Help me car
November 4, 2015 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I will be living in a city that requires a car for the first time and I'm kind of lost on how to approach this. Help?

I'll be moving from Chicago back to my hometown of Pittsburgh at the end of the month. In Chicago, I didn't have a driver's license or, accordingly, a car; I took public transportation everywhere. In Pittsburgh, I will absolutely need a car.

The facts:
- I'm looking for a compact or sub-compact car with 4 doors
- I like the look of hatchbacks
- Rear-view camera would be very nice
- I've always loved Honda Fits, but I'm worried it won't be powerful enough for those steep Pittsburgh hills in winter
- Car needs to be relatively low to the ground so my father with limited mobility can get into it
- Want to pay $300 or less per month
- Would love to pay $0 down, but could do up to a few thousand
- Will be used mostly for errands around town, but planning to do some trips within 100 miles or so

The questions:

1) Lease or buy? No one in my family has ever bought a car, so they've all been encouraging me to lease. I like the idea of paying toward owning something, though.

2) I've looked at the Kia Rio and Forte, Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Focus, and Hyundai Elantra, but I know so little about cars so that I'm having a hard time telling a difference between any of them outside of looks and price. Anything I should be comparing?

3) Ideally, I would be able to get a car within a few days of arriving at the end of November. What's the best way to car shop long distance?
posted by anotheraccount to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Fit is a great car (I have a '15 and I think it's the best thing ever) and I doubt it would have issues on the hills. Just make sure to get good snow tires (Blizzaks or something) and you'll be fine; the same goes for any car in The 'Burgh. Seriously, I cannot recommend a Fit enough.
posted by The Michael The at 8:32 AM on November 4, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'm personally a big fan of Subarus for Pittsburgh winters, but snow tires will get you the same effect. I'm just rubbish at remembering to do things like change tires until it's too late.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:36 AM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

We have a 2014 Sonic hatchback, and it does really nicely in western NY winters, which I'd imagine are pretty similar to, if slightly harsher than, Pittsburgh winters . The automatic traction thingy helps more than I expected. Would probably do even better with snow tires.

Non-car but related tip: If you haven't driven in a while, especially in the snow, go out to an empty unplowed parking lot during the very first snow and do some test driving - quick stops, quick starts, etc. Put the car and your driving skills through their paces in a place where there aren't others around for you to worry about.
posted by okayokayigive at 8:43 AM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a 2013 Kia Rio 5-door. It's very zippy, which is great when we drive around downtown in big cities--and also breaks on a dime. It's a subcompact, I believe, which means I can fit into all of the tiny parking spots, and it's surprisingly roomy when the seats are folded down. There's not a ton of space, but it's all very efficiently-designed space. It also has a rear-view camera, and honestly, I'd have a hard time going back to a car without one.

I'm in Florida, so I'm not sure how it would fare in winters (it is a bit low), and it does OK on the hills here, but Florida hills are a different beast from the rest of the country. My one complaint about the car is that the finish is a little cheap, and it's starting to wear off where I use it a lot, like on the interior door handle pull.
posted by PearlRose at 8:52 AM on November 4, 2015

Car needs to be relatively low to the ground so my father with limited mobility can get into it

I just wanted to comment on this one factor. You may be thinking 'not a high up SUV or truck', but be careful about cars, too -- they can be too low for people with mobility issues to easily get back up out of, especially if they're getting out on the passenger side next to a curb and they have to step across to the curb rather than down to the road. My father keeps a thick cushion on the seat of their Subaru Impreza because he otherwise has difficulty getting out of it again.

Cars with a more up-right sitting position can be better for this because the seats tend to sit a little higher. I'm not sure what those are at the moment, but the Yaris used to be like that, for example.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:21 AM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you do decide to check out Subarus, check with your local IL dealerships online as well as the Pittsburgh ones to compare, because I just went through the process of trying to buy a used Subaru locally and Subes in good condition fly off the shelves here. And are priced accordingly. You might get a better deal at a Chicago dealer.

I think Jacquilynne makes a good point about clearance being too low. We had an Acura for a while and even though I've got no mobility problems getting into it involved a certain element of falling. When we had to drive around our elderly aunt, she had a very hard time getting out of it. Something that's more of a crossover vehicle has a clearance that is high enough up that the seat is just slightly below butt-level, and you can easily swing your legs out when getting out.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:26 AM on November 4, 2015

Subaru Imprezza hatchback (5 door). Cute as hell, AWD for the winters, will run forever and ever, good gas mileage, can carry a bunch of your stuff.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1) Lease or buy? No one in my family has ever bought a car, so they've all been encouraging me to lease. I like the idea of paying toward owning something, though.

