Help us find a car! Please don't recommend the (ugly) HHR!
March 14, 2006 12:25 PM   Subscribe

So, my wife and I are ready to buy a car, and we need some suggestions...

Over the past few days, we've been driving around to several dealerships in the area looking at various new and used cars. So far, we've found three that we really like:

Chrysler P.T. Cruiser
Chrysler P.T. Cruiser Convertible
Scion xB

As you can probably tell from the list above, we're looking for something like a small (really small) suv that has some styling to it. We want to spend between $14,000 and $17,500 and are willing to consider both used and new cars.

The requirements are:

1. Reasonable amount of space for two adults and files/a few boxes, suitcases, etc.

2. The driver and passanger should sit more upright than they do in a traditional sedan (like the Taurus, etc.).

3. The vehicle should have space on its side back windows for a logo.

4. The vehicle should get reasonably good gas mileage, as it will be used for both daily in-town driving, and longer business and personal trips.

5. Its got to look nice. We love the Cruiser, but hate the HHR, if that helps. (and, yes, I know the xB is ugly and looks like a box, but for some reason, we still like it!)

So, does anyone have any suggestions of other vehicles that we should look at? Any help or advice is appreciated!
posted by richardhay to Shopping (42 answers total)
go drive.
posted by kcm at 12:30 PM on March 14, 2006

Don't buy American, the quality is terrible. Much better value with japenese.
posted by cahlers at 12:32 PM on March 14, 2006

Spelling correction: Japanese.
posted by cahlers at 12:32 PM on March 14, 2006

The Honda Element looks like a scaled up xB, gets reasonable gas mileage, meets all of your criteria, and drives much, much better than the PT Cruiser. The high-end trim level tops out at a higher price than your stated range, but the lower twim level (the LX) starts at an MSRP of 17,750.

Plus, you can almost certainly get a used higher-end element within your proce range.

Although I have never owned an Element, I have test drived them several times (including an extended half-day test drive), and was very, very happy with both the car-like driveability and the cavernous interior of the vehicle.

Of course, the HHR does look a lot like it, so you might hate it....
posted by dersins at 12:33 PM on March 14, 2006

Thanks KCM! I've been playing around with that site and with the manufacturers own sites. I was hoping to get some personal-experience-based specific recomendations as well.
posted by richardhay at 12:33 PM on March 14, 2006

Cahlers: Thanks for the advice. We've been pleased with the quality of our Chrysler Cirrus, but we'll keep your advice in mind.

Dersins: Thanks so much! We haven't looked at the Element yet, but will be out by a Honda dealer today. We'll definitely stop in. I don't like the looks of the element as much as I like the Cruiser, but from your description, it is still definitely worth taking a look.
posted by richardhay at 12:36 PM on March 14, 2006

I second Honda, we've been very pleased with our 98 CRV, now with 130,000 miles, and still going.
posted by cahlers at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2006

I have driven an Element for an extended period of time. I gave it high marks for utility, but I hated the back seats, and the safety ratings on them aren't terribly confidence-inspiring.

The xB, I think, is a nice little breadvan, although I find it underpowered. Owners I've talked to love them - they are Toyotas after all, and you have to work damn hard to kill a Toyota. Damned things last forever.

And my standard advice to all people: don't buy new. Buy used - if you can find a lease turn-in, even better.
posted by TeamBilly at 12:50 PM on March 14, 2006

I've driven three models of CRV's, I currently own a Forester and like them both. They were highly rated for the category in the most recent Consumer Reports, along with the Pontiac Vibe and Toyata Matrix (neither of which I would recommend, but I've been seeing more of them on the road lately fwiw).
posted by prostyle at 12:50 PM on March 14, 2006

Last year the wife and I spent a while looking at new cars in this sphere as well. We were considering a Pontiac Vibe, but in the end I suggested and we ended up getting a Chevrolet Optra5. The US doesn't get the GM badge though, it's sold there as the Suzuki Reno. It also comes in a slightly different wagon model.

It has no side back windows though...

