Is there such a thing as a cheap, one person, highway capable vehicle?
February 5, 2019 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I've got a commute of about 16 miles on the highway to get to work, and I'd really rather not buy a second full size car. But other than motorcycles (which I'm too cowardly to even contemplate, even leaving aside the weather), there doesn't appear to be anything on the market that fills the niche of a cheap, one person, highway vehicle.

I'm not looking for compact cars like the Honda Fit or others in that category, that's more money than I'd like to spend and more car than I need just to get to and from work. What I'm hoping for is much smaller, ideally designed for one person and closer to motorcycles in price.

I see that there are several concepts of enclosed motorcycles, a few companies that claim that one day really soon now they might bring one to the market, and otherwise nothing.

The Smart is obscenely expensive for its size or I'd say it's what I'm looking for, but I'm not rich enough to even consider the price they're asking, and frankly even if I was I just don't see the point in spending that much money for a tiny vehicle.

The Elio looks exactly like what I'd want, and it appears to be a dead project. When searching I keep hearing about "cabin motorcycles" or "enclosed motorcycles" and all I can find are some that are no longer made.

I see that, in Japan only, there's some enclosed scooters, but they've got a top speed of around 40mph and that's just not going to work for a commute that involves highways.

Is there really nothing designed for a single commuter that's cheap, highway capable, and fully enclosed? Please tell me that I'm missing something.
posted by sotonohito to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Electra Meccanica?
posted by Cosine at 10:59 AM on February 5


Meyers EV Sparrow?

Note: looks like they dont exist yet but they plan on shipping 3000 units next year. top speed of 70mph would work though.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:01 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Electra Meccanica's SOLO is going to be about $16,000.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:16 AM on February 5


Both look pretty cool, though the EV Sparrow comes with a hefty price tag. I like the idea of electric vehicles, but I'm not at all sure I can afford one. Even the Meccanica is a bit pricey for what it is, again I suspect because it's electric.

And, sadly, neither is actually available for sale. Like the others I've seen, they're concepts not actual products.

For $16,000 I can hit up my Honda dealership right now, and I'd have more passenger and cargo space for the same price.

Ideally I'm hoping there's something out there for $8000 or less.
posted by sotonohito at 11:21 AM on February 5


I'm not looking for compact cars like the Honda Fit or others in that category, that's more money than I'd like to spend and more car than I need just to get to and from work.

I know you said, not a compact car because price is an issue. But still, if you could find a used Geo Metro... It's a three-cylinder engine, you can't get much smaller and still call it a "car."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:28 AM on February 5


You could get a used Smart Car for close to that $8000 price tag. My bestie had one for years and it was fun to drive, comfortable, fairly fuel efficient (my Prius does better, but well, Prius), easy to park, and held a surprising amount of stuff for when you swing by the grocery store after work. We drove from NC to Michigan with luggage and her 80 pound hound dog pretty comfortably.

I also once watched two people get a Smart Car out of six inches of snow in a hotel parking lot with no trouble. I was seriously impressed.
posted by joycehealy at 11:29 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


Single-seat cars tend to just be track cars like the BAC Mono, since the main reason to have only one seat is to reduce weight as low as possible and make a racing car. Even motorcycles are usually two-seaters.

A common joke among car nerds is that the Mazda Miata's name is an acronym: Miata Is Always The Answer.

If you're willing to compromise and go with two seats instead of one, a used Miata might be the answer here, too.
posted by The World Famous at 11:29 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


OK so first of all, you are considering used cars, right? You say you want to spend under $8K; when I sold my Civic a couple years ago the KBB would've been about $4500 (absent cosmetic flaws) and it still had at least 7 years left in it. Not saying you need a Civic, but that is a really solid daily commuter.

