A slightly larger, small used car for $15k or less
May 9, 2008 11:57 AM   Subscribe

Buying a slightly larger, small used car for $15k or less, big enough for a growing family.

We live in suburban Ohio, driving a 1998 Mitsubishi Galant that just turned 100k miles. This is also the year that the air conditioning decided to crap out.

While the lack of A/C is annoying, that's not the reason we're looking for another car. We've got an 18-month-old, and hauling her around (or even just having her car seat in the back) seems to have shrunk the backseat significantly.

We're not thinking SUV or mini-van yet, nor are we intending to add any other children to the family at the moment. However that said, we'll likely still be driving any car we buy now when we do have additional children (well, maybe one, I say) in the next 2-5 years.

Safety considerations may figure into this, but we haven't specifically discussed those yet.

So here's what I want: a 4-door sedan or wagon (though I won't rule out the Fit and its ilk until I've actually driven one) that's bigger, mainly in the backseat, than what I've got, for around $15,000. I've even gone as far as starting a spreadsheet with all of the specified numbers for the cars we're looking at, which unfortunately would rule out the Honda Civic which is smaller in every dimension but front head room. I realize that actually sitting in the cars will likely give me more feel for the size than just numbers alone, but it's a start.

I would also love to get better mileage - I've been hovering around the very low 20s in the city and know I can do better. To do so I think I need to stick with a 4-cylinder engine, but that's not set in stone. For me and my wife to both drive it, we're looking at an automatic transmission.

I prefer to drive cars until they die, and moreover would like cars that die later, so this does tend to rule out most American makes. If I'm wrong, please, let me know! I'm thinking that I'm going to look around 2-4 years old, with 20-40k miles on it.

Back to size, though, since not that many people have probably sat in a Galant, that Civic is probably a fine baseline.

If it matters, I'm 6' and broad-shouldered, and my wife is average height and build. Right now our (3' tall) daughter can kick the back of the passenger seat sitting in her car seat.

So, what can I find that's bigger than a Honda Civic with comfortable room for a child seat + assorted stuff reachable from the front seats, with good mileage, reliability and longevity, for under $15,000?
posted by codger to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I say it all the time, but a Toyota Matrix is ideal for you. Tons of space, +30mpg, and it's basically a Corolla with a new hat on it, so reliability is untouchable. We bought ours "new" (at the tail end of the model year) for about $16,000 in 2004. There is not a ton of backseat legroom, but it's fine for our tall 7 year old.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:02 PM on May 9, 2008

Have a look also at the Nissan Versa. Decent fuel economy, roomy interior for its size and a tall roof, which makes reaching into the back seat a bit easier.
posted by workerant at 12:13 PM on May 9, 2008

Mazda 3 hatchback, all the way!

It's won a bajillion awards for quality and value since it came out in '03. I've got a sedan, and I couldn't be happier with it.

Give it a look, you can certainly find a used one in your price range.
posted by BobFrapples at 12:18 PM on May 9, 2008

I drive a 2004 Scion XB and it has incredible interior room for being a small car. It’s gas mileage is very good, and it has excellent visibility. I can easily fit 5 full size adults with no problems. Also it looks like a tiny milk truck which is great.
posted by French Fry at 12:22 PM on May 9, 2008

Mazda5 maybe? I see those around Atlanta all the time now, it's like a scaled down minivan. Having a minivan, I can say the sliding doors and space really help with kids. I think the 5 gets around 30 mpg, has minivan-like features, and comes close to 15K (but probably not quite).

posted by rhys at 12:24 PM on May 9, 2008

My wife and I are doing the same search right now, so I'll be watching this thread. It's between a (used) Prius and the Honda Fit right now. The Fit gets great mileage, and I've heard the build quality is slightly above the Nissan. I like the idea of the Matrix, but it's got to be one of the ugliest cars on the road; it looks like it was designed with one particular angle in mind, and from any other it's misshapen and odd looking. However, the Pontiac Vibe is the very same car with better moldings and interior design cues, plus a better power train warranty and available OnStar service.
posted by littlerobothead at 12:32 PM on May 9, 2008

Mazda 3 hatchback, all the way!

It's an awesome car, but gets really miserable mileage around town (I owned one). If you do get one--and they're great cars, otherwise--get an '06 or newer, which comes with a 5-speed automatic transmission instead of the 4-speed (which I had). I rarely averaged better than 21-22mpg with the 4-speed, which is just dreadful for a 2.3L I-4. Best mileage I ever managed in that car was about 32mpg over maybe 150 miles of 70mph driving. The city consumption is really, really bad.

