I need a car!
July 20, 2008 7:13 PM   Subscribe

What car should I buy? I have to replace my 2003 Cavalier (worth 6k), and I want to find something with better gas mileage that is reliable. I don't think I can afford more than $10,000, and the closer to $6,000 the better.


I deliver sandwiches for my summer job, and a week ago my car was totaled while I was on the clock. An Escalade backed into my passenger side and did $5,500 in damage. My car is apparently only worth $6,000. It was a 2003 Cavalier with just under 60k miles. My parents and I bought it brand new in 2003 for $9,300 because of all the rebates and our GM employee discount. We decided to buy a brand new car for a couple of reasons:

1. My neighbor bought a 2002 Cavalier for $9,000 at the same time, and it seemed silly not to buy a new one for only $300 more.

2. My parents are terrified of their daughter stranded in the middle of nowhere. They wanted a reliable car so I could make the five hour drive from school to my hometown. They sprang for the extended warranty, and it paid off when I had to have the engine replaced at 40k miles. Ever since that happened I've been a believer in buying a car with a warranty.

Fast forward to 2008 and it's a totally different car market. Suddenly compact cars are in high demand, and for me to get a car that has a warranty (my Cavalier still had a year or two left) and similar MPG I have to spend at least 11k it seems. Everyone is telling me to buy a used Corolla, but the best I could get is a 2002 with 80K miles for $10,000. It seems to me that while a Toyota is more reliable than a GM car, if I have to spend 10k to get a decent one then I might as well buy a brand new GM. I could get an Aveo for about 9k or so, and it would have a warranty.

I also don't know what I need for this point in my life. I was relying on this car to get me through grad school, and now I have a year left and no car. My GTA stipend is not quite enough for me to pay rent AND a car payment. I could make a car payment for a month and then take my student loans and pay the car off in September. But I may not even need a car next year, or I may have a job that pays well enough that I could afford a good car. So what do I do for this year? Do I buy a used car and hope it doesn't need repairs, because I definitely can't afford that. Should I buy a brand new cheap Aveo and trade it in or sell it in a year? Would the Aveo maintain it's value to make that worthwhile? Should I just lease a car and decide what to get a year from now when I know what I'll be doing in the next phase of my life? Is that just throwing money away? Do you lose enough value in a brand new car that it would equal the cost of leasing a cheap car for a year? Can you lease a car for just one year?

The stress is killing me, and I need to figure this out fast. This is how I make a living, and while the other guy's insurance is going to pay for my damages and rental car, they're not going to pay for a rental for very long once they write me a check for the totaled car. I think I have about a week and a half to get a car.
posted by metricfan to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Toyota Yaris starts at $12,270.
posted by zsazsa at 7:39 PM on July 20, 2008

First, I would never personally buy a brand-new car. The depriciation is ridiculous - why not let somebody else take that hit and buy something used instead?

I would find something reliable and long-lasting, like a Toyota Camry or Corolla, maybe a Honda Civic. Buy something less expensive to get you by for now until you can fully take on a car payment for something you really want. The cars are good quality, classy-looking, and the transmissions won't fail in 100k miles like a lot of GMs are prone to.

The wife and I bought a 2002 Camry, which has been great. As somebody who runs an auto repair facility in Tucson, you couldn't pay me to buy a Chevy Aveo. Ever. Really. Smaller, less-obscure Asian models are really a better fit. Even Kias are getting better in quality.

Finally, don't stress. As long as you don't blow your money on a Daewoo or something ridiculous, anything reasonable will be okay.
posted by jeffrygardner at 7:40 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I smile at the idea of buying a nice "reliable" GM car. Or any American car. Your "reliable" car's engine bought the farm at 40k miles? How much did the extended warranty cost you? I would assume between $1500 and $2500. Replacing the engine in most Japanese compacts would cost you no more than $2k, and in most cases a lot less depending on the car. Not that you would usually need to replace the engine in a Japanese car. The one time I did, it was because the previous owner raced it and thrashed the car and thrashed the hell out of it.

But I digress.

