What car should my mom buy?
July 6, 2018 5:00 PM   Subscribe

My 68 year-old mother is finally ready to upgrade her car. Yay! But, as always, there are snowflakes...

My mother is 68 years old. She is retired. She is tall. She is a woman of size. Her mobility is limited. She has had both knees replaced, has arthritis and often doesn't feel too good. She doesn't drive much. Most days, she probably drives about 10 miles. She drives to various doctor's offices, to the grocery store, and to shuttle around her grandkids on good roads in the suburbs of the DC metro area. She's currently driving an ancient shitwagon hand-me-down American sedan that's 20+ years old and has no air conditioning. She is not very financially savvy or techno savvy. I can drive her to dealerships and help with figuring out logistics and internet research. I would like to get her in something newer as soon as possible, as she has been sick and going out in the summer heat is making her worse.

Safety and reliability are the two biggest priorities, both for her sake and because she often transports her young grandchildren. She also needs excellent air conditioning. The southern heat makes her feel sick and prevents her from going out. She needs good visibility - not a car with thick pylons obstructing the rear view or excessively small windows. Simplicity - she doesn't need tons of gadgets to learn and panels to distract her. Lots of legroom and seatroom, and a very adjustable steering wheel/column. She has a hard time getting in and out of small cars like my Prius, and can have a hard time buckling her seatbelt if there's a large central console between the driver's seat and passenger's seat. The car needs to have room for two kids, two car seats and gear for the kids.

My mother is retired and lives on a fixed income. She receives a pension from the labor union that she used to work for. She told me that she could put down $1,000 and could pay $230 per month. She belongs to a credit union. I'm not sure how good her credit is. I believe she declared bankruptcy when I was a child and hasn't used a credit card in many years. She owns a condo but hasn't paid it off yet.

What's the best plan of attack here? New, used or lease? What makes and models should we be looking at?

I want her to test drive a Kia Soul because it was ranked #1 compact car by US News and World Reports, and her local dealership has models advertised online for just under $15k as well as great reviews as a dealership on Yelp.

Regardless of model, I was thinking a new car would provide the most peace of mind and warranty protection.

But she loves station wagons, and has always wanted a Subaru Outback (despite the fact that she has never driven one). I'm going to take her out to the Subaru dealership for a test drive as well, but am worried about the expense. New Outbacks are much more expensive than Souls, and I feel uneasy putting her in a used car because of the difficulty she would have if there were surprise maintenance issues.

She also wants to test drive an Accord and an Element because they got top ratings from Consumer Reports.

Hope me, Metafilter! I know exactly what I would buy for myself, but I'm so worried about getting my mom a safe car that's also a good deal that also accommodates her specific needs that I'm spinning around in circles at the moment.
posted by the thought-fox to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total)
If she has mobility issues she may find a sedan or wagon hard to get in and out of, but you probably won't be able to convince her until she compares it herself. I'd steer her toward the Soul.

She should go to her CU and get preapproved for a loan there, then go shopping with the exact amount already cleared and ready to go, to avoid dealer fuckery.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:14 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would not go for new in her case, but for a recent used car, maybe coming off a lease. Not too old, not too many miles, well-maintained, and you can probably buy a good service package for maintenance. In my (family's) experience, a new car is not really worth the extra money over a slightly used one unless you like a) fancy bells and whistles or b) a prestige drive.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:18 PM on July 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

My tall, big, mobility limited 67 year old mother has no trouble getting in and out of my Subaru Outback. I would recommend it in a heartbeat. That being said, they are not cheap. A new one will not be in that budget. Maybe don't discount used ones.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:22 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Ford Freestyle/Taurus X might be a nice preowned option—it's a crossover (but looks for all the world like a tall station wagon) with really nice seating position and it almost definitely has depreciated more than an equivalent Outback. I've had excellent experiences with Fords of that vintage. (I might hold out for the Taurus X, which had a six-speed automatic transmission; Ford's CVT, which was in the Freestyle, has a checkered reputation. I would buy one for myself, because I figure the worst ones are already off the road, but I won't make the same suggestion to your mom.)

If my recommendation doesn't make this clear already—I think there's a much bigger gap, in terms of reliability and comfort, between a 20-year-old car and a 10-year-old car than there is a 10-year-old car and a new car. Given her limited budget and how infrequently she drives a low-mileage, nicely maintained car in the ~10-year-old range will probably be more than reliable enough.

The Kia Soul is a perfectly nice car too, and nice to get in and out of, though if she's coming from an old American car and likes wagons she might find it cramped. (It's very up-and-down roomy, but it's still a subcompact car.)
posted by Polycarp at 5:28 PM on July 6, 2018

If you decide to go with a new car, Costco's car buying program is worth checking out.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:33 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

The car needs to have room for two kids, two car seats and gear for the kids

To be clear, you mean two kids who are in the two car seats, yes? Not two kids, and two more kids who are in the two car seats? Because that latter case means Congratulations! You're getting a minivan!
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:00 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

We have had really good luck with "Certified Pre-Owned" via Costco, I just did this with my mother-in-law. It took two trips. The first was to go try out "fit" in all the cars she expressed an interest in.

