I need a car!
January 27, 2017 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Our beloved 2002 Jetta died on the road yesterday, and we need a replacement. And of course, since I'm a snowflake, details inside.

We were hoping to get at least one more year out of the Jetta, and we were going to spend a couple months doing some pretty deep research into replacements. But last night, the car died while I was driving home - it just revved hard once, the battery light went on, and then it died. Five minutes later, it started up again, which was good, but I now don't trust the car, and given that the blue book on it is less than $1000 at this point, we're probably just going to donate this car and accelerate our search.

Car research is not something I am sure I trust - I mean, I know where to find all the empirical evidence, and I am a member of Consumer Reports so I can see their detailed stuff, and I'm an analyst by trade so I'm 100% fine doing all that legwork, and know where and how to find it.

But I want anecdata from people in the real world who have driven the type of car we are looking for - I want to know what you like, what you don't, what works and what doesn't for you about your car.

We are looking for a super small car. Think Mini (not the Clubman, the two door), Fiat 500, Honda Fit. Maybe a Nissan Versa if we're feeling crazy, but you get the idea - we live in a condo in a city, have no kids, and don't drive every day (mostly on weekends), so don't want/need anything big or able to haul more than a couple big suitcases. We have access to Zipcar if we need to haul stuff, and as our car has aged we've rented cars to go on longer car trips so that's not a consideration, but I don't think we're quite prepared to not own our own car, either.

I think we'd prefer to stay around the $15K range, but could go a bit higher if need be; whether that gets us a new car (which I know it probably won't) or a reasonably well-kept used car isn't really a big deal. We could probably stretch that a bit if it would get us a bit more car, too, either in terms of options or age of car. Having a car that will retain its resale value is not a priority, except in that those are generally better built cars overall; we drove the Jetta into the ground and expect to do the same with this car.

So, tell me your experiences with cars like this - I'm open to hearing about other cars in this range that I haven't thought of, as well, as long as they fit the criteria above.
posted by pdb to Travel & Transportation around Portland, OR (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't driven one, but based on my experience with my 2010 Kia Forte and 2016 Kia Soul, I have to recommend you at least look at Kia.

The Rio might be a good fit.

The Soul is a little bigger/boxier, and slightly over your price, but I bet you can get it under your price for a 2016 model still on the lot.
posted by The Deej at 9:57 AM on January 27, 2017

I've driven Smart cars as a Car2go member and they are crap. Don't buy one of those.
My wife's sister has a Fiat 500. Also not good.
I like the Mini. You'll be buying used, since they're considerably more expensive (and it seems that nothing comes standard on them, so the price escalates quickly if you do contemplate buying new).
I test-drove a Fit, and found it to be fine, but that is the extent of my experience in one.
posted by adamrice at 10:05 AM on January 27, 2017

I'd look into a used Scion XD. We used to have one, and they're a great small car. Scion has been absorbed by Toyota, so there are no more new Scions, but the newish ones are still good. As a Toyota car, they're super dependable. They're tiny, and as a tall person, it can be a little difficult to see out the windshield, but your mileage may vary. I do love that they sit up a little higher than most cars. Looks like used ones are around $13k to $15k for 2013 models.

I have friends who love their Soul, and everyone who has a Honda Fit also loves that car. So you might just have to do some test drives to see what works best for you.

You can also add a Mazda 3 to your list, but their blind spots are huge. Toyota's Yaris is also similar to the Honda Fit.
posted by hydra77 at 10:07 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a 2007 Nissa SL Versa hatchback (with the CVT transmission) and I freakin' love it. Good gas mileage, very comfortable ride, good acoustics in the car (passengers in front and back seats can converse without having to shout or lean forward), a gazillion cupholders, and good storage space. The Versa Note gets 40mpg (mine gets about 32mpg) and still has the comfy seats, but has improved the storage where the back seats fold flat to the same level as the floor in the hatch (mine doesn't, although it hasn't been much of an impediment).

