The unicorn of cars: cheap, reliable, good gas mileage
October 8, 2015 10:53 AM   Subscribe

I need to get a new car tomorrow. I am looking for something that is cheap, highly reliable, and fuel-efficient. Right now I’m stuck trying to decide between the Honda Fit and the Toyota Corolla, but will also eagerly consider suggestions for cars I haven’t thought of. Any and all anecdata is welcome.

One moment I’m leaning toward the Fit, because it’s cute and gets amazing gas mileage and is slightly cheaper. But I have misgivings about its reliability as well as whether it would work in the crazy snow we get here. I’ve read reviews that say its low clearance is a problem, though snow tires help.

And so a few moments later I'm leaning towards the Corolla. It gets thumbs up on all of three of my requirements.

Is either car clearly superior in reliability? I guess that would really trump everything. I would like for this car to go forever, or at least 10-15 years.

My old car was a Honda Civic and it made it about 11 years before I had to start replacing everything, which gives me pause on getting a Fit. But Honda has a reputation for reliability, so I’m wondering if maybe I was just unlucky with my car. (I was also in an accident that involved me basically driving into and over a steep curb, which might have contributed to some of its problems.)

Are there other options I’m not thinking of that tick all of my boxes?

Also, I’m really dreading the prospect of dropping $16,000-20,000 on a brand new car. I would basically use it to commute 12 miles round trip to work, with very occasional weekend trips around the state. Is buying slightly used a better deal? This thread, among other stuff I've read online, makes me think that I’m going to have a really tough time finding a gently used Fit or Corolla that is not practically as expensive as a new one.

Any other insight anyone has would be greatly appreciated. I haven’t bought a new car in ages and the process last time was painful.

Finally, for various reasons, it's pretty urgent that I get a car tomorrow. I am going to try to not let the salespeople smell my desperation. I’m wondering if it might be worth it for me to rent a car for a week to give me some wriggle room with that time.

Thank you!
posted by whistle pig to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I was in the same situation as you, and ended up leasing a new Prius. There are some really good lease deals right now. I ran the numbers and determined that leasing would actually cost me less money than buying when you factor in deprecation, maintenance, and time value of money.

You could get a Prius C for $169 a month, which is also one of the cheapest cars to own.
posted by chevyvan at 10:59 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Honda Fit. It hits all the Consumer Reports top ratings: low purchase price, good milage, interior size/usefulness, reliability and economical repairs, everything.

I'm currently driving a 13-year-old Chrysler PT Cruiser and intend to continue doing so as long as its feasible, but (because yeah, she's getting up there both in years and miles) I've been window-shopping for the last couple of years. If I had to walk out my door tomorrow and buy a car, it'd be the Honda Fit --- personally I consider it boring not cute, but that's the least of my considerations. Cheap to buy, cheap to drive, cheap to own.

(Edit to add: if you do go the hybrid route, make sure ahead of time that you can find a good reliable hybrid-experienced mechanic!)
posted by easily confused at 11:00 AM on October 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am going to try to not let the salespeople smell my desperation. I’m wondering if it might be worth it for me to rent a car for a week to give me some wriggle room with that time.

The power you have in a negotiation is the ability to say no, and that requires the ability to wait in this instance. If you can't wait, it's probably better to resign yourself to paying extra.

FWIW, Honda's reliability ratings are still very high. If you live in a snowy area with a lot of road treatment, that tends to erode the life of cars and 11 years is not really unreasonable for having to replace things.
posted by selfnoise at 11:04 AM on October 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Compare the safety ratings of the specific years of Fits and Corollas that you're looking at to be sure. My Fit was totaled after 18 months of ownership in a fairly minor accident. It's also very lightweight; I replaced it with a used Prius, and I really appreciate the Prius' comparative solidness during high winds. (And the Prius has already survived a similar accident.)

And yeah, taking a week to think about this might pay off.
posted by wintersweet at 11:07 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I strongly advise to buy yourself time with the rental - salespeople sense desperation the way cats sense cans of tuna.

