What Sort of New Car Should I Buy?

We spent the weekend down in the Boston area, where Kate was doing stuff at Readercon and I was running the kids around the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science (nominally in the company of a friend form college and his family, and some of Kate’s cousins (respectively), but either SteelyKid or The Pip was usually in a different room than everybody else, so there wasn’t a lot of adult conversation…). Adding a fun element of excitement to this was the fact that some sort of electrical fault in my car had caused the speedometer to go dead right around the time we reached Boston on Friday. Which would’ve been a great answer had I been tagged for speeding (“No, Officer, I have literally no idea how fast I was going…”), but contributed to the general stress of chasing the kids by making me worry whether something more substantial was going to fail and strand us in the middle of nowhere.

The car in question is a 2007 Ford Freestyle, notably featured here, and has generally been very good to us. I’ve been thinking about replacing it for a while now, though, and this moves “new car” a bit up the priority list. and makes a decent topic for a blog post while I wait for the dealership to tell me what’s wrong with the wiring.

The fundamental problem here is that, in terms of ideal vehicles for what we do, Kate and I have mismatched requirements. She drives a Prius, but most of her commute is on the highway, so she doesn’t get quite the full advantage of the hybrid, mileage-wise. And I drive a Freestyle, but we live two and a half miles from campus, so the vast majority of my driving is short-distance stop-and-go stuff, where my traditional gas engine gets lower mileage. Of course, that’s not something easy to fix– the reason we live where we do is that my job has more flexible hours that allow for quickly running home during the day, and Kate’s doesn’t. And we can’t just swap cars, because neither of us is fully comfortable driving the other’s vehicle– I can drive the Prius if I have to, but it’s much too small for me to use on a routine basis, and Kate’s not all that wild about driving a big car.

We also need to have at least one large vehicle, because we have kids. And, yeah, the Prius holds more than you might think, but it’s much, much easier to fit all the crap we haul around when we go on weekend trips into the Freestyle. And we’re getting to the point where we’re likely to find ourselves hauling SteelyKid to lots of activities– she’s really into taekwondo at the moment– and probably bringing her friends along.

The problem is there doesn’t seem to be anything that I can drive comfortably that gets substantially better mileage than the Freestyle. This is largely a matter of poor interior design– Subaru, for example, makes very popular cars that are large enough in terms of the frame, but they have a center console that pins my right knee against the steering wheel, rending it impossible to drive. Ford has also re-done their whole line so that a direct replacement isn’t possible; the Flex is as close as they get, but the mileage isn’t any better.

But I’m not really a car guy, so I don’t know much about what’s out there. So I’ll throw this out on the blog: Is there a large-ish vehicle out there that gets decent mileage (defined here as “significantly better than 20mpg city”) that I ought to be looking at as a replacement for my car? I’m willing to (somewhat reluctantly) go over to the minivan side (SteelyKid actually requested “One of those doors that slide open” the other day), if that’s what it takes.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Suggestions of the form “You should bike/walk to work instead, you awful Earth-destroying monster” are not helpful unless accompanied by an offer to come babysit my kids for an hour a day to make up for the time I would spend biking/walking. Follow-up suggestions of the form “You just need to manage your time better” will be met with an anatomically improbable suggestion, then deleted, so save us both the trouble and don’t type them into the comment box in the first place.

29 thoughts on “What Sort of New Car Should I Buy?

  1. Honda Accord. Fairly spacious, good gas mileage, runs well, and is reasonably cheap to maintain.

    I personally prefer biking to work because I view it as semi-productive exercise time (though I’m not really cranking hard) instead of just wasting my time driving. For a 2-mile distance with plenty of stops it actually shouldn’t take much longer to bike to work than to drive. That was my grad school commute distance for 3 years, and it took about the same amount of time as by car: 12 minutes each way, particularly since I could park my bike right in front of my office instead of having to walk across campus from the parking structures.

    But as you see most fit.

  2. If you live 2.5 miles from campus I doubt it is going to take you an hour a day to ride back and forth. It might be almost as fast as getting out to the parking lot and driving a car.

    But anyway… There’s something to be said for getting a minivan. Even with just two kids, we quickly got to the point where we needed the space for “stuff” (and/or companions) for any sort of family trip/vacation. Also, many minivans can carry a full sheet of plywood, which is handy.

  3. For sedans, the most efficient one on the road today is the Chevy Volt, plug-in hybrid. Any plug-in hybrid is the best of both worlds for electric local driving and hybrid long-distance driving.

    For minivans, Dodge Caravan defines the category, and the 6-cylinder model gets 39 mpg on the highway at 50 miles per hour (empirical tests, I had one). Price should be in the range of about $22,000 plus or minus a little, assuming you don’t go for needless luxury options.

    Any decent minivan will have more flexible interior space than any SUV, because minivans are basically boxes on wheels. Dodge Caravan and Ford Transit Connect both have configurable rear seats that enable switching from carrying passengers to carrying cargo in various ratios. This is incredibly useful, even more so if you have a doggie who rides along.

    Don’t get automated sliding doors if you don’t need them for reasons of disability access; more needless complexity to break down later. Simple is good.

