Buying a Commuting Car
April 12, 2004 5:29 PM   Subscribe

My company recently moved to Silicon Valley, and since I live in San Fran and the commute via public transit is 1.5 hours (vs 30 mins in a car) I've decided to buy a car for the first time ever. But I am totally flummoxed by the range of possibilities. I know I want a used compact 4 door that gets good mileage. Seems like it would be good to get it from a dealer so I can get extended warranty. But I don't know where to go from here. Any advice for a first time car buyer would be greatly appreciated. My price range is flexible but would like to spend no more than 15k. Also, I would love to hear recommendations-- some people have told me to go for a Civic or a Corolla, are there other cars 'equivalent' to those? I am not a fixer-upper so reliability is key. I know older cars are cheaper but seems like they'd be more prone to mechanical trouble-- not sure how much of a trade off it is to go old vs new.
posted by jcruelty to Shopping (33 answers total)
I would recommend you pick up one of Phil Edmonston's Lemon-Aid Used Car guides once you've narrowed down your choices. (Sorry, I have no opinions to offer on cars.) The books list models of cars by year and tell you whether they're a good buy, how much to pay, what problems are inherent in that year's model, etc.
posted by dobbs at 5:48 PM on April 12, 2004

Is there any reason you are jumping to a 4-door? This doesn't answer your question directly and for that I apologise but your question seems to imply environmental considerations so why aren't you going for something like a Smart Car?
posted by biffa at 5:56 PM on April 12, 2004

You might consider the Kia/Hyundai brand for its unusually long warranty and low price.

You might consider one of the big three Japanese brands (Honda, Toyota, Nissan) for their reliable build quality, advanced technologies, and long warranties. Of the three I think Nissan may prove the best for the next couple of years as they had to make changes to catch up to the other two; my understanding is they've focused significantly on build quality.

You might consider a European brand for the prestige. These days I don't believe there is a quality difference unless comparing the high-end models. Indeed, I've heard Volkswagen is having a horrible time with build quality these past few years.

You might consider an American brand, but I don't know why you would. There are some Japanese-American sibling cars, with the American version coming in cheaper. As far as I've ever been able to tell, American-designed cars and American-styled factories have yet to come anywhere near the Japanese for quality, especially in the low-end models.

Can't imagine why that would be, given that almost all the Japanese cars are built in America or Canada.

Of course, I'm ignoring all that advice and looking at purchasing a Ford Escape. Wholly inappropriate vehicle for commuting, but very appropriate for my backpacking/camping/kidrunning needs.

If I were purchasing a commuter car, my first choice would be a low-end Acura. Honda reliability and technology, with Acura fit and finish.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:57 PM on April 12, 2004

Re: used versus new.

Never purchase a first-year new-model. Let someone else work the bugs out.

If there's a minimal price difference between used and new, I'd go with new. Just for the extra warranty and knowledge of its history.

If there's a significant price difference, I'd always choose the model that's about two years old, at least two years after the new-model release, and at least two years before the next anticipated new-model release. That should give the best balance of warranty, broad repair history as documented in Consumer Reports/LemonAid/etc, and not subject to the resale impact of a just-before-it-improved model year.

Although, again, I'm ignoring that advice and thinking that perhaps a beater SUV would be better than the new(er) Escape. To the tune of about $12K. (But also 7+ years/80k-odd kms.)
posted by five fresh fish at 6:04 PM on April 12, 2004

I love my 94 Civic, and although I am thinking of replacing it, I'm really only thinking about getting a younger Civic (and eventually a Civic hybrid). My mom keeps asking me when I'm going to get a Camry just like hers, but she has a lot of crazy ideas. (That said, Toyotas do, I guess I have to admit, have similar service records, and tend to be a little cheaper.)

I have put 45k miles on my car in 6 years, and the only money I've put into it has been for scheduled maintenance and a couple of age-related repairs, just this past year - with nothing else on the immediate horizon. If you're doing heavy commuting, your mileage may vary (ha ha), but my miles are mostly freeway, too, so I wouldn't be surprised if your experience differed only by service for tires, brakes, and oil.

