Corolla or Prius c? So many special snowflakes...
August 31, 2015 7:27 AM   Subscribe

If you're on a super-tight budget, would you go with the practical regular ol' car or spring for a (maybe reliable, I dunno) hybrid?

So...I have the opportunity to replace my aging '97 Corolla with a new or newer car. I have a voucher that will grant me $6500 towards a car with a (combined) mpg of 30 or $7000 towards one with 35mpg. I was originally going to buy a lightly used car, but with the low financing and awesome warranties on new cars, the unimpressive savings on the used cars didn't seem all that great. Up until yesterday, I was hell bent on getting a Yaris. That car was economical, fit up my narrow driveway (more on that later), my awesome mechanic would be able to do repairs for cheap, and I liked the interior a lot. Well, I drove a 2015 Yaris yesterday and did not enjoy it AT ALL, so now I'm scrambling to find something else.

Yesterday I drove a 2015 Corolla LE and also a 2014 Prius c (three). The Corolla felt solid and, living in Los Angeles where people drive like maniacs, I knew I was in a safe car. However, it was a lot larger than my old Corolla and my boyfriend said I looked like a little kid driving it (I'm 5'3"). It did feel, um...really big for me. But the ride was so smooth! The Corolla is 70" wide and I do have issues pulling into my driveway now. If you read my previous question, our apartment's driveway is a nightmare. When you first pull in, there are two concrete walls you have to squeeze through. I barely clear the walls now in my 67" wide car, so the extra 3" really makes me nervous. The landlord DID remove that pole (hooray), but the rest of the driveway is still a mess. The Corolla gets something like 27 city/42 highway, so I would get $6500 off of the price with my voucher. My insurance would be around $155-175/mo...and that is with my perfect driving record! Salesman quoted me $17k for the LE, going to try to talk down to $16k.

I liked the Prius c and saving $ on gas would be fantastic. It didn't swallow me up and it didn't feel like I was going to fly off the road if I hit a pothole like the Yaris did. I suppose the weight of the battery helps? I drove a three, which had a lot of fancy gadgets, but would probably settle for the base one, because I don't care about fancy gadgets. I know people are bothered by the "cheap interior" of the base c, but my current car is so busted, I'll take whatever. One major selling point: this car would fit up my driveway! It would also be a cinch to park anywhere. My concerns, however, are safety and reliability. My mechanic is wary of hybrids (and so is my mechanic brother). I'm actually not too worried about the battery, but am concerned with the price of any OTHER repairs. I will call my mechanic today to see if he would even FIX this car for me. I would get $7000 towards this car with my voucher and insurance would be $145-$155 a month. Salesman quoted me around $18k for the base model, going to try to talk down the $17k.

Notes: I definitely cannot afford a regular Prius, so please don't tell me to upgrade. Also, I am sticking with Toyota because my mechanic has been fixing my car for next to NOTHING and I doubt I'll find another honest mechanic. (He also works on Hondas, but I have back problems and can't comfortably sit in a Fit or a Civic for more than 15 minutes.) My second-hand Toyota has been through hell and back and over the course of my 17 years with it, and has cost me next to NOTHING. This Corolla was a champ! It still runs, but it leaks oil & gas, the roof leaks badly when it rains, I have to enter the car from the passenger side, it needs a new timing belt/water pump/fuel injectors/valves/hoses and (it won't pass inspection without) a new catalytic converter. Time to scrap it!

tl:dr If you're on a tight budget and you're between a 2015 Corolla and a 2015 Prius c, which would you choose? My heart says Prius c, my brain says Corolla. (Our driveway also says Prius c.)
posted by pea_shoot to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Prius c. (You drove a '14 but are buying a '15? So new? or not?)

I don't know what your mechanic's worries are but if you are getting a lifetime battery warranty on a used Prius c, take it. I have a Prius before the family forked and before the lifetime battery warranty and I'm considering going there again (yes, I paid for the new battery) in 2016 when I see the redesigns.

I'm not sure what they are 'afraid' of WRT a Prius. Mine fixes mine for stuff she can (a lot more mechanical than you'd think, body work, some tune up work) and points me to the dealer for recall work. I hear you on the honest mechanic; I've had mine for nearly 20 years and I drive two counties to get there; my folks drive a couple hours for some major overhauls.

