What car should I buy?
May 20, 2006 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Yet another "time to buy a car" thread

I'm looking for a car with good gas mileage to replace a 2002 Tundra. The Tundra still works great, hasn't had any problems with anything but I'm starting to not be able to afford gas.

I've looked at the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris as well as Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. My criteria are:

* great gas mileage
* cheap, but still quality (Both of these cars are dirt cheap but I'm worried about quality)

I'm also concerned about being a "beta tester" for an untried product. These cars look cool (especially the Honda, which I'm really leaning towards) but I heard that the gas tank is in a funny place (under the front passenger seat), which then leads me to be concerned about funny wiring or whatever.

What cars should I look at? Also of note, I'm relatively tall (my wife owns a Honda Element and the steering wheel doesn't move up high enough to be comfortable for me) so I need a car that can accomodate that aspect, as well.

I have all day today and tomorrow to hang out here and respond, so feel free to ask questions that I can respond to.

posted by ajpresto to Travel & Transportation (44 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Toyota Corollas will live forever. I have a 1996, and it's still going strong.
posted by brina at 7:58 AM on May 20, 2006

You really cannot go wrong with a Civic. Buy last year's if you're concerned about first model year quality, but in this case, those fears aren't terribly founded. The Civic of today is feature-wise the Accord of 10 years ago, and really has everything most folks want in a car along with superb mileage + great capability for people moving.
posted by kcm at 7:58 AM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: If you're looking at the Fit, be aware that it's not actually a new design - it's only new to North America. It's been sold in Japan since 2001 and Europe since 2002. You won't be beta testing a 'new' design if you get one.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 8:05 AM on May 20, 2006

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Toyota Matrix.

*cheap=yes (~$14K)
*reliable=basically a Corolla with a new suit on (you can still see it referred to as the "Toyota Corolla Matrix" occasionally)
*mileage=great (~30mpg)
*headroom=more than you'd think possible (I'm 6'2")
*coolness=to the max
*extra bons points if you can convince your wife to get the vanity plates "NEO", "3NITY", or "MRFEUS" (I couldn't)
posted by Rock Steady at 8:07 AM on May 20, 2006

What cars should I look at?

In my book, reliability is number one. You can argue whether comfort trumps gas mileage trumps price trumps features...but I think anyone who doesn't prioritize reliability above all else is absolutely nuts. Who gives a damn how cool your car looks, or how much you paid, if it won't start?

In that respect, both Corolla and Civic are the best of the best — and my understanding is, their records are equally good. Work from there. I'd recommend the Corolla, based on good personal experience; but I've never heard anything bad about the Civic.
posted by cribcage at 8:07 AM on May 20, 2006

*Extra super bonus points if you spell BONUS correctly.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:08 AM on May 20, 2006

Oh, and I have recently driven the Yaris over a long weekend - we drove 1300 kilometers in 3 days and it was really comfortable. Again, the Yaris isn't new - it's basically an Echo with a nicer body. We got 50 MPG combined in the Yaris.

It was a rental, nearing the end of its rental life, and it was holding together very nicely. No squeaks, no rattles, still very nice to drive. I don't know what it's like if you're tall, however. I'm 5'7" and so I fit in any car.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 8:08 AM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: You're not making this easy.
posted by ajpresto at 8:08 AM on May 20, 2006

A minimally-equipped Yaris is beaten only by the Chevrolet Aveo SVM Trim in price. If you're planning on purchasing a vehicle with automatic transmission, Yaris becomes your cheapest choice for a new vehicle.

You can expect the value of such vehicles to depreciate quickly, however...

Civic is almost universally regarded as the best choice in terms of resale value and life expectancy. Its fuel efficiency is generally beaten only by Volkswagen's TDI line (not available in certain states due to fuel standards), hybrids (uncertain cost/benefit forecast), and certain specialty vehicles such as the MINI Cooper.