This car is built in Korea by GM Daewoo. It's quite a nice ride especially since we drove off the lot for less than $17,000 CAD with every feature except a sunroof and leather. After 13,000 KM we both love driving it, and it's had no major problems in that time. It's roomy for 5 people, doesn't look like a box, and has enough space in the trunk for quite a bit of stuff. Plus both rear seats fold almost-flat, remove the privacy shield, and the cargo hold is huge. Very very satisfied.

The engines in these models are made by Holden in Australia, and are well-known everywhere except North America for being virtually bulletproof. The 2.0L is really nice and peppy - it's got way better pickup than our old 2.2L Cavalier Coupe. The build quality is very good, especially the interior.

After we bought this my wife's mother got a Pontiac Vibe. The Vibe's interior is not well put together. A slight push of a button on the console makes the whole area around it bend disconcertingly. She previously had a PT Cruiser and had problems with it, and she's not a hard driver. PT Cruisers are built mostly out of Dodge Neon parts...

Man I'm off on a rant. Hope that helps you.
posted by chuma at 1:05 PM on March 14, 2006

My wife and I have rented many a PT Cruiser and have never been satisfied with the quality of the vehicle. It just feels cheap and has really sucky pickup. When we were in the market for our car, pretty much every dealer we mentioned the Cruiser to told us it was a cheap piece of junk, even those that had one or two of them on the lot.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:14 PM on March 14, 2006

PT Cruiser owner here.

And to answer your questions:

1. Reasonable amount of space for two adults and files/a few boxes, suitcases, etc.

More than enough room. Way more than enough if you remove the rear seat. It's actually quite surprising what you can fit in there ( 2 6 drawer upright dressers for example, along with 4 or so boxes).

2. The driver and passanger should sit more upright than they do in a traditional sedan (like the Taurus, etc.).

Check. I prefer to sit very straight and upright and the Cruiser allowed me to do so. It's actually very difficult for me to find vehicles I can sit up straight in (6'3") here. So if I can do it, you should definitely be able to.

3. The vehicle should have space on its side back windows for a logo.

I've never logoed up my car, but it should be....

4. The vehicle should get reasonably good gas mileage, as it will be used for both daily in-town driving, and longer business and personal trips.

And here's the first miss. I get about 20 miles to the gallon on my daily commute (approx 80 % highway miles).

And now for some downsides.

Road noise. It will be noisier than a luxury or import car, but on par or better with most domestic entry level vehicles.

Crosswinds. Very very susceptible to crosswinds because of it's profile. I'd highly reccomend finding one with the suspension upgrade and performance tires. Most of the cars you're looking at will probably have this problem.

It's possible for loose items in the rear seat to roll forward under the driver's feet. It doesn't happen often if you're careful, but it is quite scary.

All in all, the PT Cruiser has a funky layout that eventually feels natural, and is a great car for it's money.
posted by nulledge at 1:19 PM on March 14, 2006

Wow, thank you everyone for the great responses. I really appreciate the first-hand accounts of the Cruiser (thanks nulledge!) and the CRV (another Honda we hadn't looked at). Chuma, thanks for pointing out the Optra S--I'm reading about it as I type this.

TeamBilly, thanks for the advice to buy used over new. New cars are alluring, but we will probably buy used to get more for our money.

Please feel free to keep the advice coming! This has been really really helpful thus far!
posted by richardhay at 1:24 PM on March 14, 2006

Don't discount the Honda Civic. They've just been redesigned. Plus, used hatchbacks should be easy to find, and they offer a surprisingly good amount of storage space. And they're Hondas -- they're f'n bombproof.
posted by frogan at 1:25 PM on March 14, 2006

If you look at the Element, look at the CRV too. Basically the same car, but differently styled and differently laid out (Element backseats fold up onto the walls, CRV back seats fold forward against the front seats).

We drove both and thought the Element had unacceptably bad visibility, especially around the gigantor front roof pillars.

We liked a Legacy wagon very much too, but it was a bit more money for a bit less space.

