Noob car buying questions
March 11, 2017 9:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm almost 50 and just got my driver's license. I'm considering buying a van or SUV or VW Bus so I can take road trips with my dog. Do you have any advice for someone buying their first used vehicle? Also, I'm in Canada and have considered buying a used car in the US and then driving it back (and road tripping a bit on the way), but I cannot make head-nor-tail of how hard it is to drive a car back -- what fees are involved and such. Would hate to buy a car and be told at the border that I can't import it or the costs are crazy prohibitive. Any help appreciated.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy to Shopping (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Should you import a car from the U.S.? Financially, the answer is very often – no. The expense and work required to import a vehicle is substantial. However, if you are making a purchase of a vintage car or another vehicle with sentimental value then keep reading.
posted by blob at 9:34 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

Here is a blog with an Australian's experience buying a van and driving from Vancouver to Newfoundland. Some parts of this would apply to Canadian citizens as well.
posted by blob at 9:41 PM on March 11

Have any used car checked by a good mechanic before you buy it.

Also Consumer Reports is a good resource.

How much do you expect to spend?
posted by maurreen at 9:47 PM on March 11

If you just got your licence and you learned to drive in a modern car with ABS and power steering and all sorts of amenities, then I highly suggest you don't buy a VW Bus as your first vehicle. Get something that feels (at least) somewhat familiar to you. Honestly, you're still in learning mode, so don't make things any harder for yourself and take on not only something that drives very differently that what you've already experienced, but also due to its age, presents you with the possibility of breaking down and requiring obscure parts to fix.

As mentioned above, the only time you want to bring a car in from the States is when it's a classic or rare in some way shape or form. For just a regular daily driver, you don't want to do that. It's just too much of a hassle.
posted by sardonyx at 10:01 PM on March 11 [11 favorites]

A VW bus/Westfalia is probably not a great choice for a first car. Even the newest of these is pretty damned old now and I can say from experience that, while I lurv the Westfalia, driving mountains with one sucks. If you are looking to do some camping in your car, I might suggest getting a vehicle like the Honda Element. It's an easy driving vehicle with a solid repair history and it has a cargo area large enough to build a platform bed into with storage underneath. There are also tents you can buy that will work in concert with a hatchback or van that can make your camping more enjoyable. You might be able to pick up a used van from a contractor. I'd look for something in the sweet spot of small enough to be comfortable to take through a drive-thru but big enough to sleep stretched out in back with the dog. If you are short enough, I can't say enough nice things about my old Rav4 and would totally take one camping.

When I am looking for cars, I try to narrow in on a few makes I like and run any I see through Kelly Blue Book to see what they are really worth. Take any you are serious about buying to a mechanic to check out, certainly test drive a lot to get a feel for them.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:35 PM on March 11 [7 favorites]

If you're leaning SUV I'd like to put in a good word for Ford Explorers. I've always had a Ford Explorer or pickup so I might be biased. Right now I'm driving around a 2004 Explorer that I bought a year and a half ago for $2700. My car before that was/is a 1996 Ford Explorer that I drove around for almost 10 ears after buying it for $4000. It now lives out west and I drive it maybe 3 weeks a year doing prep work for a big desert festival. It has well over 200k miles.

I like Explorers because after doing research I've found that they've got the most cargo capacity on the skinniest shortest frame for a four door that you can also lay 4x8 sheets of plywood flat in the back. I can't buy an Explorer more recent than 2005 because they grew substantially wider and longer at that point, and parking in NYC and driving in Brooklyn are near daily events, so shortness and skinniness are high up on my list of car priorities.

My current car I've put nearly 50k miles on in the year and a half I've had it, half of it harsh bumpy industrial city street driving, half highway. Mileage is much better in this one than the last once, and I'd guess on highway it's maybe 18 miles a gallon.

As a dog person, the SUV works well for me. I have at varying times threw a piece of foam in the back and slept in the car while camping for a few nights. It's comfortable enough for a few nights, but obviously not as comfy as a van setup could potentially be. But I feel like if you plan to drive it frequently it's easier to maneuver around in than a van.