Mechanically, my car has been super reliable and largely trouble-free. The car is 10 years old this year, and I've had to do expected replacements on things Iike the struts, brakes, battery, etc. but honestly, I have really gotten my money's worth out of this car and then some. It's only starting to sound a little like a crabby old car now at 146k miles.

I preferred the Versa over the Fit because I didn't like the white dials (personal preference) and I like how much larger the Versa feels on the inside than the Fit does--the Fit is definitely smaller and also felt lighter and less substantial on the road to me. The Fit has a great reputation and is certainly an excellent vehicle. But I've enjoyed my Versa so much that I'm about 99% sure I'll buy another one when my current one finally craps out.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:19 AM on January 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't have a car, I can not drive. I know you said that you might not be ready to go without owning a car but given your driving needs and pre-existing use of a car starting service are you sure that actually true?

I note that in Portland for $15,000.00 over 10 years you could currently drive a zip car 3.5 hours a week ($7/mp + $7.75/hr) or take 413 10mile cabs ($2.50 + $2.90/mi + %15 tip) for the same money.

With no gas, parking, insurance or maintenance costs. Factoring those in your money might keep pace with inflation plus stretch another %20 or more.

I don't wish to ignore the phrasing of your question, just reiterating that my anecdotal advice might be 'don't buy a car'.
posted by mce at 10:21 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've ended up renting a lot of cars in the last few years. The 500 was interesting but I'd be reluctant to recommend it. The cheaper, smaller Kias and Hyundais I've driven weren't amazing cars or anything, but they had the same sort of well sorted car-ness that I associate with the Hondas of ten years and more ago. It would be worth looking at a Ford Fiesta, though at least one of my Ford rentals had transmission problems at well under 10,000 miles. I was very pleasantly surprised by... I think it was a Chevy Sonic (might have been a Spark) - not, you know, brilliant, but very competent - which isn't what you think when you think small, cheap Chevy.

Broadly, we're in a place where most of the established car manufacturers are actually pretty good at making a small car that handles competently, and seems to be built with a bit of care.
posted by wotsac at 10:23 AM on January 27, 2017

Have you considered an electric? I don't know how Oregon's incentives are, but California's incentives start a new LEAF at $14k, and operating costs can be lower.
posted by straw at 10:25 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

mce: it's on our list of things to consider, for sure. I don't want to commit to carless until we do the numbers, but it's a possibility. One factor there is that we have in-laws that live on the coast, a two hour drive away, and friends and activities we do that are far enough away that we'd probably need to rent cars often enough that it might spike the cost. But again, we'll have to do that math before we know.

straw: we've considered it, but if we get an electric we'd also have to pay to wire a plug to our parking spot and I'm not sure how much that is (or if it's worth it to pay for given our expected tenure at that condo), but that's not off the table either.
posted by pdb at 10:28 AM on January 27, 2017

For what it's worth, this sounds very much like an alternator issue (basis: 3 cars that have had alternators die). If so, it could be fixed for around $500 and you'd have no more reason to distrust the car than you did before this happened and you could resume your previous car-buying schedule.

If you do decide to replace it, my vote would be the Honda Fit.
posted by Kriesa at 10:35 AM on January 27, 2017

As you've no doubt noted, the Honda Fit is a favorite on AskMe.
We've had ours six years, and it's like the Civic hatchback's of old - you can fit SO MUCH in it, and it just keeps on running.
I say that it defies the laws of physics, because it's larger inside than outside.
My husband drives it comfortably at 6'1", so do I at 5'3".
Fuel economy is pretty good (sounds like the Versa is better) we get 24-27 around town and over 30 on the highway.
They hold their value well, and are sought after in some areas.
They also now come with a back-up camera, which is very appealing to me!
posted by dbmcd at 10:39 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Google says the Fit currently gets around 30 city/40 highway, which puts it on a comparable level with the Versa Note.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:46 AM on January 27, 2017

If there's power near your parking space, probably $500 to $1000, depending on how fast you want to charge. We (got a BMW i3, but considered the LEAF) bought an over-sized for our car commercial charger that was $835+tax, the next step down from ClipperCreek which will still max out a LEAF is $565 (and there are lower-end charger manufacturers, though ClipperCreek service has been awesome).