I personally always go for used, ideally a two-year leased car because they generally were used quite gently.

I would also suggest that your instincts about your previous car and that collision are valid: eleven years of honorable service is impressive given that event. Unless you buy a truck, anyway.
posted by SMPA at 11:09 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, I’m really dreading the prospect of dropping $16,000-20,000 on a brand new car. I would basically use it to commute 12 miles round trip to work, with very occasional weekend trips around the state. Is buying slightly used a better deal?

I drive the way you describe, but with more roadtrips, and I have never bought a new car. I buy late-model used cars that my mechanic checks out for me. I have never bought a lemon and I've been doing this a long time.

And even if you need to buy *now,* you don't have to smell of desperation. There is always another dealer. Do a ton of online hunting and be prepared to spend all day checking out all the lots.
posted by headnsouth at 11:10 AM on October 8, 2015

FWIW, we own a Fit and I drove it on a 12 hour marathon emergency trip through one of the worst snow storms of the year through Buffalo from Columbus to Toronto (usually only takes 6-7 hours) and it handled the 2 foot deep snow, closed roads, etc with aplomb. Also, we got a really good price on it by going through the AAA "Auto Buying" service and picking a car directly from those available in the lot at a dealership with a lot of inventory. No annoying salesmen to deal with.
posted by Poldo at 11:11 AM on October 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Fit is boring and a bit plasticky on the inside and fine and fits the spot (pardon pun) that the Civic did 10-15 years ago. Gently-used may be an issue unless you get slightly lucky in your area: people seem to buy them and keep them, and there's not as much of an ex-lease market.

Just rent for now -- until the end of the month, if you can -- to give yourself some breathing room and save yourself from the worst sales sharks.

and it made it about 11 years before I had to start replacing everything

I know that Americans often tend to keep their cars longer and run them into the ground, but 11 years is a pretty decent lifespan for a car.
posted by holgate at 11:12 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I drive a 2012 Fit (38k miles), my wife drives a 2008 Corolla (120k miles). Both cars have been great. Literally zero non-wear-item problems with the Corolla, and the one (warranty-repaired) issue with the Fit I'm pretty sure I caused (broken rear seat belt probably caused by folding the rear seats onto it too hard too often). The Corolla has more passenger room, but less cargo room, and the mileage on both is close enough that it's probably a wash (in particular if your commute is largely city roads). We haven't had any particular complaints about either car in the snow. We did find the Fit's air conditioning inadequate on one particularly hot, sunny, heavy-traffic road trip.

My father-in-law drives a Prius C which, if you want to go hybrid, is really a great car. Time will tell how it holds up, but right now it's pretty killer.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:15 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've got a 2010 Fit. In terms of where it stands among Hondas, I'd put it with the NSX, S2000, and the best of the pre-2000's Civics. It is worthy of putting up on a pedestal and worshiping. It is everything that Honda does best. Small, light, satisfying to drive, cheap and dead reliable. I'd just buy one from that generation used with low miles and call it a day.

It does everything very well except long highway commutes, where it's a little loud because of the low gearing. I've hauled a dishwasher and lumber in it. I've hauled a family of four on weeklong camping trips. I've raced it quite a bit and passed both older 911's and guys in 300hp pony cars. I put it through a couple of 100 inch snow seasons with no problems. With the manual transmission, I've got no reliability concerns.

This is the best all-round car I've ever had. It's damn near as fun as the BMW M3 I park next to it and the Miata it replaced, and it's every bit as reliable as the anvil-like Accord my wife drove for 5 years and only spent $100 on to replace an oxygen sensor. Phenomenal, phenomenal car.
posted by woof at 11:19 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for your suggestions!

I was recently gifted a AAA membership--is their car-buying service the same thing as TrueCar?

