Used car dithering, New England edition
May 1, 2019 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Due to an extremely unfortunate event, I'm likely to be in the market for a used car very soon to replace a beloved 15-year old, low mileage (70k) car. Looking for some advice about shopping for used manual transmission and some opinions about my major contenders--in particular I'd love any feedback on how they handle the snow.

So, things I think I definitely want:
-A manual transmission hatchback. (Unless do I want a Prius C?) My top contenders are either a used (new?) Honda Fit or a used Toyota Matrix. I am limited in my search by my desire to fit the car into a very small garage, so any compact SUVs are sadly out.

1. I'm especially looking for feedback on how the Fit--or any other suggestion--handles the snow. Is the low ground clearance an issue if I'm not big on off-roading?

2. Questions about used car buying (which I've never done): Is it totally foolish to go for a used manual? How can I be assured that the clutch is still in good shape?
-At my assumed insurance payout to break even I'm probably looking at cars with 120k+ miles. I'm resentful, given how low my mileage was. Is that also foolish (either statement)?

3. Given the limited selection of manuals and the sharp rise in price for low-mileage cars, I'm wondering if should bite the bullet and look into the new Corolla hatchback, though from the specs online it looks like the back seat legroom is atrocious. Can anyone attest to the comfort?
posted by TwoStride to Shopping (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Toyota Matrix has 4wd version that is pretty excellent in the snow.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:04 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Regarding question #2, I have bought numerous manual cars over the years... the ones which were showing signs of needing clutch replacement at the time of purchase ended up needing a clutch, and the ones which weren't showing symptoms of needing a clutch lasted many years and miles. Check for slipping... floor the accelerator in 5th gear, if the engine revs up without a corresponding increase in road speed, the clutch is shot. Chattering (vibration or jerkiness as you're engaging the clutch) can be a sign of wear, as can an excessively heavy clutch pedal. Also watch for squealing /howling noises as you depress the clutch . You could get some quotes from mechanics for clutch replacement for the particular model you're looking at just to get a feel for the worst case scenario. IMO, an automatic can be a riskier buy... very few people actually periodically change their transmission fluid and an automatic transmission failure will be much more expensive than a clutch job. Having said that, there is an issue with some versions of the corolla/ matrix having the bearings in the 5-speed manual transmission fail. Supposedly, it was resolved with the '06 model year and newer cars. Also, IIRC the Matrix was on the critical list for Takata airbag recalls, so if you buy one make sure the recall is done. Good luck!
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 8:14 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sounds like Larry David Syndrome gave you some good advice. Supporting data point: I bought a used manual that showed no adverse symptoms and never ended up needing a clutch during the time I owned it. Also want to point out that if you're buying a car at 120,000+ miles, it's likely that the clutch has already worn out and needed to be replaced as part of normal wear and tear. I'd look for something with a recent clutch replacement, especially if it happened at 100k+ mileage - in general that would indicate an owner who drove the car gently.

Can't speak to the Fit but I've driven similar cars in the snow without issue. The tires are more important than the clearance when you're driving in normal conditions. I'd lean towards the Matrix since it offers AWD and the Fit doesn't.

To give you some reassurance - I wouldn't be all that phased by replacing a 15-year old car with 70,000 miles with, say, a 10 year old car with 120,000 miles. Especially in a snowy climate, the toll that the salted roads take on a car's bones are calculated by the years, not the miles. I've personally had great luck buying cars that are quite high mileage for their age; I've bought three such vehicles and never had anything other than routine maintenance (my first car was 8 years old with 220,000 miles when I bought it, criss crossed the country with me with only minor and expected repairs, and finally gave up the ghost 8 years later the same day that I'd driven it to drop off all my worldly possessions at my new city apartment where I couldn't keep a car anyway. I literally coasted into the suburban parking lot where I'd planned to stash it while I figured out what to do given my new car-free lifestyle). My current car was only two years old with 64,000 miles when I bought it. It had clearly been driven mostly on the highway, and had records of dealer services every 5,000 miles registered on carfax. I suspect it was owned by a salesperson or something that had a lot of highway driving to do and maintenance reimbursed by the employer. Has had zero issues.
posted by exutima at 11:47 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another fan of high mileage cars here...agreeing with exutima, good tires (2 sets even) make up for a lot of sins. Our most sure footed older cars were heavy front wheel drive manuals. Not the cheapest to buy parts for, but drive like they're on rails ~ late 90's to mid 2000's Saabs (owned two over 20 years) were a reliable, safe car and fantastic in bad weather.
Keep an eye on the re-released diesel Passat. We had a used one for 2 years before the recall and were so in love with it, we're stalking our local VW dealers for the 'fixed' ones as they make their way back on the market. It was a great car. Currently driving a 2014 Ford Fusion Hybrid and it's fine, but finding a used Passat is always on our mind.
Good luck!
posted by greenskpr at 2:29 AM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’ve purchased two used cars with manual transmissions, just not in the size you are looking for. The first, a Honda CRV, had 70k miles and I drove it on the original clutch past 230k. My most recent is a Subaru Crosstrek that was a demo, which had under 10k miles and is up to 85k with the original clutch. So clutch-wise, it’s possible to get a great car. I found them through advanced search features on (owner, not dealer) and Carmax, which will bring a car from other inventory to your location. There were a couple prospects on Craigslist, too, but get on their test-drive dance card early. Good luck!
posted by childofTethys at 4:12 AM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

