles well and can be made to handle better by installing a sway bar from a Tiburon in the rear, which is not at all an expensive upgrade. Overall I recommend the car.

The Mazda3 is probably the most fun to drive of the small cars in its class. I'd stay away from American small cars. The VWs may be good if you can get one that's actually made in Germany, but most of the ones sold in the US are made in Mexico, I believe.
posted by kindall at 10:27 AM on June 16, 2005

MegoSteve is absolutely right, the Focus is a great buy slightly used, but a terrible buy brand new. I bought an eleven month old one with less than 20,000 miles on it for almost half the original price (Bay Area). I was really impressed with everything about the car (except the looks . . .) and never had a single problem with it. I've since sold it since I no longer commute, but I do actually kind of miss it sometimes.
posted by Boydrop at 10:28 AM on June 16, 2005

I had a Kia and I would never buy another one in my life. They're not safe cars, and they're generally poor quality too. You get what you pay for. They also just don't drive well.

Also, I would be surprised if you could get a Mini for that price range, unless you were going for a used one. Last I checked, most new Minis (especially the automatic ones) were going for over $20k.

My friend has a Scion xA and she loves it. It was very affordable, and drives well. There is also a surprising amount of room in the backseat.

Nissans are generally very reliable. My brothers both drove our '96 altima over the last 6 years. It's got over 150K miles on it and still runs well. Or it did anyway, until my brother rear-ended someone last week.

...and is a wagon or hatchback

Some of those cars you listed are sedans?
posted by geeky at 10:31 AM on June 16, 2005

I love my ECHO. I 'll basically second everything staresbynight said. I actually really like my center-mounted intrumental panel. Not sure why... I just like it. I am very biased because I come from a "toyota family," but I would definitely go for something from that maker. My (and nearly everyone else in my fam) has had their various Toyota for about 7-10 years each, and no one has ever had a single problem with them. At the right time, we all just upgrade to new toyotas.
posted by lalalana at 10:38 AM on June 16, 2005

I've been very happy with my Honda Civic, I have the EX sedan and I've had both the DX hatchback and the Si hatchback in the past. The EX has all the extras: power everything, cruise control, CD, variable transmission, a bajillion safety features (I bought it after a crash so I was looking for that), plenty of trunk space and the floor is completely flat between the back seats. I found the hatchbacks put my foot at a weird angle, cocked back like the seat is too low or something. On long drives it got uncomfortable. I haven't had that problem with the sedan at all.
posted by cali at 10:38 AM on June 16, 2005

(A side stone, my mom's Toyota ownership reflects her professional rise over the last three decades...
Celica --> Tercel --> Corrola --> Camry --> Avalon)
posted by lalalana at 10:40 AM on June 16, 2005

I was in the same boat last year. I looked at a good number of the makes you listed and ended up buying a Subaru Forester, partly because of past experience with Subes and partly because having AWD where I live is very desirable. Looks like you're in TX, however, so I doubt you need the extra traction.

My impressions of the cars on your list:

Of the domestics, the only one I seriously considered was the Focus. My research led me to the conclusion that they're fairly well screwed together, and my 6'2" frame was quite comfortable in it. It had pretty decent room in the back and plenty of power. The Aveo hasn't gotten terribly good reviews, and I would suspect it wouldn't give you as many trouble-free miles on the list as the others. The Neon is a very outdated design, and I didn't feel very comfortable behind the wheel. I thought the PT Cruiser was overpriced for what is basically an upright body on a Neon platform.

Of your Euro choices, I thought the Mini was a might too mini, though a fun car. The VW I looked at was the Jetta which just seemed to have a bit more room than the Golf. What turned me away from VW was reports of expensive repairs over time.

As for the Japanese, my only problem with the Scion is the center mounted dash. Your other Toyota and Honda choices are pretty good - they're well-known for reliability, just not my cuppa tea. You should check out the Toyota Matrix as suggested above. Very roomy and fun to drive. I was very impressed with the Mazda. It rode nice, though a bit snug in the driver's seat. What put me off about it was the orange gauges. Call me old-fashioned. Finally, I find the Sentra to be kind of a blah car so it wasn't on my list.

I don't really have much to say about your Korean choices. The price of admission is right, and they've come a long way so that they're almost there with quality, but not quite.