(And maybe I'll rethink my irritation towards my old Honda for being so unreliable in recent years.)
posted by whistle pig at 11:20 AM on October 8, 2015

A Mazda 3 has comparable mileage to the Honda Fit, costing around $1000 more for the base model. For me, the Mazda 3 hit the right balance of practicality, price, style, and performance. It's received pretty good all-around reviews, and everyone that I know who owns one recommends Mazda to their friends. I bought one in February and so far I have no complaints. I average 37mpg with my suburban commute. Worth checking out if you're having doubts about the Fit.

Also, for buying, I used the Truecar service as my baseline, then went to some dealerships and negotiated from there.
posted by millions at 11:21 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I recently bought a Fit and had an Ask about it, thinking I overpaid. The answers I got were helpful and it's a fun car to drive. Before that I had an '06 Corolla. I like the Fit better because of the cargo space. I know someone with a Prius, a car I had been looking at, and she said it's a good car but she missed the Fit. Overall, I'm happy with it. I just hope it lasts me until I can afford a Tesla *chuckles*
posted by lunastellasol at 11:45 AM on October 8, 2015

I have a Honda Fit ('13 model, bought in '12), and I love love love it. It's not fancy or spectacular, but it does everything I need, and I have no complaints whatsoever. No reliability issues at all, no work needed. And its storage capacity is cra-zy.

As for snow clearance, I live in Canada (Southern Ontario), and have had no problems without snow tires. It doesn't seem any different in that regard than anything else I've owned. I would invest in better tires overall when the time comes, but I'm not close to that yet.

She's a great little number, my Suzy.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:47 AM on October 8, 2015

I've only driven Hondas. Two Accords (one lived from 1992-2003, the other from 1998-2011) and now my Fit. My first Honda survived an accident in 1994 that was just $500 shy of totalling the car and ran for years afterwards with a slightly sticky door. My second Honda (the 1998) needed all new brakes, had corrosion problems (extremely aggressive road salting due to 100+ inches of snow a year), and a couple of electrical problems with the windows that weren't particularly worth fixing. I replaced it with a Honda Fit and love it.
She's a great little number, my Suzy.
I call mine "Misfit." :)
posted by xyzzy at 11:50 AM on October 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I read your title, "cheap, reliable, good gas mileage", and said "there's a Honda Civic question if there ever was one". Then, "I wonder if these days the Honda Fit fills the niche that the Civic used to?"

Then I read the text of your question, and the first few responses, and well...

I'll just say this, though: I bought a Certified used Civic in 2003 in New Mexico, drove it to Boston a year later, gifted if to my brother in law when I moved to Australia, had it gifted back to me when I came back to upstate NY, and finally gifted it to my high school senior nephew this year. Still going strong, although it has a couple of new dents. (Hmmm.) I loved that car, and it never (not once) needed a major repair. But I also didn't put very many miles on it - 13 years and not yet up to 100K.

I do recommend buying Honda Certified - cheaper than new car prices, but with a longer and more comprehensive warranty. No particular opinion on recent Civics vs Fits, though.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:58 AM on October 8, 2015

(FWIW, everyone I've talked to who has a Fit loves theirs. I have yet to meet someone who doesn't love it, or who even has a story about a guy they knew who had one once and it was junk.)
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:59 AM on October 8, 2015

RedOrGreen: the Civic has definitely chunked out in recent years to make it more like the old Accord, which makes the current Fit the "new old Civic".
posted by holgate at 12:04 PM on October 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Are you trading in your old car? I had to trade in a nightmare car, but because the nightmare car was a Sentra, I got an insanely good trade-in value for it. I would think a Civic would get a similar return.

I did this trade in to get a Hyundai Elantra, which has met all of your requirements above (which were also mine). It is a champ, and it was much, MUCH cheaper than most similar sized cars I looked at.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:30 PM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a 2008 Honda Fit manual base trim model. It has 90k miles. It has has problems other than deer.

