We need a car. And we don't know anything about cars.
September 18, 2014 8:28 PM   Subscribe

We need guidance on a few issues related to getting a car for our family. First of all, what kind of car makes sense for our needs? Second, should we buy or lease that car?

We are preparing to make the leap from a Major Metropolis to the Great Suburban Beyond, so for the first time in our lives, we will need a car. The problem is, we know nothing (NOTHING) about choosing a car, or about negotiating the terms of a deal. Please explain this to us as if we are children.

The Players: Two adults, two kids (ages 4 and 1.5). Both are in carseats, so the back seat needs to comfortably fit two carseats. If it was possible for an adult to fit in the middle between the carseats, that would be nice, but is not essential.

The Setting: Suburban New Jersey (so yes, we will be driving in snow and ice).

The Usage: We will be driving in suburbia and small cities 90% of the time. Occasionally, we take a longer trip (6+ hours). The car will be used for a few short trips (3-20 minutes) each day.

The Flexible Factors: We are open to sedans, minivans, SUVs, hybrids... really anything that makes sense for our needs. I know that cars are a status symbol for many people, but that is not really important to us - any brand is fine. We also don't really care about having a new car every few years, unless there is a significant advantage to this (that is, we don't mind driving the same car for 8 years, provided it is still in safe working order).

The Limiting Factor: Cost is a major concern for us. We do not have a lot of money to put down initially (and no trade-in) - maybe $2500? Nor do we have a lot of money for monthly payments (maybe $300/month?).

So here are our questions:
A) Do you have a similar family and driving profile, and have a car you love? What is it?
B) Does it make more sense for us to buy or lease, given these circumstances? Why/how?
C) Do you have any tips for helping us find a good, straightforward deal on a car?

Sorry for the vague nature of this question. I'm happy to clarify points as needed, but truthfully, I'm not even sure what info would be helpful. I feel a little embarrassed by how little I know about this, and I don't want to seem like a total ignoramus at a car dealership...
posted by JubileeRubaloo to Shopping (47 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My vote (as someone who has almost none of the same requirements, so take it with a grain of salt): Subaru Outback, used.
posted by primethyme at 8:35 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

With kids, you want a minivan. Good combo of fuel efficiency and cargo. I know, minivan. Not cool. Just go with it.

Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey. Anything else is second place.

Don't worry about money down. Think instead of getting financing through a bank, and then going to a dealer with that info in hand.

Got Costco? Use their purchasing service, which pre-negotiates a fair price. Or Carmax, AAA, same thing.

Test drive your favorite, keep saying no to everything while test driving. Test drive the heck out of it. Keep saying no to whatever.

When you decide, call a dealer on the phone or email (or call Costco), ask for the fleet manager. Do everything by phone or email. Don't bother with the dealer runaround in the office.

Happy motoring!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:39 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

As a family in a similar situation, but with additional requirements for a dog, we're always very happy with a station wagon. The space is invaluable for those long trips, and for short stuff around town it's not any different to a sedan. Our car that we're very happy with is a diesel Skoda Octavia (which is basically a VW), but I have no idea about pricing or availability in the USA.

An SUV seems safer, but isn't really. And they are often surprisingly crap for rear luggage space. I don't think you need a minivan with kids that age, it'll be several years yet before you're needing to deal with soccer teams worth of kids.
posted by wilful at 8:45 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

We adore our Subaru Forester. We can fit sooooo much in it when we flip the seats down (like an entire assembled entertainment center) and all sorts of stuff when we're just using the back. It's very roomy for two large Midwesterners, so it's bound to be decent for two kids. It drives very smoothly, but it has a great car-like ride. It will run forever. It has a 4-cylinder engine but feels almost like a 6-cylinder because of the smoothness and solidity. On our block alone, I think there are at least three or four Foresters.

We've only had a kid for less than two months, but we can be kind of pack rats ;) We keep our stroller in the back and have a ton of room for groceries. Tons of cup holders.

We had a hard time finding just the right model for us; we didn't want the bare-bones basic model, and let's face it: everyone in our town either wants a Subaru or refuses to sell the one they have. (The guy we bought it from had a second one and intended to downsize to a single car, but changed his mind mid-sale and bought another one. He had two kids roughly around your kids' age and loved it.) We test-drove a bunch at the dealership and then bought one from Craigslist when we found one with the right combination of features.

posted by Madamina at 9:00 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Honda Fit is cheap to own and operate and has lots of room for a small car. A Toyota Prius is a bit more expensive but cheap to operate and has a bit more room. Both are reliable and comfortable for four adults, so fine for a family too.

Buy recently used or (especially this time of year) a prior-year new model.

Look at a Consumer Reports buying guide at your local library.
posted by akgerber at 9:26 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Honestly, if you have good credit, I would think (knowing nothing about finance, just having bought two cars) that you want to hit around $18,000 for a new car. Maybe a bit less. You can get more with a used car, but when I looked, interest rates seemed a bit higher. Not so much that it's a bad idea, just a note.

At that price, I'd look first at the Honda Fit (tiny, but an amazing value), Honda Civic (bigger, nicer, my favorite car), or Hyundai Elantra. The Elantra especially is a great car for families if you commit to traveling without needing everything you own. It's a trap that's easy to fall into with kids, but having been urban for a while, you're probably used to paring travel to the essentials.

