Help I know nothing about cars
April 24, 2012 10:13 AM   Subscribe

I need help buying a car.

First time car buyer. I want a car that's a decent investment-- I don't care much about bells and whistles, but I don't want to spend a ton on insurance or gas. I'll be buying with cash; I have pretty much enough to get whatever car is best but I'd rather save than blow it all on a vehicle. My daily commute is about 9 miles (15 minutes) and my SO lives about that far too, so I make that drive a lot. I'm 24.
posted by NoraReed to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You want a used Japanese car. Think Honda Accord or Toyota Camry / Corolla. They're not super expensive to maintain, and if you keep them up, they run forever and get decent gas mileage.

What's your budget?
posted by gauche at 10:19 AM on April 24, 2012

Response by poster: Honestly it's whatever it needs to be. I had a recent windfall. I want to keep as much as I can though. What will a used Japanese car run me? And should I look in classifieds or find a dealer?
posted by NoraReed at 10:26 AM on April 24, 2012

I would go for a new Honda Accent. Cheap, ultra-reliable, kind of boring.

While getting a used Civic or Camry was the default advice for a long time, they're so expensive right now that you might as well get a cheap new car. (At least around here, a 5-year-old Civic in decent shape is still $12k -- when you can get a brand new Accent for just a little more.)
posted by miyabo at 10:26 AM on April 24, 2012

The Accent is made by Hyundai, not Honda.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:29 AM on April 24, 2012

Research first! Go to and Edwards online and find out what you can expect to pay for a Honda accord, Toyota Camry, etc., with theoptions you want. That will give you a good basis once yoi start searching locally to find the car you want.

Also, check out the carfax when you find a specific used car you like, and have a mechanic look it over before you buy.
posted by misha at 10:30 AM on April 24, 2012

And if you do look at new cars, you can weigh the pros and cons yourself. For instance, you get a warranty, but the car starts losing value as soon as you drive it off thenlot.
posted by misha at 10:32 AM on April 24, 2012

If it's still under warranty, then you'll want to make sure the dealership that will do the service is a reasonable distance away.
posted by ODiV at 10:32 AM on April 24, 2012

Honda Fit: cheap (relatively) and reliable. I went with a new 2008 Fit rather than a used Civic back at the end of the 2008 model year, and haven't looked back.
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:35 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Aside from the particular make and model, a lot depends on how much effort you're willing to put into research and negotiation. Private sellers tend to advertise their cars at lower prices but are often less willing to negotiate. Dealers inflate their sticker prices, but are much more willing to negotiate. It's possible to get a great deal from a dealer, but they won't make it easy. Either way, you should know the value of what you want to buy (check car values on Edmunds or similar sites) and you should know that the particular car you're buying is as good as you've been told it is (pay your independent mechanic to check it out). Buy a car you know is good, and refuse to overpay for it.
posted by jon1270 at 10:44 AM on April 24, 2012

"Decent investment" isn't a very good phrase when it comes to cars; you expect investments to appreciate in value, and unless you get a collector car, that won't happen here.

Take a close look at the new vs. used issue; used car prices are relatively high at the moment, so it may make sense to go with a new car.

Beyond that, more details would help. It sounds like you just want a car to get you from point A to point B relatively inexpensively. Is that the case, or do you want the drive to be fun? Are you hauling around stuff? How much?
posted by craven_morhead at 10:45 AM on April 24, 2012

Ack! Just realized auto-correct made it Edwards in my comment. EDMUNDS.
posted by misha at 10:49 AM on April 24, 2012

Response by poster: By investment I mean I want it to last, I guess. But yeah, just to get around in. Don't care a lot about fun. What should I know about insurance costs before I buy?
posted by NoraReed at 10:52 AM on April 24, 2012

If I was in your position I would buy a new (or one year old) less-expensive car and make payments. You would pay a little more in the long run, but you will have much more cash on hand right now.

Seconding Civics and Corollas.
posted by unreasonable at 11:00 AM on April 24, 2012

I just went through this last month - finally settling on a new Corolla because the used market for small fuel efficient cars is nuts. I also looked at a Mazda 3, which was more fun to drive than the Corolla, but a little cramped feeling, and the Hyundai Elantra, which I liked but didn't buy because the dealer believed "best selling car in America" translated to "you will pay sticker price."

Not when I can get an identically equipped Corolla for $2000 less, it doesn't.
posted by COD at 11:00 AM on April 24, 2012

Honestly it's whatever it needs to be. I had a recent windfall. I want to keep as much as I can though.