The tires are too small: 14". The stock ones were really bad in the snow too. With normal tires the Fit handles in a very predictable way in the snow. The sport model has larger rims/tires. The hatch handle has rusted and makes opening and closing the hatch difficult. It is a bit too loud on the highway. It doesn't fit two car seats all that well. The stereo is week. The interior is plasticy. It has no official tow capacity (unlike a small VW) and the rear sags frighteningly when seriously loaded. The AC/heat fan is frequently blowing too much or not enough, more settings would be nice. The clutch has some sort of soft engage which makes it very easy to use but lacks traditional clutch feel. There is a tiny bit of rust on the rear driver side fender.

Anyways, I like the Fit. I won't buy another one because I'd like more in a car but I've been really happy with it.

It is fun to drive but only when taken in context.

I've also owned a Corolla, other than the tires thing, all the same problems apply.

Either of these cars is going to be fine and reliable.

If you don't want the deal to know you are hard up, don't drive to the dealer in a rental and don't have a friend drop you off. Borrow a friend's car.
posted by bdc34 at 12:32 PM on October 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a 2010 Fit Sport and I love it to pieces. However, to agree with some of the previous posters:

1. The climate system is pretty weak on both A/C and heating fronts. In the 2010 model they had air ducts running under the seats to deliver air to the rear passengers. But that means that some portion of your AC or heat is escaping to the back, which is super frustrating when you tend to drive alone. My feet are frequently cold in the winter, but I tend to take short trips.

2. The tires on the Sport model have shorter sidewalls and as such are really prone to getting a bulging sidewall from bumping into a curb. I've replaced 3 different tires for this issue. Also, they are a weird size of tire and it's hard to find decent replacements. No idea if that's still true of the Sport model but yea, look at the tires.

We just replaced our other car, a busted up Prius, with a Subaru Impreza hatchback. Mileage is less than the Fit but the price is comparable (we spent around $22k with all the fees and taxes and things), in case you want AWD.
posted by cabingirl at 1:01 PM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add: We bought the Subaru using a program through my employer that set the sale price at factory invoice. I exchanged a few emails with the internet sales rep at the local dealership, showed up and took a test drive, and took the car home the next day. The process was relatively painless. We did have to tell them no, we don't want any of the extras, like 4 times which was the worst part. Anyway, see if your employer has such a program. Even if they don't, most dealerships will have an internet sales rep now and you can likely do your negotiation via email.
posted by cabingirl at 1:04 PM on October 8, 2015

Yes I think truecar is actually what you are using when you use the AAA service.
posted by Poldo at 1:07 PM on October 8, 2015

Hey, I don't know why no one's mentioning the Toyota Yaris. It's not fancy or super comfortable but mine has gotten me through several Massachusetts winters, two of them record-breaking (different parts of the state). I bought it used for I think $8700 (it was three or four years old at the time, private sale). I've put about 70,000 miles on it over the past five years, and I've spent about $2500 on repairs over that time period. That's including oil changes, some brake work, a new battery, six new tires, and even some car washes.

I only drive it a few times a month now but it's so cheap to keep on the road it still makes more sense to keep it.
posted by mskyle at 1:20 PM on October 8, 2015

Make sure you drive the cars you're interested in. For instance, while I love everything about the idea of a Prius, I could never own one. There's a number of things that would specifically drive me nuts but which I wouldn't have known just by getting in at the show room.
posted by Carillon at 1:28 PM on October 8, 2015

The current Honda Fit is no longer made in Japan. I personally wouldn't want a Mexican-made car and would look for the previous generation used if that also matters to you.

That said, I have a 2010 Fit Sport. It is ABSOLUTELY a revamping of what made 80s Civic hatchbacks so good. It ticks pretty much every box I would want in a car: it is quite economical, the cargo capacity is very impressive for its size, the front seats are reasonably comfortable, it's very manoeuvrable and parkable. I'm up to like 107k on mine with no issues, though the last scheduled service was around $1000.

I would hesitate to call it "sporty" or "fun to drive" as it is not fast in any way, and is particularly pathetic climbing mountain passes on the highway with a/c on. But it's a compact, economy car, and for that category it would be silly to expect much more performance.