I certainly don't begrudge anyone else their opinion, but it does always baffle me that people seem perfectly happy to spend thousands of dollars for cars that don't have much more to offer than the cars I've mentioned. It doesn't seem like much, the difference between $16,000 and $21,000, but $5,000 is actually a huge number that can make a difference. People seem to sometimes forget that.
posted by Pacrand at 9:28 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could consider the Mazda 5. It's like a small minivan with three rows of seats. It doesn't have power doors, but the doors aren't that heavy. You don't hear much about the Mazda 5, but it seems like it would fit your needs and still be affordable.

I have an Odyssey, and it's a wonderful car, but it's not a budget-friendly car. Even used Odysseys and Siennas (especially Siennas) are expensive.
posted by Ostara at 9:39 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

With kids, you want a minivan.

If you travel like an Everest expedition, perhaps.

You'll actually be fine with a no-hassle smaller car with good mileage and reliability, because you're not accustomed to the suburban practice of travelling with a small house's worth of stuff. Whenever you take one of those occasional long road trips, rent something bigger. It will feel expensive to do so, but less expensive than paying over time to put miles on more car than you need, and the kids will love the fact that they get a special car for those long trips.

For younger kids on short runs, you can actually get away with less space in the back seats in exchange for more boot space, because small people. Don't discount those small cars until you've tried them: a Fit or other small hatchback may actually work for you. If it doesn't, look at Civics or Corollas or Focuses or slightly-bigger Mazdas.
posted by holgate at 9:50 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need to budget for full insurance coverage. That adds to you monthly cost.
posted by jbenben at 9:58 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't normally like brand like kia or hyndai, but if you are planing on keeping the same car for a long time they tend to offer better warranties. I think 10 years/100,000 miles.
posted by WizKid at 10:10 PM on September 18, 2014

Best answer: What kind of car? I have a wife and a 7-year-old. We own a sub-compact hatchback. It's definitely possible to get by with a smaller car, and small cars are usually a lot cheaper to buy and own than minivans and large SUVs. You could get a relatively new small car for the same price as a much older large one. On the other hand, with two kids, cargo space is going to be important on those long trips.

Take a look at some compact cars (e.g. Honda Fit, Mazda3, Prius C, Ford Focus). If you can't imagine fitting all your stuff into them, then move up to wagons (e.g. Subaru Outback), small SUVs (Toyota RAV4), and minivans/crossovers (Mazda5).

For the record, our car is a 2006 Scion xA that we've been happy with for 8 years. They don't make this model anymore; the modern equivalent is a Scion xD or a Toyota Yaris. If I were buying a car today, it would probably be a similar car with slightly more interior space, maybe a Honda Fit or a Mazda3 hatchback.

Buy or lease? Buy. Leasing makes the most sense for people who want a new car every few years. It's also targeted at people whose mileage is within a certain expected range. This isn't you.

You may want to buy new or "certified pre-owned" from a dealer; it's not the absolute cheapest option but it gives a bit more peace of mind than buying a used car off of Craigslist. Buy a reliable new or used car and keep it as long as possible. Get pre-approved for a loan from your bank before going to any dealer. Shop for insurance online ahead of time; you'll need to buy insurance before you can drive a car off the lot.

How to buy? I second the recommendation to check Consumer Reports in your public library. In particular, they do a good job of highlighting cars that are reliable and have good safety ratings. They also have tips for how to find a good price, negotiate with dealers, etc. Edmunds is another good general reference. Note that most cars made in the past 3-4 years have some significant safety improvements over most older cars, and better gas mileage that might help make up for the increased cost versus an older car.

When I was in your position (buying my first car, knowing very little about cars), I didn't find test drives very useful because I didn't have much idea what I was looking for. I recommend buying a popular car that Consumer Reports recommends and that seems to be the right size and shape for your family. Do check in person or by searching online to make sure your kids' carseats will fit in any car you're considering. Enjoy your car! Drive it as long as you can, and by the time you're ready to buy your next car you'll have more specific ideas of what you want.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:39 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't recommend a minivan, though we have an old Honda Odyssey and loved it, because you aren't at the age of soccer teams and/or dance practices yet, and your resources are limited enough that you don't want to be spending so much money on gas right off the bat. You are not used to that (plus insurance and car upkeep) being a regular expense yet.

Plus, just a weird thing you may not have considered, but not all vehicles and houses go together, so what is your new place in the suburbs like? My sister once really wanted a Land Rover (I know, why? But she did) and it turned out the model was too tall to fit in her garage! Maybe you have a really steep driveway, narrow road and people parking on the sides, a cul de sac requiring a tight turning radius. Factor that stuff in to your decision.

The Honda a Fit is not going to be comfortable or roomy enough for two kids with car seats. Even if it were just the kids in the seats, that's a tight fit, but I'm a parent and though my kids have grown, I remember back to those days of strollers and diaper bags and toys followed by textbooks and science projects, and you are going to want more room.

I think you'll likely want a sedan to start with, either a Honda Civic (I have one and LOVE mine), Toyota Camry (very similar to Honda Civic) or a little larger even, like the size of a Honda Accord. Subaru also has some nice midrange cars; I am not as familiar with the latest offerings but remember last time I went car shopping I was concerned at the limited visibility out the rear window and the resulting blind spot, but if you go with a new car, it will likely have a backup camera now.

Honda and Toyota have a long history of reliability and customer satisfaction. Subaru--well, you either have a great experience or a terrible one with a Subaru. If the transmission doesn't go, it's all good, but that's their weakness and when a transmission goes it is beaucoup bucks to repair. Ask me how I know.