Most of this might not pertain to your situation, but as a dog/human transportation device, it's worked very well for me.
(one final note, as much as I dislike leather seats, I do look for them when buying specifically because they're easier to clean and de-doghair than fabric seats, I use shearling wool seat covers to prevent winter coldness and summer stickiness that leather seats give you).
posted by newpotato at 3:11 AM on March 12

Do you want to be able to camp/sleep in it as you travel? A minivan with seats removed works well for that. Are you planning on traveling in the winter? You'll want 4 wheel drive and most minivans don't have that but some do. What kind of dog do you have, and how big is she or he? If your dog is not gigantic and you don't plan to sleep in your car then a small 4 wheel drive SUV is probably your best bet.

Yeah, forget about those stupid VW buses.
posted by mareli at 3:37 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

If possible, rent one and try it out. Driving a few K with the sales agent in the passenger seat won't provide salient info, like "how much noise does it make on the open road?" Or "does it leak when it rains?" Or "where are the drafty spots when the heater's going." Minor annoyances like these can be a drag on a long trip.
posted by Jesse the K at 6:13 AM on March 12

Unless you're a mechanic, don't get a bus. My other half owned a bus for years (along with a second, defunct, "parts bus," if that tells you anything) and he has so. many. stories. of having some random thing break and leave him stranded until he could Macgyver some fix that would get him home. According to him, they're fixable; but they're temperamental and don't have a lot of power (which is why you don't want to take one in the mountains).
posted by AV at 6:36 AM on March 12

Thanks for the answers, folks.

I would want to sleep in it, yes. I'll heed advice re: bus. Thanks.

Does anyone have any opinion on Subaru Sambars? They seem very fuel efficient, look more like a camper than a van, and are relatively cheap.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:08 AM on March 12

The Subaru Sambar was designed as a urban vehicle. It's basically powered by a motorcycle engine. It would be a very poor choice for mountains or distance. Very underpowered, and not stable in winds.
posted by blob at 7:25 AM on March 12

You might look at the FAQ for reddit's van dwellers subreddit.
posted by blob at 7:32 AM on March 12

We imported a U.S. car (that we already owned) to Canada in the mid-2000's. One of the requirements for us to get our Canadian license plates was that we have the car retrofitted with a daytime running lights kit. I don't remember how much that cost, but probably on the order of $1k. Yet another thing to consider about importing.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:40 AM on March 12

You could consider a Chevy Astro van with full time AWD. They stopped making them in 2005, but they have a cult following. Bigger than a mini-van and smaller than a full size, they have plenty of room to sleep in. The AWD drive is great in the snow. They also very safe, they have the lowest incidence of death for the driver of any vehicle. The last two years are the best, they upgraded to larger brakes/heavier suspension. You could also look for a full size chevy/gmc van, they are also available in AWD, but are going to get worse mileage.
There are a number of websites and youtube channels dedicated to living/traveling in vans/cars, look up Hobo Ahle for an example.
posted by 445supermag at 8:13 AM on March 12

I know people who have imported cars, and if you are worried about the fees then you cannot afford it. Buy your car in Canada.
posted by jeather at 9:07 AM on March 12

I'd probably go for a common, recent as possible minivan. I haven't had one in 20 years, but they seem perfect for what you're doing, with a long flat floored cabin, decent headroom, somewhat more efficient (I'd guess), and forgiving driving dynamics. You give up a little capability because of the limited ground clearance, but unless you're going deep up unpaved roads on a regular basis, you're not going to notice- you can get a regular car up a pretty bad road with just a touch of patience.
posted by wotsac at 9:52 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

A VW bus is one of the worst pieces of junk ever manufactured, in any vintage or trim. Avoid like the plague. Dangerous as hell too.
posted by spitbull at 10:33 AM on March 12