My bottom line was I needed to think about what I could live with long-term. I kept my last car for 10 years, and intend to keep this one for as long. I would suggest a Sube for you anyway but thanks to the all wheel drive, mileage runs in the mid-20s, and at what you're looking to spend you'd be talking used.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:48 AM on June 16, 2005

The Mini Cooper probably isn't a good fit for you. It's more expensive than the range you listed (at least for the S model), and is more of an "enthusiast" car than a commuter car.
posted by matildaben at 10:49 AM on June 16, 2005

Oh, and I almost forgot... if you want room, not LOTS of room, check out the Honda Element. You can buy one with front wheel drive while staying within your budget. The "look" is a bit distinctive, however, and not for everybody.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:53 AM on June 16, 2005

I have a friend who is appox. 6-4 who has a Mini and loves it. He is very particular about his automobiles (his other is a Porche 930 turbo) so coming from him it's pretty high praise.
posted by Carbolic at 10:59 AM on June 16, 2005

I recently picked a Civic after a similar car search. It's a sedan, but has a lot of trunk room. I don't regret the decision for an instant; it's a great car. The Toyota Matrix was a close second; you'd do well to investigate it, as others have said. I test drove the Mazda 3 and just hated it; everything felt wrong and weird and there were huge visibility problems with the blind spot. That may just be a personal thing, though.
posted by transient at 11:12 AM on June 16, 2005

Definitely consider the Mazda3. I have a Protege5 (the predecessor of the 3), and I absolutely love it. It's good-looking, functional, and can carry a ton of stuff. Get a manual instead of automatic, and it's a blast to drive. Highly recommended.
A manual is not an option. As much as I would like to have one, this car will be something the wife can drive too and her bad knees cannot drive a stick. My impression of the Mazda3 5-door is that it is overpriced and overrated. Going from the sedan to the wagon adds about $2k to the cost. Mazda also seems to be more concerned with performance than fuel economy, which is not in line with my priorities. I will drive it, and maybe it really is that good, but...

*reads jefeweiss's post and adds Matrix to the mix*

Why not a hybrid? Primarily price. The hybrids I have seen also are lousy on leg room for some reason.

kindall- Thanks for the input on the Hyundai. I have very mixed feelings about Korean cars; I think they are great value for the money, but my perception is that they are posers. Still, I will give them a good look.

MegoSteve is absolutely right, the Focus is a great buy slightly used, but a terrible buy brand new.

I'm not crazy about the redesign on the Focus myself... will consider a used one if at all.

I had a Kia and I would never buy another one in my life. They're not safe cars, and they're generally poor quality too. You get what you pay for. They also just don't drive well.
In my experience, I will agree that the quality (as evidenced in fit and finish) of my Ford/Kia Aspire is not as good as other cars, mine has been very, very, VERY reliable. Not sure I will buy another one, but not ruling it out at this point.... but thanks for the input.

Also, I would be surprised if you could get a Mini for that price range
I realize this, and I'm not sure it will work for my height, but they are just so kewl I don't want to cross if off the list yet.

My friend has a Scion xA and she loves it. It was very affordable, and drives well. There is also a surprising amount of room in the backseat.
Does she have an automatic? My biggest concern was the way the auto shifted... it seemed to hang onto 1st gear way longer than necessary.

Some of those cars you listed are sedans?
Yeah, I know. Hatchback is greatly preferred, but if I really fell in love with a sedan I might buy it.

SteveInMaine... except for the geographical difference, I think we are in the same boat; your post reflects closely on my thinking. The biggest disagreement is on the Element. I think I might find it appealing if the body was all one color, but the way the lines break between the plastic and painted parts makes it extremely ugly to me.

Another car make that I should have had on the list: Suzuki. Any inputs there (especially the Forenza and Reno models)?
posted by Doohickie at 11:32 AM on June 16, 2005

I was in the exact same market as you last year, and picked the Mazda3 5 door after test driving both a Toyta Matrix and Scion xA. The Scion wasn't bad, but seemed cheap, and vibrated a lot when driving over rough pavement. The Matrix and Mazda were neck-and-neck, but the Mazda seemed to have a bit better fit and finish and with the options we wanted (bare bones except for cruise control) ended up cheaper. It also looks sweet as hell. As far as mileage goes, it gets about 32MPG on the highway, 25-26 city.