I tell everyone this: buy a used Honda. You're talking about buying a nice reliable brand new car with a warranty. It doesn't really add up. You waste money on the "new" factor and you waste money on the warranty which, if the car is really reliable, you won't ever need. Get on Craigslist and pick up a 2001 or newer Civic. They are fucking bomb-proof, and if you get one that was well maintained (and you take good care of it too) it will last you 200k miles and beyond. Try that with a Chevy. As a self-taught mechanic who performs most of his own maintenance, as well as helping out friends from time to time, I have a strong appreciation for Honda's engineering and simplicity, and disdain for the bewildering designs of my Ford and GM-driving friends' cars.

The foreign vs. domestic argument with regard to cars is as old as the hills, though, and since you mentioned getting a GM employee discount, I can only assume your parents would ridicule my notions of Japanese cars being more reliable. Regardless, this is my advice : )
posted by autojack at 8:05 PM on July 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm currently in the middle of looking for a car, and the conclusion I've come to after a lot of research, is that it's almost always better to buy a used civic or corolla than a new cheap car, unless there's some legit reason you need a car that looks new. Later on, I may buy a new Civic, but for now, car payments don't make SMS, and it sounds like you're in a similar situation.

You're right - the market is tight for used compacts right now. But I can't believe you wouldn't be able to find a late 90s-early 2000s civic in your range.

I wonder if you've been looking at dealer cars? Don't. Go through craigslist or the local paper. Before you buy any car, take it to a mechanic to get it checked out. If there's anything that needs fixing immediately, use that as a bargaining chip to get a lower price.

As for your parents - Hondas and Toyotas are safe, reliable cars, but any car can break down. Just get a AAA membership!
posted by lunasol at 8:36 PM on July 20, 2008

uh, "SMS" should have been "sense." Weirdest auto-correct ever.
posted by lunasol at 8:40 PM on July 20, 2008

My suggestion: visit a Toyota or Honda dealer's used car lot and ask to be shown late-model Corollas or Civics that still have some warranty left. I know Honda has a certification program for used cars; I believe Toyota does too. So ask for a "certified" used car if they have one. These will usually be cars that are coming off lease, typically one or two years old, that have been gone over pretty thoroughly.

Then lease one.

I believe most dealer financing operations will not lease used cars, so you will need to bring your own financing. Your bank or credit union may do this, or there are online lease financing companies that do it. Two I ran across in a quick Google search are Leasecompare and Primelease. I haven't used either of them, so do your own research before you use either.

I would actually suggest leasing for two years (rather than just one) so that you don't have to worry about transportation the first year after you get out school while you are still trying to get the rest of your new life set up. (The last thing you need is to have to give up your car when you are still hunting for a job or a place to live!) Take the insurance payout, put it in a high-yield savings account, and make the lease payments from that. Or pay off the lease up front if they'll let you -- the interest rate will probably be rather high.

I have no personal experience with leasing used cars, so you will need to do some legwork, but it sounds like this is almost perfect for your situation. Here is an article I found on the topic of leasing used cars: Used Car Leasing Explained.

Someone will be along soon and tell you that with this plan, you will end up paying more than you otherwise would, which is true. But it gets you a reliable car, with a warranty, with little or no cash out of your pocket right now. Having a little extra cash in the bank may be more valuable to you over the next year than any money you might save by stretching to buy a new or even late-model used car.
posted by kindall at 8:41 PM on July 20, 2008

get a 2000 Civic you should be able to get one around 100k for 6-7k
posted by any major dude at 9:52 PM on July 20, 2008

A used Honda Civic (compact) or used Toyota Camry (mid-size).

The Civic will get you better gas mileage but the Camry is more comfortable. You have your people who swear Honda or Toyota, but really, either would be better than a GM.

Avoid the used Corollas. They're built cheap.
posted by abdulf at 11:02 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

2002 Honda Civic LX used
2002-2004 Hyundai Elantra used

Both cars get excellent mileage and are inexpensive to service and maintain.
posted by vkxmai at 7:28 AM on July 21, 2008

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