Reliable, Fuel-efficient, Low-cost
August 8, 2014 1:15 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for a used car.

Mostly I want something compact and reliable, preferable with decent (defined as ~30 mpg highway) fuel efficiency. It does need to be large enough to fit a toddler's carseat into the backseat, which is a bit of a limitation. I'm aiming for $10K as a price point. (My wife insists that we have to spend at least $15K and I don't want to because I'm tired of carrying debt.)

But we don't actually know anything about the current crop of vehicles and which ones are bad bets or prone to lemonhood. Can anyone help guide us toward some brands/years that will turn up a quiet and unexciting vehicular investment?
posted by Scattercat to Shopping (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Having just been through another cycle of car shopping with fuel economy in mind, here's my impression: if you don't mind a car with at least 50k miles on it, you can think about pretty much any compact car of model year 05 to about 09 :VW Jetta, Honda Civic or Fit, Ford Focus, Toyota Matrix, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra or Versa, etc. The newer cars, even the larger ones, tend to have pretty decent highway milage - for example, my husband's 09 Mazda 6 (RIP) got around 30 on the highway.

Your car seat will fit in just about any of those, just make sure you are looking at 4 door cars.
posted by mneekadon at 3:22 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, In my experience, Toyotas and Hondas are very mechanically reliable, though Toyotas cheap out on sheet metal and the body fails before the power train does.
posted by mneekadon at 3:31 AM on August 8, 2014

Avoid VWs. You might get lucky and find a reliable one, but when they go bad, VWs go bad in very expensive ways. Maybe look at a TDi. Maybe.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:15 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honda Fit or Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3

The Mazda3 with the larger 2.3L (or 2.5L depending on the model year) engine doesn't get quite the gas mileage you're looking for so stick with the trims that come with the 2.0L engine.

In 2012 Mazda introduced their "Skyactiv-G" engines which took a small step up in power and BIG step UP in efficiency but those will probably be out of your price range though not out of your wife's.

You could maybe find an '07 or '06 Honda Accord in that price range which will definitely have enough room for a car seat and get the mileage you're looking for. It's about the only mid-size sedan that will (if only just barely). Most examples will probably have almost 100,000 miles at that age which you may or may not be okay with though for many people 100,000 on a Honda means that it's just getting broken in.
posted by VTX at 6:01 AM on August 8, 2014

We own both a Fit and a Civic. Prior to these cars we owned an Accord and an Element. I LOVE Hondas. Reliable, hold value and cheap to maintain.

The Fit has great head clearance. The Civic has a smoother ride and is less spartan.

Nth a four door.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:02 AM on August 8, 2014

The larger toddler carseats, when put in back facing mode (which is the recommendation for as long as possible), really don't fit great into any compact car, especially if you have tall people sitting in the front. We just decided to suffer, since I hate large cars, but you might want to think about a somewhat larger sedan if you are a taller person. I am currently praying that I can put kid #1 in a booster before kid #2 needs the toddler seat.

The problem I had the last time I went to search for a used car was that A: everyone is buying used now, and B: everyone wants a Honda or Subaru (this is in New England) so they tend to be really expensive used. I ended up buying a '10 Ford Focus for about 10K with 40K miles, and the Honda Fits I had been looking at were pricing 2K higher, had 3 times the miles, and looked like they had been sideswiped by Killer Croc. YMMV. So far the Focus has been a great car.

BTW I am a trunk lover, and don't automatically discount a car without a hatch. I have one of each and honestly the advantages/disadvantages are about 50/50.
posted by selfnoise at 6:17 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: Honda Civic or Hyundai Accent. Hatchback model if possible -- you can cram a ridiculous amount of stuff in those hatchbacks.

Honda Civics were my go-to "reliable, fuel-efficient, low-cost" car for many years, until people in my area started buying them up and modding them into poor man's racecars and then charging more to cover the cost of the spoilers and fancy rims and whatnot (which I had no interest in) when they resold them.

Once the Honda Civic prices started inflating, I did my research and ended up buying a Hyundai Accent as the apparent closest equivalent. Hyundais have been as reliable as Hondas and Toyotas since ~2006, IIRC.

(I am a terrible driver who crashes a lot and thus I've had to buy several used cars in my life despite only being 36. Oh, and I was never injured in any of those crashes, which I guess says something about the safety of those models despite their small size.)
posted by Jacqueline at 6:33 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Consumer Reports collects repair and other data on used cars, and compiles reliability lists for each model year. The full article is behind a pay wall, but $30 is not much for the kind of comprehensive info they provide, if you're in the market for a car.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:40 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: A Hyundai Accent can likely be had new for near your budget.

We have an Elantra as my wife's primary car. Her sister and mom also have them currently. Her sister is on her second right now.

All have been trouble-free cars. We live in one of the worst climates for cars (hot and cold, snow with heavy road salt) and all four have been reliable. They're not the sexiest car about, but they are good for car seats and have decent trunk space.

My wife had a Toyota prior to the Elantra, and would choose the Hyundai again in a heartbeat, for comfort and for its better brakes. We also looked hard at the Hondas and the Fords, but the price and ride of the Elantra could not be beat.
posted by bonehead at 9:24 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another place to compare car reliability is True Delta.

(I'm a very happy owner of a 2002 Ford Focus, which I've had almost zero problems with (and the problems I have had have been cheap and easy to fix), and which gets 30mpg mixed city/highway and I can fit even the largest carseat in the back of it.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:10 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for a Honda Civic. Hits every one of your desired items, and mine never let me down while I drove it regularly.

(At a step up in price segment, the Accord vs the Camry is a closer call, and reasonable people might disagree. But a Civic is really best in class. To be fair, I don't have any experience with Hyundai - their aggressive warranty makes me think they're working hard on their quality.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:22 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love love my VW Golf. Certainly not the sexiest car ever but I get good gas mileage, fit two toddler seats easily and have lots of space in the back for stroller etcetera. Mine hasn't started breaking down yet, so I don't know how costly that will be, but it's got 100k miles on it and is in pretty excellent shape still.
posted by celtalitha at 12:24 PM on August 8, 2014

A couple of years ago, I bought a 9 year old Honda Civic Hybrid for 6,000 on a private sale. It took me a couple months to find the right car.
posted by theora55 at 6:05 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Putting in a good word for Hyundai, but be aware that the last-model Accent (2006-11), which is probably the model you'd be looking at, only came in a two-door hatchback and four-door sedan. The two-door would give you fits with the car seat, and I'm not a fan of tiny sedans, which don't seem to me to have any reason for being and probably wouldn't have enough room for all your kid-related stuff.

That said, the Elantra is much roomier than the Accent, and should still fit comfortably within your budget. Hyundai has been making very high-quality cars for at least the last eight years, and their huge depreciation means they're much lower-priced than comparable Hondas or Toyotas.
posted by Leatherstocking at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2014

For a long time the Hyundia (and Kia for that matter which is owned by Hyundia) models really only started at the Sonata (The Optima is the Kia version). The Accent/Rio and Elantra/Specra were crap.

But the latest generation Elantra (introduced for the 2011 model year) looks like it's as just as good as the Sonata in terms of quality (which is quite high). Anything before that and you'll want to stick to the Sonata/Optima. They'll be a bigger than a Civic but not quite as a big as an Accord or Camry and (at least when I used to sell them New for a living) are an incredible value.
posted by VTX at 7:15 AM on August 9, 2014

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