If you're not adverse to its looks, consider the Pontiac Vibe. It's just a Matrix with different body panels, and you probably will be able to get it for very cheap. GM is going through tough times and have a lot of incentives to get their cars moving. Right now, it's getting employee pricing on their cars.

Another good GM that isn't really a GM is the Saab 9-2x, which they are practically giving away. The 9-2xs are just Imprezas with different body panels and some interior upgrades to make it seem more like a Saab, and are made in Japan by Subaru. The Linear is a Impreza wagon, and the Aero is a WRX wagon.
posted by zsazsa at 11:36 AM on June 16, 2005

paschke writes "Definitely consider the Mazda3. "

I love my Mazda 3 5-door, but if you definitely want to get more than 30 mpg, you might want to avoid it. They've sacrificed some fuel efficiency for power; I usually max out at about 28 mpg, and that's freeway driving in relatively light traffic. It is the automatic, however, and I drive faster and accelerate harder than I should. If you drive similarly, and you test drive this car, you might find yourself caring just a little bit less about fuel efficiency....

It's hard to go wrong with the Civic (though as others have pointed out, you can only get a hatchback in the Si trim, which I think the Mazda 3 compares favorably with). As for the Corolla, I think it's a bit of a dog. Blah styling and a soft, boring ride. YMMV. Pun intended.

On preview, if you need automatic and a hatchback, I think the Civic is out.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:42 AM on June 16, 2005

If you're really looking to get some excellent fuel mileage, look into the VW TDI diesels. The Golf is available in a diesel, and you WILL get nearly 50 mpg on the highway. If you have an automatic, they get around 35 mpg in city driving, closer to 45 with a manual transmission. The performance will beat any 4-cylinder gas engine except for the most expensive turbo.

Diesel prices are higher than gas at the moment, but the demand for diesel fuel is largely determined by truckers and is much more steady, so you don't see major overnight fluctuations in pump prices. Also, the standards for diesel fuel quality are being improved dramatically in 2006, which will make the diesels run even better than they do now, and very cleanly as well.

I have a 1998 Jetta TDI, and I have only had to perform the routine maintenance on it, so I've spent very little over the life of the car. It has about 120k on it, mostly hard city miles in Chicago.

I cannot recommend these cars enough.
posted by gazole at 11:45 AM on June 16, 2005

I looked at the TDI, did a comparison and it turns out (using my assumptions, anyway) that there's about an 8-10 year payback on the diesel. Doesn't rule it out, necessarily, but that is a while. If gas prices rise, though, that payback time gets to be much less.
posted by Doohickie at 11:57 AM on June 16, 2005

Hmmmm... if they offer incentives later this year when I pull the trigger, the Pontiac Vibe may be the winner: 30/36 mpg on a pretty good-sized wagon for about $16k. If I wait until the fall when the new models come out, I maybe I can get an even better deal.
posted by Doohickie at 12:11 PM on June 16, 2005

The Scion xB is a little more comfortable for tall people (front and back) than the xA. My only reservation is that I'm not sure whether they've made cruise control available on the 06 model. My 05 does not have it, and I wish it did. It is not the zippiest of all the cars on the list, but the base model (almost all the add-ons are lighted cupholders, subwoofers, exterior bling, etc) is a really enjoyable drive and very comfortable to ride in. I keep forgetting to track my gas mileage, but I know it's higher than 30 (even commuting Fort Worth-Dallas).
posted by Lyn Never at 12:15 PM on June 16, 2005

Pontiac Vibe may be the winner

Pontiac Vibe is Toyota Matrix, so check it out under that badge too.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:44 PM on June 16, 2005

Right about the Vibe/Matrix; I see GM offering bigger discounts, though. Lyn- Sorry but I hate the xB styling. It's xA or nothing.
posted by Doohickie at 12:57 PM on June 16, 2005

I wonder, is it possible to buy a Canadian model and import it into the US? Toyota sells a very funky hatchback version of their echo here for less than $16k Canadian, which is thousands cheaper than any of the other hatchbacks recommended in this thread.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:00 PM on June 16, 2005

Get a used Mini Cooper S (more fun to drive than the base Cooper), which is a blast to drive, excellent head and leg room, gets low 30's highway and high 20's local and is built by BMW. It is also way less vanilla flavored than the other vehicles on your list. Drive one, you won't go back.
posted by philmas at 1:05 PM on June 16, 2005

fixed echo hatchback link
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:13 PM on June 16, 2005

In my experience, I will agree that the quality (as evidenced in fit and finish) of my Ford/Kia Aspire is not as good as other cars, mine has been very, very, VERY reliable.