A clutch job on an older Honda is around $500. So it wouldn’t be a deal breaker on an otherwise solid used car for me. Clutches tend to go at around 100-150k miles, so as said above, you may find one recently done on a 100k+’car. If not, it’s a wear item and not a huge deal. It’s an expected maintenance item. And you only need to change it once most likely.

I’d be more concerned with suspension on a higher mileage car. That’s also expected wear and it tends to kick in at 100k for cars driven in any kind of urban conditions. Minimally a few hundred bucks in shocks, but often a lot more in control arms, bushings, CV joints, etc.

And of course the key variable is the health of the engine. Which you can’t reliably assess as an amateur.

This is why you should always always always get a private pre-purchase inspection by a mechanic on any used car you buy. It will cost less than $200 and pay for itself if it helps you avoid an engine that is dying or an odometer rollback or $2000 in needed suspension work or — and this is the big one in New England — structural rust. Any ten year old car in New England is going to have some rust on the underside and wheel wells. But as a recent AskMe showed, even a ten year old car can have hidden structural rust so severe it might render the car unsafe. You cannot tell by looking at the nicely detailed body sheet metal of the car. You can’t tell if they’ve cleared a check engine code without an OBD reader. It is totally worth it to pay a pro, the more so the older the car is.

By the way, that new Corolla hatch is getting rave reviews from the auto press including specifically for its manual transmission. If you really love MT hatches I wouldn’t rule out a new one. Base model is like $19k. It will last a long time and cost little to run. It will hold resale value well. And if you keep it a decade and continue to drive so very few miles per year it could last you 15+ years and at that point you pretty much have fully amortized the initial depreciation hit of buying new. That is probably the safest way to assure you can keep driving an MT As long as possible. Fewer than 3% of cars and trucks sold in America now have an MT. Many manufacturers are simply not making cars with MTs for the US market anymore. For some brands the MT is only available on higher-spec models with a price premium, and the enthusiast community is on death watch for the small cheap MT hatchback. That’s one reason the new Corolla is drawing praise.

Back seats are all small on later model hatchbacks. This has to do with higher beltlines and bigger pillars for safety. A Fit is a wagon style and has incredible room for its size. But I personally consider a Fit a penalty box to drive.

Oh and the other magic words to ask about a Japanese car with 100k plus: “timing chain or belt?” If the former (“interference engine”) and it hasn’t been done, it’s expensive and has to be done at 100k or so or you’re looking at a much more expensive repair of a blown engine.
posted by spitbull at 4:13 AM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is all helpful, thanks, all. This gives me a good sense of perspective on the benefits of slightly younger/higher mileage. How does a private pre-purchase inspection work? If I find a car that's like 50 miles away?

The specs on the new Corolla's back seats give it 29" of legroom vs the Fit's 39". I can't even figure out how that works given the overall size of each...
posted by TwoStride at 4:37 AM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Fit (used or new) is the logical choice if a car is mostly basic transportation to you. It definitely has way more room for stuff than almost anything in its class. The Corolla is the better choice if you really *enjoy* driving, as many who seek out manual transmissions do. I haven’t driven a 2019 Corolla yet (I will though!) but the reviews are saying it handles fabulously and has sufficient power to feel quick (certainly in the higher powered trims) and it gets excellent mileage. I’m not selling it hard. I’m a Mazda buff anyway.