If you can stand a longer charge time, the price goes down...

I did the install, but installation would probably be < $200 if power is nearby.

If nothing else, test drive the LEAF. It's really hard to go back to internal combustion after all that quiet and low-end acceleration.
posted by straw at 10:48 AM on January 27, 2017

I've driven all those cars. I wouldn't buy, or ever drive again willingly, a Fiat 500 because I'm 5'11" and I had to hunch over to be able to see out the windshield. The other small cars were fine.

Definitely run the numbers on car free. I tracked pretty carefully before making my decision and I can book a car-share car for 8 full days a month before I approach the cost of buying another car, with all the associated costs.
posted by TORunner at 10:59 AM on January 27, 2017

My Honda Fit just turned 10 years old on Monday. I love the car -- the versatility of the back seats for hauling various combinations of cargo and people is unparalelled, and it's never given me any trouble. I have absolutely no plans to get a different car, but if I did, it'd probably be another Fit.
posted by zsazsa at 10:59 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was kind of in your situation last year (99 Jetta went kaput) and I ended up with an electric Golf. I am happy with it, but I do have power (we just use a regular exterior outlet, not a special charger) in my driveway and there are charging stations at work. But the incentives (state and federal) have reduced my cost of ownership incredibly.

And the Golf is a nice little car to drive generally. I probably would have bought a new or few-years-old Golf if I hadn't leased the e-Golf.
posted by vunder at 11:08 AM on January 27, 2017

My wife has been wanting a small car for a while, so we've test driven most of them. All things considered, the Mini is our favorite, but I actually loved the Fiat 500e (electric). The gas-powered Fiats didn't impress me at all (well, the Abarth is ok, but I don't know if I'd buy it as a daily driver). If you're ok with the limitations of the 500e, and are open to leasing, I think it's worth checking out. The lease deals can be amazing (I personally would only get one as a lease, though).

One thing I'd suggest (and something my wife and I have been discussing) is to think long and hard about why you want a "super small" car, and the reality of such cars in the market. Limiting it to the smallest sizes drastically reduces your options, and at least we've found that a lot of those cars are built to be the "cheap" option so they aren't just smaller versions of the other cars; the fit and finish is often worse, fewer options are available, etc. By opening yourself up to something somewhat larger, you I've found that you can get a much nicer car with similar gas mileage and only marginally harder to park, etc. But I understand that some people (my wife included) really just want as small as possible and are ok dealing with the tradeoffs. So I'm not saying don't do that, but try to be honest with yourself about what those tradeoffs are.
posted by primethyme at 11:18 AM on January 27, 2017

I have a Scion xD which would probably fit your bill, but word of warning: they have a custom tire size that can sometimes be difficult to track down when it comes time to swap them out. Otherwise, no complaints! I like my car very much.
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:24 AM on January 27, 2017

I love, love, love my hatchback 2010 Nissan Versa. It's small, it's cheap, has decent gas mileage, great visibility (I'm 5'0 tall, so that's always an issue), and it's incredibly reliable. I just took it to the shop for regular maintenance and asked them to check it since it's been awhile, and there was literally nothing to replace or fix, and it's a 2010. I love the size of the backseat - the seats fold down (easily!) so you can fit a ton of stuff in the back. I was in a similar situation as you - my 1998(?) Jetta died a couple of years ago, and I was between the Versa and the Fit. The Versa won out mostly because I found it used at Hertz for well within my price range, and the Fit was a bit too expensive. Like you, I drive very little and mostly on the weekends. If I had to buy another, I'd go for the Versa Note. It's even smaller than the Versa which makes it easier to park and probably slightly better on gas.
posted by onecircleaday at 11:24 AM on January 27, 2017

I wanted to love my Fit (2013) so much as I had friends who loved it, but I didn't -- and my mileage was way lower than I expected (especially after 12 years of driving a Civic). It also might be bigger than what you need -- mine was cavernous with what you could fit in it.