Actually TWF might have it with a Miata (also known as the MX-5, to be clear). I know it's marketed as a sports car and that may not fit with your style, but they're freakin' tiny; even if you don't have a passenger, you can barely fit a bag of groceries in that second seat. Sadly it doesn't look like their mileage is so much better than a compact sedan, though.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:42 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I don't know if it's too motorbikey, but the Piaggio MP3 is a highway capable and compact 3 wheeler which reviews well.
posted by ambrosen at 11:47 AM on February 5


Older Honda Fits go for 8,000 and under. I have one.
posted by agregoli at 11:49 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


there doesn't appear to be anything on the market that fills the niche of a cheap, one person, highway vehicle.

The answer is 'motorbike', unfortunately. The answer is - as noted above - a small, fuel efficient car. There really isn't anything else that would be suitable, and certainly nothing that is actually on the market and sustainably (logistically and financially) produced.

Cheap used car, with emphasis on mpg. Physical size is irrelevant if mpg is your biggest factor.

more car than I need just to get to and from work.
That's kind of just the way it is.
posted by Brockles at 11:56 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


A brand new Nissan Micra is $10,000 in Canada -- so about US$8000, and that is about as small as you can get without going for something like a Smart. I dunno if you can get those in the USA though.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:09 PM on February 5


Ex-fleet Nissan Leafs are bigger than you want, but at least meet crash safety standards.
posted by scruss at 12:12 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Ideally I'm hoping there's something out there for $8000 or less.

For a NEW vehicle? Never going to happen, the average price for a new motorcycle is near that already and you are asking for doors and heaters and wheels and comfort.

A used Corolla is what you are looking for.
posted by Cosine at 12:18 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


We bought a used 2013 Nissan Leaf a few years ago from CarMax. It's been absolutely terrific! I looked up Nissan Leaf models on the CarMax Website with a San Antonio zip code and it showed several with low mileage (under 45k) for $10,000. You may also still get the EV tax credit if you buy one - you could look into that which would make the car even cheaper.
posted by Slothrop at 12:18 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I keep saying "small" mostly because I keep hoping that "small" and "low cost" will go together. If the answer is "there is no such thing as a highway capable commuter vehicle at sub $8000 price, go buy a compact car" then that's my answer.

Motorcycles cost around $6000 for lower end models, so I hoped that since basically what I actually need is basically a motorcycle with a shell there'd be an option for something vaguely like that at a price not too much higher than motorcycles.

So far it appears that the answer is that no one is manufacturing such a thing, and even the companies that are proposing some in the future are doing electric luxury vehicles that will cost more than a full sized car. Which is disappointing.

Thanks for the help, I'll start looking into used cars.
posted by sotonohito at 12:27 PM on February 5


I just bought a used 2013 Leaf for $8K. Seems like what you're looking for. Anecdotally, it's a buyer's market for used electric vehicles at the moment.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:31 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Outside of the price, it sounds like you want a Polaris Slingshot Grand Touring.

Seriously, thought, just get a small or medium-sized used car. I personally like the idea of an MX-5, but just look for something economical to run that fits within your buying budget.
posted by sardonyx at 12:40 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


N-thing electric. The Fiat 500e has some flaws, but for a 32 mile round-trip commute in a temperate climate would probably be a great little vehicle, and the market is flush with lease returns at about the price range you're talking. Check with your local electric authority to see if they've got any subsidies for home charger installation.

And once you've driven an electric you'll have trouble going back to internal combustion.
posted by straw at 12:41 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Sorry that the vehicle you want isn't in the cards right now. After you buy a used car, carpooling could help keep ongoing costs low.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:41 PM on February 5


The reason that the single occupant cars don't seem to exist is because of the small demand, combined with needing similar safety standards it's not really feasible to put them out at a price that's significantly different than a sub-compact car. So essentially one could pay (new) $13-15k, and have a small trunk, and the option of 3 passengers. Or one can pay $2-4k more, and no cargo/passenger space. And have to deal with specialty mechanics who stop answering your calls unless you block caller-ID.

