Looking for a green family car
June 5, 2008 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Help us pick a car! We're looking for a good used family car. We have two daughters, a 2 1/2 year old and a newborn and need a car that can accommodate an infant car carrier without putting the front passenger's knees in the glovebox.

We'd really like something that gets good gas mileage and is reliable. We'd consider a hybrid, but its hard to find them (new or used) to test drive and check to see if the car seats fit well, and we're also a little concerned about the battery life on a used hybrid, as we've heard they can be expensive to replace.

A few more datapoints:

We really liked the Subaru Outback, but found its gas mileage to be a little disappointing. We also liked the Mazda 5 but were also disappointed with the gas mileage.

Can anyone suggest a used car with good fuel economy, decent room for the kids, and good reliability that we ought to consider?
posted by Reverend John to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: http://fueleconomy.gov
How old are you looking to go on the used car?
I assume from your post you are leaning towards a station wagon of some kind?
The Outbacks are AWD hence why you see the lower mpg with them. If you can find a Subaru in FWD mpg should improve. VW Jetta wagons might be a good fit for you too. A TDI would be the awsome, but are probably hard to find. Still, one with a non turbo engine and a 5 speed transmission would be good.
I actually just read some reviews on the Kia Rio wagon yesterday as I had seen a used one for sale by me. But, the reviews were not good, so you may want to avoid them.
What ever you look at, make sure to read up on them online. Tons of info out there.
posted by a3matrix at 7:48 AM on June 5, 2008

Yes, if you can do the sedan thing the Accord does decently. I have a 1998 4 door 4 cyl 5 speed Accord that did 34 mpg on its last tank. That was mostly hiway driving.
posted by a3matrix at 7:50 AM on June 5, 2008

Best answer: Our Scion xB has more rear-seat room than any car I've owned, and the doors open very wide. I'm 6'5", and I can sit up front with the seat pushed all the way back and still leave plenty of room behind me. Decent mileage, too.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:56 AM on June 5, 2008

Used Accord, Civic, Camry or Corolla. They are all fantastic vehicles which are well made and built to last for hundreds of thousands of miles. The Prius most certainly would fit your car seats, but it starts to get a bit cramped up front for anyone even slightly taller than six feet, and that is with the front seat all the way back. Otherwise, it is an awesome car. As for the batteries, they carry long warranties. Replacement out of warranty is about $3k.
posted by caddis at 8:02 AM on June 5, 2008

Best answer: How about a Mazda 6 wagon in 4-cylinder trim? Or a Saab 9-3 (sedan or wagon) with the 4-cylinder turbo. Saabs depreciate very quickly, are very safe, and a certified one will have an extended warranty. The lower trim levels can be had at a pretty reasonable price these days. As with the Jetta wagon suggested above, though, a full service history is a must so that you can get an idea whether the thing was put together properly.

Subaru's Forester gets better mileage than the Outback, too.
posted by pandanom at 8:06 AM on June 5, 2008

Another plug for a used Camry.

I drive a '98 Camry (with 280k miles on it) approx 110 miles a day and managed 35 mpg on my last tank.

In the time I've been keeping track of the mileage I've never had a tank average less than 31 mpg (and that during freezing/icy weather when it was expected to be lower) and most often am around 33 or 34.

Great leg room/car seat room in the back - my 5'10 and 5'8" all-legs kids have no trouble sitting back there.
posted by Incognita at 8:07 AM on June 5, 2008

Yeah, agreeing with above recommendations of Camrys, Accords, etc. THere's also a ton of them around, so parts and mechanics are more in supply than something less common.

Datapoint, though: get a stick. Even if one of you has to learn to drive a stick in the process. You can shift early (or just shift 1-3-5) and boost your mileage considerably beyond the normal rating.
posted by notsnot at 8:09 AM on June 5, 2008

We're a family of Honda-drivers here. We bought a new 1994 Accord when our daughter was born, and drove it until last year, then we bought a used 2003 Civic. I would highly recommend both in terms of quality. It was a piece of cake for the Accord to handle a car seat in the back and two 6-footers in the front. I've never put a car seat in my Civic, but I often have large dog crates back there, and leg room in front is fine.

My father-in-law (just shy of 6 feet) recently bought a Honda Fit, and routinely carries his tools (he's a carpenter) and a bike. I would definitely look into one of these. There will probably be some used ones starting to hit the lots. It's called a subcompact, but it feels roomier inside than even my Civic.

One comment on used cars, and you're probably aware of this already, but it was new to me recently, so I'll throw it out there. More recent cars have a better restraint system built in for car seats. I didn't even know my Civic had this until I babysat my niece a month ago. This system is a gift from the car gods if you need to swap a car seat in and out of different cars.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:25 AM on June 5, 2008

(or just shift 1-3-5)
I was under the impression you're not to go under 1.5K RPMs so as not to put extra strain on the engine. If I shift 1-2 at 2.75-3k RPMs, I'm around 1.5K RPMs in 2nd gear and would surely be under that for 3rd if I shifted so early.
posted by jmd82 at 8:27 AM on June 5, 2008

How much do you want to spend?
posted by robinpME at 8:29 AM on June 5, 2008

jmd82, if you're driving pretty hard - like one friend who shifts at like, 1500revs and then floors it - yeah, that's excess strain on the engine. But if you're driving "friendly" (as they used to say on Montana speed limit signs) and your oil is in good shape to take the slightly increased side loading on the main bearings, it shouldn't be a problem. Anyway, a very light foot on an automatic will have the car leaving from a stop at 1500 revs.