Outback, Forrester, Mazda CX-3, CRV, RAV4

Once we selected a model in particular, I scrounged all the surrounding dealers to find a pre-owned deal with not too many miles or years on it. I found a CRV with minor hail damage she didn't care about, but the mechanism was in perfect condition.
posted by nickggully at 6:03 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would check into your local rental fleet - Enterprise is my local chain - and see if they have any secondhand cars for sale. They are almost always impeccably maintained and used to have an option for a warranty (it's been awhile since I bought a car, so this may have changed).

I'd probably go with a Mazda 6 if she can afford it at all - it's a comfortable, reliable, safe car, with an excellent crash safety rating, and good mileage - also, a nice engine. Given how you say she's going to use it, I'd go with the slightly bigger car, especially since she's tall. I've never owned a Mazda 6 (although my friends have), but I have a Mazda 3, and, before that, I had a Protege. Great, solid cars that.
posted by dancing_angel at 6:06 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

With regards to getting in/out, a grab bar could help with that.
posted by homesickness at 6:17 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Once she knows what she wants, see if her credit union offers a car-buying service.
posted by mogget at 7:04 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

My mother, who’s a bit older than yours (75) and has mobility issues has a Suburu Forrester that she just bought last year. She loves it. She got it new, but they’re very hardy cars, so I would have felt comfortable with her buying a not too old used one.
posted by holborne at 7:11 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To be clear, you mean two kids who are in the two car seats, yes?

Haha, yeah, two kids + all necessary kid supplies :D
posted by the thought-fox at 7:21 PM on July 6, 2018

My mum has a Nissan Versa. I'm of size and have no problem with fitting. The nice thing is that it's so easy to drive, and park. Her hips and knees aren't great and she gets in and out easily
posted by Ftsqg at 7:46 PM on July 6, 2018

I have an Outback and my mobility challenged mother (albeit not a woman of size) finds it easier to get in and out of versus a sedan. One reason in particular that I got it was because I felt the visibility was much better compared to the other similar vehicles I looked at (the CRV was a close second). Safety and reliability are there, and the AC worked like a champ in our recent 90+ heatwave. It does have a center console but it doesn't feel unduly large to me.

She's likely to want one even more after test driving (I was), but it is true that a new Outback may not be within her budget. But, Subarus are known for their reliability, so even a used model is not likely to incur a lot of maintenance costs. She might even be able to get a lease deal for close to her price point, especially if you wait a little bit for the 2019 models to hit the lots. The dealers will want to get the 2018s off their hands, especially the models without all the bells and whistles.
posted by Preserver at 9:17 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

As a fat person dating another fat person (who is tall and has physical disabilities), don’t go to the Mazda or Honda dealership. I swear my partner and I have tried all the cars currently available from those two brands and Honda especially had no hip room (and are also quite expensive). By the time we were done we were exhausted and cranky.

I ended up with a Mazda 3 (because: exhausted) since it was a good price for the features and have regretted it every day. It is very hard to get in and out of and the seatbelt jabs into me. My partner especially struggles with the low point of entry because she has had both hips and knees replaced (in addition to a lot of other surgeries) and she doesn’t bend in the necessary ways.

One car that I think would work perfectly for your mom is a used Toyota Avalon, basically any year. They are extremely reliable, roomy, and safe. Consumer Reports LOVES this car and I did a lot of research before buying mine and the only negative thing you can say about it is that it’s not a sexy car. I loved mine: very easy to enter/exit and to operate all the controls. Honestly the car is made for retirees but I loved driving mine even while in my 20s and sold it reluctantly to move across the country. Is there a Carfax near you? That’s actually where I sold mine and I really liked that they don’t do hard sells. For used cars they might not be rock bottom as far as pricing but I think your mom will actually end up with what she wants without haggling.

Also, I used to live in Phoenix and was told by many car salespeople that A/C is related to engine power. Not sure if this is true 100% but I do know test driving Civics and the like definitely was a sweatier event versus larger cars. (Had the Avalon in Phoenix. It handled the heat flawlessly.)

Respectfully, if people answering are not people of size or people who deal with mobility issues, you have absolutely no reason to comment unless you’ve been told by someone of that demographic explicitly what cars work for them. It’s not enough to say “oh I like MY car so therefore it works for every body.”
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 1:34 AM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m with Preserver: a used Subaru could be ideal. Most drivers over the age of 60 I know have struggled with visibility in newer cars, which often have angled front pillars to incorporate newer airbags and other safety features. Subarus in general have good front, side, and rear visibility.

Speaking more generally about cost and value, for as few miles as she drives, I think that she should strongly consider late-model used cars with abnormally high mileage. A commuter driving 40 miles a day might not want to take a chance on even a well-maintained high-mileage (25,000+/yr) car from the last 5 model years. Your mom can and, I think, should look at such cars. You’ll see these cars sometimes in the Enterprise and other rental car company sales lots.
posted by cheapskatebay at 3:50 AM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was just about to recommend a used Outback, based on my tall, limited-mobility mother-in-law, but I see her daughter beat me to the punch.