If I were looking at smaller, I'd be looking at Prius C -- although I just went bigger and traded my Fit for a Subaru.
posted by hrj at 11:37 AM on January 27, 2017

A Toyota Corolla is probably a little bigger than you're looking for, but I'm still going to suggest it. It's not a whole lot bigger than other cars already suggested, but the trunk is much bigger, and if you ever have someone ride in the back seat, the leg room is huge. I just bought a 2014 with 24k miles for $13,000 including taxes. Mine has the Eco package, which supposedly gets 38mpg highway. And Corollas are well-known for running forever. My favorite anecdote is that my dad had one when I was a kid that he drove over 200k, and then sold it to my cousin. My cousin still had it when we visited his family five years later. My experience with Corollas, and Toyotas in general, has been similar. Worth checking out.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:43 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a 2011 Versa hatchback, which I got after my 2001 Jetta was totaled. I liked it because it felt similar to drive. I was super broke so I got the base model, but you could probably get a used one with CVT and a few more bells and whistles for your price range. (They stopped making the Versa in 2012). It fits a ton of stuff in there (it's basically a knockoff of the Fit), and has a great turning radius, fits in small parking places, etc.

There's also the newer Nissan Versa Note, which looks similar but I think is on a different chassis. I'd check that out if it were me right now

Don't get a Mini, the parts and upkeep are expensive.

When I was looking at new cars in 2011 I was looking at the Fit, but I didn't like the way it drove for some reason. But I'd look at it again now for sure.
posted by radioamy at 12:06 PM on January 27, 2017

I went through a similar decision a few months ago, though I was looking at 1-3 year old used cars and am in a different country where the relative pricing may be a bit different. General driving conditions are similar to any city in the U.S.

I think I had similar needs to you. I'm single, living in an apartment in a city with some narrow roads and tight spaces. At the same time, I wasn't so limited by budget that I needed to settle for the cheapest econobox that we probably think of when we imagine subcompact cars from the 90s - I didn't need a ton of space, but was interested in features that would enhance safety and comfort.

The folks here and on the rest of the internet love their Honda Fits, but from what I can tell, the car's great strength is its near-miraculous ability to adapt to varying cargo needs. It's not a particularly fun car to drive, doesn't necessarily get better fuel economy than others in its class, and (in my opinion) is priced high because of Honda's reputation and the accolades from its fans who have been looking for a small car that can take the whole family camping on weekends. Plus it has an absurdly high resale value, a premium which seems to go straight to the manufacturer and never benefit the consumer. I decided that there were other options that better suited my needs.

I drove a Hyundai Grand i10 for a while, and sometimes regret not buying something like that. The "grand" is a bit bigger than the standard i10, but the turning radius and parking ability on that thing was still a joy. I found it to have plenty of pep on the highway, comfortable to drive, felt as solid as any car in its (very small) class, and well within your budget even for a version with bells and whistles. Hyundai does not have Honda's reputation but lots of folks who know more than I do about cars have claimed that it has improved by leaps and bounds while the Hondas and Toyotas of the world have coasted by on their good name. I eventually decided against getting the grand i10 because I realized that I could get significantly more room (I do go camping with friends sometimes, even if that's not my primary criteria in choosing a car) without sacrificing much cost or fuel mileage.