I don't, on the whole, recommend new cars for many people. The car depreciates from day one and you are generally paying too high to begin with unless you know how to negotiate really well. In your case, though, as someone who plans to keep it for a good while and has limited cash going in, a new car with a good warranty, best safety features for the kids and regular monthly payments you can budget for might be your best bet. You aren't used to maintaining and servicing a car, and a used car would need more maintenance, too.

So, if you do go new:
Don't lease the car. It's like pouring half your money down the drain.
Look into financing ahead of time with your bank or credit union. Sometimes the dealerships have good deals, but know your options. Do not let the dealership just strong arm you into taking their financing!
You are going to want to buy a car on your first trip to the first dealership you visit. You will have to bring the kids or get a sitter, and you won't want to run all around town, so you'll just want it done already. I understand. Everyone feels this way. But that is the worst strategy going in. You need to have a really good idea of what each car you are considering is worth.
So, Kelly Blue Book. That is your a Bible. You go online, look at a few models, figure out the ones you like and the options you cannot live without, and you enter it all in to get an accurate assessment of what you should reasonably expect to pay in your area. Then you are ready to face the dealerships!
Test drive. Play one dealership against another. If you really do only have a day, that's not optimal, but you can still get a good deal if you know what you want and what it should cost.
posted by misha at 10:40 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, and Edmund's is similar to the Blue Book. Either will work for you.
posted by misha at 10:54 PM on September 18, 2014

WizKid: "I don't normally like brand like kia or hyndai, but if you are planing on keeping the same car for a long time they tend to offer better warranties. I think 10 years/100,000 miles."

I think it's worth noting that the warranty can specify a huge length of coverage, but if the manufacturer directs its dealerships to fight every warranty claim tooth and nail, you're probably not going to get satisfactory service unless you have the ability to go to court over it and you document the hell out of your usage and service records.

I've never owned a Hyundai or Kia, so I could very easily be totally wrong, but I've heard from people who have owned them who have been shafted by the dealership with a simple, "Really? Prove it's a factory defect." And even if you can, they do a half-assed job at best, leaving you with an unreliable car. As I've said before many times on Mefi, there is a reason why they sell those cars so cheaply.

Don't want to scare you, and, again, I could be totally wrong, but I'd stay away from those brands.

As far as what brand to recommend, it appears to be a total crap shoot. Fords tend to burst into flames, GMs tend to shut off the ignition at even highway speeds, Toyota has floormat and unintended acceleration issues, and Honda has had loads of recalls as well.

Best of luck to you and your family.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:22 AM on September 19, 2014

I have to present a counterpoint to mbrubeck above who suggested the Toyota Yaris - we were the unfortunate renters of one last weekend. Cargo space is practically nil - we had two rollaboard suitcases and two tech backpacks with us, and we had to press down on the hatchback with all of our weight to get it to shut. Mr. Kouti and I are not tall people (he's 5'7, I'm 5'0), and with us in the front seats, there was not enough space for our tech backpacks to sit on the floor in the back seats. No way are you getting two car seats and three adults in that car. And it feels like you're driving a tin can.

(OTOH, we've been happy with our early 2000s Camry, though we'll be in the market to replace it soon, and we're trying to figure out if we should go small, medium (another Camry/Honda Accord/similar), or big (Sienna/Odyssey/etc), anticipating a growing family in the near future. Renting the Yaris confirmed we are most certainly not going small.)

(FWIW I agree with the rest of mbrubeck's advice. Just not the Yaris.)
posted by Pandora Kouti at 1:02 AM on September 19, 2014

I bought my Subaru Forester when my needs were very similar to yours. At that time, my overriding concern was staying safe while driving in snow and ice and Subaru's have all-wheel drive so it was perfect for that reason. Like Madamina, I bought mine in a location that was very Subaru positive so I had a lot of choices. I've had it for nearly 15 years and it still works fine (and I don't do regular maintenance like I should). Although someone above stated they didn't think a test drive would be helpful, it did help us decide between two options because we brought our car seat and stroller with us to see how they would fit in the cars and to see if the main driver would fit comfortably (his is 6'2''and needed to make sure his head didn't hit the top of the car).

posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad at 2:27 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Generally, you'll get most bang for your buck if you purchase a late model secondhand car, i.e. 1-2 years old. The typical car loses 30% of its value in the first month.
posted by Georgina at 3:07 AM on September 19, 2014

I've never owned a Hyundai or Kia, so I could very easily be totally wrong, but I've heard from people who have owned them who have been shafted by the dealership with a simple, "Really? Prove it's a factory defect." And even if you can, they do a half-assed job at best, leaving you with an unreliable car. As I've said before many times on Mefi, there is a reason why they sell those cars so cheaply.

I have a Hyundai, and never had a problem getting things fixed under warranty. Of course, you need to keep up with the maintenance and not abuse the car; any manufacturer is going to fight you on warranty claims if, for example, you come in with a blown engine at 50,000 miles and haven't changed the oil in the past 20,000. Or if you come in with a bad wheel bearing and you've replaced the original 14" wheels with 20" donk wheels. And the idea that they do a half-assed job on warranty repairs versus things you're paying for out-of-pocket has not been my experience at all.

These kinds of issues really have to do with the individual dealers rather than the brand. I used to take my car to a Hyundai dealer with a sleazy service department, and dumped them for one that's very professional. But I also have friends with Hondas and VW's who have complained about sleazy service departments that routinely try to rip them off on unnecessary service (the infamous throttle-body cleaning, e.g.), so again, this is really a dealer-by-dealer thing than a brand thing, in my experience.