...but to add on, my 350+lb friend has an Impreza that he loves.
posted by notsnot at 9:11 AM on July 7, 2018

Speaking of car-buying services, AAA also offers this. Her credit union and/or union may offer one as well.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:54 AM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a relative that leads bird watching tours and she specifically picked out the Subaru Forrester for the visibility. Both the Outback and the Forrester are easy for people with bad knees to get in and out of, being at a very comfortable height to sort of slide right in. The Kia Soul is also a solid choice. Lots of room for the money.

Having test driven several Mazda models, they have a sportier feel that I liked but I think your mom might have trouble getting in and out. A friend of mine loved her Rav4 but, when she went to replace it recently, she reported that newer models do not feel nearly as nice. My favorite car of all time was a Rav4.

I currently have a newer Outback and, shit, that car is a comfy car. It was a lot of money but worth it. All the convenience of a wagon, the inside is cavernous, and the AC pumps out the cold without hesitation. I road tripped in the thing for almost a whole month with my husband and a dog and a ton of our crap and it felt comfy and performed like a champ. The only thing I don't like is it only comes as an automatic and there is this moment of hesitation where it's like the car is waiting for you to shift and then it remembers that it's now an automatic and IT'S supposed to do that part. I think it only bothers me because I have been driving stick for the last ten years and I am used to a fast, zippy response.

My best advice: Test drive a LOT of cars, it's the best way to find one that feels great.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:37 PM on July 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

If she decides to go used, definitely try Carmax. I got my van from the one in Dulles, and I know there are four or five others in the greater DC-Baltimore area. It was the easiest car buying experience I've ever had, and if she can get pre-approved by her credit union, it will even easier.
posted by candyland at 4:11 PM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi, all -

Just wanted to update the post for posterity and to help anyone searching this topic in the future. We went to our local Carmax, where I had picked out several used cars for her to test drive in various makes and models.

Actually getting her to sit in each car was extremely important, as even cars that were described online (including some that were nominated here!) as being very roomy and good for larger/disabled people were not comfortable for her. The usual problems were difficulty getting in and out, lack of adjustability in the seat, not enough legroom, and not enough seatroom. Not enough seatroom meant that not only was the seat uncomfortable, but she couldn't buckle her seatbelt easily, so all those cars that looked great in other ways were instantly rejected.

The car that worked best for her ended up being my first choice for her, based on Foam Pants's comment: a 2011 Subaru Forester 2.5X Limited with leather seats and grab bars. It was the only car that she could get in and out of easily, buckle the seatbelt easily, and sit in comfortably. The leather seats made it easier for her to slide in and out, and the grab bar allowed her to adjust her seating position easily. The very tall ceiling and high, straight pillars made for terrific headroom and visibility. This was the only car in which she didn't complain about small windows and obstructed views. Although online reviews bashed this model's basic interior, the simplicity is perfect for her. The control panel is very easy to read and uncluttered. The air conditioning is strong and cold. A car seat and booster seat fit very easily in the backseat and the grandkids were very comfortable riding back there. The hatchback area is very spacious and perfect for transporting groceries and kids' stuff. The car was great on the highway. My mom was cruising at 65 so quickly and easily that she was shocked! The car is high enough that she doesn't "fall" into the car like she did in her old sedan or my Prius, but not so tall that she has to work hard to get in.

Finding this car was very much like Cinderella trying on shoes! Even Foresters from other years did not work for her. The Kia Soul, and really every configuration of Kia that we tried, did not work for her. No other car that she tried even came close to having the right amount of leg/hip/seatroom; it was truly amazing (and frustrating!) to witness what a poor ergonomic fit literally every other car was.

We ended up trading in her old car and buying the 2011 Forester from Carmax the very next day, after a whirlwind outing in which we went to my mom's credit union and got her financing pre-approved. Thanks also to the multiple people who suggested that. She got a lower interest rate, smaller downpayment, shorter term, much cheaper gap insurance, and overall had a very positive, friendly experience. She got educated about her credit score, educated about ways to pay her loan back more quickly, and counseled about some pricing issues the rep noticed. Turns out that the credit union also has a car buying agent, which is good to know for future reference. Her experience with the credit union and Carmax was extremely positive and painless. The Carmax rep even put a bow on her new car and encouraged us to take some photos; it was very cute and emotional for my mom!

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this Ask. You all helped me direct my mom's car buying experience in such a way that she was able to get the car she needed quickly and painlessly. I hope this post helps future car buyers with very specific needs to have a similarly positive experience.
posted by the thought-fox at 12:27 PM on July 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

Totally kickass, thought-fox. I hope your mom enjoys the heck out of her new car!
posted by Foam Pants at 5:59 PM on July 11, 2018

Response by poster: Thank you, Foam Pants! :D
posted by the thought-fox at 10:49 AM on July 14, 2018

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