If you aren't attracted to the power and handling the Mazda offers, the Matrix really is a great choice. Corollas are bulletproof, and you'll get 30+mpg all day long.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:45 PM on May 9, 2008

(I should note that the Mazda5, I think, shares most of its workings with the Mazda3, and is likely heavier, so you should expect similarly poor mileage with it.)
posted by uncleozzy at 12:47 PM on May 9, 2008

I'm 6'5", and I fit comfortably in the back seat of our Scion xB. I've never owned a car with more backseat room. Oh, yeah, and I fit comfortably in the front, too. We call it our clown car--looks tiny on the outside, but the interior room is amazing.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:49 PM on May 9, 2008

I have a 2007 VW Rabbit. I'm 6'5" with a very stocky build, and I find the Rabbit to be spacious and then some, with a surprising amount of room in the trunk and second row. The front seats are especially nice for a large person. On the days that I drive my carpool, I slide my seat forward until I am feeling moderately cramped, providing enough room for an average sized man or tall woman to sit behind me. I'm never completely comfortable in the back row unless the front seats are set for a 5'4" person. In terms of safety features, the Rabbit was unbeatable in its price range when it first came out in the states. The traction control has saved me in rain or snow on several occasions. I tested the Mazda 3 hatchback but went with the Rabbit because I found the Mazda's seating and controls to be less comfortable/ergonomic, with a comparatively rough ride ( the tradeoff being that the 3's extreme handling specs are slightly better). I couldn't stand the Scion XB because of its complete lack of power and, I hate to admit, the cheap feel of all the interior components compared to other vehicles in the range. I drive the Rabbit gently and get 26 to 28 mpg in 50/50 city/highway driving, and if I need to punch it, the high torque of the I-5 ensures that I get acceleration when fully loaded with people and stuff. The Rabbit has been out in Europe for several years as the Golf V, and has proven to be quite reliable. I have had no problems whatsoever in 25k of driving. However, Toyota is basically unbeatable for reliability. A used four door Rabbit under 15k should be possible, but aside from the extra safety features, it's something of a style buy compared to slightly larger, more pragmatic offerings such as the XB.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 12:53 PM on May 9, 2008

However, the Pontiac Vibe is the very same car with better moldings and interior design cues

Heh. I think the Matrix is one of the nicest looking cars out there, and consider the Vibe to be its embarrassingly ugly cousin! I do appreciate that it's a love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic, though.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:57 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another Scion XB here, 2005, and it does everything you want... but its safety record, while not bad, isn't as good as it could be.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:58 PM on May 9, 2008

I LOVE my Hyundai Elantra Sport (with the hatchback) and I bought it new for <$14k in 2004 and it has not given me a MINUTE's trouble... and I don't take great care of it, either. A great city/family car.
posted by nkknkk at 1:04 PM on May 9, 2008

It's an awesome car, but gets really miserable mileage around town (I owned one). If you do get one--and they're great cars, otherwise--get an '06 or newer, which comes with a 5-speed automatic transmission instead of the 4-speed (which I had). I rarely averaged better than 21-22mpg with the 4-speed, which is just dreadful for a 2.3L I-4. Best mileage I ever managed in that car was about 32mpg over maybe 150 miles of 70mph driving. The city consumption is really, really bad.

Or, if you can get a 5 speed manual like I have, you can get 26-27 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway.
posted by BobFrapples at 1:04 PM on May 9, 2008

Did you rule out the Accord along with the Civic?
posted by acorncup at 1:06 PM on May 9, 2008

I couldn't stand the Scion XB because of its complete lack of power and, I hate to admit, the cheap feel of all the interior components compared to other vehicles in the range.
This I cannot dispute. From what I hear, the newer models are more powerful and safer. But OP is looking for a used car, so that may not be relevant.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:08 PM on May 9, 2008

Consider the Honda Fit? It's roughly $15,000 base brand new and features more airbags than you can count on one hand, just as a standard feature. Bonus features include all the interior space of a Civic and being fun to drive.

Also it gets something like 35MPG under normal circumstances, if memory serves.
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:18 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

$15k should get you into a late-model used Accord, if you don't mind the 4-cyl engine in a more or less base model. That gets you a larger, more comfortable car than the Civic, without sacrificing an enormous amount on the fuel economy. Very, very safe (according to ratings), too. Similarly, a late model Subaru Forester or Outback should be in your price range as well. Slightly worse gas mileage, but great for winter driving.

The smallest of the Subarus, like the Civic, Corolla, and most other little cars, isn't so great for tall drivers, but the Forester, Outback, and Accord are quite comfortable for those of us who are altitudinally-enhanced.