I wouldn't hesitate to check out the Elantra. I think it would fit your needs well, and you could probably get one that's a few years old with low mileage for a good price. Hyundais depreciate fast, which is lousy if you're buying new, but great if you're buying used.
posted by Leatherstocking at 4:51 AM on September 19, 2014

> Generally, you'll get most bang for your buck if you purchase a late model secondhand car, i.e. 1-2 years old. The typical car loses 30% of its value in the first month.

It depends on the local market, but when we were car shopping in the U.S. two years ago, that equation did not apply. First there was a dearth of late model used cars, and the used cars available had very high mileage. We ended up buying a new car, since there was so little difference in price between a new car and a 1-2 year old used car, especially with the insane miles on the ones available locally. And we are in a relatively large metropolitan area where people drive a wide range of car makes and models. (Oh, we ended up going with a Subaru Impreza.)
posted by needled at 4:51 AM on September 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you know nothing about cars & are about to be driving your kids around in the snow, I would 2nd, or 3rd or 5th some kinda subaru. They're decently fuel efficient, good in the snow, and everyone I know that has one (form car nerds to single moms) loves it. I really like the looks of the newish crosstrek but don't know anyone that has one yet.

Regardless of what you get, I would suggest getting winter tires. People will say it doesn't really matter if you have an AWD car, but the people who say that have never used snow tires. All wheel drive doesn't help you stop. And really, snow tires are essentially free if you plan on keeping the car for a while, and here's why:

1) If you find a good local garage & buy them there, they should swap them in the spring and fall for free. Our garage even stores the unused sets for us, for free. So twice a year (with your oil change or something) they just swap the tires and thats that.

2) While you're using the snows, the summer tires don't get any miles on them. And vice versa. So you have to pay more now to get equipped with snow tires, but both the snows and the summers last longer because you don't use either of them for the full year.

They are worth it.

Also, ask your local friends/family to ask their local friends & family if they know of a good honest mechanic or shop. Ask them if they would recommend the shop to their mom. When you decide on a car to buy, pay the mechanic to go over the car & tell you if he has any concerns.

Cars are great, good luck.
posted by duckstab at 4:55 AM on September 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Duckstab just saved me 10 minutes of typing re snow tires.

The truth is, though, that living in NJ, and not having a daily long commute (if I read your requirements correctly), you won't be driving in conditions that demand AWD more than once or twice a year, and those days, you will probably want to stay home. Much more common are days when you get freezing rain, or a thin coat of snow, and I've seen plenty of AWD vehicles spun out because their drivers thought AWD = magic immunity to WINTER. It ain't so. There's nothing wrong with a Subaru, but you'll be fine with a Honda or Toyota with good snow tires.

Also, a point about new vs used: these days, you can expect a new car to go about 150,000 miles. The first 50K it will be new, and all you will do is fill it with gas and change the oil. The next 50K, things will begin to wear out (first the tires, then brakes, then maybe the muffler), and so will cost some money & require occasional trips to the garage, but once fixed, the car will still be solid and drive well. The last 50K, major systems will begin to break down, but gradually. Repairs will be more frequent and expensive, but if you are an accountant, you will still calculate that the car is worth repairing. As the suspension in particular wears, the car will begin to feel old, and you will begin not to trust it as much, especially at highway speeds. So depending on your personality and income, you may want to sell at around 100K. The other side of the equation is age, in years. The reason I don't think you need AWD is that in the Northeast they salt the hell out of the roads in winter. This means that there's a good chance your car will begin having serious rust problems before it otherwise wears out. Depending on your driving patterns, you might be able to buy a two year old car with 50K miles, put on another 50K in eight years, and come out ahead vs a new car. But you'll miss the 50K honeymoon of not even thinking about repairs.

You do not want a lease. You probably have seen the ads with preposterously low monthly rates: read the fine print to see the buy-backs and restrictions. These are just a come-on. Owning is cheaper.
posted by mr vino at 5:20 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

As for financing & buying:

If you have a credit union, they often give pretty good rates. When I bought my last car, the dealer quoted me a rate, I said I'd talk to my credit union, then the dealer immediately quoted me a lower rate. I talked to my credit union, got an even lower rate, brought it back to the dealer & they found an even lower rate. The dealer will try to hide total cost including financing, and instead focus on low monthly payments and low money down. But you probably don't want to be paying for this car for the next 7 years, so make sure to look at the bottom line. Google "dealership foursquare" for more info.

If you end up buying new, it's a little bit easier because if you don't like the salesman's shoes, there's another dealer across town with the exact same car but their salesmen aren't wearing such stupid looking shoes.

Even buying used though, there's a lot of similar cars out there unless you have your heart set on a specific model from a specific year in a specific color with specific options. Don't let the dealer push you around, be prepared to walk. There's probably a better car on a lot down the street.

Maybe pretend to be interested in a couple cars that you have no intention of buying, just to get some experience with the whole process, and with saying no to the salesperson. Might take the edge off when you find one you do want to buy.
posted by duckstab at 5:21 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

We've been pretty happy with the Prius V. It's a little longer than the standard Prius, so there's a few more inches of legroom in the back set that accommodates the car seats nicely. Still gets 45-47 mpg on the regular, and the base model is in the low to mid $20s. We looked at similarly sized hatchbacks like the Outback etc, but they were similarly priced and got half the gas mileage.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 5:30 AM on September 19, 2014

Go to CarMax. Sit in a bunch of cars; front seat and back seat. Find out if your head hits the ceiling, or your knee hits the dash. Bring a car seat and see how it fits.

The cars will be organized by general type, so you can look at a bunch of small cars, sedans, a few wagons, etc.