Go to Edmunds and look at reviews. Read lots of them. Know exactly what you want before you go anywhere near a dealership, and know what you are going to pay. Don't haggle, don't waffle. Say, "I want X vehicle. Assuming it passes an inspection and it drives the way I expect, I'll pay X thousand dollars." If X is within a few hundred dollars of the adjusted MSRP, you'll walk away with a good vehicle at a fair price.
posted by jwhite1979 at 10:53 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

We road-tripped and camped in a Dodge Grand Caravan which we bought very used for $1200. Its rear seats folded down to be a very comfortable bed, and it lasted us another hundred thousand miles only giving in after a large oak fell on it. I'd happily get another.
posted by anadem at 11:37 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Vintage VWs are not beginner vehicles, driving or maintaining. If you love the idea of the VW bus, they're coming out with a new microbus this year.. in a few years, pick one up used and it'll (almost certainly) be a better experience.
That said, my family's long-time Volvo mechanic road trips in Subarus​, I think he's on his third Outback, and recommends them to everyone.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:51 AM on March 12

I live in Banff where half the population are Aussies who are used to converting vans into something you can sleep/road trip in. The most common vehicles you see are old Chevy Astros and Dodge Caravans. They take out the back seats (easy to do, it's just a lever) and the put in a 2x4 and plywood frame elevated enough to hold storage bins and throw a mattress pad on top of that. Assuming you are far from banff these vans are easy to come by. Get one from a soccer mom that had regular maintenance at 120,000km (timing belt, fuel pump) and has less than 150,000km and you should be able to drive it for another 80,000km with regular maintenance.
posted by furtive at 2:42 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]

I'm also someone who likes the sleep-in-the-car option, and would recommend looking at station wagons. When I last looked, the Mazda 5 and Hyundai Elantra wagons looked like the best deals in terms of space/fuel efficiency/cost. The classic car for this approach is the Volvo 240, but they generally have a cultlike status at this point that isn't worth paying for unless you've got the sentimental attachment and knowhow.

If you think you'd need the wheel clearance, crossover SUVs would also be a good way to go (something like a Honda Element). I've even seen a pop up camper top on an Element and it looked hella cool for serious roadtripping, though it's probably not cheap. But SUVs will be pricier and use more gas.

Anyway, for general buying tips, Consumer Reports has great resources.
posted by veery at 3:41 PM on March 12

445supermag: [Astros]" also very safe, they have the lowest incidence of death for the driver of any vehicle. "

Astros (and their GMC Safari sisters) are semi-death traps; even with the lower standards of 15 years ago they performed poorly in crash testing. The low deaths per unit is a reflection of their business class use rather than inherent safety. As a new driver you would be much better served safety wise by a family oriented minivan.

Also I'm not sure about the exact numbers but their isn't much difference in interior volume between a Grand Caravan and the Astro. Both will fit full size sheets of plywood. Both were available with AWD in 2005 (and the Caravan for years afterwards). The Caravan will get better gas mileage and is IMO more comfortable and easier to get into. The Astro's dog house intrudes awkwardly on the front passenger leg room. The Caravan is way quieter inside on the highway. Really the only advantage of the chevy is its very large for the class towing capacity (because it is essentially a truck in vans clothing).
posted by Mitheral at 9:15 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Sadly, minivans of all stripes are (relative) deathtraps for front passengers. There just isn't enough room between the bumper and the cabin to absorb anything but the most minor crash loads. Late 00s RAV4s are a good size, have available part time four wheel drive, and are decently roomy in the back with the rear seats down. Enough to fit a sheet of plywood, lengthwise, but not quite in terms of width, anyway. They have decent ground clearance, drive well, and do quite well in the mountains, at least with the V6 motor, which they dropped with the '12ish restyle. 2009 or later is best, since the center console cubby is big enough to hold a modern smartphone and they have a button to turn off traction control rather than having an esoteric pedal pushing/parking brake lifting thing you have to do. I consider that important because the TC can be slightly dumb when trying to start moving on particularly sloppy snow.

You do give up the rain-shielding lift gate, though, so that may be a consideration.
posted by wierdo at 3:37 PM on March 13

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