I have found the "sweet spot" for picking up a used car to be 2-4 years. This is pretty risk-free in a nice climate like the Bay Area's, and with cars with good (and long) service records like Civics. My current Civic is the second used Honda I've bought (first in 1990), and the third used car I've bought, and I've always been happy.

There are services that will come meet you at a dealership or private home and do a complete evaluation of the car - even test-drive it for you, if you'd like. I've used one of these services both to evaluate the wonderful Civic I have now and to figure out how to price my Subaru Legacy a few years ago, and I'd go back in a heartbeat. Especially when you use a service like this, an extended warranty is, in my opinion, not necessary, but I'm not really the kind who would go for that anyway. AIM me (handle in profile) for contact information for the evaluation service I used.

On preview: 4-doors are cheaper to insure, and I don't think Smart cars are scheduled to be available for purchase here til 2006.
posted by caitlinb at 6:10 PM on April 12, 2004

You can get an off-lease Accord for under $15k, which gets you 30 mpg, and it will run forever. If you want better mileage you might as well go for the Civic hybrid. My only concern would be maintenance - I doubt that it's easy to fix these things, or that a whole lot of people have such expertise.
posted by PrinceValium at 6:16 PM on April 12, 2004

There was a good thread on this a while back. I recently bought a used Honda Accord from a dealer and have been delighted with it. The Honda Certified models come with some extra warranty stuff and have been thoroughly inspected. Hondas tend to last forever if they're well maintained [mine has 106K on it, my bf's has 180K]. They get between 30-37 MPG [low-end is in the dead of Winter].

Since you're in the Bay Area, you might want to check out Epinions and/or craigslist to get an idea of who are the reputable dealers in your area. There are two Honda dealers somewhat nearby us and there is a world of difference between the two of them. As far as Toyotas go, my backup car is a 1978 Cressida which is still going strong, I like them as well.
posted by jessamyn at 6:18 PM on April 12, 2004

You might consider an American brand, but I don't know why you would

ISTR that the Ford Focus does okay, but I haven't looked up reliability stuff in years.

If I were purchasing a commuter car, my first choice would be a low-end Acura. Honda reliability and technology, with Acura fit and finish.

In that price range, isn't that going to mean the Integra/RSX and nothing else? I dunno that I'd suggest that as a commuter car for someone who hasn't owned a car before, which indicates no particular love of driving for its own sake -- you're getting a Civic with a harsher ride, a stick-shift (or what's the point?), a VTEC engine, ad maybe firmer, more bolster-ey seats. What's the point of having a pocket-rocket to stop-and-go on the freeway grinding the clutch every few seconds?

As for what to do, I'd suggest not worrying about it. Just go look for an Accord or Civic; they're both pretty bulletproof. Maybe you'd find something better if you spent forever looking for it, but so what?

If you find that you enjoy driving, you can always do a more lengthy, careful search for your next car. But if you're in the position of not really even knowing what you like in a car, go get a Honda.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:01 PM on April 12, 2004

Old Volvos...boxy, but good. Everyone I've ever known who had a Honda, swore by the things. New Volkswagons are really bad...avoid them.

But in the New vs Used debate, I really recommend going new. My experiences are anecdotal, but I've never had good luck with used cars..unless I was buying a classic and planned on working on it rather than driving it as my primary transport. You have virtually no recourse if the car turns out to be a lemon. Lemon laws, which I believe exist in CA are very hard to get enforced.

However, my experiences don't include any of the "certified" programs such as mentioned by jessamyn, which would alleviate the problems...or so it would seem.

Check out the car consumer guide for safety ratings, price comparisons, etc.
posted by dejah420 at 7:04 PM on April 12, 2004

Don't fool around with excess options, just get a late-90s Civic, something with a little under 100,000 miles on it. It's up to the task of getting you to and from work without problems, and they're cheap. Don't bother with the "Certified Used" program -- it doesn't offer much more in terms of reliability than buying a warranty would. Most dealers will warrant used cars regardless of certification, although if you're thinking of financing there are occasionally good deals for Certified Used purchases.