Test drive a few. If you don't like the color you can shop online and bring in one from out of town (but test drive it too).

The good news is that mid-size cars are generally the best all-around car the given manufacturer has ever made. You'll be OK.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:48 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: Obviously you'll want to chat with a credit union and use more exact numbers, but assuming a 3% interest rate (you can do better, but I want to be pessimistic), borrowing $17,000 for a five year term gets you to right around your $300 target. You can borrow less and shorten the term, or more and stretch the term, but that gives you a sense of scale at least. Add in your $2500, and remember that you will have to pay tax, title, and other licensing fees (which vary enormously by state, so ignore any non-local examples) and you might be looking for cars that sell for about $17,000, plus or minus a thousand. Playing with a basic car loan calculator will tell you a lot, and don't forget to add insurance (which can vary considerably by model -- run the models you are considering past your agent to check prices).

Generally, you'll get most bang for your buck if you purchase a late model secondhand car, i.e. 1-2 years old. The typical car loses 30% of its value in the first month.

I'm not sure that advice holds well at the lower end of the market any more (I think it still does for more expensive cars, though). My interpretation is that for cheaper cars (under $25k at least, maybe a bit more) the used and the new markets are increasingly disconnected. People with good credit and options are able to buy new at very low interest rates, and everyone else who can't qualify for those promo rates are locked into the used market. With that captive market (and lingering effects at the bottom end from Cash for Clunkers) prices are staying high for late model used cars, even with high miles. Your experience may vary considerably and there are definitely deals to be had, but it's not as simple as just looking used and seeing huge discounts.

Regarding the test driving, I think the most important will be for you to bring the car seats (borrow some if you need to) and test fit them. Especially with rear-facing seats, in some vehicles there just isn't enough room.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 AM on September 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally, you'll get most bang for your buck if you purchase a late model secondhand car, i.e. 1-2 years old. The typical car loses 30% of its value in the first month.

People harp on this (okay, my brother in law does) but it doesn't always seem to be the case, at least for Hondas and Toyotas, anymore. (They're the only makes I researched in my own recent car-buying process.) As far as I could tell, the 2014 Civics were barely more on average than the 2011-2013's I looked at. I admit, however, that Hondas and Toyotas might hold their value much better and not be typical, given all the bargain Asian cars on the market like Hyundais and Kias these days. In any case, just a data point that buying a new 2014 Civic earlier this year was actually the best deal for me.
posted by aught at 6:16 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

We had a similar experience with the Prius. There was a price drop for cars maybe 3-4 years old or ones that had 50k miles or so, but 1-2 year old cars were virtually the same price.

Seconding taking a car seat with you. Rear facing car seats take up a lot of real estate, and it will eliminate a lot of the smaller cars from your list.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 6:19 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: C) Do you have any tips for helping us find a good, straightforward deal on a car?

Oh and as others have mentioned, steel yourself to withstand the high-pressure soft and hard-sell blitz that will hit you when you test drive. This is absolutely the worst.

Because you do have to test drive a number of makes and models to find the one you like best, but doing so will require exposing yourself every time to both your new bestest buddy with the plaintive eyes who would never steer you wrong and why would you go anywhere else so don't you really want to buy this car today, and then his hard-ass manager who will make you feel like the kid in the principal's office trying to cut a deal, any deal, just to get the hell out of there alive -- ignore everything the sales jerks say other than their bottom line offer, stay strong in your resolve to decide in your own time rather than on the spot, base your decision on the total cost of the car and not the monthly payment (they will always try to go there -- "So, how much can you folks afford a month?") -- do your own research on safety, average cost in your area, and evaluate the cars based on your reactions to the test drive.

Some places will let you test drive on your own without the sales dude in the car -- go for that if you can; three out of four dealerships we went to let us do this. Don't ever let them make you feel like you owe them a quick deal for the "favor" of letting you test drive the car.

I'm still old school enough to fall on the "buy" side of the buy/lease dilemma, but I have to admit this time more than ever before I was tempted by the lease deals. I think the tipping point there lies in all the charges above and beyond the attractive monthly payment -- make sure you thoroughly understand those when you compare costs, especially if you drive more than average miles per year, or drive hard or in an area where the weather is hard on the car.
posted by aught at 6:29 AM on September 19, 2014

Do not lease. No. Do not. Bad bad bad. Seems cheaper but will cost you lots in the end. No.

We're in almost the exact same spot and my plan has been to go on all the various major car company sites and click on "Find Certified Pre-Owned Inventory" and set my price limit to something reasonable like 10-15k and see what we can get. Looks like a 3-5 year old Honda CRV, Subaru something, or Jetta Wagon is your best bet.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:34 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: I used to sell new cars for a living, I've had both immediate and extended family in the car business for as long as I can remember. Take a look at my previous ask.me answers and you'll see tons of useful car buying advice.

That said, I have some thoughts more specific to you.

First thing, if you don't care about having a new car every three years or so, do not lease, buy. Furthermore, it almost never makes sense to buy a new car. It's just a huge waste of money and your budget is pretty much going to force into something used if you want anything other than a compact car (like the Honda Fit). You'll want to look for a two-ish year old (a little older would be good too) lease return or trade-in (or buy from a private party) but rental returns are also a good value. They'll have slightly higher miles compared to other cars of the same age but they're impeccably maintained.