That's funny, because my Kia was extremely unreliable! That was one of the reasons I hated it so much. By the time I sold it, 9 times out of 10 it wouldn't start on the first try (or even the second or third) and after I got it started, it often would not shift out of park (even after I paid $200 to fix the problem). And then there was the brake light that only worked intermittently for no particular reason that almost got me a ticket, and the cracked exhaust system that cost me $300 to replace! I think Kias have improved a touch since my model year ('98), but I still wouldn't buy another one.

Oh, and btw the Kia's do not hold their value well at all compared to some of the other cars on your list. I bought my Kia used for $8000 and got $1500 (blue book value) for it when I sold it 2004. It was 6 years old, in good shape, and had 50,000 miles on it. On the other hand, my brother just got $2000 for his '96 Nissan Altima which was in pretty bad shape and had 150k+ miles on it.

My friend has a Scion xA .... Does she have an automatic?

No, she has a manual.

[Minis] are just so kewl I don't want to cross if off the list yet.

I know what you mean! If you're willing to settle for used, you could get one in your price range. Unfortunately when I was car shopping last year, even the used ones were going for $20k+, which was out of my price range so I couldn't get one. I had to settle with a loaded Infiniti and got some Mini Cooper models for my office instead :)
posted by geeky at 1:30 PM on June 16, 2005

Also Zap is planning to distribute (Mercedes-Benz) Smart Cars in the US this summer apparantly. I see dozens of these things buzzing around the greater Toronto area. They're cheap, have amazing fuel economy, and turn heads.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:30 PM on June 16, 2005

Amazing fuel economy, at least according to EPA tests, didn't pan out. I seem to remember reading that in EPA tests, they didn't get better than 40 mpg- about the same as an ECHO.
posted by Doohickie at 1:42 PM on June 16, 2005

I have a Matrix and I'll second (third?) the positive comments above. I'm really pleased with the car. It's main competition, in my mind, at least, is the Mazda3 hatchback, which is significantly smaller and sportier, and just about the same price. What sold me on the Matrix though was the interior headroom (I've got a long body), the cargo space and the emphasis on fit and finish rather than gee-whiz features. Mazda is now built by Ford, and I had a lot of mechanic/auto motive engineering folks saying that I should be careful of the Mazda quality.

The Matrix vs the Vibe is a tougher call---both models use a Toyota frame and engine but the sheetmetal and interiors are each built by the individual companies. I drove both and liked the Toyota better. In my opinion, it was built better, the doors felt more solid, etc... Winter fittings were standard on the Canuk Matrix package, while they were an upgrade on the Vibe. Also, the Matrix was available in RED, whereas the Vibe wasn't.

Interestingly, when I bought, Toyota made me sign a paper saying that I wouldn't resell the car in the States. Apparently this causes headaches in terms of recalls, differing safety regs, and so on, but I suspect the real reason is the current price differential. I don't see how Toyota could stop me from selling to a southern cousin, but still, kind of weird.

The Smarts are a definite headturner---the Mercedes nuts at work have one. They seem happy with them, but Smarts are definitely not a highway car.
posted by bonehead at 2:14 PM on June 16, 2005

I'll second kindall, i drive a 2002 Mazda 3 as a commuter car and love it, best drive i've had, decent fuel economy and spare parts aren't too bad ...
posted by oliyoung at 3:41 PM on June 16, 2005

The only two cars I've ever owned were Dodge Neons (1995 & 2000 models). Both have served me very well - the second in particular. It is a 2000 Neon, bought new. Aside from getting the oil changed every 3-4K and one tune up at 70K it has had virtually no other maintenance . Although it'll go in for another tune up within this year. There has been routine smaller stuff along the way as my (wonderful) mechanic says it is needed.