Civics have excellent reliability records and are safe as houses. My mother-in-law took a head-on collision at 60-something miles an hour on the Golden Gate a few years back (instantly becoming a poster-woman for the movable barrier program), utterly totalled her Civic, and walked away unscathed.
posted by majick at 7:12 PM on April 12, 2004

I am no car expert -- but several friends, who repair cars & other things mechanical for aliving, have consistently told me that a mid-90s Toyota or Honda is your best bet, balancing cost, quality, and "style." My friends maintain that the small Japanese cars can easily go for 200,000 or 300,000 miles with only regular oil changes.

YMMV. Heh.
posted by davidmsc at 7:14 PM on April 12, 2004

I got about 90K miles of pure love out of my 4-door 93 Geo Prizm before I crashed it. No mechanical anything. Ever. $13K. They've switched the branding around now, I think it's a Chevrolet if it exists at all. Mine was all Toyota Corolla under the hood, but $3000 less than the Corolla. Can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by scarabic at 7:16 PM on April 12, 2004

my limited car experience; 3 used and 5 new vehicles, I drive a LOT. I will never buy another used car. I FEEL much better with the warranty of the new car and after the warranty is gone at least I know what the car has been through. you should be able to buy a low end Toyota or Nissan for 15k. I have owned both and they were both (actually all three) excellent vehicles.
posted by busboy789 at 7:18 PM on April 12, 2004

I'm finding myself wondering if all this Honda/Toyota-love is a left-coast thing. I'm on the East coast, and I couldn't live without my VW. Its my third one; the last went to 240,000 miles and I expect this one to live just as long. Its had far fewer mechanical problems than either my boyfriend's Ford van or my roommate's Saturn. The only 'issue' I've had with it is that the rubber trim on the outside of both doors peeled off; otherwise its been a mechanical marvel.

I have never met anyone around here who owns a Honda or a Toyota who is happy with it. (Of course, we have winter here. But my experience is that most Japanese cars are good "sunshine" cars and not as great when the weather is otherwise.)

That having been said, my four tips:
1) Mileage, mileage, mileage -- if I were in the market for a car today, gas mileage (especially as you are commuting) would be my number one concern.

2) My current VW is a 2-year old "program" car (was on a lease, then sold 'certified' by the dealer at around 25,000 when the lease was up) and rocks. I know it well cared for (I could see all the maintenance records before I bought it), and I got a reasonably new car for a very reasonable price.

3) Research -- consumer reports, the lemon guide, Car & Driver, also NPR's Car Talk

4) Test Drive -- this is super important. It doesn't matter how practical a car looks on paper if you're uncomfortable if you spend any time in it. If you're going to spend upwards of an hour a day in the car, see if you can take the car on a 30 - 60 minute test drive (many places around here are offering "24 hour test drives" on new and program vehicles, to let you take them home overnight).
posted by anastasiav at 7:19 PM on April 12, 2004

We got a new Saturn for about $14K, and we love it—reliable and resilient.
posted by languagehat at 7:22 PM on April 12, 2004

Don't fool around with excess options, just get a late-90s Civic, something with a little under 100,000 miles on it....

When and if you go to look at them, be sure to ask "Has it had the timing belt replaced?" This is standard maintenance for Hondas at 90K. If the car has not had the belt replaced, it will need it, and the work is somewhat expensive [~$500]. FWIW, my 96 Honda with 100K on it only cost $5K [with no warranty offered or available from my dealer] so you can probably get a newer car with lower miles for the kind of money you have.
posted by jessamyn at 7:23 PM on April 12, 2004

If you're going to be driving a lot - leasing is not the way you want to go, since leasing sets mileage limits. Instead of leasing or buying new, I went the used route...

I had a great experience buying a used car through Saturn. The whole no bullshit/no haggling thing was huge for me since I'm pretty much a wuss, but I found everyone to be super helpful and friendly. Plus, they have good warantees on their used cars. I've had my '95 Saturn (they have all kinds of cars up for grabs, not just Saturns) for 5+ years now and no big problems.