Yes, when crap breaks down it's friggin expensive, but it doesn't break down as often. I do admit some skew on that data though; I grew up in the desert with used/handme down cars and now live in the suburbs in the tropics and bought the Prius new 9 years and 190,000 miles ago.
posted by tilde at 7:42 AM on August 31, 2015

For future responses, "tight budget" is less than 225% of federal poverty limit to qualify for the "voucher program" the OP refers to.

If you're on a tight budget and you're between a 2015 Corolla and a 2015 Prius c, which would you choose?

Neither. I wouldn't buy a new car - the upgrade program you are referring to does not require you to buy a new car, and, in general, new cars are a waste of money if you are on a tight budget as you describe.

Time to scrap it!

Why? How much do those repairs cost? You are saying "a few things are expensive, so therefore I am going to buy a new car". That is at best hasty and at worst a bad financial decision. The complete calculus should be figuring out how much your current car costs and figuring out how much your proposed replacement car costs. I would suggest that in almost all cases, keeping an old car is cheaper than replacing it. I do agree that a leaky roof is pretty annoying, but you did say you were on a tight budget.

I liked the Prius c and saving $ on gas would be fantastic.

How much money would you save? Since you live in LA, I'm going to guess (without any evidence) that you drive mostly in the city. Say you drive 7,500 miles per year, with a 70% city, 30% highway mixture (again, without any evidence - I consider driving on LA's congested highways "city" driving due to the speed). Say the Prius is about $1,000 more expensive than the Corolla (based on MSRP), which is partially mitigated by your $500 extra reimbursement for a net extra cost of $500. Say you expect gas to be around $3/gallon.

Do the math with your own numbers. I think you'd save about ~93 gallons of gas a year, which adds up to a whopping $277 in your first year of car ownership. In other words, it'd take two years for the Prius to break even with the Corolla.

I would further note that a single non-trivial repair that you need to do at a different mechanic would swamp that price difference, given that car repairs very rarely come in under the $277/year you'd be saving from the Prius.

Hybrids are great, but they rarely save money unless you drive truly extreme mileage all inside the city.
posted by saeculorum at 7:43 AM on August 31, 2015

Best answer: I am in Los Angeles and own two 2006 Priuses, and if I had to replace one today it would be with a C - almost entirely because of parking, though I have been saying for years that we have no need for two cars this big.

These days, safety features are safety features across the board pretty much. A Corolla's size might give you a minor edge in an accident if you got hit by something sufficiently large, but I don't know that those particular chances are worth making a distinction. (In LA, I consider my greatest risk to be getting t-boned in an intersection, and unless you are driving a double-wide car the size is not going to make much difference there.)

You can read the other Prius threads here, or on or wherever you like to hear about historical reliability. As far as I can tell, there's no distinction between a Prius and any of Toyota's non-hybrid full-size sedans - they go approximately forever. Both of ours are ~110-120K, 9 years old, and have required no significant work. If I continue to work mostly from home, I'm counting on mine to last another 5 at the bare minimum.

We get all our work done at Toyota dealerships, but you clearly have a mechanic you trust. Though with a new Prius, you may get a couple years of oil changes included. You are unlikely to need a non-trivial repair for...I don't know, warranty lasts 6 years, I still haven't needed one, so hopefully your financial situation is improved by the time that's a going concern.

The Corolla isn't going to be a terrible car by any means, with many of the same general bonuses of driving a new or nearly-new car, as well as the general reliability of driving a Toyota. You're years away from needing to care about repairs. But you are going to have to park that puppy every day (presumably).
posted by Lyn Never at 7:51 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

We have a Pruis C two and we love it. Unlike the other Prius models, it doesn't use a specialized battery bank. It has a pretty boring second car battery under the rear driver side seat. I doubt battery replacement could be all that expensive. The car is great to drive and we routinely get better mirage than the estimates. Parking the tiny car is so much easier that it's almost fun.
posted by advicepig at 7:58 AM on August 31, 2015

(He also works on Hondas, but I have back problems and can't comfortably sit in a Fit or a Civic for more than 15 minutes.)