I test drove the Ford Fiesta and Focus, the Honda Fit, the VW Polo and Golf, and eventually settled on a 2013 Mazda 3 hatchback. I like it a lot. It feels solid and well-tuned, has good safety and reliability ratings, and has all the space I've needed in a variety of activities. I have the manual version with an engine that I think is smaller than any of the options available in the U.S.; it handles well and is a good driver with great mileage (42+ mpg) but I wouldn't want it in automatic. I don't find it significantly more comfortable or pleasurable than the Hyundai sitting in the driver's seat, though it surely is for passengers. It's still a compact, but it's harder to park and maneuver than the truly small cars.
posted by exutima at 12:08 PM on January 27, 2017

Consider the Yaris! I have one and have been very happy with it, although it is definitely a bare-bones kind of car experience. It's not, like, particularly comfortable or attractive. But it's a very reliable, functional little car. We use it for the same kind of stuff you do, it sounds like - weekend grocery runs and occasional short trips out of town, not daily commuting.

That said, as the car ages we've been talking about switching to a Mini, mostly for the comfort factor, even though as radioamy says maintenance is more expensive (my fiance had a Mini before we moved in together and when we downsized to one car we chose to keep the Yaris rather than the Mini because they Mini had a bunch of expensive problems and the Yaris just... worked).

You might want to just *try* going car-free for a while - it's not really any more work to buy a car after three months of being carless than it is to buy one right away.
posted by mskyle at 12:11 PM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Fiat and the Mini are known to be unreliable cars. In contrast to some other folks here, I had no problem fitting into the Fiat, and I'm 6'1". It seemed a little buzzy to me (as did the Fit when I test drove that). We have a Versa, and it's completely fine, has been 100% reliable and is roomy inside in spite of its small size.

It may be a little bigger than you're looking for, but five year old Priuses are going for around $10K where I live, and I can just about guarantee that a five year old Prius will be FAR more reliable than a two year old Mini.
posted by cnc at 12:16 PM on January 27, 2017

My dad loves his Fit. He can pack all of his camping gear in it and gets good gas mileage, but most of his driving is freeway. I wouldn't say that it's a fun car, just reliable with lots of space. If you don't need a lot of cargo space, then it may be overkill for you. I also don't find it especially comfortable (I thought my VW beetle was comfier), so if you're just using it for long car rides keep that in mind.

My MIL's fiat is always in the shop. But she loves driving it around when it's working.

If you're also interested in going carless stories: after moving to Seattle it took about a year for us to get rid of our car. We'd grown up in SE Michigan, definite car country. Even without a car payment Zipcar wound up being cheaper for us (YMMV) than keeping the car. Once we bit the bullet we wished we'd done it sooner. A big factor in being comfortable going carless was the density of zip cars in our area. There were a few in our building and a huge number within walking distance, so it was always easy to get a car for short trips or longer ones. When we moved back to MI and had to get cars again, moving to somewhere we didn't need a car became a priority even though we loved the cars we bought (VW GTI and a diesel Beetle, so not quite what you're looking for price wise). It's surprising how freeing it is not dealing with maintenance etc.
posted by ghost phoneme at 12:42 PM on January 27, 2017

If you are only driving on the weekends, crunch the numbers carefully to make sure that it makes more sense to buy a car than it does to just use ZipCar. In my case, ZipCar was by far the better option.
posted by wierdo at 1:09 PM on January 27, 2017

My Honda Fit just turned 10 years old on Monday. I love the car -- the versatility of the back seats for hauling various combinations of cargo and people is unparalelled, and it's never given me any trouble. I have absolutely no plans to get a different car, but if I did, it'd probably be another Fit.

Ditto. I love love love my Fit. Her name is Suzy. Crazy amount of cargo space, but still a small car. I've had Suzy for four years now, and she's never given me any problems whatsoever. Good on gas, pep when you need it -- she's a good girl. I won't need a new car for a long time to come, but when I do, it'll probably be another Fit, esp. since they're much more loaded with features now than my '13, and still the same price range.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:34 PM on January 27, 2017

We have a 2013 Honda Fit Sport and a 2014 Kia Soul Base. Both automatic.