Some advice on Saturns though - if you're going to be doing a lot of driving, keep in mind that you'll have to put up with a lot of road noise. Also, the pick up is far from peppy. Other than that, I have no problem with my car.
posted by MsVader at 7:41 PM on April 12, 2004

I've got a '93 Jetta and love it. I've had for eight months and have driven it from Baltimore to DC numerous times, Baltimore to Texas once, and Dallas to San Antonio a couple of times without any mechanical problems.
posted by amandaudoff at 7:42 PM on April 12, 2004

On research, I would recommend Kelley Blue Book when looking at purchasing a used car --- they're the bible on price.

Another point to consider is the loan... might I suggest that you go to your credit union (or bank, if you must) and get pre-approved for the amount you need? It'll be a ceiling against which you can bargain, and you'll be more certain to get a deal on rates, et cetera... this isn't experience talking from the positive, but rather the negative from dealing with the finance folks at the dealership.

Good luck!

(MsVader: I never had any pick-up problem with my Saturn SW2s, and I'm an agressive driver --- especially from the line.)
posted by silusGROK at 7:42 PM on April 12, 2004

I wrote:
My current VW is a 2-year old "program" car (was on a lease, then sold 'certified' by the dealer at around 25,000 when the lease was up

That's around 25,000 miles, not dollars. I paid under $12,000 for my car.
posted by anastasiav at 7:44 PM on April 12, 2004

I couldn't live without my VW

They're quite likeable, even the new ones, but I think you'll have trouble getting out the door, I mean all the way out, for under $15K. I had a 2000 Jetta for a year and got rid of it. It was an overpriced econo-car. A good car, but wayyy overpriced. If you feel good about a stripped down Golf with no AC in a color you hate, go for it. But in the low-end, other brands will give you wider options. I think you may be right about that left coast, right coast thing. I hear people out East drive American and European cars. Out here, a Lincoln is what you send to pick up your client from the airport. Out East, I hear a Lincoln is what your Dad drives.

I bought a low-end Saturn before the Geo and returned it under their 30-day money-back plan. 80HP really sucks in a four-door.
posted by scarabic at 8:07 PM on April 12, 2004

RE: Kia

There is no truer statement with this brand than "you get what you pay for" -- My Sephia has been a passable car, but you would not have any trouble figuring out that they cut corners on it. Everything that can be cheap is cheap: cheap plastic vent covers that rattle insanely at any speed, cheap washer jets that crack and clog all the time, cheap latches on the center console and glove compartment that broke off early on, and even the carpet in the back seat is coming up. The car feels cheap.

My house mate's Hyundai Accent has the same problem. No confusion as to why.

However, my parents' Hyundai Sonata has been golden, and is a beauty to look at and drive.

The lesson is: pay a little bit more. Do not go for the ultra-inexpensive lines from any manufacturer -- these are their loss leaders, what they use to up their sales figures.

I appreciate the long warranty, but that only guarantees that they will pay for certain things when those things break down. Assume, safely, that everything not covered under warranty is a cheap piece of crap, and will give you heartache.

I second the Corolla (or Camry) or Civic. The opinion I gather from those who have told me about their experiences is that these two are the warhorses of the low-mid range compact car field.

posted by Hildago at 8:21 PM on April 12, 2004

I got about 90K miles of pure love out of my 4-door 93 Geo Prizm before I crashed it. No mechanical anything. Ever... all Toyota Corolla under the hood, but $3000 less than the Corolla. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Second that. I have a 97 Geo Prizm and it's fantastic. I have done scheduled maintenance on it (timing belt, clutch replacement) and that's it... seems to run like a champ at 110,000. Toyata reliability at a price of thousands less. My car payment is less than $80 per month for this.

All Geos, I understand, switched branding in 1998 to Chevrolet. Buy one that's 3-5 years old on a 60-month loan, and you have a reliable vehicle that whose payments will cost you less than gasoline (at 30 mpg).
posted by weston at 8:30 PM on April 12, 2004

Research: Edmund's is good. I really like Consumer Report's printed vehicle guides, though. I relied on mine extensively to sort things out when buying (Prizm's and Corrola's have exceptional reliability and good safety ratings).
posted by weston at 8:37 PM on April 12, 2004

Second the recommendation for Edmunds. That site was invaluable three years ago when I did my car search.