Right now the car is sitting near 125K and still drives like a dream. My mechanic see no reason why the car won't last to 200K and beyond and I've had such a wonderful experience with it that when it does die I'll probably buy another Neon

It is a wonderful commute car, serves me perfectly on long (3K+) road trips andon short trips to the store. And unlike the Echo & the Focus (which I've ridden in) it feels more sturdy to me. That is a subjective thing, I know, but still. I've been in a few accidents in both Neons and with the 2000 in particular I was most impressed by how safe the car kept me during the accident.

The Neon doesn't come in a hatchback (that I know of) so that may be a deal breaker for you but for my money it is a wonderful car.
posted by smash at 4:18 PM on June 16, 2005

I've got a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid, and I'm thrilled. Great car. If you insist on not a hybrid, the Honda Civic EX is the same car, but with a normal powertrain.

Note: If you don't fit into the Civic Hybrid, you won't fit into the Civic EX. So, in this case, size isn't an issue with a hybrid. Cost is -- it's about a $3K premium, mod tax breaks, but it is more cost.

I've driven two Focuses (Focii?) The one the UK was a marvelous car. The one here sucks so bad that I can't describe it.

The first generation Neons were good little cars, but troubled by problems in early marks. The 2nd generation Neons lost none of the flaws, but many of the good things. I wouldn't touch them, new or used, unless really cheap.

Cost-wise, it never, ever makes sense to buy a new car. There are other reasons to do so, but, finacially, the smart thing to do is buy a late model used car that you love, love, love, and drive it forever, remembering to *fix* everything that breaks, when it breaks, so you don't start hating the car. If you hate the car, you'll buy a new car. That's also why you buy all the options you want. If you don't, you'll hate the car, and end up buying a new car -- so, now, you've spent money on two cars.

When you start thinking "Man, I just had to spend $400 on the car. How much more often will I have to do this?", all you need to remember is this: If you buy a new car, you'll be spending $300, or more, *every month for years.* Suddenly, two or three largish repairs are year aren't so expensive, are they?

However, there are other factors besides money. They're pretty much all subjective, though.

I finally gave up on my last GM after 150K miles and 8 years, because I was starting to hate it. Why? I'd rented a car for two weeks when I was out of town. Namely, a Honda Civic. I love the car. I miss not having car payments.

Hint: If you rent a car, rent a Neon or Focus. Makes going home to your car safer.
posted by eriko at 4:46 PM on June 16, 2005

Drive an Echo first. My mother had one as "courtesy car" and it caused her extreme pain after about 20 minutes of driving. We couldn't be sure, but we thought it was because the door was too far away for her to rest her arm on.

I have a friend very happy with his VW Golf.

You may wish to reconsider your position on a hybrid too. I intend to get a Prius when my current '85 model car finally has a problem that costs more to fix than the car is worth.
posted by krisjohn at 5:30 PM on June 16, 2005

We couldn't be sure, but we thought it was because the door was too far away for her to rest her arm on.

Really? That's hard to believe, since the ECHO is one of the narrowest cars around.
posted by Doohickie at 6:54 PM on June 16, 2005

I *almost* test drove a Kia Spectra5 today. It is roomy enough, for sure, but before we could get on the road, the sales lady annoyed me so much I just had to get out of there. I'm sure she is a nice enough person but she just rubbed me the wrong way. I may try again in a while.

I shoulda just gone to a Pontiac or Toyota dealer and test drove a Vibe/Matrix.
posted by Doohickie at 6:57 PM on June 16, 2005

The Neon doesn't come in a hatchback (that I know of)

Sure it does; it's called a PT Cruiser. ;- )
posted by Doohickie at 6:58 PM on June 16, 2005

I had a Mazda3s sedan for 3 weeks until some dude pulled out in front of me. It was a fricken' sweet car, a total blast to drive. Relatively fuel frugal (25 mpg city, I never got the chance to calculate the highway mileage), big trunk, very comfortable. It was like they built it just for my body. I'll never have a car that nice again.

That said, get a used Protoge. It's pretty much the same car, but not as nice to look at.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:55 PM on June 16, 2005

But I wouldn't pay $2k more for the hatchback either.

And the PT Cruiser has about 1 square foot of trunk space. And a whiny engine.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:26 PM on June 16, 2005

I *almost* test drove a Kia Spectra5 today.