I'll just throw this out there that I would probably buy a Fit out of your list (and did!). The seat adjustment in a Fit was really counterintuitive and took me a while to get right, but once I did it is really comfortable for both short and long drives. Basically my experience is that you need to tilt it back much further than would seem to make sense relative to other cars I've owned (including a 90s corolla). But the seat setup on a test drive won't necessarily be great.
posted by advil at 8:00 AM on August 31, 2015

I had considered looking at a Prius C when I was hunting a couple years ago but then read some kind of alarming safety info about them in Consumer Reports. Perhaps things have changed in new models, though. I would recommend heading to the library and seeing what CR has to say, or subscribing online for one month (if that fits in your budget).
posted by imalaowai at 8:16 AM on August 31, 2015

Best answer: The Prius c has had excellent reliability ratings. I would not hesitate at all based on reliability. You will save hundreds per year in fuel. You will also save ~$225 per year in insurance, so the cost of ownership will be about $500 per year less. I would be very surprised if you end up spending $500 per year more on the Prius maintenance. The Prius c obviously has an environmental benefit as well.

As far as safety, IIHS rates the Prius c a slightly better than the Corolla, while the NHTSA rates the Corolla better. I don't think there is enough difference to worry about there. Both will be much safer than 17 year old Corolla.

With the parking issue, the fuel savings, and the insurance savings, I think the Prius c is the clear winner for you.
posted by ssg at 8:22 AM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Prius c is a hatchback, and hatchbacks are the best. You can fit so much stuff in there!

The Prius C battery, by the way, is a .9 kWh nickel-metal-hydrid battery, very different from a normal (lead acid) car battery. Toyota has been been doing the hydrid thing for over a decade though- they have it figured out.
posted by rockindata at 8:27 AM on August 31, 2015

Non-responsive to the OP's question, but likely useful information:

All my reading of the EMFP that the OP refers to indicates that the $6,500 voucher referred to in the question is only valid for hybrid cars (not conventional cars that have equivalent mileage). There is a graphic in this document that is as close to a definition of the program as I've found. I've not had good luck in finding an more specific definition of the program, which is somewhat frustrating to me since the program costs a substantial amount of money.

This may change the OP's decision calculus, since the Corolla option would cost $6,500 more than the Prius option.
posted by saeculorum at 8:37 AM on August 31, 2015

Not to go too far off-topic, but I would also like to encourage you to shop around for insurance. The prices you're quoting there are more than I was paying for two relatively new Audis when I lived in LA...
posted by primethyme at 8:44 AM on August 31, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses! I just want to clarify a few things:

I am usually the first person to discourage someone from buying a new car if they didn't really HAVE to, but I have this voucher, my family is giving me $3500-5000 to help, and I'm getting 0% financing on the remaining amount. My 97 Corolla needs more repairs than listed above. We're talking $3-4k in repairs if I want to drive it for a few more years.

I would like to get the 2015 Prius c over previous models because it performed better in crash tests. Consumer Reports hated the car, but I doubt any of the reporters there are driving 97 Corollas. One complaint I often see is that the c only has 99 horsepower. Um, my base model Corolla has 100, so...uh, yeah. I'm fine with a slow car (that's still zippier than what I'm working with now).

I have shopped around for insurance and this seems to be the rate I'm getting everywhere. I live in an area with a lot of car thefts, so maybe that's why rates are so high?

My first car was an 89 Plymouth Reliant (haha k car) and I went looking for a hatchback to replace it. In 98, I got my used 97 Corolla. Maybe now, in 2015, I'll get that hatchback I wanted?

Oh--and I got a new job so I'll be able to make payments. I would like to pay the car off within 18-36 months.
posted by pea_shoot at 8:55 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and here's a very small tidbit to consider: nobody steals Hybrids. I don't know if they're harder to steal or if there's just a general fear that they can be tracked from space or whatever, but you basically have to hand your keys to a thief to get your Prius stolen.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:00 AM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

I just want to say that I love the "tangerine splash" colour that Toyota uses for the Prius C. It's my favourite car colour ever.
posted by Poldo at 9:08 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was in this same position four years ago, exactly to the day (it wasn't a good day, as it involved me breaking my ankle in a multi-car collision). I loved my poor totaled '02 Corolla and wanted to get a '12 Corolla with the insurance and settlement. My wife talked me into a Prius, and to this day I thank her for it. Get the Prius!
posted by infinitewindow at 10:29 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a 2005 Prius and go to a well-regarded all-hybrid mechanic. I asked them what they recommended for a newer purchase and Prius C was one of the 2 suggestions in terms of reliability and great value for the dollar (the other suggestion was another used Prius). The Prius is slightly better in crash ratings and will also be zippier because of the electric motor. Based on my experience with my Prius (130K trouble-free, super reliable miles so far), I'm planning to buy another when the time comes.

