How on earth do people figure out what car to buy??
April 13, 2015 2:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a new (to me) car. I've looked at old AskMes and googled, but still have a lot of questions on how to determine which car to buy and how best to buy it. Would greatly appreciate your help!

We have 2 cars currently, a 2004 VW Passat and a 2004 Honda Odyssey. We are looking to replace the Passat, and I need help navigating all the options out there. My requirements:

- Great commuter car. We have the mini-van for family trips, so while I want this car to be able to fit our family of 5 + dog for quick excursions, this car will primarily be used by me for my commute. Space is nice but not a primary concern. I want good MPG and would love an environmentally friendly / hybrid / electric car if it makes sense financially. My commute is mostly highway + city; I'm guessing I either go around 50-60mph or am in stop-and-go traffic.
- Low maintenance + longevity. Although I like to drive fast, I am happy to forgo snazziness in favor of less finicky maintenance (this is where the Passat failed!). We tend to keep our cars for at least 10 years.
- Good in winter weather. I don't need it to be a tank, but I live in CT so have to drive in snow in the winter. I've heard that low winter temperatures were an issue for hybrid vehicles in the past; is this still the case?
- Inexpensive. In case it's not clear already, I am not really a car person and mostly only care that it gets me from point A to point B reliably. I say mostly because I do have some aesthetic preferences - I don't like very boxy cars, for example, and I'd love to get a color I actually like, but these are far down the priority list. My preference is to buy a 2-3 year-old pre-owned and certified (see low maintenance point above) car, but can do new if that makes more sense financially.

Models I'm considering:
- Honda Fit: Based on some of the previous AskMes, I've been looking at the Fit, which does look pretty good (we like Hondas a lot - when we replace the Odyssey we'll probably get a Pilot), although there are very few used options available via dealerships near me, and none of the dealerships currently offer any incentives on the Fit. It seems like the Fit has a pretty decent resale value, though, so perhaps with a lower financing rate the new car is worth it in this case?
- Mini Cooper: Not convinced it's a good fit for me - new is definitely too expensive, and it looks a bit finicky?
- Toyota Prius C: Looks like it could be an option - does anyone here have any experience with the C model?
- Subaru Impreza: Have heard mixed reviews but don't have any personal experiences.
- Any others I should be considering?

I have not test-driven any of these yet - I would like to narrow down the options a bit and be more knowledgeable before I go to the dealerships. Honestly, I find the whole car buying experience overwhelming, and as a non-car-enthusiast woman, I feel like I have a giant Sucka! sign on my back when I deal with the salespeople. (What I really want is an advocate - I would totally pay someone a couple hundred bucks to advise me on this and then go with me to the dealership to negotiate... Are there any services like this?)

Thank you for your help!
posted by widdershins to Shopping (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Consider a Passat TDI. The QA problems VW had in the early 2000s are a thing of the past. I fit 5 people into mine, easily, while getting 50 mpg on the highway.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:29 PM on April 13, 2015

Mini Cooper is right out. Too small and not very reliable.
posted by spitbull at 2:31 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Honda Fit does not do well in crash tests. I have a Scion xB that I have best to death and it runs great after 150k miles. Plus, Scions are sold at a haggle-free price and easy to buy.
posted by 4ster at 2:39 PM on April 13, 2015

The Honda HRV is due out in the next couple of months and will apparently fall in the food chain in between the Honda Fit and the Honda CRV. It will have the same magic seat arrangement as the Fit for good storage, the right number of seats, etc. However it's a brand new model so no chance to buy used. Still, might be worth a look if you can wait that long.
posted by instead of three wishes at 2:44 PM on April 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just my two cents here -- I have a Subaru Impreza and I love it - so do the dogs! It's got AWD, it's safe and good on gas. When the seats are lied down for the dogs, the cargo area seems cavernous!
posted by ATX Peanut at 2:49 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

I hit post too soon!

When I bought my Impreza, I was nervous about the whole car buying process. I was dreading going to the dealership and talking to a slimy salesman (the last time I bought a car in 1995 (my Jeep), the guy was wearing snake-skin boots, which was very fitting if you catch my drift). I actually bought my Subie over the internet! I looked up Subaru dealers in Texas, found the car with the features I wanted and contacted the dealership and they assigned me a salesman. We worked out a deal via email and phone calls and they brought the car up from Houston for me (I live in Austin)! It was a great car buying experience! I highly recommend Subaru.
posted by ATX Peanut at 2:57 PM on April 13, 2015

Passat TDI
If thats to big or you need more flexible loading space: Jetta Wagon TDI
posted by Mac-Expert at 2:59 PM on April 13, 2015

If I were me (which, funny enough, I am), out of the list you present, I'd buy the Mini. But I really don't think it's a good choice for you given your criteria. Its main selling points are that it looks cute and (if you get the right one) it's at least kinda fun to drive. But neither of those are things you value highly. I'd probably recommend the Subaru. Everyone I know who has one loves it.
posted by primethyme at 3:00 PM on April 13, 2015

Our last new car was bought via the Costco automotive program; no haggling and we seem to have gotten a decent-enough deal. Prior to that, I bought a car by emailing dealers selling the car I wanted and played their offers back and forth to get the lowest one. I used an email address that didn't have my entire name and signed my messages using my first initial and last name rather than including my female-identified first name. They seemed surprised when I went in to make the final arrangements. I think a real advantage is buying before you absolutely have to have a car THIS WEEK.