Being average-sized myself, I can only suggest test-driving some of the vehicles in your short-list to determine if they can be at least a semi-comfortable ride.
posted by The Confessor at 8:09 AM on May 20, 2006

I have a 1995 Geo Prizm (which is a Toyota Corolla with different body panels) and the thing is still going strong. Totally reliable and I still get 25-30 mpg on an engine with 120,000 miles on it.
posted by thewittyname at 8:15 AM on May 20, 2006

Oh, I forgot to add - I'm a big guy, over six feet, and I'm comfortable in the Prizm/Corolla
posted by thewittyname at 8:16 AM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: a) The NYT did a comparison of the Fit and the Yaris a few weeks ago. It's a Times Select article, so you've got to pony up or find it elsewhere.

b) As mentioned above, the Fit is sold as the Jazz abroad, not only in Japan, but in Indonesia as well (and probably all over Asia). I see them everywhere and rode in one last night; it was much bigger than I expected and zipped through our ridiculous, anarchic traffic quite well. It's got a VW New Beetle-like dashboard that seemingly stretches to the horizon, but unlike the Beetle, the front pillars aren't thick columns which block your vision as there are little mini-windows in front of the pillars...hard to explain, you'll just have to see one.

c) I'd recommend looking at car review sites in countries like Ireland or the UK where you'll be able to see the comments and reviews of owners of previous models.
posted by mdonley at 8:25 AM on May 20, 2006

There is a Civic Hybrid, but you pay a bit more for a bit less comfort and marginal gains - except if you live in places with HOV lanes and you get a sticker for them. Even then, you'll stick get stuck being some random wanker in a Prius driving slower than the other 3 lanes and choking your path off.
posted by kcm at 8:26 AM on May 20, 2006

I had no idea the Prizm was really a Corolla! No wonder my stepsister was able to drive hers like a rented mule for so long!
posted by Rock Steady at 8:35 AM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: Having driven both a Fit and a Yaris in the past month, the Fit manages cargo space amazingly well. The trim also feels and looks cheap.

The Yaris had odd little features that I think I'd really like after an hour or so of driving. I liked the way it drove. It did not feel or look chintzy.

We've also driven the Scion xA and xB, the Mazda 3, the Golf and the Civic. (My partner is looking for a high mileage, inexpensive, comfortable, high cargo car to drive around the US for 3 months.)

She likes the Fit the best, and will probably buy one. I liked the Yaris better, but the Mazda 3 was the most fun to drive, and I'd probably buy the Scion xA if I were in the market.
posted by QIbHom at 8:39 AM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: I found the NYTimes article on their site for free. It's a good read for anybody who's in the current situation.

Qlb: You mention "odd little features that...I'd really like..." on the Yaris. Could you elaborate?
posted by ajpresto at 8:54 AM on May 20, 2006

My 1993 Corolla will NOT DIE. Honestly. In the beginning, I changed the oil faithfully, had all my belts and hoses replaced, kept it in tune, replaced the air filters, etc... after about 8 years, however, I began waiting 10 or 12,000 miles before changing the oil, forgot about the hoses and belts, and spray out the air filter occasionally with the water hose.

At this point, 13 years later, the car runs exactly as it did when I bought it in 1993. It shifts smooth, accelerates great for a 4 cylinder, does not burn oil, cranks right up every morning, and idles like a new car. Even the cigarette lighter still works. Hell, I haven't bothered to wax it for years now, and even the paint job still looks good.

I just love the darn thing - last year, I took it halfway across the country and back, and didn't think twice about it breaking down on me. And of course, everything was fine.

She's a champ, that Corolla. I'll miss her when she's gone. I fugure with the rate she's going, I won't have to worry about that for another 10 years or so.
posted by bradth27 at 9:04 AM on May 20, 2006

By the way - I also sold a 1991 corolla last year that belonged to my wife. That car had 110,000 miles on it when we sold it, and it ran perfect as well.

I love Toyotas.
posted by bradth27 at 9:11 AM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: I love my Tundra as well. It'll be sweet sorrow parting with a beast that can handle anything I throw at it.
posted by ajpresto at 9:12 AM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: The Tundra still works great, hasn't had any problems with anything but I'm starting to not be able to afford gas.