BTW, just for those who have had bad experiences with Kia, Kia sold out to Hyundai some time ago... the newer Kia models are built on the Hyundai platforms. I wouldn't be too worried about buying today's Kia or Hyundai in terms of reliability; it's like buying a Toyota ten or fifteen years ago. And the warranty really can't be beat. It's really nice to have a car that's paid for, and that won't require you to spend any money on repairs for up to ten years.
posted by kindall at 9:08 PM on June 16, 2005

2001 Toyota ECHO driver here.

I love it.

It's a small toyota, so it's great for gas mileage and reliability.

Plus, the handling is snazzy and snappy. It's just a fun car.
posted by chota at 10:34 PM on June 16, 2005

Thanks everyone for the inputs. I hesitate to mark "best answer" for any single one, because I won't be buying the car for a few months yet. But there is some excellent input here.
posted by Doohickie at 8:27 PM on June 18, 2005

Don't know if anyone is still looking, but I did a big ol' spreadsheet, comparing features, cost, mileage, etc. of lots and lots of cars. The final standings of the top few models are (lower numbers are better than larger numbers):

Hyundai Accent: 8.98 current model is butt-ugly, but is being restyled nicely for 2006; also, does not have cruise control
Scion xA: 9.75 checking dealer inventories shows that my option selection may not be realistic
Kia Rio Cinco: 9.80 cruise not available on this either
Hyundai Elantra GT 5-dr: 10.14 loaded with everything I could want including leather seats!
Ford Focus ZX3 SE: 10.91 I've had good luck with Fords, but I'm just not sure
Suzuki Aerio SX Wagon: 11.28 quirky styling, but I kinda like it; most powerful engine by far (155 hp) of the cars in this list
Kia Spectra5: 11.41 a Mazda3 5-door clone
Pontiac Vibe: 11.59 a lotta car for the money with current discounts

If I can't get a Scion with options I like, I think it becomes a toss-up between the Elantra, Focus and Aerio, with the strongest candidate being the Elantra.
posted by Doohickie at 8:48 PM on June 23, 2005

Well, in case you're checking back, I checked in for an update, and am impressed at your due diligence! It's also not terribly surprising that your ultimate choice does not necessarily map with the best based on score.

In the end I found my decision was influenced greatly by the (perceived) quality of the dealer, since you pretty much depend on them while the car is under warranty. Unfortunately, most of the Ford dealers up hear didn't rate with me, and makes like the Hyundais and Kias were usually sold as an aftterthought by one of the domestic dealers. I'll be interested in hearing what you end up buying.
posted by SteveInMaine at 12:04 PM on June 24, 2005

Well, *I* checked back as well. ;- )

My local Ford dealer is pretty good so far on our Taurus, and there is another one near where I work that I've used as well, so that's not a concern to me. This is Ford country, and their dealerships are ubiquitous around here. The local Kia and Hyundai dealerships share ownership with other dealer conglomerates, but each has a stand-alone showroom. The Hyundai dealership is in a former Dodge showroom and they've upgraded it considerably for themselves. My perception of Hyundai, especially after reading reviews, scanning owner forums, etc., is that they are upwardly mobile. They are trying to make their name the upscale brand in the stable while Kia becomes the economy brand, as far as I can tell.

As far as what I end up buying, there will be a bit of a delay there. I won't buy any earlier than August, as I need my wife's paycheck to comfortably make the payments (she starts teaching in August).

If I had to do it right now, I would throw the Accent and Rio out since cruise is unavailable. I would drive the Scion xA again, along with the Elantra, Focus, Aerio, Spectra5 & Vibe. The xA is still at the top of the list, but only if I can get an acceptable range of options. I'll find a way to post a follow-up when I finally pull the trigger (probably an AskMe like "Is the extended warranty worth it?")

I really appreciate the input. Thanks everyone, and thanks for hanging in there with me, Steve.
posted by Doohickie at 3:00 PM on June 24, 2005

i have a mini and love it. never had a problem after 37k miles (*knocks on wood*). take one for a test drive!
posted by slogger at 9:00 AM on October 9, 2005

I got a Saturn Ion sedan about a week and a half ago... I originally wanted a hatchback as well but found the Ion to be really affordable and it has a huge trunk and folding-down rear seats. Just another possibility for those looking for a car meeting the same sorts of specs as Doohickie.

(Congrats on the new car, Doohickie!)
posted by amro at 9:29 PM on October 9, 2005

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