Recommend a ~$5000 used commuter car for the tall of torso
October 28, 2017 5:44 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way for a novice to buy a reliable mid-2000s car in the Bay Area? What makes/models/dealers/websites do you recommend?

I work in Berkeley, about a 30 minute walk from the North Berkeley BART, and I'm staying in Orinda for at least the next few months. My walk-BART-walk commute is currently 1 hr 15 minutes when everything goes right, longer when it doesn't. Driving is 30, even in rush hour. Adding a bike would speed up the trip to and from BART, but I don't love city cycling and I'd have a hell of a time getting my bike on the train at 8 am/5pm in any case.

So if I need a car, I'd like to get something cheap and reliable. Don't care about style or fun-ness to drive. I'm not a home mechanic, and I don't intend to become one -- when something goes wrong with the car I will put up with it, or pay someone else to fix it. My wishlist:

1. Headroom -- I'm 6'3" with a tall torso
2. Will likely last, without major ($500+) repair, for at least 3 years. I know about replacing tires and oil changes and belts; I'm trying to avoid anything that'll need a new engine or something else expensive that I'm not considering.
2. Fuel efficiency
3. In the neighborhood of $5,000, maybe maybe 7k if there's a great argument for spending more (but then I'll have to wait another month or two to earn the extra $$ -- not gonna buy on credit)
4. Probably Japanese
5. Good visibility: I used to drive a 1988 Civic with a super sloped-down front hood, which gave GREAT front visibility for parking and in traffic. Not a must, but the bigger the windows/the smaller the pillars, the better.

I don't care about room in the back seat or trunk, really. Realistically I'll be in this alone or maybe with one other person. I'd be happy with a 2-seater, but there aren't a ton of those out there. First and foremost, this is gonna be a to-and-from work vehicle with occasional car-camping weekend trips. For anything longer or more ambitious, I'll borrow something with a bed, more clearance, 4wd, whatever. I mean if I could find an Outback for this price, I'd love that, but since that's not likely I'll just take whatever boring sedan I can count on to last for a few years with little drama

Searching on Craigslist and Autotrader, I think I can get a mid-2000s Accord or Civic with 100-150k about 5 grand, or maybe a little more. I like Hondas, having driven a couple into the ground as a kid. I've rented a 2013 Accord a couple times, and I LOVED it. Tons of glorious, glorious headroom, felt nice and peppy, everything felt well designed and thoughtful. I don't have the scratch for something that new, but between the 1997 Accord I learned on and the 2013 I drove recently, I think that'd be a good one to consider.

Would you advise I look at a Camry or Corolla or something else of a similar vintage instead? Why? Are any of these especially cheap to insure? Hyundai? Mazda 3? Something else that they make a ton of, so repairs are reasonably affordable?

What am I failing to consider in my search?

Where'd you get your car in this area, and what'd you learn that you wish you knew before?

Carmax only has cars newer than 2006, I think, and I didn't see many in my area for under 10k. If you used them, why'd you like it? How about or a trade-in at a dealership? Any anecdotes help, even if they're not directly relevant to my sitch!

I found one or two possible cars on my local NextDoor site. What do we think about that, gang?

Given that I'm ignorant about cars, do you think I should steer away from Craigslist or other peer-peer sales? I will of course have a mechanic give anything I'm considering a look-over, but I don't know what else to do to screen out lemons, other than look for listings with "clean titles" and google about notoriously bad years for __ model. I guess also searching the VIN to make sure there's been no major crashes -- Any other resources to avoid a bad buy?


A coworker heard what I'm looking for and offered to sell his 2002 Volvo, I forget the model, that has only 63k on it (it was his mother-in-laws and he doesn't need two cars). It's a convertible, if that helps you car enthusiasts ID the type. I trust him to disclose what he knows -- he's not going to knowingly sell me something terrible since we sit together and he's not a creep -- and he only wants something like 3-4k for it, which he said is about the Blue Book value. Things that make me hesitant: I know Volvos tend to need more, and more expensive maintenance than Japanese cars of a similar age. If however this one is 2k cheaper than what I'm willing to spend on a car with double the mileage, would it be dumb to just budget that extra money for repairing weird electrical problems or whatever? Is a 2002 Volvo much more costly to insure than a 2006 Honda Civic/Accord? What should I ask him when he brings it in on Tuesday for me to test drive? I'm sure the mileage on the Volvo will be worse--what else will be? Conversely, what is nice about Volvos other than their famed safety?