Come on, at least give us a range. You can get a (relatively) dependable used sedan for as little as $3K or a new high-quality, high-efficiency hybrid for like $45K. People have very different ideas of what it means to say "I'll spend whatever it takes." Plus that is in tension with wanting to save.

And really it depends on what your goals are. Getting a car to "last" and "to be a decent investment" is still ambiguous. Do you want to drive it into the ground for 15+ years, or do you want it to serve you well and maintain some resale value? If the former, maybe you should get a Subaru Legacy / Outback, since those things are tanks (I've seen them running at 210K+ miles), but I can't imagine anyone paying much for a well-used one. If the latter, probably a compact or standard sedan, most likely a Japanese brand, from the last ~5 model years.

Or, if you really are willing to spend upfront and/or you would get a tax break, a hybrid is probably perfect for your short-distance driving and would get you like 50 mpg for years.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:01 AM on April 24, 2012

"don't want to spend on gas" usually means a 4 cylinder car. April is the Consumer Reports car issue. Your first step is going to be finding a way to narrow it down. Have you seen cars that you liked?
posted by notned at 11:04 AM on April 24, 2012

Insurance is insurance, basically. There will be some differential based on whether your car is a coupe, sedan, wagon, sports car, SUV, small truck, high-tow-rating truck, etc. Stay away from sports cars and giant trucks, but you were probably planning on doing that anyway. You can call your insurance agent before you buy and get ballpark quotes. All 4- or 5-door Japanese cars are going to be just about identical.

I like my Prius a lot, but I don't know that I can justify the price differential versus mileage, when you can get really good mileage from some gas-only sedans, with a little less cheap car creak-and-rattle (mine is 6 years old, and feels like it).
posted by Lyn Never at 11:08 AM on April 24, 2012

Go to your Volkswagen dealer and find a Jetta 2.5 SE with the 5-speed manual, because it won't put you to sleep like a Civic or Corolla will. Should be $250/month or so. Put the rest of your cash in something worthwhile, like an actual investment or hobby or something.

On top of the standard warranty, new Volkswagens also come with 3 years of free maintenance, so you won't have to pay for anything other than gas and insurance for the life of that car.

Re-evalute your life in 3 years. Still need a car? Buy or lease another one. Discovered bicycling or public transit? Turn it in and walk away.
posted by bhayes82 at 11:20 AM on April 24, 2012

I would say that unless you get an amazing deal, don't get a used Honda or Toyota. They tend to be reliable, but they are really overrated and, IMO, really overpriced. A used Mazda or Nissan would get you better bang for your buck.

Do you have reliable income and decent credit? Get a new car. If this is your first time owning a car, you're not going to to know how to maintain a used car.

And finally, get the car that you like like and can afford. I don't like the way Toyotas drive, so I didn't buy one. Some people like big American cars. Get whatever blows your hair back and is within your budget.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:25 AM on April 24, 2012

It's worth paying for the most recent Consumer Reports Autos issue. It will have reviews and comparisons of every currently-sold car.

I bought my first car in 2006 for $16k (a Toyota-made Scion xB). It has needed zero non-scheduled maintenance (scheduled maintenance has been about $1000), and is still worth about $8k. So you could say I spent around $1500 a year on the car.

I also have friends who spend three times that on their vehicles, so it varies a lot.

I remember insurance was a killer the first year (over $1000), because I had no driving history. But it declined rapidly because I've never had an accident or a ticket.
posted by miyabo at 12:01 PM on April 24, 2012

Kelly's Blue Book is a good resource for learning what the fair market value is, but Consumer Reports is pretty much the gold standard for recommendations on what specific car is best. They also do recommendations between used and new cars.

They have a dictionary of all cars ever every year that you can borrow from the public library.
posted by forkisbetter at 12:06 PM on April 24, 2012

This question really isn't one that MeFites are going to be that good in helping you answer because it's clear you need a lot of introductory guidance and don't know where to start. Really, start with and introductory guide and work from there. Most young people who just need basic reliable transportation without spending a lot of money will opt for a low-end used Honda, Toyota, or Hyundai.
posted by deanc at 12:09 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd like to spend under about 12k if I can, but am willing to pay more if it'll save me on insurance. I'm not likely to switch to public transit or biking given where I live.
posted by NoraReed at 12:11 PM on April 24, 2012

You want a Honda Fit. Just get the best one you can afford for as close to $12k you can find. Very practical, good gas mileage, and very low cost of ownership. "Cost of Ownership" means all the things you spend money on in relation to the car... gas, insurance, maintenance, licensing, etc.