The Nissan Micra has crap gas mileage compared to the Mitsubishi Mirage which is around the same price with similar options. Note that the base price of the Micra is with manual transmission, no AC, etc. (at least it did in 2017)

Note, because of the Mitsubishi Mirage's CVT that this is *loud* in the automatic version during acceleration - I happily drive the manual manual Mirage. During the fall/summer/spring I average 20 km/l (47 mpg), but once the weather is staying under 5C I tend to average 15km/l (35 mpg). I do a daily 35km round trip commute 80% on freeway, and most of the family errands in my car.

Used car space is obviously a different market, as there's constant depreciation, and more risks/less warranty possibility. Your question appeared to be only considering new. Also, auto loans are new cars are significantly cheaper than for used, which can have a few $k in savings over the life of a vehicle. I initially was looking for a 2-3 year old vehicle, but realized that total price was the same or more for a cheap new car which wouldn't have been a fleet vehicle with 60k-100k km on it that had exhausted the warranty. And I was only considering 2-3 year old vehicles because I was looking to buy a dependable vehicle.
posted by nobeagle at 12:46 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


The Fiat 500e has some flaws, but for a 32 mile round-trip commute in a temperate climate would probably be a great little vehicle,

Actually that is a very good point. Look at the leasing options on that, because there is an average mpg/co2 emissions thing across the brand that car makers need to comply with and I know that the leasing options in LA for the 500E were ABSOLUTELY INSANE a year or so ago. Like $65 a month insane.

So leasing electric cars is something well worth spending time on.

I keep saying "small" mostly because I keep hoping that "small" and "low cost" will go together.
Low cost is usually in the middle. With the boring, sensible cars. Bigger fancier cars command a premium anyway but so also do small, fuel efficient cars because of the cost of running. So the price is not at all related to size.
posted by Brockles at 1:14 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Seconding what Dr. Wu said above about buying a used Nissan Leaf. Electric cars are freaking awesome in general, and the Leaf is your budget entry model. See here for full advice on buying a used Leaf (scroll down to the used section). Note: ignore the previous sentence and link at your own peril.

I'm not sure it's a buyer's market though. There's been reports lately that used Leaf prices have bottomed out and are climbing.

The Fiat 500e was mentioned above. That electric car is a low-volume "compliance car" and is only available in California, as are many EV models. If you are not in California, and happen to fall in love with a particular model of EV that is CA only, do not think that you can just buy it and bring it home. It's a fool errand. Stick with car models that are actually sold and supported in your state.
posted by intermod at 8:05 PM on February 5


but so also do small, fuel efficient cars because of the cost of running

I'm totally baffled by that. I mean, sure, I recognize that materials cost isn't huge, but wouldn't building a smaller vehicle with fewer materials at least cost somewhat less than building a bigger one?

Or do you mean that they charge extra basically to be dicks on the grounds that since they're more fuel efficient I'm saving money so they should get a cut?
posted by sotonohito at 5:48 AM on February 6


I suspect that the premium for "fuel efficient" cars was meant about electric/hybrid electric vehicles.

My 2017 Mirage I consider fuel efficient, and I got it for about $14000 CDN including taxes and everything. However a Prius will beat it in gas mileage at a giant price premium. Similar for the current electric cars and their mileage equivalents.

There might be a bit more engineering/care taken in to actually get the weight of a sub compact down enough to really help mileage, and that would be something that adds to the price. It's part of the reason why the Smart cars as so expensive.

Some of the engineering things are annoying - I have a 35 liter gas tank. At the same point, I've never been able to put in 28 Liters (7.4 gallons) at the gas station, even if I drive to the point that the gas signal has gone into fast-blink-please-fill me mode. So that means despite my 2017 mirage getting better mileage than my 2002 Echo did, I still need to fill up every 400-500 km, depending on weather. But each fill up is $10-12 CDN less.