It may be me, but I’ve had driven a couple of Fits and have friends with them who love them (musicians who haul gear especially). But to me they just don’t drive very responsively and the handling feels both slack and numb. I’m a musician who hauls gear but I make it work in a Mazda3 hatchback no problem. The Mazda has an even smaller back seat than the Corolla, and less hatch area (even more so if you compare the new 2019 generation of Mazda3, they shrank that thing some more). But I’m not willing to give up either driving fun or good gas mileage, so for me the Corolla is really a tempting option.

You’d be fine looking at an even cheaper Hyundai Elantra too. They come base manual transmission. They’re very solidly made cars since about 2012 or so at least. They have a ten year warranty new, but transferred that shrinks down to 5, so not applicable to used.

Prepurchase inspection is a listed service of many independent mechanics and a few online services will dispatch a van and do it for you on site. Typically the owner takes the car to your agreed upon mechanic for an appointed time and waits 30 mins. Sometimes they’ll let you do it. (Make sure the car is fully insured and legal if you do that.)

Yeah it’s a hassle. And some sellers balk at doing it. Ask yourself why they might not want you to do that knowing it will kill the sale anyway and waste everyone’s time once your mechanic finds the rusted subframe or the dying catalytic converter.

People sell used cars for reasons. One is that the next necessary repair is the one they decided was the last straw. It may be your first straw. So you waste a day getting this done; it could save you thousands.
posted by spitbull at 5:30 AM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here is the very knowledgeable Doug DeMuro (who runs a car-finding brokerage in addition to being a writer) on “How to Get a Pre-Purchase Inspection on a Used Car.”

It’s a couple years old and since he wrote it there is more competition in the online/mobile space for this service, where a guy in a van show up while you wait. Not sure how reliable that is, it’s always best to use a mechanic you know and trust. But the online services are getting popular. Way less friction for the seller so it makes more cars available to you (many people just wont go through the hassle of a PPI unless they have a car they can’t sell otherwise).
posted by spitbull at 5:42 AM on May 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh and you’re about to discover the joy of actually finding a used car with a manual transmission that is in any kind of decent shape. People who like MTs also tend to like cars and hang on to them and maintain them. They already comprise a tiny share of the market. And there’s rising demand for many late models that have recently stopped making an MT. I personally know several people keeping very high mileage cars just because they can’t part with their MT.

On top of that it’s very common for online car ads to incorrectly report an MT when there’s a CVT slushbox once you arrive at the seller.

If the reason you want an MT is because you like to drive an MT, I would seriously consider getting as late a model year as possible right now. Smart people are saying the MT will be basically gone from the US market in just a few more years. Even for higher performance cars, DCT is faster. And for commodity cars, a CVT auto gets better gas mileage than an MT anymore. So the arguments for MT other than “I like to pick my own gear” are simply dying away.

ETA: Other than no one will borrow your car, and thieves won’t bother trying to steal it.
posted by spitbull at 5:54 AM on May 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

BTW the other reason to spend $200 on a PPI is that they ALWAYS find a few things that are going or looking like trouble. You can use those things, if previously undisclosed, very effectively to bargain down the asking price by stating what it will cost to fix x and y problems and render the car reliable. Done right either the PPI will pay for itself and then some, or you're really getting a creampuff and should snap up the car at the asking price and look at the PPI as the cost of a car-finding service that did great work.
posted by spitbull at 12:06 PM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you decide to look at new cars and manual transmission is negotiable (I know! It's the best, but increasingly hard to come by), you might consider the new Honda HRV. It's like a Fit-sized SUV with better ground clearance and available AWD. I have similar preferences to you: desperately tried to buy a new Matrix circa 2008 with MT but the dealer was unable to find any with my required specs; ended up getting a Hyundai Elantra Touring hatchback a few years later. It's a solid car with good cargo space and flexibility, and handles much better in snow since I upgraded to Nokian all-weather tires. Anyway, I saw the HRV at the dealer when I was shopping for a bigger car last year and thought it looked like exactly what I would have wanted had I not needed space for a bunch of kids and their stuff.
posted by Jemstar at 9:29 AM on May 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

In New England? With snow? I'd look for a Subaru first.
posted by bendy at 8:42 PM on May 5, 2019

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