On the weekend before taking my car Crayola in to the shop, I decided to try to best Murphy’s Law by looking for a new car. I wasn’t sure that the damage to Crayola was catastrophic, but with that car even a repair bill of $2,000 made him not worth fixing. And the problems were severe enough that I couldn’t rely on him in the meantime. So I figured that I would look at getting a new (used) car. The more I looked, Murphy’s Law would dictate, the less necessary it would be.

It was a fun experience. I’ve never actually purchased a car before. I’ve always gotten hand-me-downs. Even when I got a car that was new to the family, it was usually some deal that my father arranged. The cheapest car available that met the criteria. What I wanted (justly) did not matter. So I took it and was always grateful. But here we were in a situation where I would actually be able to choose a car. Though we’d have to buy a relatively inexpensive used car, our definition of “inexpensive” wasn’t $2-6k and our definition of “used” was really “barely used”, 10-20k miles.

It’s sort of like when I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t buy me the nicest shows but I at least had the option of getting something in a style that I liked. I’ve always been partial to high-tops, for instance, so I could get cheap high-tops. As my feet got bigger, the selection got smaller. As I turned the corner passed 13 into 14 and later 15, it would become a matter not so much of choosing what I liked but asking, with pleading eyes, what if anything they had in my size. Then online shoe stores became all the rage and suddenly I was a kid again, being able to choose something that I actually wanted.

So here I was, actually looking at different makes and models that I could actually own. It was like being a kid at the shoe store again. Further, all of the models I’ve previously owned and liked (Dodge Colt, Chrysler Lebaron, and Ford Escort) are all long-since discontinued. So I had to leave my comfort zone. Exciting! Even further, I come from a Dodge-Ford family (Dodge up until 98 or so, Ford since, with one aberrant Chevy), but with Detroit in the shape it’s in, I would have to even look at foreign cars. A very {chuckle} foreign concept {sorry, couldn’t resist} to me. I figured that since I had married into a Toyota family that I would become a Toyota person by default (sorta like how a vaguely religious person who marries into a more strictly religious family tends to adopt that faith if they will have them), but a guy could dream, right?

I was mostly interested in a subcompact of some sort. I like cars that get good mileage. Having had round-trip commutes that range from 60 miles to 115 miles in my last three jobs, I’m particularly price-conscious. Beyond that, while I’m not much of an environmentalist, if I can get something more economically friendly that’s one of the things that I can actually do and I’d like to do so. Not enough to get a hybrid or anything (not until there is a solid used market in my price range and my driving habits would be able to take advatange), but something is better than nothing. Oh, and did I mention that mileage makes a pretty big difference on a 90-mile daily commute?

Beyond that, I actually like small cars. My favorite car has always been a Dodge Colt. My least favorite have been the vans I’ve driven and the Land Barge I drove for a while. Despite the fact that my body is not built for a small car, I like a small footprint for parking and maneuverability reasons. I have also become near-phobic of vans since a near accident several years ago. And though we have some money saved up, the less spent the better. All of this pointed to a subcompact.

The only concern about compacts I have is ceiling space. Crayola, my current 2D Ford Escort, is too short. I can deal with my knee inadvertently changing the volume on the radio, but I don’t like to have to slouch in my car. So I wanted something small but with more interior space. That lead me to the Nissan Versa, which has ads that specifically boast interior space. Sure enough, it’s 60″, 8″ taller than Crayola. Come to find out that the Escort is unusually short for a car (52-53″). Even though it’s not a subcompact, most of the subcompacts I looked at were significantly taller, the only big exception being the Hyundai Accent (55″), though even that was 3″ taller. The Toyota Yaris was 57.5″.

So most of my early looking around involved that Nissan Versa and all its glorious height. It had pretty solid reviews, though the gas mileage wasn’t as good as with most of the other subcompacts (it was comparable to the Escort’s mileage, in fact). I also found myself looking at the Kia Rio, which was notably less expensive than the Versa and with solid gas mileage. A little bit shorter (58″), but certainly closer to the Versa than the Escort. Plus, Rios were cheaper despite including features (MP3 player, bluetooth) that Nissan wants extra for. Unfortunately, a glance of the reviews scratch the Rio from consideration. Complaints of breakdowns and of having difficulty getting them serviced. Beyond that, the rental car that Enterprise gave me was a Rio and I was not very impressed by it

The car that I liked the most was the Dodge Caliber. The Caliber was the successor to the Neon which was the successor to my beloved Colt. It was as tall as the Versa, though classified as a compact rather than a subcompact. Besides its tie with the Colt, the biggest attraction to it was entirely superficial. I just love the way it looks. And it’s a Dodge, which pulls me back to its roots. Beyond superficiality, though, it was priced out of what I could justify paying. Besides which, Dodge is a Chrysler brand and there’s a lot going on in their household that I would prefer steer clear of.