Also, check out the Motley Fool for suggestions on how to go about negotiating -- they had some interesting ideas, though i think their tactics may be more effective for new car shoppers than for those in the used car market.
posted by herc at 8:47 PM on April 12, 2004

I have a 2002 Honda Civic and I've driven the thing 45k miles in 2 years (20 miles each way to work, a couple Bay Area - Seattle trips) and have never had a single expense other than gas and regular maintenance. Definately reliable.
posted by falconred at 8:50 PM on April 12, 2004

Another Saturn owner here with a perfect experience.

This year we bought a cute little red '98 SC1 2-door for only $5200 and it's been a dream in terms of low-maintenance and the like. Gets 33 city, 39 highway, 45 roadtrip. The polymer body panels are a godsend up here in the heavily-salted-roads northeast.
posted by Ryvar at 10:18 PM on April 12, 2004

I'm in the Bay Area, and just bought my first car for under $15k, myself, 3 weeks ago. I got a 2001 Prius, Used Certified warranty up to 100k/6 years, and I couldn't be happier. I'm averaging between 45-50 mpg, it's decently roomy, ridiculously fun to drive, and saving me plenty on the $2.39/gallon gas prices. Go test drive one (used, the new ones take 4-5 months to acquire), and you'll love it.

Whatever you choose, check out craigslist, of course, as well as,,, and get a carfax subscription for the month when you're seriously starting to look.
posted by gramcracker at 10:20 PM on April 12, 2004

It's jcruelty's first car ever. Unless (s)he has spent an awful lot of time driving other people's cars on extended trips, jcruelty likely doesn't even know what he likes in a car, at least not based on bitter experience.

Really, I don't think there's much point in doing an extensive search. If you go down to a couple of your nearby Honda dealers and look at couple-few year old Civics and Accords, you will do JUST FINE. Worry about getting the perfect car for you next time.

Couple things:

You want ABS. Really really. You can get Hondas without ABS, but don't. Skids are big juju.

You want air conditioning. Especially if you'll take the car out of SF, air conditioning is NOT AN OPTION. Only crazy insane people from New England and Minnesota and, God help them, Canada treat it as an option.

Unless you're already comfortable with a stick, get an automatic, much as that pains me. It is my hope that you will enjoy driving enough to want your next car to be something a bit more spirited with a stick, but that can wait for your next car.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:24 AM on April 13, 2004

I recently bought a used Jetta TDi (Diesel) and love it. It has a great 50k warranty and the TDi doesn't have a lot of the build problems that VWs are becoming known for. You may have trouble finding it in CA, but it is as green as any hybrid. I get over 55 mph per tank mixed driving.
posted by jmgorman at 6:27 AM on April 13, 2004

I'd agree to avoid the cheapest Hyundais and Kias, but I quite like my 2003 Elantra GT hatchback. You should be able to get a brand new one for right around $15,000, or pay considerably less for one that's a year old. No, it's not the world's fanciest car, but it's surprisingly nice for the money (leather seats and wheel, ABS, fog lights, moon roof, MP3 CD player in the 2004s), and the warranty is most impressive. I picked it over its small-car competitors when I was shopping in 2003.
posted by kindall at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2004

Rewind. You are expecting a 30 minute commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley? Which is to say, you are expecting to average 60 mph on Highway 101 during rush hour, and then to meet insignificant street traffic once you exit?

That drive took me over a hour the last few times I tried it. Granted, that was during the dot com boom. But seriously, are you sure that Caltrain isn't the answer here?

If you do want a car commuter lifestyle, then you need to think about more than just fuel efficiency and reliability. You will be living in that box for hours every week. Invest in a car with a pleasant interior--seats you don't mind sitting on, upholestry you don't mind smelling, air you don't mind breathing.
posted by profwhat at 12:46 PM on April 13, 2004

You may have trouble finding it [Diesel Jetta] in CA, but it is as green as any hybrid.

That's false.
posted by NortonDC at 6:45 PM on April 13, 2004

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