Without having owned a car before you won't really have an preferences and lots of different people with a family like yours buy lots of different kinds of cars to meet similar needs. Some will put a priority on fuel efficiency and value and buy something small like a Honda Fit. Others like the added height of a small SUV both for better visibility and because it makes dealing with the car seats easier. Some people are very active and/or take lots of road trips so they'll get something with more cargo space like the Subaru Outback or a minivan. You'd also probably be just fine with a mid-size sedan (Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, etc.). There are a lot of good suggestions here on what types of vehicles to look at and why and that should help narrow the field.

If I were you, the first thing I would do is go someplace that has all the different types of cars (don't worry too much about specific makes/models yet) so that you can put the car seats in them, look at how much space is in them, sit in the seats, etc. Bring the kids so you can try getting them situated if that's feasible. Your goal is to narrow things down to small SUVs, minivans, sedans, compacts, wagons/crossovers, etc. The test drive is totally optional at this point but you might find out that, for example, you really like the higher ride height of an SUV or minivan or you might decide that you hate how big and top heavy they feel.

Once you've got it narrowed down a little edmunds.com has a TON of great info on specific models. VERY generally speaking, you can't go wrong with a Honda, Toyota, or Mazda. Honda and Toyota specifically have a well-earned reputation for having bullet-proof reliability and Mazda isn't far behind. Most other makes are a little hit-or-miss and it often comes down to the specific model. Chrysler makes about the best value in a minivan and they are reasonably reliable but a lot of their other models are junk, as an example. Hyundia/Kia are a terrific value and while they might not be as reliable Honda or Toyota, they're not all that far off.

Once you've got it narrowed down to a handful of models that will work on paper, you'll probably just need to go out and drive them all, back-to-back and on the same roads if you can, and just pick the one that you like the most. I can tell both from data and from personal experience that a LOT of people end up buying a car based on the salesperson they like the most. It's often subconscious to try to keep that bias in mind and stay objective. As long as you get a decent deal, you'll be a lot happier in the long-run if you buy the car that you like the most even if you hate the salesperson than if you find out later you didn't really like the car but the salesperson seemed more trustworthy (though there is no reason you can't find both).

Don't be shy about asking questions, don't be afraid to be interested in a car, or doing whatever you need to do to test out the car. A car salespersons job is to remove all the obstacles and objections that you have to buying a car until you buy one. They'll be on-board with pretty much anything that facilitates that.

This is quickly turning into a novel so I'll cut things off here. If you have any other questions feel free to memail me or post it here.
posted by VTX at 6:44 AM on September 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

My kids are the same age as yours and there is absolutely no reason to talk yourself into a station wagon, SUV, minivan, or crossover.

We have a Mazda 3 that we bought after extensive research, but the other cars in its class (Hyundai Accent, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla) are very similar.

There's plenty of room in the back of the Mazda for two car seats and for me (I'm 5'11", over 200 lbs) to still fit comfortably in the driver or passenger seat.
posted by 256 at 6:46 AM on September 19, 2014

Lots of great advice here as usual. One car I'm surprised nobody has mentioned is the VW Tiguan. I drove many of the cars recommended here before I bought mine new in 2009 and have nothing bad to say about it. The other cars I looked at, like the Civic, Mazda 3 & 5, RAV4 & Camry all seemed cheap or very ordinary by comparison. I love Subarus and have enjoyed quite a few of them, but recent models are very expensive in AU and have poor fuel economy compared to the Tig.

Rear seat room is huge and very comfortable apparently. The AWD system is outstanding and it drives extremely well in everything from snow to sand. They have one of the highest safety ratings a car can get (in AU) and have far more airbags than I ever hope to need. All the automatic stuff, which I assume would be the same in the US models - handbrake, wipers, lights - works surprisingly well and it cost only a bit more than a Mazda 3, which wasn't in the same class at all in terms of finish and features.

The only criticism I've heard levelled at them, and this may be an issue for you, is that they're considered to have not much storage space in the back. I don't find this a problem, but you may with a couple of little kids. I would nonetheless have a look at them if I were you.

Otherwise, nthing don't lease, don't buy new unless recent 2nd hand models are similar in price and maybe think about employing someone to buy it for you so you don't have to deal with car sales people.
posted by mewsic at 6:48 AM on September 19, 2014

Oh, a quick word on snow and ice from a Minnesotan where we know a thing or two about driving in winter.

You need at least front-wheel-drive (FWD) rather than rear-wheel-drive (RWD). Almost every car that you could buy will be FWD so this isn't a big deal. All-wheel-drive (AWD) is nice to have and makes getting up some hills and getting moving. BUT it will not make the car stop faster and, without getting too technical, changes the vehicle dynamics a bit (less under-steer vs. FWD) when things get slippery that can take some practice to get used to (though vehicle dynamic control and traction control tend to help some with this).

The single most important factor in how well any car drives through cold, snow, and ice is the tires. If at all possible, you'll want to buy a set of dedicated winter tires for the cold months (and optionally an extra set of wheels to mount them on). I'd take a FWD car with winter tires over an AWD car with all-season tires any (winter) day, even if it's just cold out and even more so if there is snow or ice.
posted by VTX at 7:06 AM on September 19, 2014

Another tip: bring your stroller(s). Find out how well they fit in the trunk, and how much space you'll have left.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:27 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I won't pile on in the "what kind of car do we want" derby.

But I would say don't lease. I leased my last car and it was not a great experience. For one thing, it pretty much squares the complexity of every interaction you have with your local DMV. I eventually bought out the car at the end of the lease and am still trying to get the title moved over to my name. I have NEVER gotten ANYTHING done with this car in one trip to the DMV. It invariably takes at least two trips, usually a couple weeks apart as I try to get paperwork out of the leasing bank. It complicated my taxes. It made me keep careful track of my mileage and at one point changes in my life threatened to force me way over my predetermined mileage and expose me to huge end of lease fees. So do not lease. Not worth it.