I'm partial to Honda, but in reality, consider anything in the sub-compact genre. This is becoming less of a concern these days, but I'd go with something from Japan over something from America or Korea. You can't afford German (maybe the VW Golf), so don't worry about that.

(The World Famous: That was awesome.)
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 12:47 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just got my first car recently after finally coming to terms with the fact that trying to be a bike commuter in St. Louis was causing me unhealthy amounts of anxiety.

I'd put in a vote for a used Mazda3 hatchback, which is roughly in the same class as the Honda Fit, (the current) Ford Focus, and the Civic. I'm operating on the assumption that, all else being equal, a hatchback is better than a sedan, because there are few disadvantages I can think of and the increased storage really comes in handy.

With that in mind, The advantages it has over (1) the Honda Fit is performance and handling -- which are fun, and therefore seemingly not something you care about, but good handling offers you the advantage of primary safety, which frequently gets overlooked. It's not anywhere near over the top in terms of power, just enough to give it above-average zippiness for the class.

The advantage it has over the Ford Focus depends on which generation you're looking at; a used Mazda3 is a very similar car to the most recent generation of Focus, but it beats the pants off previous generations, and will be cheaper than the new generation by virtue of being used.

The advantages it has over the Civic are similar to the ones it has over the Fit, plus you can't get the Civic as a hatchback anymore. Admittedly, if you like a softer, more comfort-oriented suspension, the Civic offers a smoother ride in my experience. This is probably true of the Focus and the Fit, too.

As for other negatives, in comparison to the other cars (with maybe the exception of the Focus, I'm not actually sure) it gets about 3-4 fewer miles per gallon, and you have to get a model with at least the Touring trim if you want side airbags (probably a good idea). The amount of leg room in the back seats is kind of small, such that having two tall people on the same side of the car will result in a slightly cramped experience for one of them. Model years before 2006 had rust problems, but I'd shoot for something in the '06-'08 range anyway (2009 was the first year of the new generation, so the price jump is bigger, and in my opinion they're a real step down in the looks department too). All reports seem to indicate high maintainability, and anecdotally mine has 56K miles on it and has only ever been to the auto shop for the usual maintenance tasks of tire, brake pad, and oil replacement.

More subjectively, the Mazda3 (again operating from a relative position of ignorance with regards to the new Focus) seems to do better in the aesthetics department than the others, in that it does more with the usual palette of plastic in various finishes to make the cabin feel personable. I'm sure there are people that feel precisely the opposite, but it's a common enough refrain that I think there's something to it.
posted by invitapriore at 1:58 PM on April 24, 2012

If money is really no object, then stop thinking that you want "what's best", and instead start thinking "what do I like, that fulfills my needs, and will be trouble-free and reliable?" and start doing research/test driving.

If money is an object, you really need to tell us what your upper limit is; otherwise we're all suggesting the things that we think are best for us. With a monetary limit, you'll get much more helpful answers I think.
posted by davejay at 2:40 PM on April 24, 2012

We just (3 weeks ago) paid 17.5k for a new Honda Fit. We are getting 35mpg combined city and high way.

With basic maintenance you should expect to get near 200,000 miles of reliable driving out of this or a one of the similar vehicles named above.

Any insurance agent will be able to tell you what your insurance costs will be.
posted by pianomover at 2:57 PM on April 24, 2012

My husband and I have a Honda Fit and a Hyundai Accent. We love them both, but my Accent is by far the preferred car as it gets better gas mileage and is much, much more comfortable to drive. The Fit is a really nice car if you want something small and cheap, but is not comfortable to drive/ride in for long stretches. (Defining long as "an hour or more.")

With the "ECO" thingum in my Accent, I get on average 37MPG. The Fit gets about 35. The Accent was about $2k more than the Fit and we both agree that it's totally worth it. I don't see any particular advantages of the next-size-up Elantra over the Accent - we have a baby and so we have a carseat and a stroller in the car at all times and I've never had a problem with space.

The Fit's a great car and we loved it... until we got my Accent which we love more.

(Also: it's non-trivial to point out that the rear headrests when up make it nearly impossible to see out the back window in the Fit. So, if you have people actually riding in the backseat - you really can't see a damn thing in the rearview mirror.)

(Also also: 17.5k? Wow. We got our Fit exactly a year ago and paid $14k. The Accent was $16k last August.)
posted by sonika at 3:09 PM on April 24, 2012

I also had a used Hyundai a number of years ago - it was 8yrs old at the time and in perfect condition. Never needed to do anything beyond an oil change. Loved that car. Every bit as reliable as a Honda or Toyota.