If the Volvo looks good and I can get in without bonking my head and the mechanic signs off, does it seem reasonable to expect it to last another 20 or 40k miles without having to like, replace the transmission? From what I can tell they seem to last a long time on the road, but is that because their owners are tossing tons of money into keeping them alive? Other than oil changes and tire rotation, am I gonna constantly be replacing belts or electrical components or something else Volvos of that era are famous for? I've never had a convertible before and think I'd drive with the top up almost always. I'm sure it'd be nice every so often to put down, but mostly I expect it'd be annoying for visibility and obviously less durable than a normal roof. Berkeley is so temperate that I'm not worried about the top handling snow or sweltering heat or insulating poorly -- what are the other hassles of convertible ownership I'm not considering?

For those who hung around through this longwinded AskMe, thanks! I'll threadsit if you have qualifying questions.

I appreciate any feedback or suggestions for dealers, car makes and models, insurers, anything really.
posted by andromache to Travel & Transportation around Berkeley, CA (27 answers total)
The most comfortable-sitting car my husband (6'2") and I (5'10", sturdy-assed) have ever had was an early-00s Scion xB. Yes, the one that was almost perfectly rectangular. I still see a few on the road, probably the few that weren't purchased by high school kids who wanted to put a Bazooka subwoofer in the back (we bought new but it had already been ordered and then not purchased; it had the subwoofer) and subsequently left smoking in a ditch.

If I remember right, they were maybe Toyota-Lexus chassis and powertrain, they were just cheapie on the plastics and doodads (no cruise control, for example).
posted by Lyn Never at 6:37 PM on October 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Was the Volvo a C70?
The C70 convertible exhibited two negative traits endemic to convertibles: poor rear visibility[21] and pronounced scuttle shake,[22] a characteristic whereby the structural design of the bulkhead between engine and passenger compartment of a convertible suffers sufficiently poor rigidity to negatively impact ride and handling, allowing noticeable vibration, shudder or chassis-flexing into the passenger compartment.
My 6'3 - 6'5 brother and nephews all drive Subaru Foresters.
posted by Thella at 6:46 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a tall guy, I have found that comfort is entirely subjective. Some other tall guys like what I like, and some don't.

Honestly, you're just going to have to try it to see. As to the Volvo - They can be decent cars. Pretty much any car post 1995 should be able to get to 100,000 miles.

Any used car will have problems you can see, and ones coming you can't. The question you can answer is - does it have any obvious and discernable issues at this moment ? Do you like it ? Then it's probably a decent purchase. The rest is just luck - roll your dice.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:57 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should go by the Buggy Bank in Berkeley and try out a few cars in your price range. It's less hassle than Craigslist, and less of a markup than a used car dealership.
posted by Wavelet at 8:17 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few that might be worth a look:

2003 Subaru Forester.

2007 Forester.

2004 Outback.

2007 Legacy sedan.

Avoid 2.5 liter Subarus between 1996 and 2002, when head gasket problems were endemic. I'm a Subaru fan. My first, 1993 Legacy wagon: bought at 120k mi, finally sold for $1 at 313k miles. My second, 2005 Legacy wagon: bought new, now at 215k miles and still my favorite car ever.
posted by jet_silver at 8:25 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Building off the previous post. I am a 6'3" all torso man. Do get a Subaru, do NOT get the Legacy. It's too small for me.
posted by sanka at 8:45 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

My hubby is the same - 6'3" with a long torso. He had so much trouble with Hondas, so now we avoid them. He's doing okay in my old Camry, and he's totally fine in the Toyota Sienna (minivan) but he did the best in his Ford F150; that's not a commuter car though, hence the Camry. If parking weren't an issue he'd stick with the Sienna for daily driving.
posted by vignettist at 9:13 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm only 5'11" and I found the Mazda 3 to be uncomfortably small in terms of head and leg room. The 2001 Civic and 1999 Jetta I owned previously were both much better.
posted by 256 at 9:39 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also: I've bought vehicles outright off craigslist before, and you can get very good deals. But you need to go into it eyes wide open with the assumption that there's about a 10% chance you're going to get completely screwed. If getting screwed out of the cost of a craigslist vehicle would completely fuck your life, then you shouldn't buy a craigslist vehicle.
posted by 256 at 9:41 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you considered a VW Beetle? I bought my 2008 standard two years ago this month used at a dealership for just under $6000 and it had less than 60k miles on it. I’m not particularly tall, but I’ve heard it recommended for taller drivers. It has amazing visibility (people often describe it as a fishbowl). The only major criteria it doesn’t meet on your list is great mileage, but it’s not terrible either. I’ve had to do a couple repairs on it thus far, but nothing critical and nothing over $400.
posted by jaksemas at 10:25 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Volvo or any European car like VW use imported parts which make repairs more expensive. Any beater in the $5K cost range will probably deal with some repairs.
posted by ovvl at 10:30 PM on October 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm 6' with a long torso. Toyotas tend to work well for me. One not on your list that I would suggest is the Corolla or, if you prefer at hatchback, the Matrix/Pontiac Vibe. I had a Matrix for years and loved it. I've now got a Subaru Forester and find it comfortable as well.

