Help me get the most utility out of my vehicle.
April 21, 2006 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Yet another request for car recommendations.

After consulting with the wife and the mechanic, it's been determined that the aging Saturn is going to be taken out behind the barn and shot next month. I'm starting the process of looking for a replacement, but, having been out of the car market for about ten years, I'm feeling sort of information-poor.

So: I'd love any recommendations… factors important to me include:

-Price. Lower is better.
-High reliability and gas mileage are much more important than speed/flashiness.
-Car should seat four in relative comfort (not necessarily SUV comfort, but as comfortable as, say, a 4-door Saturn)
- Should be decent for frequently hauling mid-sized cargo (say, amps/guitars or a couple of disassembled bikes). So, probably a hatchback.
- Should be able to handle snow.

(by way of example, I like my wife's Mazda Protégé 5 very, very much; but we're irrationally squicked out at the idea of having his-and-hers copies of the same car).

At this point, buying a newish used car or leasing a new one are the top options; not completely ruling out buying a new one, but it'd have to be a hell of a deal.
posted by COBRA! to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total)
Toyota Matrix seems to fit your specs. That's the car I really wanted, but couldn't afford, when I bought my car.
posted by amro at 8:56 AM on April 21, 2006

Darn, I'm trying to sell my Protege5! (its cute! low mileage! zoom-zoom!)

I was actually going to suggest the Protege5 or the new 3's and 5's.

Not quite to the level but cheaper is the Ford Focus, Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix (OK the Matrix is not cheaper, but very similar).
posted by Pollomacho at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2006

Honda- CRV, Civic or Accord, all meet your basic requirements. The CRV is all wheel drive.

Toyota- Psion (the wagon one, not the box), or Rav4 (also 4WD).

If you want reliability, Toyota and Honda are where it's at. Stay away from anything American or German.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:08 AM on April 21, 2006

How bad is the Focus as far as reliability? Are we talking parts falling off as you leave the lot, or good-at-first-turning-into-Buford-T.-Justice's-cop-car at 100k miles? I've heard conflicting things.
posted by COBRA! at 9:15 AM on April 21, 2006

Honda Element? I like the way they look - but I know not everyone agrees.
Subaru wagon is probably a bit more than you wanted to spend new -but they are known to be tanks and a couple years used could be a bargain. AWD, good mileage, plenty of room...
posted by Wolfie at 9:18 AM on April 21, 2006

If you like the Toyota Matrix, the Pontiac Vibe is a clone of it. Also, Honda has the new Fit now (or soon) and it's looking to be a competitor to the Matrix/Focus.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 9:19 AM on April 21, 2006

The Foci (Focuses?) depend on the model year. Ford has been in some deep corporate doo-doo partly because they keep trying to fix things that aren't broken. The early Foci sucked, then they worked out the bugs, then they rebugged them. Check Consumer Reports. You can see the model years where they go from not recommended to "best buy" to again not recommended status. I believe it is the '02 and 03 models that are the good ones but check me on that first.

If you are used to a Mazda though, the Focus is going to feel like you're driving a block of wood.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:22 AM on April 21, 2006

You might look at the Hyundai Elantra, which is available in a 5-door (hatch) format. I've never driven one in the snow, but I've heard they're fine. I have one of these and it's a fine car -- nothing fancy, but plenty relaible after ~45K. The price was quite reasonable, the fuel economy is decent (though it's not quite at Civic levels), and the warranty can't be beat.

However, be careful if there isn't more than one dealer in your area -- when you do need service, it's good to have 2-3 places competing with each other for those warranty dollars. Lack of dealership coverage isn't usually a problem with other makes, especially domestic ones. But my dad ended up getting so frustrated with his local dealer that he traded in his 2006 Sonata for a Toyota in after owning the Sonata for only a few months.
posted by kindall at 9:27 AM on April 21, 2006

We have a Focus and have had only one really weird problem with it in five years, but have people that we know with a totally different story. Personally, I like the Matrix/Vibe . .. and there's always a Subaru.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:36 AM on April 21, 2006

If price is important, get a Honda. You might not get a 15,000 rebate up front (to get the cars off the lot) but you'll have two out of pocket costs for 7 years: gas, and oil. People have had success stories with the traditionally unreliable cars (American cars, VWs, etc.) but that's not the rule. Dear Leader drives an Element and seems to like it, maybe he can chime in.
posted by kcm at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2006

FYI: It's the Toyota Scion, not Psion. I have the Xb (boxy one) and I love it. It was CHEAP, too.
posted by Futurehouse at 9:50 AM on April 21, 2006

Your criteria do not limit me to the point where I'd recommend a few models. Basically, get anything Japanese. If snow is a big concern, get an AWD Subaru. Otherwise, just get a Honda, Nissan or Toyota in whichever flavor you find pleasing.
posted by knave at 10:14 AM on April 21, 2006

We have a Subaru Forrester that is reliable and great for hauling large dogs and other things around. Having the AWD is handy in snowy conditions. But the mileage isn't that great, and it's definitely a thirsty car in comparison to our other car, a Honda Accord. And honestly, the back seat is a wee bit tight for people with long legs. But still, you might want to check it out.

I've driven the Protege5 and liked it, and the Forrester isn't as zippy. If I could fit the dog in the back of a Protege5, I'd consider one of those myself.
posted by ambrosia at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2006

Slightly used Volkswagen Golf (4 door) or Jetta with the TDI motor. You don't take the initial depreciation loss and get over 40mpg. The diesel is much cleaner, efficient and still has decent performance.

