Looking for a reliable, high-mpg car that's NOT a Civic/Accord
January 18, 2008 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I need to buy a low-mpg, reliable, manual transmission, four-door used car for under $3500. What models should I look at besides Civics and Accords? And do you know of any other major car classified websites besides Cars.com, Carmax, Autotrader, Edmunds, and Craigslist?

Note: My previous car was a Saturn. It was reliable, but the mileage wasn't as high as I wanted. I've been checking out Consumer Reports and FuelEconomy.gov, but am having trouble sifting through the bajillion different options. I have nothing against Civics or Accords--they're my first choice--but I'm having a devil of a time finding good options in my area and would like alternatives.
posted by schroedinger to Shopping (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend you do everything you can to find a BMW 325I, preferably from the 1979-1983 period. That is, with the Datsun B210, the most reliable cars on the road. Look for subaru wagons too, if you want a wagon.
posted by parmanparman at 8:15 AM on January 18, 2008

Corollas, and Geo Prisms.
posted by box at 8:19 AM on January 18, 2008

Toyota Corolla (and the Echo if those have depreciated enough to be in your price range) would be at the top of my list. They are really charmless cars -- small, tinny -- but everyone I know with one has gotten many years of use at very little cost. And locally I see a lot of Mazdas for sale really cheap -- whether that means they are just unappreciated, or are lemons, I don't know, but like the Saturn you will get a lot newer car for the money than with a Civic.

I do think, though, that in your list of desires "reliable" needs to trump "fuel efficient" if you really want to save money. An abused and unreliable Corolla will cost you a lot more to keep on the road then a reliable Suburban, even with the gas costs. A timing belt, new clutch, and four new tires will cost you far more than will the difference in fuel economy between a Saturn and a Civic.
posted by Forktine at 8:20 AM on January 18, 2008

Forktine has good suggestions, also, the mighty Hyundai.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:30 AM on January 18, 2008

The Mazda Protege would be a good choice. It's particularly roomy for a 4 door compact.
posted by COD at 8:56 AM on January 18, 2008

A Saturn SC1 with the 99hp engine gets 40mpg highway. I dont see how youre gong to do better than that for that kind of money. Civics, as well as all Hondas, have a strong premium on them. You'll get a better bang for your buck going domestic or at least non-japanese.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:58 AM on January 18, 2008

pedantic note: You're looking for a HIGH mpg, not low.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2008

Seconding the Prizm suggestion. After 1997 or 1998 their make is actually Chevrolet instead of Geo, but don't let that scare you. I think they're the best kept secret in the auto market, and it's too bad they stopped making them after the 2002 model. When I bought my 97 from a private seller in October 2002, I paid $3750, so I'd expect a 00-02 would be available for that amount in some markets. I'm actually looking for one too. :)

A timing belt, new clutch, and four new tires will cost you far more than will the difference in fuel economy between a Saturn and a Civic.

This may be true, but almost any car that's depreciated down to $3500 is likely to need the same maintenance unless the previous owner happens to have done it already.
posted by weston at 9:19 AM on January 18, 2008

I recently looked for a car, and had trouble finding one I wanted with a manual transmission -- until I realized that Mazda seems to make a lot more manual transmission cars than the other brands. So, if that's important to you, try looking for a Mazda. This may not be the very most fuel efficient car, but hey, it's better than a Suburban. And the Mazda3 (used to be the Protege) gets decent mileage.
posted by amtho at 9:25 AM on January 18, 2008

I was doing some research not too long ago on this subject. I'd have to find the sites I founf again, but there are resources that will tell you what vehicles have had what problems, and how much they generally would cost to fix. Hyundais came out better than anyone on this. I've always been a huge fan of Toyotas, but apparently they've been having some issues over the past few years.

