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June 18, 2018 9:10 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to get a car that maximizes low monthly payments and reliability?

I know that there are a lot of factors involved in buying a car and it's a "Quick, cheap, reliable, choose 2" type situation. In my case the two things I care about the most are:
1. a low monthly payment - I'm deciding to not care about how long I have to make the payments for.
2. reliability. I was reading this forum post called Should I buy a 2007 Prius and there was a lot of "Yes but you should get the serpentine belt changed and the flux capacitator doo-dah'd" and I was just like oh god. God don't make me have to care about a serpentine belt.

If I were rich I'd just buy a new hybrid SUV but I'm not rich so.

OK so if you really needed to buy a car, and these were the only two things you cared about, what would you do? And I mean from start to finish, in exquisite detail.
posted by bleep to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would buy a lightly used Mitsubishi Mirage from a mechanic who was willing to do regular maintenance and repair work on it for me. If you're in Los Angeles metro area I can recommend a place.
posted by carsonb at 9:16 PM on June 18, 2018

My 2 cents, as with carsonb definitely get something very common (mitsi, honda, toyota, nissan...), as there are lots of 2nd-hand parts and most mechanics understand these autos.

I've just gone thru the lease process and settled on a nissan - I was looking at european when a mechanic friend mentioned that (at least here in NZ) European cars cost NZ$5000 year more in maintenance costs than Japanese.
posted by unearthed at 10:27 PM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Consumer Reports has a list of the best used cars under $20K.
posted by cnc at 10:31 PM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Basically you want a well-treated example of a model that’s statistically known to be reliable, at a good (or at least decent) price. The place to start, though, is with your own budget and practical requirements. What monthly payment could you live with, without it being onerous? What down payment can you scrape together without wrecking your emergency fund? What do you need the car to do for you, e.g. commuting vs. hauling stuff, short distances or long, etc?
posted by jon1270 at 3:34 AM on June 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Once you clarify those things, you can start identifying models that would suit your needs and that you could plausibly afford. Pick a favorite model or two, do some research to get a feel for appropriate pricing for various versions at various mileage & condition levels, and start looking for actual cars to test-drive.

If you don’t want to think about flux capacitors, then either buy a brand-new car or find an excellent mechanic and pay them to inspect anything you’re considering buying. (I highly recommend the latter.)
posted by jon1270 at 3:46 AM on June 19, 2018

Just get a new Fit or Corolla with the longest financing you can (72- or 84-month). Finance advice articles advise against long term loans, presumably because they think people don't know about interest or something, but as long as you get a decent interest rate without pre-payment penalties, it's fine.
posted by xylothek at 4:27 AM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are getting a long loan term (72, 84, or even more months), make sure that the car you are buying can reasonably be expected to last at least that long. There's a big difference between an 84 month loan on a new, reliable car, and the same loan on a high mileage car that has had hard use.

But even if you bought new, make sure your budget can accommodate maintenance costs over the life of the loan. (Meaning, if you are maxed out just with the loan, you will be hosed with it needs a transmission repair or whatever. Cars are expensive.)

Without knowing what you are really looking for, my thought would be to look at the cheapest to own of the most reliable cars (eg Honda Fit, Toyota Prius, etc), and get the newest/best condition example that your budget will allow. Around here taxi companies and many Uber/Lyft drivers are all using Priuses, which suggests to me that they are hitting a sweet spot of cost to own and reliability, and I'd be totally comfortable buying a used one. Yes, batteries do need to be replaced, but so do parts on non-hybrid cars, you just have to build those into your cost of ownership.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:41 AM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Long term? Honda or Toyota. Nissans parts are much more expensive, and they are designed with much less thought put into service work.
posted by notsnot at 6:21 AM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

An Uber driver would want a Prius, or other hybrid, because the around town gas mileage is much, much better than a straight gas engine. That may or may not be as important to the OP.

We've had good luck with low mileage cars coming off a corporate lease.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:29 AM on June 19, 2018

Toyota, Toyota, Toyota. Get a base model Corolla that's a couple years old and you won't have to worry about it for a really long time.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:32 AM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

(I know people always say Honda, but my experience with two different Hondas tells me that the TPMS light -- the tire pressure monitoring system, which is fiddly -- will annoy the crap out of you if you don't want to deal with maintenance at all.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:40 AM on June 19, 2018

If reliability and low monthly payment are your two top priorities, would you consider a lease? I know it's not normally the optimal choice, but it would allow you to always have a new-ish car with a fairly low monthly payment (though the payments would continue forever). Caveat that if you drive long distances or would prefer eventual ownership, this would not be a good plan.
posted by Vicmo at 6:45 AM on June 19, 2018

Best answer: The key to a low monthly payment is a large down payment. If you put several thousand down, it'll be easy to find a monthly payment around $100.

I am assuming, from your question, that you do not have several thousand down. So that limits your options a bit. Do you have to buy right now? If you can wait a year or so, you can save some money toward a down payment. This is actually what I did from 2014-2016. I knew my old car would not last much longer, so I saved as much as I could and put that down. Think of it as making monthly payments on a car you don't own yet. If you put $150 a month in savings, you'll have almost $2000 after a year, and that will go far.

If your goals are a low monthly payment and not having to worry about maintenance, and you have a down payment, consider leasing. It's usually cheaper than buying, and the dealer handles the maintenance. The downside, of course, is that when your lease expires, you have to repeat the process, including saving up for the down payment.