I really like both cars. I would say, though, even if you're thinking super small, give the Soul a test drive. This car is really really roomy and comfortable to drive. The base model is still fairly well appointed. My wife drives it to work every day, and she's getting 32-34 mpg (with a fair bit of that being on a minor highway.) It feels so big and then you walk up to it when it's parked next to something like a Ford Edge and suddenly it looks tiny. Easy to park, and it's A off the ground a bit more than a sedan so you can see better and you also don't have to crouch at all to get in.
posted by azpenguin at 1:34 PM on January 27, 2017

There is a smaller Prius model, the c, but it doesn't get better mileage than the full-size version, and any hybrid is going to carry a price premium that almost certainly isn't worth it given your meager mileage. The Leaf could be a good choice if you can deal with the range. Normally leasing is a bad deal, but the leaf leases are very cheap, as long as you stay under the mileage limit which is sounds like you would.nn

We are super super happy with our Mazda3, especially when compared to cars of similar size like the Jetta/Corrola/Civic, and smaller ones like Yaris, Fit, and Soul. The Mazda interior just feels nicer, though we do have a manual, so the smaller engine might be not enough for you in an automatic, but it gets the advertised gas mileage. Mazdas have lots of standard features, too, including a very nice infotainment system, and we paid 18K out the door for a new one. The Mazda2 came out a few years ago and is smaller, so maybe take a look at that one.
posted by wnissen at 1:38 PM on January 27, 2017

Came in to plug my beloved Prius C, a hybrid. And it was not expensive - I got mine 2 years ago this May and spent $18K on a brand new one (they had an amazing deal going on) including 8 year service plan. I tested a bunch of cars as well. The Fit is great if you have a lot of cargo, but it honestly didn't feel very comfortable. I routinely get between 50 and 55 mpg!, the ride is comfortable, and while it's not the zippiest car ever, it drives great and has everything I need. Also, I gotta tell you, I am really happy to be in a hybrid - the feel-good factor is great.
posted by widdershins at 2:47 PM on January 27, 2017

I think of the Fit as comparable to the classic Prius or the Mazda3 hatchback, in terms of cargo/interior size; more of a compact than a subcompact, and maybe more car than you need. My 6' friend loves his Scion XD and chose it over a Fit because the Scion's driver seat pushes back further at maximum legroom (but then the rear legroom is nearly non-existent, do note). The Scion has very little trunk space without lowering the back seats, but that's on par for a subcompact and comparable to the Prius C--which I haven't tried, but there's a rave review right above me and I do love my Prius.
posted by serelliya at 4:24 PM on January 27, 2017

I drove a Toyota Yaris hatchback for a year or so and loved it - never any issues, and a great driving experience in my opinion. It felt sporty and responsive, and it was tiny, but I still felt safe in it on the highway. And the mileage was a dream.

I had a 4-door, but they make 2-doors too (or made? I'm not sure what has happened to Yaris since 2015) if you want even smaller.
posted by invincible summer at 5:00 PM on January 27, 2017

A good friend had a Chevy Spark. I would never think to buy a small Chevy, but it had been very reliable (she has an hour commute each way to work), and it is surprisingly comfortable for such a tiny car.

I drive a 5 year old Mazda 3. I get 35 mpg around town and 41+ on the highway. It definitely is and feels bigger than the Spark, but it's not a big car. It has been insanely reliable, requiring no work after 140k miles. It's the 4th Mazda I've owned, and they've all been built better than they have to be and very reliable. Maybe look at a Mazda 2 is the 3 seems too big?
posted by jeoc at 7:18 PM on January 27, 2017

A used Nissan Leaf can be really inexpensive, as long as you don't need to go very far.
posted by coberh at 10:07 PM on January 27, 2017

« Older What companies make good quality stuff without...   |   Did you see a photo from the Women's March of an... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.