The Saturn recommendation is also a good one. They're fairly simply built cars, meaning that there's less to go wrong with them and that they're easier to fix when something does go wrong. We have a Saturn and it's been good to us; it also gets anywhere from 35-39 mpg when we get out on the highway, and that's with an automatic transmission.
posted by azpenguin at 9:35 AM on January 18, 2008

Found, even... I don't think I have ever "founf" something.
posted by azpenguin at 9:35 AM on January 18, 2008

I'm sure you're probably already aware of this, but the Acura Integra is a Civic with a better engine and some other performance enhancements tacked on. While the hatchback version is hard to come by due to its popularity with tuners, you may find a good deal on a four-door. Look for a 1994-2000 four-door Integra.
posted by killdevil at 9:39 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

My 1994 Integra LS gets about 27 mpg, FWIW.
posted by killdevil at 9:40 AM on January 18, 2008

Don't be too quick to rule out a higher-mileage one-owner car.

I have a 1990 Camry 5-speed; city mpg ~29, highway ~40.

I spend about $1K/year in service and intend to replace it only when/if
replacement parts become a real problem.

Just a thought.

posted by sandpine at 9:40 AM on January 18, 2008

I was looking at Saturns, but the manual '97 Saturn SL I owned got about 21mpg, 23mpg on the highway. It was a great little car, but I'd like more gas for my buck. Do later models get better mileage? Are they getting better mileage than what's indicated by FuelEconomy.gov?
posted by schroedinger at 10:02 AM on January 18, 2008

Consider a 90's diesel Jetta. The fit and finish don't compare to a Toyota or Honda, and the reliability doesn't either, quite, but I like mine a lot. The main thing I have to keep an eye on is the alternator belt. They are notorious for going out of adjustment on the Jetta. I get upwards of 40mpg; many people claim to get 50+ but I suspect that is on a rebuilt engine. And if you feel like tinkering, you could convert it to run on WVO.
posted by bricoleur at 10:31 AM on January 18, 2008

I have a 2001 Suzuki Esteem wagon, which meets your criteria. It got around 29 mpg last time I measured, which was about two years ago, so it may not be as good anymore. I believe the manual transmission is the more common version.

Disadvantages: The car itself is uncommon and the parts are more expensive than Honda or Toyota parts. So I don't know if it's worth seeking this car out, but if you happen to see one for sale, it may be worth consideration.
posted by kidbritish at 10:34 AM on January 18, 2008

Since I'm looking to buy my third Subaru wagon (the first one is a 1993 with 247k miles on it), I'm reasonably well informed in this market. For the price you are willing to pay you could find ten-year-old Legacys or Imprezas with over 100k on them in the SF bay area. This wouldn't make me hesitate with a well-maintained manual transmssion car. However, '98 - '02 2.5 liter engines had a persistent head gasket failure problem, so if you see a car in that range of years be sure to see if it's had the gaskets changed.

Wagon #1 gets on average 26 mpg; it's driven in a mix of flat-land commuting and secondary mountain roads with little freeway cruising. This might not be typical but it has been for my car and my driving style.
posted by jet_silver at 10:36 AM on January 18, 2008

Have you considered buying a scooter or a motorcycle? Easy 55+ mpg, easy parking, cheap tires, and low cost, if a slightly higher need for brief regular maintenance (e.g. chain lubrication).
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:45 AM on January 18, 2008

I looked up my favourite cheap used cars on fueleconomy.gov, this is what they say:

1992 Subaru Justy: 28/33mpg
1990 Honda CRX: 27/32mpg
1996 Hyundai Accent: 24/33mpg

Those are the "new" EPA estimates, so not bad.
posted by sfenders at 10:45 AM on January 18, 2008

I would, TheNewWazoo, if I didn't need it exclusively for lugging around groceries, cats, and garden implements. :/
posted by schroedinger at 10:52 AM on January 18, 2008

Corolla. I drive the same Corolla that I got in 1993. It has almost 100k miles and still runs great.
posted by charlesv at 11:25 AM on January 18, 2008

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