Reliability with VW through both personal experience and anecdotal through other friends is remarkably high.
posted by Thistledown at 10:17 AM on April 21, 2006

There is no "Forester", singular, to talk about in terms of speed.. the newest XT has 230hp and is quite quick, while the 2001 S with the heavier body and 163hp boxer I drove for awhile was fairly plodding (but a great car otherwise - 27mpg highway). I'd recommend one if it's your kind of car, or perhaps the Outback.
posted by kcm at 10:20 AM on April 21, 2006

Given what you're asking for, the Scion xB actually sounds like a pretty good match. It's cheap, gets great mileage, and has loads of space inside. The downside is that it's (arguably) ugly as sin, and might not be particularly reliable (the Scion line, at least when first introduced, had a higher-than-normal number of problems per vehicle. This may have changed, but I'd still be a bit wary), and I don't know how it is in the snow.

As for the Matrix (which others have recommended) ... the FWD XR trim is awful in the snow. Abominably bad. My Mazda3 is not too good in the snow (need to start out in 2nd gear -- in an auto -- and even then the traction is only so-so), but a friend's Matrix was almost unacceptably bad; he could barely keep the thing in a straight line. Otherwise, it's a pretty good car.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:21 AM on April 21, 2006

I've got a FWD Matrix, and I have to agree about the snow handling: It's not good. I'm pretty sure there's an AWD model available, though, so it ought to do better.

Other than that, I really like the car. Gas mileage is pretty good, and I usually get around 300 miles on the 11 gallon tank of gas. the seats fold down easily, and i can lay 2 fully assembled mountain bikes down in the back without too much difficulty.
posted by el-gregorio at 10:32 AM on April 21, 2006

My brother has had several Focus wagons, and they all died in crashes. My brother was fine in each case, so I've built up a lot of respect for that car. I replaced the stupid OEM tires with some ultra high performance all-season tires (he lives in LA, so summer tires could be fine, but he'd be screwed every time it rains) and he reports the car is *much* more controllable. He tends to load the car down with people and musical instruments, so the new tires should extend the "safe" range of traction for him.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:39 AM on April 21, 2006

There's been a lot of good talk about the Scion xB in past threads; I bought mine partly on the strength of AskMe recommendations. I don't have any idea about its snow-worthiness, though--we had a very mild winter this year.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:08 AM on April 21, 2006

Try Car and Driver. Some recent features that might help you out:

Econobox head to head (1) and (2)

That being said Hondas are generally rock solid. An Accord or Civic might be up your alley. Toyotas are also very reliable. VW golfs might also be the ticket but I've heard that their average reliability is very poor in recent years. Another option is a relatively late model ford focus/taurus sedan or wagon. While being the opposite of flash, they will get you from A to B and can be had dirt cheap in addition to being reasonably reliable (some transmission issues on 90s models so stick to '00-'05.)
posted by 1024x768 at 11:19 AM on April 21, 2006

I really love our xB. We have had one recurring strange issue (we're on our third ignition coil), but that has been handled quickly and at no charge every time. I really like how the interior space is used; the frame isn't terribly different from my Prius, but the xB has way more legroom in the back seat and I got far more way-back (behind the back seats) space than I have any need for. If I'm not going to have a trunk either way, and the seats fold down, I don't understand why you wouldn't prioritize legroom.

Anyway, it gets respectable gas mileage, has an enviable number of weirdly-shaped storage holes in the dash, the seats are really comfortable, and I think the xBs are really cute. If I hadn't caved on the Prius, I would have braved the creepy his-n-her car thing and gotten another one.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2006

Addendum: If winter traction is specifically a concern, think AWD, which for what you are looking for would be a subaru impreza.

One caveat: AWD improves acceleration in bad weather conditions but will not improve braking (a larger concern in many cases). A set of foul-weather tires for winter would help both starting and stopping on almost any car.
posted by 1024x768 at 11:27 AM on April 21, 2006

Thanks for all of the info so far. There's one elaboration I'd like: as far as the Matrix and Vibe being clones of each other, how literal is that? Like, made along generally the same plan but in different plants out of different parts, or identical cars off of the same line just with different logos attached at the end? Does the Matrix's trouble with snow extend to the Vibe?
posted by COBRA! at 12:19 PM on April 21, 2006

What trouble the Mazda3 has with snow can be traced back to the horrible stock Goodyear Eagle RS-A 17" tires. After replacing them our second winter with the car was much better. It only snowed once, though.

COBRA!: The Matrix and Vibe come off different lines. The Vibe is made in Fremont, CA at NUMMI. The Matrix is made in Cambridge, Ontario. Both plants also make Corollas, upon which the Matrix and Vibe are based. If you test drive the two, you'll see that the interior and running gear are completely the same.
posted by zsazsa at 12:26 PM on April 21, 2006

Another vote for a Hyundai Elantra.
posted by lester at 12:49 PM on April 21, 2006

I have a Outback Sport, which is a lower-cost Impreza. It's a wagon, with plenty of room with the back seats folded down.

I get around 23-25mpg with a manual transmission, which could be higher if I was less of a lead foot.

I love the AWD in the Denver winter, and I feel much more comfortable with it than without it.

You might want to look into the Scion tC. It's a 2 door hatchback, with TONS of backseat room, and a large trunk. No AWD, but the MSRP is about $16k.
posted by Jim T at 4:54 PM on April 21, 2006

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