Plus, your driveway thing sounds like a nightmare. Not having to maneuver with 3 extra inches would be a priority for me. Who needs that aggravation every single time you use the car.
posted by quince at 10:51 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Prius C. I'm 5'2" and the size of the car is perfect for me. I also recommend going with the Prius C Two because it has 60/40 fold-down seats (the One has bench fold-down seats), and when we negotiated, the Two was hardly much more than the One... like ~$300 more. With 60/40, it will be easy to make room for large items with a third passenger on board. Also the Two has cruise control.
posted by extramundane at 12:27 PM on August 31, 2015

Best answer: I came from a beloved 97 Corolla to a 2012 Prius c and I love my Teeny Prini! I'm in the northeast and drive about 70 miles a day on highways and on the summer I'm averaging 440 miles to the tank! It goes down in winter to about 310 miles to the tank, and all I've had to do is bring it in for regular maintenance. It's a bit sluggish accelerating on on-ramps but is a total champ on the road!

Safetywise, I'm of the belief that everything on the road will kill you, so I use the defensive driving skills I've learned as a motorcyclist, keep my wits about me and practice extra cautious driving and know that there are some circumstances in which nothing will protect you.

In my experience Toyotas drive blandly but for me that doesn't matter! I have the step up from base model (a two, I believe) and believe me, after the poor, busted, faithful old hulk that was my Corolla, the c is PLUSH. I'm very happy with my car (it's an "absolute red" :)
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 3:36 PM on August 31, 2015

Best answer: If the Prius C is reliable like the regular Prius, it's a no-brainer - get the Prius. Anecdotally they require much less maintenance than non-hybrids. Mine's cresting 70,000 miles now and the only thing I've done to it is replace tires. Never had it broken into. Used it for fieldwork, moving, hauling a lot of stuff, literal cross-country trip. Again, I didn't have a C, but I can't imagine it's THAT different from the regular one.
posted by Strudel at 3:48 PM on August 31, 2015

Scions are also made by Toyota, and most of them get great gas mileage, and they're pretty tiny and nimble. I like their no-haggle pricing.
posted by hydra77 at 9:31 PM on August 31, 2015

What did you dislike about the Yaris? I have a Scion IQ (it is adorbs, tiny and gets great gas mileage). Similar price range to the Yaris. Might be worth checking out?
posted by pazazygeek at 8:38 PM on September 1, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks again for all of the responses!

I went with a 2015 Prius c two in magnetic grey metallic. I asked to see the base model, but they only had the two in I ended up getting the two for the price of the one! I don't actually HAVE the car yet; I still have to wait until the paperwork clears, which should be in about a week. I'm really excited, though! It is SO much quieter than my current ride. I don't know if I mentioned that the roof of my Corolla leaks. If we really do get a crazy El Nino this year, I'll stay dry. No more sitting on plastic bags!

pazazygeek - When I drove the Yaris, it just felt "off" to me. I couldn't accelerate naturally (and was fine in both the Corolla and the Prius c). It also felt too light and when I merged onto the freeway I thought I was going to fly off the side of the road. The Prius was heavier (and I just read that it weighs more than my old Corolla) and I felt like it was easier to drive. The Corolla felt good to me, but I wanted something that was smaller so I can park in tight spaces on city streets. I really liked the interior of the Yaris (and the outside, too) and I'm bummed it didn't feel right for me. I still think it's a great little car.

hydra77 - I did check out the 2016 Scion iA for the fun of it. The price was right and I liked all of the cool features, but it wasn't "me". Maybe it was too cool for me? (Funny how it's really a...MazdaToyota.)

Oh--the mechanic gave me the green light with the hybrid. Doubt I'll be needing to see him that often anymore!
posted by pea_shoot at 4:02 PM on September 2, 2015

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