I had a Yaris before the Fit, the 4-door sedan not the hatchback. As they don't even make that body style anymore I'd be hesitant to really compare the two, though the Fit is more refined IMO.
posted by tremspeed at 1:51 PM on October 8, 2015

I drive a Toyota Corolla and love it!

A few things, though.

When I bought this car, I was actually shopping for something in the same basic class (Japanese or Korean compact car, reliable, good gas mileage, etc) but looking more at Kia, Mazda, or maybe a Scion or something. Toyotas and Hondas have a strong brand, which means they tend to have a higher selling price just based on the name alone. So you might find a better car for cheaper by looking into a Nissan or something.

My understanding is that Fits universally sell for a higher price because they are "hip" cars that it's easy for the dealership to move. You're never going to be "taking a Honda Fit off their hands", so to speak.

And, yes, you should absolutely look at a 2013-2014 car rather than a new car. As they say, you lose a third of the value the second you drive it off the lot.

I do think 15 years is a lot to expect from a car, though. My Corolla is a 2007, and while I'm expecting to be driving it for at least 2 more years (till age 10), anything beyond that is gravy in my book. My previous car was a ~15 year old Honda, and I bought the Corolla when the transmission on said Honda gave out right after I'd just paid a lot of money to get major engine work done. F, 0/10, would not do again.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on October 8, 2015

I’m stuck trying to decide between the Honda Fit and the Toyota Corolla

We went through this for my wife's car two years ago, replacing a Toyota. We ended up buying a Hyundai Elantra. Much more car for the money than either the Honda or the Toyota. No regrets at all. She's very happy with it.

We also looked at the Ford Focus too. Nice car, but she preferred driving the Elantra and it was a much better value.
posted by bonehead at 2:08 PM on October 8, 2015

I have a Prius C that I bought new in 2012. It now has 72k miles and has had no problems, except that a couple of times recently the nav system has crashed and won't reboot until the car is "rebooted". I haven't done anything other than oil changes, tires, air filters and the like. The original brakes are still good. I have always found it reasonably comfortable, but recently I got sent on a long trip for work in an SUV. I must admit my car suddenly didn't seem so comfortable after that.
posted by jkent at 2:23 PM on October 8, 2015

There have been a few threads, including one recently, about the Mazda 3. I was researching cars a few years ago and the Yaris, the Fit, the Corolla and the 3 were generally in the same price range/MPG and comfort and features. I went with the Mazda 3, partly because (I think) it had the most powerful engine and felt and looked a little more substantial than the others. Mine has less than 25K on it, but it's been great. It also comes with 24-hour roadside assistance for a certain period of time. Not sure if that's standard though, because I got suckered into the extended warranty.
posted by bendy at 6:59 PM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a new Prius C, which is supposed much improved over the older models in various ways. It's everything you want plus teeny, which can be a plus or minus depending on your point of view (I think it's a plus, super easy to park and turn). But we did manage to take 2 family vacations in it (2 adults, 1 toddler, could have fit another person). I get 55 mpg on the highway and 46ish in stop and go city traffic (higher with less traffic).
posted by Cygnet at 2:51 AM on October 9, 2015

I loved my 2008 Mazda3. LOVED it. Planned to drive it into the ground. Well, I sort of did, because I recently totaled it.* If I didn't hate the new look of the current Mazda3s I would have bought another one!

*the accident was totally my fault and I was not injured, which should speak to the safety
posted by raw sugar at 11:27 AM on October 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

AAA uses TrueCar as does Costco and the credit union. All buying services through TrueCar aren't the same. Costco's buying service through TrueCar gave me a slightly better price compared to AAA's price through TrueCar. The credit union and AAA's prices through TrueCar were the same. My best price came from the military discount. It beat it Costco's price through TrueCar.
posted by dlwr300 at 6:00 AM on May 17, 2016

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