You might also look at the Mazda5, which is more of a weensy minivan than a weensy sport-ute.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:27 PM on March 14, 2006

My wife and I have rented many a PT Cruiser and have never been satisfied with the quality of the vehicle. It just feels cheap and has really sucky pickup. When we were in the market for our car, pretty much every dealer we mentioned the Cruiser to told us it was a cheap piece of junk, even those that had one or two of them on the lot.
robocop is bleeding

I can see where you'd describe it as cheap feeling, and I won't disagree with you. The interior is plastic and rubber, but it is very durable.

The pickup is something I forgot to mention, it isn't a sporty engine. It's a small 4 cylinder pulling a fairly heavy chassis. However it is a durable and robust engine.

The vehicle is good for what it is desgined to be, an entry level Mini-SUV. If you're looking at this vehicle with high expectations you will be dissapointed.
posted by nulledge at 1:27 PM on March 14, 2006

You asked for other vehicles, so I suppose my comment is off topic, but I love my xB, purchased on the recommendations gotten via AxMe. It satisfies all your criteria, no problem. It's definitely somewhat underpowered and noisy, but has space galore, even in the back seat. I'm very tall, so headroom was a big consideration, as well as being able to get in and out without having to fold myself up.

I know a few people with Elements, and they seem to have no complaints, other than being annoyed that their car is often mistaken for the (cheaper) xB.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:34 PM on March 14, 2006

We recently bought an Element and love it. The visibility does take some getting used to, but we added some little stick-on round mirrors to the sideview mirrors and that makes a huge difference.

The amount of interior space is just incredible, and it is actually shorter in length than our Jetta Wagon, making it very easy to parallel park.

I get about 25 around town, and we recently got almost 30 on a weekend trip. I would say it meets all your criteria save for the aesthetic, which is totally your own call.
posted by padraigin at 1:40 PM on March 14, 2006

ROU_Xenophobe mentioned the Mazda5; I'd skip it if you're looking for good mileage. I drive a Mazda3 with the 2.3L engine (the same engine/chassis as the Mazda5, but a few hundred pounds lighter), and get terrible, awful gas mileage (20mpg on a regular basis, worse in the winter; 90% city driving; auto). I love the car, hate the mileage (not a huge problem, given that I drive fewer than 600 miles a month). The economy will be even worse on the heavier Mazda5.
posted by uncleozzy at 1:44 PM on March 14, 2006

I like my element, but after a couple years of it, I kind of wish I got a CRV which is quieter inside and more car-like (but has the same exact engine, suspension, etc). The elements are so big and open inside that they are rather noisy in the back (granted, Oregon roads are poor quality too, from all the rain which makes the noise worse).

I think the CRVs add a grand or two to the price though.
posted by mathowie at 1:46 PM on March 14, 2006

I have a Scion xA. It's the smaller, cheaper sibling of the xB, built on the same Toyota Echo platform. Like the xB it has a comfortable, very upright driving position, gets great gas mileage (32/37 mpg according to the EPA), and has more passenger room than most small cars. The xA's luggage compartment is very small, but the rear seats can fold down to create a larger cargo space when necessary. If you're looking at the xB, check out the xA too.

There's a useful review of the xA at
posted by mbrubeck at 1:47 PM on March 14, 2006

And before you accept a blanket statement like "Don't buy American, the quality is terrible. Much better value with japenese" as gospel, take a look at initial quality and vehicle dependability rankings. For the past few years, Buick and Cadillac have been near the top of the ratings, while automakers like Chrysler are right around the average and numerous Japanese automakers are below.
posted by werty at 1:55 PM on March 14, 2006

I have an xB and have driven my mom's PT.
I like the xB much better.

The PT has more power, but the xB gets better gas mileage. The xB has more comfortable seats and better outward vision. The XB is also bigger than the PT on the inside, without being much bigger on the outside. The xB's rear leg-room is particularly impressive.

If you decide on a PT you can go to the dealership and choose between about a dozen on the lot. The Scion you may have to order. I waited 5 weeks to get mine.

The xB beat the PT, Element, and HHR in a recent Car and Driver comparison test.

Hope that helps.
posted by zonkout at 2:01 PM on March 14, 2006

I bought a Toyota Matrix in December. We got it fully unloaded for $20k Canadian, so it would be within your price range.