(I've also owned a used Honda Civic and can say the same - it was exactly what you would expect from a nine year old Honda Civic. Reliable. Boring. Pretty good on gas. I just have a soft spot for my old Hyundai, probably compounded by my love for my current Hyundai.)
posted by sonika at 3:13 PM on April 24, 2012

Buy or borrow from the library "don't get taken every time". It is a great book about how to avoid some of the tactics dealers (in person, online, new and used) use to inflate the cost. It was incredibly useful for me and my husband when we bought our car recently. Also, consumer reports was very useful for comparing card when we were trying to decide which one to get.
posted by HMSSM at 4:18 PM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

From your description I don't think you are going to tell the difference between the honda, toyota, huyndai, kia, mazda, nissan or ford based on technical criteria. They all get close enough to the same mileage as to make the difference meaningless (probably a hundred dollars or so from 30 to 35 mpg and driving 6000 miles a year (based on your commute length)). So doesn't matter much. Actually in the small car appliance segment, which almost all the above (except the mclaren-i want to road trip with you The World Famous) fit in you won't really see much difference in any technical detail unless you are a manic gear head.

Go and sit in a few different new cars at the dealership. do the seats fit your but? are the radio controls easy and straightforward? can you read the guages easy? is getting in and out of the car ok? does the seat go back as far as you want? if it does is the back seat usable with the front seat in the right spot? Does the steering wheel feel good? how hard are the back seats to fold down? and is storage/bringing home groceries/lumber from home depot any kind of consideration? Go home and think about it. See how the car is rated in real world reliability at True Delta (best car research website-much better info than consumer reports-at least for gear heads). than go back and see if it is as good as you remember. Than use this website to figure out how much to pay. Then offer that to the dealership. Arrange any financing on your own with your bank/credit union if needed. In your situation buy a new car. The used market in this segment is really tight and you will not get a better deal than buying a new car unless you are willing to look at lots of car/haggle like crazy/and know something about cars to spot the lemons. It is clear from your question this is not something you are likely to be interested in. Used cars are always a gamble (recent model, low mileage is a good gamble but still) and the price premium right now isn't worth it. The market gets even tighter for the two months after tax day since lots of people get a big check right about now.

To give an actual recommendation my vote is for the new Prius C. It gets great mileage, the prius has been among the most reliable car made (much to my surprise considering all the new technology in it) and is about the most plain jane, commuter car out there likely to hold its value. If you don't want a hybrid I would go with a new ford (fiesta or fusion) or a new Kia (whatever model you like) for getting the most for you money.
posted by bartonlong at 4:56 PM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have only one rule when it comes to buying cars - buy the best car you can afford that suits your purpose. That could be: gets good gas mileage, can seat 5, has a spacious trunk, is fun to drive, whatever. If average fuel economy is ok, I'd get a used Ford Fusion. They're very comfortable, easy to maintain and look pretty good. You can get an '09-'07 in your price range.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:58 PM on April 24, 2012

Seconding Sonica's advice. I just bought a 2012 Accent (after having driven a supercharged Grand Prix for a number of years) and it's great. (If you really want to enjoy the car, put premium gas in it. It likes it.) I've had a number of people, from kids to older folks, ask me what kind of car it is and say they liked it. It's best in class in a number of categories. But my biggest happiness with it is that it doesn't drive like a tiny car. (Mine is an "SE" and I believe this changes the suspension a little. Other models might be different.) I've had it for 5 months and almost 12,000 miles, and NOTHING has gone wrong with it.

Other advantages: it has electric steering. No power steering pump to go bad, no whining noise and dimming headlights when you are turning the wheel to the stops. It uses a timing chain instead of a belt, meaning that bear of a job never has to get done. It has a direct injection engine, which is cool new technology that gives you a much more powerful engine with better economy than others in its class.

I don't know what the current market is for used cars, but 6-12 months ago, little cars like Accents and Fits were going for very high prices in the used market. Like, in some cases, above new car sticker. I also don't think it's a good idea to buy a "gently used" car that's only a couple of years old unless you know its history. My rationale is this: people don't get rid of good cars after 1 or 2 years.
posted by gjc at 9:42 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It uses a timing chain instead of a belt, meaning that bear of a job never has to get done.

Timing chains can still go bad.

My rationale is this: people don't get rid of good cars after 1 or 2 years.

Lease returns.
posted by yellowlightman at 1:45 AM on April 25, 2012

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