What I'd do if I was you is go to Carmax. They have fixed prices so you won't have to deal with negotiations in an area you're unfamiliar with. Their typical car is coming out of a lease so it's about three years old, with pretty reasonable mileage. They also, in my experience do a pretty good job of making sure their cars are up to spec mechanically. My previous car I had gotten through them and that was a breeze. Went in and wrote a check and boom. Great car. Served me well until I got a swelled head and decided I wanted a much nicer car that I was going to lease to cut down on the up-front cost. (Again, do not lease.)

If you're going to finance, shop around. These days the banks are all about car loans. Much more than they used to be. Turns out the default rate on car loans is a fraction that of mortgages, so banks are all over that business these days, and you don't have to get shoehorned into your dealer's loan company.

Good luck, and don't lease.
posted by Naberius at 9:21 AM on September 19, 2014

We were in pretty much the same boat as you years ago (like, 1985!), with two kids and an imminent move from the city to the suburbs. We also knew NOTHING about cars. I did not even have a driver's license.

We ended up with a Subaru Impreza, and loved it. I still miss that car. (After ten years, we moved back to the city and sold the Subaru. We didn't want to have to pay for parking, and public transportation is all we really need here.)
posted by merejane at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2014

Scion xB? It's made by Toyota, it's pretty spacious inside, and it's only $19k new so it should be within your budget.

I've driven the same Scion xB for 8 years. No mechanical problems at all, and I can haul 4 adults or a load of lumber or all my gear and my dog for backpacking trips. And I've probably spent 75% less than my friends who insist on having fancier cars and upgrading regularly.

I think you will find it surprisingly hard to find a low-mileage used car within your budget from a reputable dealer. The days of used cars being a substantial savings are long gone.
posted by miyabo at 10:04 AM on September 19, 2014

You will need to budget for gas and insurance. Back in the $4 gas days I had an unfortunate commute (50 mins each way) and was spending $400 a month on gas alone, and there was also slightly increased maintenance costs from things like changing the oil more often.

I would look for an old Honda or Nissan. Not just used, but old, like from the mid aughts. If something basic happens, like the headlamp goes out, always look on youtube or elsewhere on the internet to see if its easy to get to before taking it to a mechanic. Often those little things are quite easy to do yourself for about 10-20$ but I'm always amazed by how many people take their car to a mechanic for every.little.thing without even trying to see if its a cheap easy fix.

(I drive a 98 Honda CRV and just reached 200k miles.)
posted by WeekendJen at 10:09 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, not sure if you are aware of this, but insurance will be REALLY expensive if you have no recent driving history. I pay in advance for 6 months (cheaper), and my first 6 months were over $1000. After driving for a while and not getting any accidents, it decreased to about half that.
posted by miyabo at 10:22 AM on September 19, 2014

We have one kid and are planning for a second in a few years, and when we recently bought a second car (our first is a 2006 Honda Civic 4-door sedan) we went the Subaru Outback. The Civic was great when it was just two adults living in a city, but it was annoyingly small with a car seat wedged in the center back seat and could haul almost nothing, which wasn't a big deal when we bought all our furniture at IKEA but became very annoying when we couldn't even do a proper Home Depot run because the trunk space was so limited.

I'm not sure what car seats other people have that two can comfortably fit in the back of a Honda Civic, but just one car seat has been a squeeze for us in terms of having to move the driver and passenger side seats forward. I love our Civic but I don't think it's necessarily a great car if you have two kids and are moving into a house, which is going to entail all sorts of buying large things and transporting them home that you don't have to deal with when you're in an apartment in the city. (True story: we could not fit a rake we purchased into the Civic without folding the back seats down, which was impossible with a car seat installed, so we had to return the rake. Grr.)

So buy, don't lease, and don't underestimate the size of car you'll need if you're buying a house in the suburbs. Good winter tires will be more than sufficient for any winter driving (our Civic can get up steep, unpaved, snow/ice-packed mountain roads with snow tires and it has a tiny engine and no AWD). Subarus are awesome but if you go with a sedan rather than a station wagon (which is totally what the Outback is) I'd highly recommend getting something with a hatchback rather than regular trunk. My brother's hatchback Prius is a way more functional car than our similarly-sized Civic.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:20 AM on September 19, 2014

The best advice I got when shopping for a new car to fit my kids and their car seats, when my family outgrew my since-college tiny sedan, was to rent the car for a long weekend and try it out with the kids and the carseats. We rented it over a weekend we were visiting my parents, so we got to try it on a longer highway drive back and forth and then on a bunch of in-town driving during the visit, which was good, but renting the car, trying it out, seeing how the carseats fit in the car, how hard it was to get the kids in and out -- that was all really crucial stuff that's hard to figure out with just a test drive. So narrow down to a few choices, do some test drives, and the rent your top choice for a weekend. Go buy groceries. Take both kids to the park. Drive it with one person in it (lightweight! Easy handling!) and everyone in it (longer braking distance!).

I ended up with a Mazda 5, which I unreservedly love as a micro-minivan for an urban setting. It's barely longer than my compact sedan was (although harder to parallel park as the wheels are farther apart) and gets great gas mileage. Normally I use it as a four-seater and keep the third row folded flat for hauling groceries and strollers and luggage, but when people visit from out-of-town I move the kids' carseats into the third row and we carry four adults and two kids no problem.