I have only driven one once, but I found the Matrix adequately comfortable, though there may not have been all that much room in the back once my seat was pushed back. For the long term, though, I think I'd find it a bit cramped. Definitely get some seat time in all of these, because everyone is sized differently, and an inch one way or the other on shoulder space, headroom, etc, makes all the difference.
posted by Forktine at 1:20 PM on May 9, 2008

I'll throw this out there, because it's what I bought.

You can get the previous model of the BMW 740i (2001) for around $15,000 (or less). It's very safe, decent gas mileage (22-30mpg), drives beautifuly. Not sure what your thoughts on paying more for maintenance.

Its not a larger small car, its a larger car in general.

Another choice would be a 2002-03 5 series, they are also in your price range.
posted by wongcorgi at 1:43 PM on May 9, 2008

A note on the 7 series, and woncorgi touches on it, you will go poor with maintenance. There's a reason that a $75K+ car is so cheap after only a few years.
posted by pete0r at 2:02 PM on May 9, 2008

N-thing the Toyota Matrix. I looked at the Matrix, the Scion (same company, different range), the Nissan Versa, and the Honda Fit, when I bought my last car. I could not get the seat position right in the Honda (felt at an odd angle to the accelerator pedal - probably not a problem if you have long legs). The Scion did not have enough headroom for tall family members in the driver's seat. The Versa was a nice car to drive and surprisingly big inside, but the odd trunk arrangement (can't fold the back seat down entirely flat) ruled it out for our two dogs. The Fit is probably the most fun for a town car (nippy from the off). The Matrix and Versa are both excellent compromises for longer drives. Scions are a little cheaper than the equivalent Matrix and fitted for younger drivers (more stylish interior). All get around the same mpg (the Fit is best, if I remember). Try some test drives at local dealers, before you make up your mind. I really love the Matrix because it is so comfortable to sit in - and pretty speedy without you realizing it. So not as much fun to drive as the Fit (which really let's you know you are moving), but very easy to get up to 60mph without meaning to ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 2:08 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

We just bought a Honda Fit (yesterday in fact) for Mrs arcticseal. I was pushing for the Civic initially for size, but after the test drive, I must admit I'm very impressed with it.

Good size, head room is great, build quality excellent and very zippy engine. Gas mileage figures are also impressive.
posted by arcticseal at 5:15 PM on May 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all so far - it would seem that I should definitely test drive the Matrix and the Fit, and also the Versa.

I must admit what I've heard (and seen above) about the Mazda 3 and 5 doesn't give me a good impression, but if I see one on the lot I'll still hop in a give it a whirl if I've got the time.

I've not ruled out the Accord, and will still give a Civic a shot (or at least sit in one). I prefer fuel efficiency over power, so I'd probably be more interested in the V4 Accord than the V6 anyway. That said, I don't know how well that small engine can get that big car around. Another one or two to test drive, I suppose.

Fortunately we're in no major hurry. I've heard that a good time to buy is in July when the dealers are looking to dump unsold older (new) cars. I'm not completely averse to buying a new car, as long as I'm paying a good price for it and not just paying more because it smells nice. I do need to take a trip to a Scion dealership, though the lack of cruise-control (yes, I've heard about the aftermarket) is somewhat off-putting.

Back to the Matrix, though - is there any quality difference between this and the Pontiac Vibe? If I can get Toyota quality in a Pontiac that might not be so bad.

As far as the BMW, as much as I'd like to drive one, I don't want to pay out the nose to keep one running. Long term costs are definitely a factor in our decision making.

Speaking of long term costs, what about Hyundai (and/or Kia)? Supposedly the ones from the last couple years are considerably better, and they've got that long warranty.
posted by codger at 6:59 PM on May 9, 2008

I drive a 2005 Toyota Corolla Conquest Wagon (but I'm not sure if there is a comparable model on the US market). It's a great little car, that I really enjoy driving, but what really makes the difference is the station wagon like boot, which gives it just that little bit more room than the sedan - but it isn't as big or heavy as a normal station wagon. It runs on very little fuel, and my (6 foot tall) dad actually enjoys zipping around in it over his Commodore sedan, and theres enough leg room that my (nearly 6 foot) brothers don't mind sitting in the back. I think it should fit well within your price budget - you should probably be able to get one almost new.
posted by cholly at 7:09 PM on May 9, 2008

I have to add to the Matrix pile-on - I drive one and it's great!! Really roomy (much MUCH roomier than the Fit, and overall nicer too), the back seats have plenty of room for car seats and such, and my 6'2" fiance fits very comfortable in the front seats.

I liked the look of the Matrix much better than the Vibe, and I think a Toyota will hold its value better than a Pontiac, but the Vibe is certainly something to consider.

A lightly used Matrix is certainly in your price range, and you might be able to find a new 2008 if anyone still has them in stock.
posted by robinpME at 7:26 AM on May 10, 2008

Back to the Matrix, though - is there any quality difference between this and the Pontiac Vibe? If I can get Toyota quality in a Pontiac that might not be so bad.