Do not lease, buy and buy used. When you buy a new car and drive it for a few years, it depreciates in value in a pretty predictable way. If you take the value of a car 24 months from now and subtract that from the purchase price, the difference is basically what you're paying for with a lease. Leases are good for people who feel like they need to have a new car every few years and their mileage is reasonably predictable (doesn't really matter if it's a LOT of miles or a little, so long as it's predictable). It also insulates you from used car value shocks. Volkswagen, for example, was just caught having cheated on emissions tests for their car with their TDI Diesel engines. Anyone who owned one likely saw the resale value of their car drop overnight. If they were leasing it, they just turn it into the lease company at the end of the lease and walk away. A owner needs to sell the car and eat the loss.

Even if those things appeal to you, you're still basically buying a new car and most of the depreciation on a car happens in the first two years. Since the lease is paying for that depreciation, they're usually not a very good value. Buying a brand new car is just generally not a good value.

I still love leases though because two-year lease returns are one of the BEST values you can find. Because people are terrified of getting charged for every little ding and because the cars just aren't very old yet, they're like 98% of a brand new car at 70% of the price.

Your next best option is a rental return. These are great when the car you want is pretty generic and you just want the basic options. Rental companies take extremely good care of their cars and they rack up a lot of miles in a fairly short period of time. So they end up being in pretty good condition but the extra mileage drives the prices down. And, since there hundreds of nearly identical examples of a given model. You'll often see a line of a specific model that are all rental returns with similar mileage and options and in a few of that model's easiest-to-sell colors and all selling for the same price.

My dad, who has been in the car business for over 25 years, thinks rental returns are the best way to buy a car. I like lease returns better but that's because I usually like more options and equipment than you can find on a rental return.

The next best option is a trade-in. When someone wants to buy a new car (whether it's brand new or just new to them) they often trade-in their old one and the dealer sells it to someone else. It's nice because the dealer usually has a bit of the story behind the car so you might be able to get a better feel for it's maintenance history than you could on something from an auction.

But, even though dealers inspect every car they sell and they typically try to avoid selling cars with issues, sometimes there are things that the dealer can't catch and doesn't know about. It's a little more likely to uncover some issue like that months after buying it (so it's your problem to pay for/deal with) with a trade-in than a rental or lease return. It's still not very likely, especially if you're buying something new. And, if it's still under the manufacturer warranty, you're not stuck with the bill and the dealer will be happy to fix it for you.

2) I've looked at the Kia Rio and Forte, Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Focus, and Hyundai Elantra, but I know so little about cars so that I'm having a hard time telling a difference between any of them outside of looks and price. Anything I should be comparing?

Reliability, insurance, and maintenance costs are the other big things. Most of those cars will have the same set of options (things like power windows and locks, iPod connectivity, nav systems, heated seats, etc.) but they might break them down differently so that to get some feature you really want, you have to pay for a bunch of other junk you don't care about it to get it one model but not on another. is a fantastic resource for all of that. Their "True-Cost-of-Ownership" (or TCO) stats are great, they have a ton of info about specific model lines, when things got redesigned (maybe the old model sucked but the newer one is great or vice versa), model specific issues. It's the resource I go to first when I get asked, "What car should I buy?" and I get asked a lot.

3) Ideally, I would be able to get a car within a few days of arriving at the end of November. What's the best way to car shop long distance?

Research specific models to knock some off the list and get down to 3 or so models that, at least on paper, will work for you. Then find examples of those car locally ( usually does the trick) and go drive them. Drive them back-to-back or at least on the same day. Then just pick the one that you liked driving the best. Tuesdays are usually the slowest day at a dealership and that is the day of the week that I'd pick to do it. After that, you should have things narrowed down to a specif model from a couple of model years. You might have a couple of options that you decide you need to have and some that you might like but don't need and you'll want to have a couple of different colors that work for you.