The Yaris looked attractive, but it lost on cost points with a slightly higher price than the Versa. Ditto for the Honda Fit, which my ex-roommate Hubert drives and endorses. I kept it in mind, though, if I could get a good deal on it. That was another problem with the Yaris, though. While Nissan makes the Versa rather central to their line, the Yaris seems to be treated something like an ugly step-child within Toyota.

So I’d more-or-less decided on the Versa. I was going to look around to see good deals on the other cars, but the Versa was what I had in mind. But, of course, the purpose of all of this looking was that I wouldn’t have to buy a new car. And that was what happened. The cost of repairs ($1,100) was just outside of what I was comfortable paying, but I needed to make a choice quickly and the overall sense was that the problems were isolated and not indicative of larger problems that would cost more down the road. Beyond that, since we’re going to be moving again soon I figure that it would be better not to buy a car until we know where we’re moving to. The Versa is the perfect choice for the Zaulem Sound area, where parking, maneuverability, and mileage matter a great deal. It makes less sense in the rural place that we’re likely to end up and I should tailor my choice around that. So I got it fixed. I have to confess that a part of me was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be getting something novel and interesting. Further, given the givens about what happens next in terms of cars, it’s unlikely that I will ever own any of these neat cars that I was looking at. It was going to be the Crayola and after the Crayola it was going to be a different kind of car (something more family-friendly and maybe with AWD).

My sense turned out to be wrong, though. Problems with Crayola have already started creeping up again. It’s not throwing tantrums when going uphill, but it’s not happy about it. No problems with high speeds, though, and mileage is good. But since my employment at Mindstorm is coming to an end I have to look at different criteria. Criteria I frankly should have been looking towards when I was trying to tempt Murphy’s Law. Something with All-Wheel Drive and something family friendly. So I’ve since been making my acquaintance with the Subaru family of cars. Subaru apparently specializes in AWD and it’s available on all of their models and pretty standard with them as well. I would like for the Truman family to be a one-make family if at all possible. I found it helpful when all of our cars growing up were made by Dodge and later Ford. That Subarus are almost all built with AWD means that I can do so with the flexibility of AWD cars (Impreza and Legacy) to crossover (Outback and Forester) to {shudder} 3-row minivan (Tribeca) all with AWD. This assumes that we’re going to end up somewhere with snow and the like that AWD is important. If we end up in Estacado, I’ll look elsewhere.

Though so far it’s proven to be nothing but sunk time, I’ve enjoyed looking at all of these cars. It’s something I’ve never really been able to do before. Among other things, I’ve learned the appeal of new cars compared to used. Particularly in the current market when they’re doing everything they can in order to get you to buy new. The price difference is closing, but more than just that I’ve learned that getting a new car may be the only way to get the features that you want that if you decide to tack-on to the price of a used car closes the gap further still. Not completely, though, so I will probably end up with another used car. But I’ll do a lot more comparisons before making that choice official, though. I’ve also learned that I will probably never buy a German car.

The other benefit is that it’s made my commutes more enjoyable. I’ve had a great time looking at all the cars I’m stuck in traffic with. That was what turned me on to Subaru and the Dodge Caliber to begin with. It’s given me something to do when there isn’t much to do. I’m always grateful for that.


Category: Road

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11 Responses to A Kid At The Car Store

  1. Peter says:

    I have a Subaru, a 2006 Forester, and really have no complaints at all about it. Other than oil changes and a recent brake job (at an expected 35K miles) it’s required no maintenance.

  2. trumwill says:

    Where do you take it in for repair? Is it one of those things where you need to take it to a dealership (like Kias are reputed to be) or can you take it to a generalist (as with American cars)? I’ve never owned a non-American car and Clancy usually takes her Toyota in to the dealership. I’m curious if maintenance and repair flexibility is a bonus of driving an American car. I’m also curious how different it is between a popular Japanese brand like Toyota and more of a niche seller like Subaru.

    Anyone else with foreign cars care to share their maintenance and repair options?

  3. Peter says:

    I had the Subaru’s brakes done at our regular independent repair shop rather than going to the dealership. It was a basic repair job, almost a DIY thing, so it’s possible that more extensive work would have required a trip to the dealership. Which might not matter, as there’s a fairly long powertrain warranty and it’s likely that any extensive work would be under the warranty.