If you're going to buy, the absolute first step you should take, before doing anything else (even saving money) is to join a credit union. Credit unions generally give members better loan terms than other financiers, and they're more likely to approve a loan application.

From there, it's a question of finding a car that fits your budget. If you're looking for $100 monthly payments, that means about $6,000 for a term of 60 months, $6,500 for 72 months, and $7,500 for 84 months (assuming a roughly 3% interest rate and no down payment - obviously, if you have a down payment, just add that to your budget). For $150 monthly payments, you're looking at $8,500 for 60 months, $10,000 for 72, and $11,000 for 84. You should be able to find a pretty decent car for those prices. I did a quick Craigslist search, and found Corollas in the 2010-2012 range.

Which brings me to... focus on Toyota and Honda. Maybe the other Japanese brands if you're not finding anything, but Honda and Toyota should be the priority. They're the most reliable cars on the market, and they're generally cheaper than comparable models from other companies. Great value. There's also the benefit of widespread availability - you should have no trouble finding a used Corolla or Civic. Avoid European brands at all costs. If you don't have a specific model in mind, just search for various models (Corolla, Camry, Prius, Fit, Civic, Accord) and find the best deal.

In general, the way you'll distinguish one car you can afford from another is by the mileage. Lower mileage is better, so if you've found two cars for the same price that both seem nice, take the one with the lower mileage. The rule of thumb is about 12,000 miles per year is normal. So if you're looking at a 2010 model, you should expect around 95-100,000 miles. Try to avoid cars with higher than average mileage, even if they seem nice, because they'll need more maintenance. (But be aware that low mileage will cost you!)

One other thing to be aware of with regard to mileage is the car's maintenance schedule. Most cars are due for fairly major maintenance around 90,000 miles. If you find a car with, say, 88k, be aware that you're probably going to have to take it in and spend some money within a couple months of purchase. And if you find a car with, say, 92k, ask the seller if they've performed the scheduled maintenance.

Other than that, the usual car-buying advice applies: Ask the seller for the maintenance history. If you're buying from a dealer, get the Carfax report. Have a trusted mechanically-oriented friend take a look at the car before buying.

Finally, keep in mind that there is no such thing as a maintenance-free car. Whatever car you end up buying, even if it's the really nice, new hybrid SUV you dream about, will require regular maintenance. Every car needs its oil changed, its tires rotated, its belts and plugs and distributor caps replaced occasionally. The money you spend on this is part of the cost of car ownership, just like insurance and gas.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:50 AM on June 19, 2018 [9 favorites]

If you're going to buy, the absolute first step you should take, before doing anything else (even saving money) is to join a credit union.
Seconding this. Most will be able to pre-approve you for an auto loan before you shop so you know what your interest rate and terms are. Dealers will try to undercut that rate, but they are not usually able to do that.
posted by soelo at 8:42 AM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

kevinbelt: "Honda and Toyota should be the priority. They're the most reliable cars on the market, and they're generally cheaper than comparable models from other companies. Great value. "

YMMV on this a lot. Around here you pay a huge premium (like 30-60%) For Toyota's and Honda's over say a comparable from Ford or Kia.
posted by Mitheral at 9:40 AM on June 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Nth-ing a Toyota or Honda, and in your same shoes last year, especially the "price vs. reliability" conundrum. We ended up at the max of what I preferred for a monthly payment, but we got a car that had much lower mileage than I was expecting, which statistically should mean not needing major repairs for a lot longer. So I think one does have to decide whether finding the monthly money or the possible risk of something big breaking is a bigger stressor overall. I decided the higher payment was worth it if it probably meant no major maintenance in the next several years. But if the low payment was key, I probably would have looked for something older and/or around 100k miles.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:29 AM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

...God don't make me have to care about a serpentine belt...

Here's the thing, all cars (except full electric) have belts and they will all need to be replaced eventually. If you want a reliable used car, set a monthly budget for preventative maintenance ($25, 50 or 100 doesn't matter), and then get the work done. Belts, hoses, brakes, battery maybe save up a few months for tires or other big repairs.
posted by 445supermag at 1:29 PM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Leasing is the way to go especially if:

- you don't have a long commute and don't take a lot of road trips
- you're not accident prone and you don't have kids/pets that will mess up the interior
- you foresee your financial situation improving in the next 2-3 years

I leased a very nice Ford Focus for three years and never once had to think about reliability. It was nice to know exactly how much I was going to spend because I didn't have to factor in surprise repairs. You do not need to put money down on a lease; you can have them roll it into payments. Mine was under $300 for a loaded car with heated leather seats, no money down. I figured out which car I wanted by renting a few from zipcar for an hour apiece and taking a long test drive by myself.

If I hadn't lost my job I would have bought that car at lease end. Yes, it would have been slightly more expensive than if I'd bought it up front, but it was completely worth it to know that I could just give it back and walk away if I didn't like it.
posted by AFABulous at 2:09 PM on June 19, 2018

Response by poster: The long commute is why this has to happen (60 miles each way). I hate it and I really don't want a car at all but I tried to do the train thing and it's not working out. So yeah. I appreciate all of this advice it's very helpful!
posted by bleep at 2:15 PM on June 19, 2018

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