Next, start looking for examples of that car near where you'll be living and e-mail the dealership to let them know you're interested. They'll probably ask you to call them and/or visit the dealer. This is when you let them know your situation and they'll figure it out from there. Most likely, the e-mail goes to an "internet manager" who sells all the car sourced from internet leads. You'll let them know about other examples that you've found at other dealers. You want to make it clear that you've driven an example of that car, you like it, you want to buy one and soon. In fact, by that point, the only things keeping you from buying the car should be inspecting that specific example and the price. You'll have a good idea of what that car is selling for so you'll be able to tell them, "If you can make the price work, I'm going to buy your car, contingent on a mechanic's inspection. Don't be shy about letting them know that you're shopping around and it's totally okay to be excited to buy that car from them. A motivated buyer who really wants to buy a car will motivate the dealer to find a way to sell them one. If the only objection is the price, they'll find a way to make the price work if they can.

Then, when you get to town, all you'll need to do is take the car to mechanic to have it inspected (if it's a lease or rental return a test drive will do just fine but it can't hurt to have it inspected anyway) and then complete the paperwork and drive it home.

My posting history has a lot of other advice about buying cars that you might find helpful too.

Lastly, the Honda Fit is the standard "what car should I buy?" answer here on for good reason. It's a great little car and I think you'd be very happy with it. There are other cars that you "might" like better but that will be down to personal preference. Even the slowest cars today have plenty of power (well, for non-gear-head definitions of "plenty" anyways). Winter tires will make a bigger difference to your winter driving than the all-wheel-drive will (AWD) so you don't need to consider a Subaru (all of which are AWD) but they have several small wagons that would be a great fit. While winter tires > AWD, winter tires+AWD is better still.
posted by VTX at 9:42 AM on November 4, 2015 [17 favorites]

A lease basically locks you into having car payments forever. Buy a used car that's a year or three old. The longer you own a car without payments, the better off you are. No specific car advice other than that AWD is really nice to have in snow and ice.
posted by cnc at 10:07 AM on November 4, 2015

I drove an older Ford Escort for a few years in Pittsburgh and had absolutely no trouble at all with the hills, snow, etc., and I just had regular tires, never snow tires. It sat really low which helped a lot with stability; I once rented something larger which sat up higher (Toyota Corolla sized) and slid all over the place. Just a data point! Ford Escorts can be had for super cheap on Craigslist, are very reliable, and are cheap to fix.
posted by jabes at 10:13 AM on November 4, 2015

I live in Akron, which also has a lot of hills and a lot of irritatingly bad roads, and at some point it's less about how powerful the car is, and more about having decent tires and getting used to the fact that some roads just aren't going to be good roads to drive on in bad weather. Get a bag of sand and a small shovel to keep in your car, that'll go further for the winter than worrying about "power". Snow tires are good if you can manage it, but I'm talking even as far as "just making sure your all-season tires have enough tread and air in them" kind of thing. (I have been thinking about snow tires but storage is an issue.) Winter driving in a city is more about logistical planning than fancy gear. Leave early, don't rush to get where you're going. Also, get AAA and make sure you keep a phone charger in the car so you never get stuck somewhere without the ability to call them.

Winter driving all sounds pretty scary, but if you've negotiated public transit in the winter, you have the planning skills, you just need to learn the ropes. I know plenty of people who manage around here just fine with cars you wouldn't think would be very good in the winter, and I have known people with cars they'd brag about who got into bad winter accidents because they thought they could go faster than they could.
posted by Sequence at 10:36 AM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Lots of good comments so far! Just as a data data for your concerns about a Fit and winter hills, its the tires that make all the difference. I drive a Fiesta (similar to the Fit) in the mountains with an annual snowfall of 6 feet with excellent winter tires and have had no issues getting around. I used to have an awd drive vehicle, but decided to invest the money I'm saving in bas with a hatchback in winter tires on the advice of my mechanic and am loving it so far.

TDLR - if the fit meets all your other needs, you will have no problem getting around in winter with winter tires. See your local tire shop and Consumer reports for recommendations
posted by snowysoul at 11:12 AM on November 4, 2015

I generally agree with folks that buying a quality car that's only 2-3 years old can be a great strategy. There are a few exceptions, with cars that hold their value surprisingly well -- when we were shopping for a Civic last year, the 2-3 year old cars were all about the same price as the 2014 models, and in a few cases, more expensive. I know, crazy. I believe the same was true of the Fits (which we test drove and liked a lot but decided to go with a Civic in the end), so check prices on both new and used vehicles before just buying a used car on conventional wisdom.