Does your area have an exemption on HOV lanes for hybrids?

I used to live in the Snowbelt and four- or all-wheel drive is a must, I think. You don't want to get stuck in the snow alone or with the children. I live in a more southern state now but still regret that my current car is not all-wheel drive; I'll remedy that next time.

Seeing as you have a dog, you may want to go with a non-cloth backseat so that the hair won't cling to it.
posted by Morrigan at 3:30 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Subarus tend not to have the best gas mileage -- it's a function of the AWD. But the AWD is part of what makes them so great in bad weather & snow. Mine has been very reliable; it's coming up on 160,000 miles and still running fine.
posted by suelac at 3:30 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you haven't owned a diesel before, I'd definitely think carefully and test drive a TDi Passat over any hybrid for equivalent fuel economy.

I am a Mazda devotee, as my previous questions might indicate. I am super pleased with my 2014 Mazda3, which effortlessly gets 40mpg on the highway (albeit with just me in it, it would be lower with four people and a dog) and *despite that* drives with real verve and responsiveness compared to most other compacts in its class (all of which are also pushing 35-40mpg now with plain old internal combustion gas engines). That's generally true of older Mazdas too, but Mazdas from before 2013 are probably best avoided, since they utterly redesigned the lineup with the 2013 Mazda6 and 2014 everything else, and among other things sharply improved fuel efficiency. However, if I were buying a new gas powered sedan for a family of five and a dog I would totally look at a Mazda CX-5. If you want the dog to go in the back you are looking either at a hatchback or an SUV, right? You won't get 5 people comfortably in any compact unless three of the people are small kids. Minimally I'd think you need a full size sedan like the Passat or the Mazda6, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, or a Subaru Outback Impreza or Forester. Those are all very good cars in any recent model year, with various tradeoffs. The Subies won't give you the best mileage due to AWD, but they get close for a lot of benefit from that traction if you live where you have to drive in winter weather.

If you're considering new, there are some reasons for it. Mostly the safety gear, which has gotten better and better in recent years. And fuel mileage -- plain IC gas cars now get mileage that only hybrids or diesels were getting just 3-4 years ago. At current gas prices that probably doesn't amount to an equivalent savings over buying new vs. buying used, but late model used might make a lot of sense.

There are also some things to be very wary of in older cars -- most especially anything that might be part of the massive airbag recall of Takata-equipped cars going back to the turn of the millennium. Anything purchased from a reputable dealer should have had this fixed, but private market might be another thing entirely.

If you can let go of the dream of ever putting five people and a dog in the car, for anything more than a few miles, the world is your oyster. VW Golf, Mazda3, Toyota Corrolla, Honda Fit or Civic, Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza, and the Korean marques (Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte) are all roughly equivalent cars in terms of basic reliability, gas mileage, and safety features. (I have a personal beef against Nissan cars, but I guess they are rated as about the same.) A big reason to buy something newish is that quality has just gone waaaay up in the compact segment across the board in the last few years, along with mileage and safety features. I drove most of them along the way to my Mazda, and decided the Mazda was the most fun to drive and had the nicest interior ergonomics, and near top-in-class mileage (again, for plain old gas with no turbo and no hybrid, but I'm old school).

But any one of them will give you 150K relatively trouble free miles or ten trouble free years, whichever comes first, fairly predictably if bought new or from someone who maintained the car as per schedule and didn't drive it abusively.

I personally think hybrids are massively over-hyped for their benefit to either your fuel bill or the environment, and most of the compacts drive shitty to me (I hate the way the Prius handled up through 2012, the last model year I drove one). I personally think diesels only make sense if you do a ton of highway driving (but then they are awesome).