I've done a bit of financial analysis and it looks like it'll take at least a couple years to break even. Assuming your Tundra is worth $9000 as a trade and you buy a new, base Yaris at about $12,000, the difference is $3000. Now assuming you get 40 MPG in the Yaris and are getting 15 MPG in the Tundra, and assuming gas will average about $3.50 over the next year or so, you'd spend $52.50 to drive the Yaris 600 miles or $140 to drive the Tundra the same distance. You save $87.50 each 600 miles you drive the Yaris, or $1750 a year if you drive the average of 1000 miles a month. So, it'll be close to two years to breakeven on a base Yaris. If you buy a Fit or get more equipment on a Yaris, it'll be even longer to breakeven.

To really come out ahead immediately, then, what you'd want to do is buy a used, 2- or 3-year-old Civic or Corolla, and sell your Tundra to a private buyer rather than trading it in. This would probably let you come close to an even trade after all's said and done.
posted by kindall at 9:30 AM on May 20, 2006

Well, ajpresto, the cup holders were in the corners of the dash (they pop out). Which is kind of nifty, since that means I could put my coffee in it without taking my eyes as far from the road as when putting my coffee down by the shifter. There were little pockets to put odds and ends in everywhere. I liked the climate controls, which were odd, but looked easy to use. I'm used to the speedo and all being in the centre of the dashboard from my Ion (and, that only took about 20 min. to get used to, so please don't be put off by it), and actually like that design now.

We test drove a sedan, despite really wanting the hatchback. The salesman said the hatchback was very different.

The Yaris interior felt different, but really functional. I was nearly as impressed by it as my partner was by the cargo space in the Fit. I kept poking around and thinking, "Oh! That does make sense. How cool."

Of course, my idea of new, useful and nifty might be another person's idea of design hell.
posted by QIbHom at 9:32 AM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: Kindall- That gets to the next part of the question that I hadn't shared with you all - The Tundra has some body damage (I backed into a mailbox. Whoops.) which would knock it down to at least Average or probably even Good status. The main damage is to the tailgate which can probably be replaced easily from a junk yard (although I've been noticing a lot of damaged tailgates recently)...

Anyway, that gets to your formula question (which I've wanted to do but haven't and which I would have been more conservative on ($3.50 gas?!?))... the damage knocks the value of the truck a bit or causes me to do some repairs...

Qlb-that sounds very cool. I'm definitely in your camp about usability and functionality. I kind of want a car with the info in the middle but I can't think that that would be the end-all be-all of the decision.

I think, as has been pointed out, that it will be a decision based on fit and feel.
posted by ajpresto at 9:46 AM on May 20, 2006

The (Toyota) Scion line is also in the same price performance range and are based on the Matrix if you're looking for some more options body-wise.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:12 AM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: I own an '06 Civic and an '07 Fit. My brother in law is a Honda dealer, and we traded in our sports cars for family cars when we had a baby. I drive the Fit because it has all of the fun factor of a small car, but has nearly as much (more?) headroom and interior room as the Civic. Before buying the Fit I test drove the Yaris, and was mightily impressed. Fit, Yaris, Civic, Corrolla, Matrix. Take your pick. You can't go wrong.
posted by Crotalus at 10:19 AM on May 20, 2006

I traded in a Honda Element for a Scion xA. I wanted something smaller and more importantly, I wanted better fuel economy. The xA is rated at 31/38 for an automatic. I was getting in the low 20s around town over the winter. I did manage to get in the low 30s on a road trip. I am getting slightly better mileage now that it's warmed up and I am driving on the highway a bit more as part of my (near) everyday routine.This mileage is so disappointing that I wish I'd waited for the Fit & the Yaris (although I am not sure about going back to the Toyota dealership when I made it so clear that I was interested in the Scion for it's mileage and they said nothing).

I'm even contemplating trading in and paying a little extra for one of these -- then again I might just save my money and get a Civic -- everybody seems to like them.