Subarus are amazingly good in winter road conditions, it's totally true, though the trade-off is a bit lower MPG rating (by a few MPG) because of the all wheel drive. If you don't drive a lot, that trade-off might be worth it for you, however. We've actually rented Subarus for long distance travel in the winter a couple of times and driven easily through bad conditions that had cars and trucks off the road all over the place around us.

Be wary that no down payment might mean paying a lot more total in the long run because of interest. Be careful of car sales reps who try to make a deal with you based on low monthly payments or low down payments (usually over longer term and with higher interest) - make sure you know exactly how much total you will be paying.

A lot of people love leases because of the low monthly payment, but be sure you understand how much is owed for end-of-lease charges, particularly charges that kick in if you go over a certain mileage during the lease period or discretionary charges by the dealer due to wear and tear on the vehicle. I've known a couple people who have been badly burned by that. But if your family all lease their cars, you probably know the ins and outs of that already. Rule of thumb, if you're the kind of person who wants a new car every few years, better to lease; if you drive your car until it's an antique, you should buy.

Get offers from different dealers for the same model / year if you can, so you can use the competing offers against each other in negotiations. We saved over $1k just by having a print-out from another Honda dealer with a competitive offer, the one we bought from didn't even hesitate to match the lower price.

If you do buy a used car, be sure to get it inspected by a third-party mechanic, even if it's "used certified" or whatever the dealer you're at calls such a quality guarantee program.

Good luck!
posted by aught at 12:59 PM on November 4, 2015

I've always loved Honda Fits, but I'm worried it won't be powerful enough for those steep Pittsburgh hills in winter

I don't think there's been a car built in the last generation for which this would be a huge power problem. Cars usually have too much power in snow. Traction is very much a get the right tires issue.

Just don't let anyone tell you that all seasons are good enough on ice. And buy extra rims too, don't just swap the tires on the same rims.
posted by bonehead at 2:20 PM on November 4, 2015

1. You need to get a driver license, probably as a precondition to buying a car.
2. Go to Carmax. They will have their cars organized by type, with all sorts of different makes and models. You can sit in a bunch of different cars and see what you like and don't like. You can have a car brought over from a nearby store if it's one you're seriously considering. They are all late-model used, and you won't haggle over price.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:33 PM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in that if you are a member of Costco, you can also buy used cars through their program. We bought a used Subaru Forester (after scoping it out at the dealership), and I loved the process - there was no "Let me go talk to my manager..." crap. The price was the price, and was bout 2K less than their 'retail' asking price. Just be prepared to say "no thank you" a lot to the Financing guy, because he will try to sell you a bunch of stuff (undercoating, paint protection, extended warranty, etc). I think it's the only way I'll buy a car in the future.
posted by dbmcd at 2:37 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've now had my first car, a 2013 Honda Fit lease return bought through CarMax*, for close to a year. It's been a great first car and I think it ticks all of your boxes (although as I live in southern California, I can't comment on snow, but I haven't had problems on hills or bad roads.) Fits are in fairly high demand here so there was little price difference between used (with low mileage) and new; given the features you want, I would suggest playing around with the financing options and dealer incentives on new cars. I learned to drive on a Prius C with a rearview camera and it was amazing. It's pretty much the only upgrade I wish I had. I don't think the seats are particularly low in Fits, though you might want to invest in some seat cushions as the basic ones are kind of stiff. I was very close to getting a Fiesta hatchback and the interior/seats/steering wheel/actual arm rests were absolutely nicer. Super basic, but you will also need insurance set up before you actually drive off the lot; Carmax wouldn't release my car without confirmation of insurance. Good luck with the move and with car shopping.

*see previous AskMe for details
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:49 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know all the specifics of your situation, but perhaps to ease the transition back to Pittsburgh, you could forego buying a car for a bit and try out the transit and use our expanding Zipcar network. Of course, this would depend on where you are living, how much you need a car, etc. Pittsburgh has changed a lot in the past few years and it's definitely possible to live here without owning a car. I know plenty of folks who are making it work (especially in the downtown to East End corridor)

Otherwise, most cars will deal with the Pgh winters as long as one takes their time and is smart about when they travel.

Note: I say all this owning two cars here, but I do walk/bike/transit a fair amount.
posted by buttercup at 4:56 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

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