My mother in law has a Matrix and I have a Vibe-she bought hers one month before I bought mine (both new in 2006). Neither of us have had any issues with them, mechanical or otherwise. As far as comfort, once we're inside you can't really tell them apart and side by side the only difference is color. I love my Vibe-I traded in a Grand Caravan for it and have been so happy-I can haul groceries and my 5 year old that's still in a carseat is comfortable, but it doesn't scream "Mom car"-it's cute and sporty.

Btw, in researching it, the mainframes and drive trains are made in the exact same factory as the Matrix, it's just when the come off that line some go to be made into Toyotas and some go to be made into Pontiacs.
posted by hollygoheavy at 9:22 AM on May 10, 2008

Back to the Matrix, though - is there any quality difference between this and the Pontiac Vibe? If I can get Toyota quality in a Pontiac that might not be so bad.

As others have said, my understanding is that mechanically, it's the same car. robinpME makes a valid point about resale value, but if you are driving your cars to death, that's no big deal.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:11 PM on May 11, 2008

Have you looked at Mazdas? The Mazda 626 / Mazda 6 is big enough for my 6'3" father, and plenty big for my 6' self.

My dad bought a 1986 Mazda 626 in 1990 for $3500; he finally retired it Dec '06 because it didn't pass smog and wasn't worth repairing. It never required anything except routine maintenance.

I bought a 1996 Mazda 626 a year and a half ago, 120k miles, for $2k. Decent sized sedan, 33mpg highway driving, 28 city. I had to replace a windshield, but I think that's more a rock's fault than Mazda's.

The 626 is now called the Mazda 6. They're still roomy. A 2004 Mazda 6 costs about ~$11k.
posted by cactus at 12:01 PM on May 14, 2008

Response by poster: One small update - haven't made too much progress other than test driving a (sadly $2000 too expensive) 2007 base-model Matrix.

Other than the price, the two big strikes are no cruise control and no side-curtain airbags, which we'd like to have but it's not a deal breaker. I hear both are standard on the XR trim models.

I also noticed the cabin was a bit sparse. I've become accustomed to my Galant's sunroof, but could live without it. However the Matix had no interior lights other than the overhead - no map lights or lighted visors. Not that I check maps too much at night, but it's occasionally handy...

I'll try more of them, definitely. Susurration, I see what you mean about it being speedy without realizing it - the ride was very smooth between 30-75 mph (wasn't on a great section of highway to try faster).

While I was on the Toyota lot, I also sat in a Camry, but the battery was dead (not a great sign) so didn't test drive it. 2006 Camry's don't really appeal to me style-wise, but it's probably not a bad upgrade from what we've got. The Corolla sedan (and also the Yaris) are both too small in the backseat.

I'm still very interested in Hondas, and would like to try out a Fit. Unfortunately we'd need to buy new, and from what I've heard, they're not easy to get at any discount. For that matter, the used prices on Hondas seem high lately - the 2006 Civic my dad bought six months ago would cost $3000-5000 more now, it seems.

But I'd be looking at (4-cylinder) Accords before Civics, I think.
posted by codger at 7:59 PM on May 25, 2008

Response by poster: I have now driven a Vibe as well, and it is really is a clone. The interior is just about indistinguishable, except for that back pillar. I must admit I prefer the one in the Toyota - I know I could get used to the mirrors more, but that back view just seems more obstructed in the Pontiac.

Still haven't gotten into a Fit, but I think I'd rather have the extra cargo room rather than the better mileage. That said, I really should try one out.

And I've more or less ruled out sedans now... but haven't bought anything, yet.
posted by codger at 6:55 AM on July 11, 2008

If size of the rear seats is an issue... you might be interested in considering the RAV4
'07 front wheel drive base 4 cylinder (24 mpg / 30 mpg) ~$16.5k
V6 awd base 21/28mpg ~$19.5k
posted by acro at 11:28 PM on July 20, 2008

Response by poster: Well, I bought a 2006 Matrix, and I'm happy with it. I like the seating position, I like the cargo room (had a twin mattress and box spring in there last month and sure, had to drive with the back open but it was fine otherwise), and I like the overall room inside.

I've got only minor complaints. The chrome rings on the dashboard glare on the windshield. The windshield wipers, particularly the back one, need to be replaced and that back one is apparently a dealer-only kind of thing.

And the gas tank is smaller than I'm used to, and since I've been driving this 30+ miles a day I notice that more than I otherwise might. The mileage is fine, I'd just like to go another day or two between fillups.
posted by codger at 5:56 AM on December 15, 2008

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