I love this car.
- great 'feel'
- lotsa storage room, but not too big (it's shorter than my old accord)
- you sit up a bit higher, and there is lots of headroom for a bigger guy like me
- great little details like tie-downs in the trunk area, a thermometer in the dash and fold down seats that fold flat.
- great gas mileage.

Some negatives that I don't really care about, but you might:
- no real amenities (A/C, Power locks, etc) on our model, but you might be able to get this if you really want. I think the XR, with those features, came in at around CAD22k
- a little underpowered.

I really don't like the PT cruiser, I've rented a few, and I have no ideas regarding the Scion.
posted by sauril at 2:16 PM on March 14, 2006

Oh, and we primarily use the car for going to the mountains, so the plastic rear area and back of the seats is great for us, as the grime and mud from our gear just washes right out.
posted by sauril at 2:19 PM on March 14, 2006

If you want cheap quality, Honda or Toyota. Nobody does it better, or at least no one has.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:28 PM on March 14, 2006

I wholeheartedly recommend Toyota’s Matrix. As a musician and biologist I’ve packed 6 weeks worth of field equipment and my double bass in the back of my car and still had room for myself and a passenger. It handles well, has great clearance and gets great gas mileage. I have a 2003 with 50,000 miles on it and my only complaint is that Toyota never came out with the advertised roof racks

On the other hand, I definitely don’t recommend the PT Cruiser. I rented one thinking it would be similar to my Matrix but it was far from it. One of the things I really like about my car is that the backseat folds flat – the Cruiser backseat is about 2 inches higher than the storage area. In addition, I wasn’t able to fit as much gear in the back of the PT Cruiser, it handled awful in high wind, and there were huge blind spots.
posted by a22lamia at 2:43 PM on March 14, 2006

Another PT Cruiser owner here. Almost 60,000 miles since 2002 with no major problems. The cargo carrying ability is great. I'm seeing 23-24 mpg fuel economy; mileage drops significantly if you drive fast on the highway.

The worst thing I can say about the car is that I have mixed feelings about the new dash for 2006. Otherwise, I concur with nulledge that it should meet your criteria.

And they're Hondas -- they're f'n bombproof.

An industry publication (Ward's, if I remember right) recently pointed out that the PT Cruiser has actually posted better results than the Honda Civic in some quality surveys.

Although the styling is completely different, you might also want to check out the brand-new Dodge Caliber.
posted by pmurray63 at 2:51 PM on March 14, 2006

I've been looking for a vehicle myself, with similar requirements to yours -- small SUV, comfortable passenger space, decent cargo room, without sacrificing too much gas mileage.

So far, I have absolutely fallen in love with the Hyundai Santa Fe. I know Hyundai had a bit of a reputation in the past, but their newer models (from 2002 forward, IIRC) get very high marks for reliability, and I've been able to find 2003 and 2004 models with less than 25,000 on them, for around $15k. Still under warranty, even.

I think it looks a lot more stylish than the Element or the xB. It's certainly more spacious than the xB, which struggles to hold 5 people (are barely holds 4 comfortably). In my test-drive experiences, it has a soft, car-like ride with good suspension and good cornering ability.

I highly suggest taking one for a spin.
posted by CrayDrygu at 2:56 PM on March 14, 2006

(Oh, and if you want something smaller, there's a smaller version of the Santa Fe called the Tucson, but it was new for 2005, so you might not find them much cheaper yet.)
posted by CrayDrygu at 2:57 PM on March 14, 2006

My wife & I got an xB recently, and we use it with a car seat in the back. It's got a really comfortable amount of room for its size, especially in the back seat. We thought it was butt-ugly too at first, but somehow it grows on you. I think it's about the best value for the money, assuming that Scions live up to Toyota's reputation for reliability. I liked the fact that you get power everything, traction control, ABS, yadda yadda, standard for around $15,000.