So I want to add is that I wouldn't include the Scion xA in the discussion if I were looking for fuel economy. It does drive nicely and it has some nice features, but it's not fuel efficient.

Another question -- I've seen the Suzuki Reno around -- anybody know anything about it?
posted by nnk at 11:52 AM on May 20, 2006

My 6'8" husband loves our Scion xB. It has tons of headroom. It would be funny to have the Element and the xB -- the two boxiest of cars. I haven't paid that much attention to the gas mileage, but now that I read nnk's post, I will.
posted by kmel at 1:22 PM on May 20, 2006

Suzuki, Kia, Hyundai...Junk, Junk, Junk. Pay the extra couple of grand and pay for the reliable brand, Toyota, Honda, Nissan.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 1:23 PM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: Well, gas is around $3.10 now, so if it rose smoothly to, say, $3.90 over the next year, then it would have an average price of $3.50 over that time period. Prices usually ease off a bit after summer, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

Of course if your Tundra's damaged, it's worth a lot less in resale, which may make it more cost-effective in the long run to hold onto it a while longer...
posted by kindall at 1:30 PM on May 20, 2006

Suzuki, Kia, Hyundai...Junk, Junk, Junk. Eh, I'm happy with my Hyundai. I've only got 45,000 miles on it though -- ask me again if I still like it in five years. The Koreans have really made great strides in the last decade; don't write them off entirely. Still, the Yaris and Fit are better cars than the Accent or Picanto, and in the same price range.
posted by kindall at 1:34 PM on May 20, 2006

I have a Scion xA and my experience has been 29 mpg during the winter with city driving. It's just starting to warm up where I am, and the mileage is getting even better. I'd give the xA a decent chance in your research, at least.
posted by betty botter at 2:02 PM on May 20, 2006

These are both really safe bets as cars go. Personally, I love the VW TDI engine, if it's available where you live and if you like VWs.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:26 PM on May 20, 2006

The Tundra has some body damage

If you were thinking of trading it in, forget it. Kiss off whatever dealer trade-in value you think it has. Body damage automatically knocks it down to the lowest possible status, regardless of any pluses it might have, as the dealer cannot merely clean it and sell it used. The dealer can only off-load it to a low-end auto broker, which removes the dealer's incentive to trade with you.
posted by frogan at 2:43 PM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: Sounds like I need to find a new tailgate before I go shopping. Thanks.
posted by ajpresto at 3:03 PM on May 20, 2006

I've got a 91 Honda Accord with 210,000+ miles on it. I average 25-30mpg and it's still going strong. I know it's probably not one that you're looking at, but you might want to consider some non-obvious choices.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:12 PM on May 20, 2006

I drive my xA home on Tuesday... it was a very hard choice between the xA and the Matrix. The matrix offers more engine power, and about 12" more room in the back, but no roof rack, and it's about $2k more expensive when they both have the same features. (and according to the stickers, the xA gets a nod in the mpg department)

Honestly, the roof rack was a killer for me. The rack I'm getting with my xA is an aftermarket rack, but factory installed, the guy @ the dealership said that they couldn't find any racks that fit the matrix properly.

BTW, if you like the matrix, look @ the Pontiac Vibe. Same car, slightly different panels, with roof rack.

I drove the Yaris, and I really wanted to like it, but I didn't feel the seats would be comfortable for more than a couple hours, but the fact that it was only a 2 door (3 with the liftback), put it out of the running.

I'm not tall a tall man, maybe average, but the xA/Yaris/Matrix/Vibe style of car should fit you well... A friend who's 6'8" ended up with a Prius, but he said that the xA and Mini Cooper had fit him just fine (the Hybrid won him out)
posted by hatsix at 6:34 PM on May 20, 2006

I just bought a Pontiac Vibe today, which is the exact same car as the Toyota Matrix. Mine is a 2006 and we got a total of 2k in rebates plus our trade, making us come in well under 18k for a loaded model.