I'll also plug TrueCar, which is in an advertising blitz right now, if you do decide to buy new. I used it last year and felt like it definitely took the bullshit out of the process (until the sale was made and it was time for the extended warranty etc. bullshit, at least -- these days they know they can't get you on the base price so they try to make it up in things you should resist with all your strength in the closing). I knew exactly what people were paying for the exact car I was buying at dealerships all over my area, so I made an offer by email once I found the exact color and options packages on the car I wanted. Dead easy. But that was for a car that was in demand when I bought it, so there wasn't much wiggle room. I'd be warier of trusting it on models that dealers wanted to move faster.
posted by spitbull at 3:33 PM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a 2014 Impreza and while its alright the seats suck bigtime. I realize its the cheapest line they have, but its still a bit disappointing. I think thats a hard thing to feel in your 30 minute test drive.
posted by H. Roark at 3:37 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

TDi, TDi, TDi - with the relaunch of the diesel, VW is making a very environmentally friendly car. We have two - a Jetta SportWagon (from the first year of the re-launch) and a Beetle convertible (18 months old and AWESOME). Get the TDi that fits your occasional family need re: size, and get the six speed if you know how to drive one.
posted by ersatzkat at 3:40 PM on April 13, 2015

Have Prius C which gets great mileage, is not high-maintenance, has worked well in low temps & snow (but not when really deep b/c low-to-ground -- though am in a snow belt). Good with speed, acceleration, size (to my standards) & have made looong trips too. Can't complain.
posted by lathrop at 4:46 PM on April 13, 2015

I'm not sure I have any advice, but I'm happy to answer the question in the title.

I told the people I was working with that I was looking for a 10 - 12 year old Honda or Toyota with a manual transmission. One of them told me, "Pete's trying to sell a 13 year old Subaru with an automatic transmission." I said, "Close enough," test drove it, and happily paid his asking price.
posted by Bruce H. at 5:55 PM on April 13, 2015

A Passat wagon maybe? Our friends have one and they put 5 people in it regularly.
posted by fiercekitten at 6:05 PM on April 13, 2015

It's tempting to actually answer your question... how do people make a complex decision like this?

Some flip coins. Others obsess over specifications.

I think that's a matter of personal preference, and you haven't developed confidence in yours, yet.

You will. Maybe.

The more important aspect, which is implied, is how do you feel GOOD about your choices?

I've owned 15 houses. Maybe 30 cars. I've married twice. I have lived in 8 states. I chose a career. In that career, I made 10,000 decisions... maybe 100,000?

In addition, I have made some important choices.

IMHO, I've wasted 100 times the effort I should have wasted on evaluating alternatives. A flip of a coin or a dart thrown blindfolded at a random scribbled list would have worked out as well. Humans like to overthink stuff. I'm betting you are human. (Call this an educated guess!)

Your random choice of car will net you a solution that will meet your needs but never completely. Usually, anyway. Guns, cars, computers, houses, cities, mates, careers... what you really choose is perceived probabilities of success in unpredictable scenarios.

I suggest/recommend that you choose the single most important part and rate it at 88%. In car-land, that's basically "will it carry me and my expected payload reliably for a while at a reasonable cost at a price I can afford to pay?"

If yes, move to the next level. If no, discard it.

The next level is.... what's the terminal resale value and what things am I giving up choosing A over B? Are they essential or emotional?

If they are emotional ( status, style, insignificant specs (color, reputation, pickup girls value, etc.) they should be moved to the bottom of the choices list.

If essential.... MPG, manufacturer reputation, collision performance, ease of reconfiguration, etc.) weight them higher.

None of us know how to make the perfect choice. For one thing, we choose for today's problems and our cars are for a 5-10 year window. Our needs may change. Momma and the kids could die in a house fire leaving vehicle specs irrelevant. Daddy may run off with the nanny to points unknown making resale value more important. A flood or tsunami may make water resistance more important.

Point is... don't fret, my man. Your perfect choice or poor choice are learning experiences, not character tests. I grant you full permission to fuck up as well as succeed, and when you get to be the point where you make a fairly good choice fairly quickly, you will do the same for yourself.

Forgive me for sounding patronizing. Some of it come from cynicism from a long life, and some is just my inherent impoliteness. What I really hope to convey is that your earnest attempt to reach a perfect solution is a really hard beast to defeat. Life and management is all about making good choices in the face of uncertainty and bad data. We do the best we can at the time, knowing what we know and choosing from the choices presented.

Your choice will be fine. And if it's not, it will tell you what to pay attention to later. I promise... in 10 years you will get another chance. Then you can choose a better solution for your presented problems.

For the most part, none of this is lethal. it's just a choice that may or may not work out well.

Those of us who have lived through 1000 choices know that most of them were petty. We imbue them with immediate significance, but their long-term significance is USUALLY zero.
posted by FauxScot at 8:06 PM on April 13, 2015 [12 favorites]

The base Mini is right out if you've got a family of 5.