  4. thebastidge says:

    Dealerships are the most expensive place to get work done. I would shop for a decent non-dealer mechanic with a good reputation (check BBB, which almost no one ever does uintil after they’ve been screwed).

    You really don’t need a dealer to get reputable service and warrantied work. Particularly for routine oil changes and the like. You can find mechanics for just about any Japanese car in any metro area. It’d be harder to find a European car mechanic than a Subaru mechanic just about anywhere you go.

    One thing to keep in mind when car shopping- I screwed myself on this once: Check the interest rates on any loan you get. Often a new car can have a lower TCO than a used car because you can get really cheap financing on a car that still has most of its value, where financing a used car means high interest rates over a short repayment period and correspondingly high monthly payments, so that they can recoup the majority of the cost in case of default.

    For my primary driver, I will endeavour never to buy a car more than 2 years old ever again. I also have an older pickup, but I don’t rely on that vehicle.

  5. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    It’s less an issue of expense and more an issue of there being a dealership nearby. The nearest Subaru dealership to one place we’re looking at moving to is three hours. That’s a hefty tow!

    Larry,

    Thanks for the tips. We’re likely going to either buy the car outright or only float a loan for a few months and then pay it off as soon as we’re both employed again. According to my father-in-law, about two years and 15,000 miles are the sweet spot for best TCO/yr. My family generally got older and more worn down cars. I would like for once in my life to own a car that has less than 60k miles on it. Until I had the prospect of a new car, I don’t think I realized how worn down I am on worn down cars.

  6. David Alexander says:

    Interestingly, with my dad passing away, my brother and I are faced with the prospect of having to find a mechanic for our cars for the first time since my dad always handled those issues for us. At this point, if I could, I’d buy a new car (Civic Coupe or Mazda 3 or “similar”) so the warranty and dealer would take care of any issues that would come up.

    BTW, as somebody who works at a major roadside assistance firm, my experiences are biased, but if you’re purchasing a used Subaru, I’d be careful. The transmissions seem to be hit or miss, and if the previous owner had the car towed with a regular tow truck, there maybe some damage to the engine.

    Also, are you looking for cars at dealers or on Craigslist? I’ve purchased three cars via Craigslist from private owners, and it’s worked out rather well. Hell, we drove to Cape Cod from Long Island to buy my dad’s Town Car…

  7. David Alexander says:

    Ford Escort

    It was replaced by the Ford Focus. IIRC, the Dodge Colt’s modern descendant is the Mitsubushi Lancer since the Colt was basically rebadged Mitsubushi Mirage.

    I’d recommend a used Toyota Celica as a fun little ride, but you’re too tall, and I suspect you’re not in the market for that.

  8. thebastidge says:

    Normal usage for an American auto is about 12k miles per year. If you find one under that, consider your valuation moving towards the high end of Kelly Blue Book value, and over that sliding towards low Blue Book.

    My car is an extremely unusual case in the extreme at

  9. Linus says:

    We’ve still got our ’92 & ’95 Accords. They’ve been great, inexpensive transportation for years, but we’re considering replacing one of them so we can have a more reliable car for roads trips and especially if we have a kid someday. We like the Hyundai Accent and Honda Fit, and would be looking at buying one that’s a year or two old with less than ~30,000 miles.

    We’ve never had any trouble finding mechanics that can work on our Hondas. Dealers might be somewhat more reliable overall, but they can still screw you good if you don’t pay attention. We shop around for mechanics like we shop around for doctors – every time we move, it seems like we have to try a few places before we find one we like.

  10. Peter says:

    It’s less an issue of expense and more an issue of there being a dealership nearby. The nearest Subaru dealership to one place we’re looking at moving to is three hours. That’s a hefty tow!

    That’s true, Subaru’s dealership network is fairly thin in many parts of the country. It’s long been much more regional than most brands, being popular in the Northeast and a few other areas but uncommon elsewhere. I’ve seen very few on my trips to Florida, for example.

  11. thebastidge says:

    Subarus are very common in Portland and Seattle- they’re almost the new VW among the liberal set here. It always kinda made me scratch my head, the way hippies took to the Volkswagen, being as it was first popularized by NAZIs. I guess it’s kinda like the irony of hippies wearing Army surplus stuff.

    But I digress. Subarus are very popular among the people here who like to think of themselves as ‘Green” and ecologically conscious.

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