And then, much like the trade offs of a small solo passenger car one has 10-30 minute fill-ups if one is taking a trip outside of the range. Along with needing to specifically look for places to recharge. It's why I ultimately didn't go electric despite initially wanting to. I don't often go outside of the round trip range of a 2015-2017 Leaf, but when I do, it's usually for something that would make me *really* not want to deal with a recharge at the time.

Note; take a look at fuelly - they get real world mileage from drivers, and even separate the data out by year for different models. Obviously there's a larger data set for prius and focus than for micra and mirage.

My experience owning an Echo for ~15 years was that I was able to do minimal maintenance on it, it was relatively fuel efficient and cheap to own. And it was large enough that I could go somewhere with all three kids, or fit a surpringly large amount of cargo in it (seven 6' pyramidal cedars was fun!) But it wasn't world-changingly cheap like your initial ask.

And honestly, because there's so much value in the cargo/passenger space, a single person vehicle would need to be at least 50% less than a comparable "full size" sub compact. But the engineering/supply chain is just not there to support the few of us who'd seriously consider a solo occupant commuter vehicle.

And thinking of cheap solo occupant vehicles made me re-search for this reddit story previously mentioned on the blue. And that's a big part of why there aren't cheap vehicles that review well. Moving at 55mph even on great highways is physically tough. Without some good mass there's a lot of bouncing and movements that will destroy lesser materials. And remember not all highways are great.
posted by nobeagle at 7:34 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I'm totally baffled by that. I mean, sure, I recognize that materials cost isn't huge, but wouldn't building a smaller vehicle with fewer materials at least cost somewhat less than building a bigger one?

Or do you mean that they charge extra basically to be dicks on the grounds that since they're more fuel efficient I'm saving money so they should get a cut?


Er. Surely this can't be a 'I don't understand free markets/capitalism' comment? It's not 'being a dick' to charge more for a product that has more perceived value to the customer. The car is worth more to the customer because of the cost of ownership over (say) 5 years so they are prepared to pay more in initial purchase price. So the market reflects that and (as markets work) more models are produced that aim at that desirable sector.

The value of goods is based PARTIALLY on cost of production, but also on desirability of product. There is no requirement or even logic that a company (especially a car company) must only charge a certain percentage of mark up on a car. Also, physically smaller cars using less raw material is a terrible metric for cost assumptions because smaller parts can need to be more complex. Also the process of pressing a panel for a large car versus a small car is similar, and the volumes at which car manufacturers buy raw material probably make the costs very close anyway - there is the same/similar cost and complexity in designing, tooling, production, parts transportation, cost of assembly cost of holding inventory etc., etc. Also, smaller cars are designed much more intensively in terms of packaging. It's harder to fit the stuff needed (air con, power steering, air bags, crumple zones etc) into a smaller package, so there is extra cost there for the smaller car.

So. The cost of producing a smaller car may not be as much less than a larger car than you think. There may even be a *smaller* mark up on compact cars than luxury cars (I suspect this is the case), so this is not a 'being a dick' this is 'running a business.
posted by Brockles at 8:10 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


Yet again capitalism denies me and society at large something useful and beneficial to the planet. Bleh.
posted by sotonohito at 6:16 AM on February 7


Yet again capitalism denies me and society at large something useful and beneficial to the planet.

Either I don't understand your comment, or you don't understand capitalism. Brockles's comment seems reasonable.

In the econ 101 version, as capitalist firms compete in the marketplace to maximize profit, they compete away excess profits. If one firm charges more than its costs, another firm will step in and offer the same product for less. Repeat until economic profit is zero.

In the real world, though, markets aren't perfect, so some firms earn excess profit. (You may have heard of this little firm named after a fruit.) The thing is, for compact cars - the most fuel efficient cheapest - the market does work. Profits for those cars are low; the profit is in the bigger cars.

There is a point in which the market fails: Cars pollute, and therefore drivers aren't paying the full cost of driving. To make them pay the full cost, the gas tax should be higher, which would increase demand for smaller cars.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:37 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


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