Back to the poster's question, more experience info: my family has a whole rash of Hondas, from my '90 CRX with 230k miles on it to my dad's 2005 Accord, and they all get great mileage (fiance's 2004 civic=39 highway!) and take abuse with little complaint. The only exception is the brakes on my dad's Accord, but he rides the brakes and brakes very late, so throw out *that* datapoint.
posted by notsnot at 8:39 AM on June 5, 2008

Response by poster: A couple of quick notes here:

First, thanks for the answers so far, please keep 'em coming!

Second, we're looking to spend $20k or less, and would like a car with less than 5 years an 50k miles on it.

Third, the Accord and the Camry are excellent suggestions. We checked out an Accord yesterday, and may well go with it in the end (especially given all the recommendations!), and we'll also be checking on the Camry.

The Accord was, indeed, spacious, had good fuel economy, and has a good reputation for reliability. It just left us a little "meh" in terms of style. We're not totally hung up on style, but we would like to have something we enjoy, if possible, while still trying to fulfill our more utilitarian constraints of fuel economy, room, and reliability.
posted by Reverend John at 9:04 AM on June 5, 2008

A Toyota Camry or Honda Accord would seem like the standard choice.

Keep in mind as you look for these cars (or others) that many vehicles are available with different engine choices. Looking at the 2005 Accord I see there was a 4 cylinder engine as well as a V6 option, with a difference in MPG of 5mpg city, 4mpg highway. So if fuel economy is important to you, you'll want to verify you're checking cars that have the lower powered engine.
posted by phearlez at 9:16 AM on June 5, 2008

My brother has a Scion xB (toyota's entry level brand). He's put 3 kids, ranging from baby to 5, in the back seat in the proper restrains. He's very happy with the mileage compared to his older 6-cylinder Honda Accord. Downsides, the inside is a little cheap, and noisy, and the ride is a little stiff. On the other hand, the price was great. I understand that the Toyota Matrix is a similar vehicle in terms of overall layout, it might be worth looking at as well.
posted by Good Brain at 9:38 AM on June 5, 2008

With the current cost of fuel, it's worthwhile to consider a hybrid more seriously. Many here are suggesting cars getting ~34 MPG. A Prius gets about 45 MPG, and at least the previous generation is plenty roomy for two adults and two kids with car seats.

If you went with a Prius, for example, you'd save (1 gal/34 mi)-(1 gal/45 mi)~=0.007 gal/mi. With gas at $4/gallon, this implies a savings of ($4/gallon)*(0.007 gallon/mile)=~$0.028/mi. Assuming a cost of $3000 to replace the batteries, break-even would occur at ($3000)/($0.028/mi)~=107k miles. It would occur even earlier if the price of gas continues to rise.
posted by harmfulray at 9:46 AM on June 5, 2008

Best answer: Have you considered the Toyota Matrix? I've managed up to 40mpg (60mph on a long, interstate drive). There's tons of leg room, cargo space, etc. There are also two cigarette lighter/power plugs, and a standard 120volt outlet. With the new starting price being less than $20k; I'm sure you could find a used one in your price range.
posted by wg at 9:52 AM on June 5, 2008

Also, be aware that the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe are virtually identical cars, save for cosmetics and some options. Toyotas hold their value. Pontiacs don't. There are a good number of lease returns of both of these coming in (a lot of 3 year old, 30k mile cars sitting on the dealer's lots fit this description), and the Pontiac versions seem to be advertised for $1000-2000 less, for what amounts to the same car.

5-10 years ago, the same was true of the Prizm/Corolla. Only bargain hunters wanted the 3 year old Geo, even though it was mechanically a Toyota.
posted by toxic at 10:59 AM on June 5, 2008

We have a Toyota Matrix. It is roomy (front and back seats), the seats lay down if you need to haul something (we've used it for many trips to IKEA), gets great gas mileage (we've gotten 34 mpg) and is fun to drive. We got ours used and under the amount you're willing to pay (with 38k miles on it). We're expecting our second child this winter and have no thoughts of getting a different car.
posted by MeeMaMN at 11:33 AM on June 5, 2008

So crazy about my fiancee's Scion xB. I've driven it extensively, get 30 MPG, and it has all the room I could ever need.
posted by YoungAmerican at 12:16 PM on June 5, 2008

A note: the newest xB has a larger engine and gets much worse gas mileage. It's also much larger overall, with basically no added interior space.
posted by YoungAmerican at 12:17 PM on June 5, 2008

I drive a ten year old Volvo and love it. It is a manual sedan, no turbo, FWD and gets 20-25mpg around town and mid 30s on the highway. It looks like the newer Volvos (I just looked at 2003s) don't get as good of mileage. But, maybe consider an older Volvo? They often last forever apparently. Of course, Hondas and Toyotas are great options--but I find the Volvo to be a little more fun (and there are a lot of wagons out there, of course).
posted by fieldtrip at 5:32 PM on June 5, 2008

Had to add that we have a 2005 Subaru Forester and I absolutely love it-drives well, gets 30 mpg (which is great because my commute is 100 miles RT, thankfully don't work full time), it's very safe, well within your price range, and has good room in the way-back.

However, we were very thankful when we were able to turn our toddler's carseat to forward-facing when she turned 2 as the passenger seat had to be way forward with the carseat rear-facing, especially with the larger Britax Marathon seat. I always ended up as the passenger when husband and I were driving together, as he couldn't sit comfortably-he's 6'. YMMV.
posted by purenitrous at 10:27 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

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