Cars I would dis-recommend, as just not having enough headroom include Mazdas, especially the 3 class, the smaller Nissans and most especially the VW Golf or Jettas. I don't think I've ever been comfortable in any VW I've ever been in.
posted by bonehead at 10:41 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Go with what you're already naturally enthusiastic about: a Honda Accord. I bought a Civic recently and the handling and steering is a joy to use everyday. And you cannot go wrong with an Accord - Accord owners are one of the most happy batch of car owners there are, according to consumer reports.

Add to that the general reliability (Honda story above notwithstanding), and extremely low maintenance costs, and you have a very attractive option.

The Civic and Accord models are stolen a lot (apparently), mostly due to the sheer number of them on the road, but anti-theft tech has slowed down the rate of stolen Hondas (warning: auto-playing video).

The only downside is that they retain their value so buying a used (well-maintained) cheap one is hard to find. I'll probably get an Accord at some point as they're generally rated very highly, and the new Accord has packed in so much tech and features that it's really unbelieavable. (Sorry, Hondafan kicking in...) Did I mention multiple reviewers have commented that the interior feels like a luxury car?

So, yeah - go with a used Accord, or Civic. I mention the Accord as you loved the one you drove previously. 2006 Accord should be at the top of your price range.

I visited a number of dealerships, but I'm guessing you'll be visiting Berkeley Honda, a dealership I didn't visit...

RE: pillars. Unfortunately many car manufacturers have larger pillars for safety reasons, however the front of Hondas are very good in terms of visibility.

Wow. I could talk Hondas all day. Hope some of this helps!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:53 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Keep an open mind about the Volvo, and see what you think of it. I'm sure I remember reading that they are well-known as the brand with the second-highest number of vehicles still on the road: something like 95% of all Land Rovers ever built are still going, and 90-something percent of Volvos. They are known for lasting forever. Yes the parts will be more expensive, but on a 2002 model you won't be paying for brand new manufacturer's parts or taking it to a main Volvo dealership for servicing. And at 3-4k you will have a bit in reserve anyway. A 2002 Volvo with 63k on it is only just nicely run-in.

Also, as a fellow 6'3" bloke, there is something about not having a roof that makes a big difference. I don't drive a convertible all the time, but for the last 25 years at least one car in the household has been a convertible -- I wouldn't have it any other way.
posted by tillsbury at 11:17 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

follow-up to above: only ever lived in UK and New Zealand, so it's not like I need the convertible for Miami weather or anything...
posted by tillsbury at 11:19 PM on October 28, 2017

Best answer: Subaru Foresters have a ton of headroom. We just picked up our second one, a 2005, for $3750. It’s a 5-speed, basic trim model with 175k miles. These things usually last to 250-300k. We verified through Carfax records it had already had its timing belt replaced, along with some other bigger maintenance tasks that make us feel like we’ll get a few years out of it before major things are needed.

TLDR: Get a Subaru Forester for headroom and longevity. Check the Carfax report for maintenance records. Have a mechanic check it out before handing over money.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:58 AM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also: I've bought vehicles outright off craigslist before, and you can get very good deals. But you need to go into it eyes wide open with the assumption that there's about a 10% chance you're going to get completely screwed. If getting screwed out of the cost of a craigslist vehicle would completely fuck your life, then you shouldn't buy a craigslist vehicle.

I just bought a car with a 5k budget and I haclve to say that most dealers offering significant stock in my price range felt more likely to be ripping me off and pulling one over on me than the individuals I met with, fwiw. Also, the cars are usually 10-30% more expensive.

I have a matrix (bought 2 months ago for $4800, 130k miles, private seller, as a data point.) I am short, but my partner is 6' and seems to have plenty of room. However, I feel like it has poor visibility out the back and sides with large pillars, so it might not be the choice for you.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:58 AM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a tall guy, I have found that comfort is entirely subjective. Some other tall guys like what I like, and some don't.

I agree. A friend is about the same height as me and owned a Corolla. He found it comfortable; I felt like I was crouched in a tiny space with my head bent against the roof. Same thing with a Honda Fit that another friend owned; they loved it, I felt like the seats needed to move back another foot. There's no substitute for sitting in cars and seeing what fits.

If you already know Accords fit well, they are great cars if you can find one in good condition. A used Volvo wouldn't scare me either, as long as you had the money available in case of repairs; the reliability will likely be worse than a Honda but even Hondas can have problems.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:00 AM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

In a similar situation, I purchased a car from a bodyshop/dealership that only sells cars with salvage titles. The dealership I used usually gets their cars from regular dealerships that get hit by big hail storms and need to unload cars with significant hail damage. I've found the car prices to be around $3,000-$4,000 less than the typical price for the same model/mileage with a clear title, which at your price point can make a huge difference in the type of car you can get for your budget.