My picks for this segment would be:
Subaru - I have no experience, but they're well loved here.
Honda Fit - you know this one already. But I don't have the love for Honda that I used to.
VW Golf / Jetta Wagon - I just traded in my TDI Golf over the weekend - very competent thing to drive with a quality interior and manners that I'd have no qualms about in the snow. My experience is that VW has more quirks than actual personality, which probably won't bother you as a non-car person. MPG is better than advertised with the TDI. On the other hand, not everybody sells diesel, and VW dealers can be a little sleazy. I didn't have a single bit of trouble with my Golf, but it's still hard to trust a VW stay on good behavior, especially with an uncommon type of engine.
Mazda 3 - this is what I somewhat impulsively replaced my Golf with. Not quite as nice an interior as the better VW trims, but seems solid. I've heard that they meet their rather impressive MPG promises. Handles good. I'm sure it's fine in bad weather.
Ford Fiesta and Fusion. People like these cars - they're practical and reasonably priced. It's not the 80s anymore, Ford can build a competent car that will mostly hang together for a few years, and no shop is going to be too confused by a Ford. I find the interiors of both cars cheap and nerve jangling, and the transmission on the Fusion I rented last summer was slipping with less than 10,000 miles on the odometer.

There are services that negotiate for you. Costco has a branded service, as mentioned above, and there are others. I don't know anything about him except that he blogs a fair bit, but Tom McParland is somebody that will do the negotiation for you (though over the phone).
posted by wotsac at 8:13 PM on April 13, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone! Impossible to select just a few 'best answers', but I particularly appreciate those of you who gave personal feedback on the specific models I mentioned.

And FauxScot, I think you're absolutely right. I am usually a fairly decisive person who doesn't beanplate too much, but the combination of 'area I know nothing about' + 'large sum of money' = probably overthinking the answer...

Really appreciate everyone's input.
posted by widdershins at 8:45 AM on April 14, 2015

I had a Mini. I really, really, really loved it. It was adorable and fun and made me happy to drive it. But you will never, ever fit five people and a dog into it, and the imported parts and premium gas and need to find a special snowflake mechanic make the cost of ownership higher than many others.

But when it came time to replace the Mini, I bought a Hyundai, because I could get everything I required in a car for $10K less and with a 20-year drivetrain warranty. My friends who are car people are generally of the opinion that the Korean cars of today are like the Japanese cars of yesteryear - the quality is top-notch but the prices haven't caught up, so they are a great value when compared to a Toyota or Honda.

In fact, after each person in my family has bought a Hyundai or Kia, they have liked it so much that at this point, each of my parents, my two siblings, my spouse and myself each have a DIFFERENT model of Hyundai/Kia, and we all are completely happy with our choices.

You may particularly want to look into the Kia Soul, which has the roominess of a crossover but the gas mileage and footprint of a compact car. In the Hyundai line, perhaps the Elantra, though there is a hybrid Sonata if you are wanting a hybrid, and it's great, though maybe more luxurious than what it sounds like you want.

I personally think that the new Hyundais are nice-looking. Kias less so, though I do like the Soul, which is kind of funky-cute.

(If you were looking for a super-cheap but also super-fun to drive car, I'd point you to the Ford Fiesta, which was the car I was saddest not to buy, because I spent the whole test drive going "wheeeee!" - alas, the fit and finish and options were those of a cheap Ford.)

For the actual buying process, as a fellow lady-person, here's what I'd do: online research to narrow down your options. Pick 3-5 finalist models. Go test drive. Tell the sales person that you are there only to test drive. If they are a jerk about it, you know not to buy from that dealer! Once you have test driven and know which car(s) are acceptable options, research online to determine how much is a fair price to pay for the car. There are tons of tools out there. Next, get pre-approved for financing on your own, preferably from a credit union, for the amount you need.

Then you contact whatever dealers you are interested in, and say, "I would like to buy [car] with [options - be as specific as you can, referencing the manufacturer's trim package if possible - you should be able to find this out online.] [If you care about specific things like color, detail it here - for instance, "I would buy either the Tuscan Red or the Space Black, but absolutely not any shade of silver or gray" or whatever.] Do you have one of these available, and what is your best price?" Many dealers have an internet sales department and you can do this step online.

They will eagerly call you back and tell you what they can do. If it fits your budget and requirements, great! Tell them you will come by and drive the car. Then you can buy it. Now is the time to decline all the BS add-ons they will try to get you to buy. Weatherproofing, extended warranty, etc etc etc. Don't do it. If you really want an extended warranty, you can get one yourself for cheaper (again, ask your credit union!) Also, you already have financing so you don't have to sit through that part.

Or, if you want, you can pay a little more and take out a lot of hassle by looking on the Carmax web site, finding the one you want, calling them and telling them you want it, and then showing up to get it. You'll still have to work through the financing-and-add-on stage, but if you like no-haggle pricing, Carmax will give it to you.

Good luck!
posted by oblique red at 12:52 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

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