BTW, as a result of renting to test the car, we found out you can buy used cars from rental companies, which is what I ended up doing; we got an excellently-maintained 2-year-old car for about 25% off bluebook just for the stigma of it having been "a rental." It had a few dings in the paint, which I couldn't care less about as I have preschoolers who throw basketballs at it, but the mechanicals were perfect. I may never buy a car another way again and am happy to talk about it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:50 PM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, don't lease.

I've bought three vehicles in my life, and each time it's been a Certified Pre-Owned Honda, and I've been very happy with all three of them. (FYI, they were: 2001 Civic, 2009 Odyssey, 2010 Odyssey. See if you can spot where we had two kids, and where a distracted driver totalled our minivan.)

I suggest you narrow your options, get a car loan pre-approved at your credit union, go to the dealership as a cash buyer near the end of the month, decline every extra add-on, and resign yourself to not getting the very best possible price.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2014

I agree about Hondas & Toyotas; have owned both and been happy. My recent cars -
Used Honda Odyssey mini-van - handles like a minivan, i.e., not terribly well. lots of space, doubles as a camper for me. would seat 7 or 8 with all the seats. 24-25 mpg. In winter, use snow tires. It came with a dvd player and monitor for the middle row of seats - haven't used it. have driven for a year with zero problems.
Used Honda Civic Hybrid - great car, room for 4, adequate in snow w/snow tires, fabulous mileage. drove it for 2 years, needed a new A/C compressor at 10 years old.
Used Toyota RAV4 - pretty good mileage, so fun to drive, great in snow, and plenty of room. Kind of wish I still had it, but it got totaled. drove it for 7 years with not a huge amount of expense.

My last many cars have been quite used. 8 - 10 years old when I got them. I have bought used cars from a dealer and from individuals. Take any used car to a mechanic for a checkup, even ones from dealers. This will save you heartache. With 2 kids, you can't be stranded, but cars have really gotten quite reliable, though I feel uneasy typing it out loud. With used cars, I pay less in excise taxes and insurance, and I don't worry about a tiny ding or the dog tracking in dirt. Older used cars don't have a usb charger for the phone, or connection for iPad to stereo.

Things to consider: mileage, reliability, room, roof rack for bikes?, height (cars w/ greater clearance off the ground are better in snow), headroom if someone is tall, hatchback vs. trunk, need for traction in snow (there is no such thing as traction on ice unless you have studded tires). I recommend something like the Subaru Forrester, Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV, which are like station wagons, but taller. Bigger than a sedan, smaller than a minivan.
posted by theora55 at 1:29 PM on September 19, 2014

I can't add much that hasn't been said by previous commenters.

However, I bought my absolutely loaded 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe brand new. I love the vehicle, with one huge exception. It's an exception that would keep me from buying another Hyundai.

The interior materials in this SUV are far and away the worst of any vehicle I've ever owned. The leather seating surfaces look worse after two years than the ones in my prior vehicle, a 2002 Ford Escape, looked after 10 years. The matte silver interior trim seems to scratch even you even look sideways at it.

The surface of the "fake leather looking interior appointments" from the dashboard to the console is finished in such a way that even using the recommended cleaning products seems impossible to clean without leaving streaks, and is almost a little abrasive, so forget about using any kind of wipes, paper towels, etc. without leaving residue.

My long winded point is that unless something has changed recently, I think hauling young kids around much in a Hyundai is going to leave you with a pretty ratty looking interior early on.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:17 PM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: Here is my patented advice for buying a car.

I can personally recommend the Honda Civic. I love mine. Husbunny has a Fit, and the bonus there is the great head room and how easy it is to configure for different things. It's a hatchback! It's a van! It's a flying saucer!

I've purchased cars from Enterprise rent a car and I've had good experiences with them. So if you want a deal on a used car, it's a no-haggle experience.

Good luck! May you enjoy your car for years to come!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:11 PM on September 19, 2014

I drive a Mazda 3 (sedan, not hatchback). It is a small car, with pretty decent trunk space. 90% of the time, it is just me in the car, and it works great for that. I get good gas mileage (40 hwy/35 city), and it is reasonably comfortable. My kid (at 11) is well out of carseats, but I cannot imagine fitting two carseats in the back of that thing and getting kids in and out of the back doors easily. It is also not really comfortable for American-sized adults in the back.

But my best friend (with two kids, one in a booster, one out of carseats) drives a Mazda 5, and it is a great option to consider. It is small on the outside but really roomy on the inside. I holds a lot of stuff and a lot of people without being a land yacht like the traditional minivans (Sienna, Odyssey). We have had 4 Madzas, and currently own 2, and find them very reliable, enjoyable to drive, and a good value for the price.

I'm pretty wary of recommendations for compact cars for a family of 4 with small children (which includes the Mazda 3 and their competitors). I'm extremely dubious about recommendations for subcompacts (Yaris, Fit, etc.).
posted by jeoc at 8:48 PM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have two kids about the age of yours and a Honda Fit. Love the car in general, but it's a bit of a squeeze with two car seats (no way could you get a third person in there), and having two car seats limits the flexibility of the cargo space. (It's still great when you don't have to have the kids in the car.) We borrowed a minivan for our annual long road trip, but grin and bear it for shorter weekend trips. Kids seem to have a lot of stuff. :) It's my husband's daily driver, but I don't know if it would work as our only car. Definitely do take car seats to any test drive and see how they fit in any model you look at. We will probably replace my ancient Saturn with a Mazda 5 or similar, just so we have a bit more breathing room.
posted by percolatrix at 6:02 AM on September 20, 2014

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