If you read online, you'll find all sorts of horror stories from people buying salvage title cars, but I had a great experience doing it and so have several of my friends. I just got rid of my last salvage title car (a 2003 Pontiac Vibe that I bought for $7,000 in 2007) after driving it just over 110,000 miles over the course of 10 years. There can be a little bit of added risk with a salvage title car, but honestly, any $5,000 car purchase is a little bit risky. It might be worth asking around to see if you can find a reputable salvage title dealer in your area.
posted by mjcon at 9:11 AM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a 2008 Honda fit, and that's worked well for my 6'2" frame. Fuel economy is very good and it's been very reliable. Based on a quick search, you should be able to pick up a used model of that vintage in your price ballpark.
posted by Cogito at 12:31 PM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

The problem with salvage title cars right now is that a huge number of them just coming into the market are cars that flooded in recent storms.

Best to look for a car that's been local its whole life (assuming your area hasn't had flooding recently) and has a clean title, although that is actually no guarantee. A CarFax subscription can be handy for such things in many states, though again, a clean CarFax is no guarantee.

The best used cars come from friends who you trust to give you the full history, assuming they maintained it well (enough), of course.
posted by wierdo at 7:29 PM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A wealth of useful information. Hail the glorious Hivemind! I'll add Subaru Outback and Forester, Fit, Corolla, Beetle and Vibe to my search. Thanks all, and particularly:

jet_silver, thank you for the CL links. All 4 of those look viable.

weirdo, that's an intriguing idea. I'll poke around in the salvage world.

joseph conrad is fully awesome, thanks for validating my preference! High five.

Thella, I appreciate the intel on the C70. I'll weigh back in after I meet the Volvo.

Thanks, guys. If you're interested, keep dropping your tips here -- I'm reading them gratefully. Whether it takes a few days or a month for me to decide, I'll report back with the final verdict.
posted by andromache at 7:54 PM on October 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

My brother is tall of torso and the Outback Sport (his was a 2001, don't know how long they made them) was just enough extra headroom to be worthwhile, he claimed.
posted by freezer cake at 2:22 PM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another vote for a Scion xB. I have a 2005 and it's still tootling along just fine. It's great for tall people -- my son is your height and fits in it fine. The visibility is the best of any car I've driven. It's Japanese (it's made by Toyota, although that year doesn't say so anywhere). Consumer Reports recommends it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:45 AM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: UPDATE 1: I took the Volvo out for a spin. It was in really nice shape for a car of its vintage, and had tons of headroom. It felt... to nice for me, if that makes sense? The thing I didn't love was that it felt a bit creaky going over bumps, of which there are many in my area. The owner acknowledged as much and noted it'd been on the east coast for most of its life; he theorizes that rust may be a factor. That, plus the higher cost of repairs and likelihood that it'll need more of them than a Japanese car leads me to the conclusion that I'm going to pass on it even though it is a total bargain for someone who wants a sporty convertible.
posted by andromache at 10:00 AM on November 7, 2017

It's entirely possible the squeaking is just worn suspension components that could be replaced relatively easily. Even if the owner has replaced the shocks or struts and the coils aren't badly rusted, you can get some good squeaking from worn bushings or other rubber components. If it's mainly the top, there is probably some worn out rubber there, too. All (or close enough) convertibles have more flex in them than ones with rigid tops, so are always more likely to have nuisance squeaks as things get worn.

If it's otherwise in good shape with service records, is in your price range, and a trusted mechanic who knows issues common to Volvos they ought to look out for signs off on it, I'd seriously consider it. Volvos are safer than most cars of a similar age and are generally quite reliable, but as you note repairs can be expensive.
posted by wierdo at 3:29 PM on November 7, 2017

Response by poster: Wild card!

As I was weighing all the advice in this thread and poking around Craigslist and Nextdoor, I wound up getting given my high school chemistry teacher's 2001 Prius with 185k miles on it (one of the first 30 sold in California--it's practically a historical artifact)! This very kind woman who I'm still in touch with let me know she wasn't using her old car, asked if I'd like to have it, and wouldn't accept payment. It's old but in decent shape and after I put $500 into it for some basic maintenance, is working quite well. And amazingly, it has great head room--the 2006 Prius I've driven is about 3" lower even though it's longer and wider overall.

Hoping to drive it for a year or two or until the battery or transmission gives out (basically, anything more than a thousand bucks is my cut-off), at which point you can bet I will be right back in here reminding myself of everyone's advice and recommendations, and shopping for that Accord after all.

If the thread is still open when the inevitable disaster hits the vintage Prius, I will update again!
posted by andromache at 3:52 PM on December 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

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