We are supposed to get 29 city and 36 highway mpg, it's very roomy (we traded in a Grand Caravan and we don't feel cramped at all), lots of headroom and legroom.
posted by hollygoheavy at 6:39 PM on May 20, 2006

I've had a Matrix for about 18mos. Great car, by far the best I've ever owned (previously a Mazada and another Toyota). I've got a manual and get a better than the nominal 31/36 mpg.
posted by bonehead at 7:16 PM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I just have to second that Hyundais are not junk. They may not be up to the Honda level yet, but they are way ahead of the American makers now.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:33 PM on May 20, 2006

I purchased a new Civic sedan in March, and I LOVE this car. It is much roomier than past Civics (my step-dad, 6'4" sits comfortably in it, while he had to hunch over in my beloved 93 hatchback.) I've been averaging 31mpg in city traffic.

The interior is very cool--of course, I was excited to have power anything, as the newest car I had before this was the aforementioned hatchback.

The digital speedometer is the first thing everyone notices--very different. My future father in-law told me my dash looked like a cockpit!

As far as quality, you can't go wrong with a Civic. Obviously, I'm a Honda girl, but with good reason. I've owned 3 Hondas--and never had any problems at all.

I purchased my 93 hatchback in 2002, drove it for four years, and the only thing I ever had to do to it was oil changes, new tires, etc. Routine maintenance--no major problems whatsoever. Hondas definitely stand the test of time, and mileage.
posted by saucy at 5:44 AM on May 21, 2006

Dipsomaniac, was that 50 mpg with the Yaris in Imperial gallons, or were you translating to US? In USian gallons, that be about 40 mpg, which is closer to what I'd expect.
posted by QIbHom at 7:40 AM on May 21, 2006

I bought a Scion xA about six weeks ago and really like it. I get around 32 mpg city. It's pretty cheap, and the main reason I picked it was that a lot of extras were included in the cheap price: AC, anti-lock brakes, cd/mp3 player including a jack to plug in an iPod. On most of the other cars I looked at, those cost extra.

One thing that really distinguished it from other cars I test drove was that the seat is higher so it feels like there is more leg room.

Scion is made by Toyota so I am expecting that it should be pretty reliable. I also liked that Scions are always no-haggle, as I am a bit shy and probably would have failed miserably if I had to negotiate a car price.
posted by clarissajoy at 5:34 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Ack! No cruise control on the Scion? It's a gonner.
posted by ajpresto at 7:09 PM on May 23, 2006

Cruise control can be added aftermarket, ajpresto. My local Scion dealership offers it, but it'd probably be cheaper to go directly to wherever your dealership contracts it out to.
posted by QIbHom at 10:56 AM on May 24, 2006

Response by poster: Well, I went test driving yesterday and ended up with a Blue Fit. It's a beautiful car and it runs extremely well.

I didn't drive the Yaris, but I saw one and sat in it. It felt too small for my needs.

I test drove an xA. It was nice but it didn't have very much "pep." It felt like I was bottoming out waiting for the gears to shift.

There was a long story about the Fit...they didn't have any, they pre-sold this one, blah blah blah... felt a little too convenient whatever (like a psychological trick to make it a whole lot more appealing) but after I took it for a test drive, I was hooked. We parked it at the front of the dealership once I finished the test drive and went inside to begin working on the paperwork. I don't think that they had confederates working for them (plainclothes folks designed to look like customers) but I saw at least three sets of people looking at it. I even got nervous when I saw a salesperson opening it up and showing it to other people while I was waiting for the credit report to come back.

So, being a (school) psychologist by trade, I always look for psychological tricks being pulled but I don't think they did. The salesman seemed like an idiot (which worked to my favor to some minor degree (got me an extra $500 on the trade because he recommended that, which, of course, I could have done on my own).

Anyway, I'm quite happy with it, although I'm also sad that I had to give up my truck to get it. In a perfect world, I would have kept my truck and got the car in addition to it.

So, thanks for all the help, everybody.
posted by ajpresto at 7:37 AM on May 27, 2006

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