It does feel a bit underpowered if you load it up with people and/or cargo, but it's perfectly zippy with just one or two people inside. Mine has a very quiet vibration noise on one side of the dash that drives me crazy, but I haven't been able to duplicate it for the dealer because it only happens at certain speeds & temperatures. So that's a little annoying. And don't get the $260 iPod radio option. The interface is basically unusable. I made that mistake, and I would have been better off spending the money on a nice iPod car mount and using the standard line-in jack.

It's not a perfect car, and it probably has a little too much vibration and road noise if you're taking a lot of long road trips. But, for the money, it's a great deal. I'm sure it's built more solidly than the Cruiser.
posted by designbot at 3:12 PM on March 14, 2006

The PT Cruiser is built on a Dodge Neon platform. I say no more.

Have you considered a used late-model Toyota Rav 4? Decent mileage (esp. the 2WD model), nippy handling, reliable as they come. Bigger and more expensive than the xB, but much better for long journeys, and holds its value.
posted by holgate at 4:10 PM on March 14, 2006

Oops: I was going to say that you could probably pick up a 2002-2004 RAV4 with around 50k on the clock within your budget.
posted by holgate at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2006

Werty, american cars do not last as long as japanese. They are built to fail after 5 years.
posted by cahlers at 4:14 PM on March 14, 2006

Third the Toyota Matrix. My wife and both really love ours. We bought a new 2003 Matrix (when the 2004 models were rolling out) with automatic transmission (but no power windows/locks or 4wd) for around $15k. The storage space is amazing, especially with the back seats that fold down seamlessly into the cargo area. You really do sit up higher than in a sedan (or at least it feels like it), it gets great gas mileage (28-33 mpg), and it looks hott.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:15 PM on March 14, 2006

Again with the Matrix. I looked at many of the cars you list and ended up with the "smaller" Toyota. It's quite a tall car on the road compared to regular sedans and fits all of your other needs. Storage is excellent. The plastic back means dogs with dirty feet/construction materials/muddy bikes are all no-stress.

It's good for longer trips too. Not so much in the guts department, but that means you pass more gas stations.

It's quite stable in snow and ice. It understeers like most front-wheel drive, but it's got decent road clearance and does ok in deeper snow (up to 6" or so).

I've had it for a little more than a year; I'd buy it again if I had to do it today. Look at the mid-range XR model. Nice mix of features, but not too pricey.
posted by bonehead at 5:49 PM on March 14, 2006

Oh yeah, let me add to my previous comment about avoiding the Mazda5. A friend bought a Matrix around the same time that I got my Mazda3. I'd recommend it for all the reasons that others have, except for the fact that it's even worse than my Mazda3 in the snow (which is pretty bad). If you live somewhere with lots of snow, get snow tires. Even as underpowered as it is, it still can't manage to get going on icy roads. Other than that, if you're looking for a small car with good features, lots of space, and good gas mileage, the Matrix is a great choice (plus it's a Toyota! It will last forever!)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:15 PM on March 14, 2006

Werty, american cars do not last as long as japanese. They are built to fail after 5 years.

what if I reset the clock every year?
posted by vaportrail at 9:09 PM on March 14, 2006

american cars do not last as long as japanese. They are built to fail after 5 years.

Of the 14 above-average nameplates in J.D. Power's 2005 Vehicle Dependability Study -- which measures quality over 5 years -- half are domestics (Lincoln, Buick, Cadillac, Mercury, Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler).

But I'm sure you have some personal anecdote that you feel is more useful than a survey with more than 50,000 respondents.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:37 AM on March 15, 2006

Sorry, it's three years, not five. But my point stands.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:38 AM on March 15, 2006

And half of those domestics are driven by little old ladies on Sundays.

Let's see some mileage statistics: there are models of Japanese cars that are notorious for rolling-over the odometer during their lifetime. Are there any American cars that are as reliable?

(My Chevette was, but it was mostly a Japanese car...)
posted by five fresh fish at 8:44 AM on March 15, 2006

UPDATE: Thanks everyone for your great comments. After test driving the Matrix and the other cars suggested above, we just purchased a Scion XB. What sold us on the car was the amount of interior room and the visibility out the back (which was poor on the Cruiser).
posted by richardhay at 9:17 AM on March 25, 2006

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