    For any gasoline powered vehicle or hybrid, get something called ScanGauge (about $180, available online) and plug it into the “ODB port” on the left below the steering wheel: this will give you moment-to-moment and trip-cumulative miles per gallon. Set the fuel cost variable to $1/gallon and the “TFC” readout will give you total fuel consumption per trip in gallons and decimal fractions. (Using this does not void the vehicle warranty, I checked.)

    The utility of ScanGauge is immediate feedback on driving habits, to enable learning more efficient driving maneuvers over time. I have a Ford Transit Connect (tradesman’s van) that’s rated 22/25mpg, and consistently get 35 on the highway by driving smart, using ScanGauge for feedback. This is also the world’s best deterrent to speeding, because you won’t speed when you find out what it’s costing in fuel efficiency and money.

    City fuel efficiency will always be 3 – 4 mpg lower than rating, if you have any degree of stop-and-go in the city. You’ll do better than rating if your city driving is mostly constant-speed with few stops. The point being, don’t be disappointed if you see lower efficiency in the city, just adjust your driving habits to make up for it.

  4. You didn’t say anything about how many miles you’ve put on it, but chronologically, 2007 isn’t that old a car. As long as the body is sound, it’s cheaper to fix your old car than buy a new one. (Says the man whose car is so old, it has a cassette deck.) Not making payments on a new car will cover the cost of this repair within a couple of months or so.

    If you feel you have to get a new car, give the Honda CR-V a look, or go for the minivan. I’m aware that your height rules out quite a few models; there are some models I can’t drive, and I’m several inches shorter.

    Also, don’t feel that you have to get a brand new vehicle. Something thats 2-4 years old will generally be quite a bit cheaper (depending on model, a new car will lose between 20 and 50 percent of its value the moment you drive it off the dealer’s lot), and especially if you have a good and trustworthy mechanic, you can keep such a car on the road for a long time.

  5. Yeah, the main thing pushing for a replacement over just repair is the gas mileage. If it’s not possible to do significantly better, I’ll probably just keep the current car. It doesn’t have all that many miles on it.

  6. You didn’t say whether you would buy a new car or a used car and, if the latter, how old. This all depends on what your budget is. If you go with a new car, then Ford makes most of its models avaiable as either hybrid or plugin hybrid these days. If you are comfortable driving the current Fords then you are going to get much better mileage out of one of those. If you are not going to go hybrid or plugin hybrid then you are not really going to get better mileage out of a current Ford unless you go for a smaller car, which does not seem to be what you want. Similarly, if you are buying a Ford that is a few years old then it is not going to have much better mileage. Even the hybrid Fords were not so good in the first few years.

  7. An accord is a good suggestion, but I’d suggest also looking at a Civic. I get close to 40 mpg on the highway, 30s in town, and is it reasonably roomy. If you want something larger perhaps a Honda CRV (which my wife has). She gets around 30 with it on the highway and reasonably good mileage in the city.

  8. 1) Do not buy Detroit. Japan on a budget.

    2) Low speed, short haul, stop and go driving for 25K miles/year says “hybrid with regenerative braking.” How long will you keep the car? Battery packs survive about 5-7 years.

    3) I own a 2013 Honda Civic (yeah, I know – the unforgivable rear side windows, but they dropped the price). Irvine, CA to Marana, AZ and back was 938 miles. Windows closed, air conditioner blasting, pedal to the metal, 39.6 mpg overall. The dipstick moved not a whit for 5W20 Mobil 1 in the crankcase. Retank at Mile 40 in Arizona. Great bathroom, too. Beware cameras before Mile 40 and posted after.

    4) Diesel is especially fine for long haul freeway driving. Before any consideration, check out a) exhaust train consumables like urea solution to quench NOx emissions; b) real world required multiple fuel filters, and aftermarket anti-bacterial/anti-fungal additive each time you refill. The stuff skin-absorbs. Diesel is wet and icky; 3) Ultra-low sulfur diesel is at least 2/3 of the Enviro-whiner Trinity: Expensive, shoddy deadly.

  9. Incredibly versatile, cheap, and capable of holding an awful lot more than would appear at an outside glance is the Honda Fit, of which I’ve been a proud owner since 2008. While (somewhat unrealistically) rated at 28 MPG city, I’ve never gotten less than 34 with no particular pains taken. Highway MPG is about 40 or so.

  10. We have 3 cars.

    My wife’s car is a small city car, 1.1litres, ideal for her short local driving, does about 1,000 to 2,000 miles per year, 4 years old now, done about 40,000 miles, previous owner put on most of the miles in the first two years.

    I have a 4WD, Toyota Rav4, wait for it……….15 years old, used as a winter car/mobile skip/dog car/suitable for muddy fields, etc etc. done about 90,000 miles

    And our clean, comfortable, long-distance, trips, passenger transporting, shopping, highly economic to run is a ………..VW Passat 1.8T petrol (gas in America), but also gas in the UK because it runs on LPG (Autogas or Propane).
    It’s done 135,000 miles, still reliable, all maintenance issues are known and have been dealt with when they arise, and it is 14 years old! On a long trip, the fuel cost works out at 70mpg! (35mpg, and the fuel is 1/2 the price of petrol) It’s an estate (station wagon), not quite as big as an SUV on height, but length is about the same as an SUV.

    Taxi drivers around here run Toyota Priuses converted to LPG (Autogas/propane) They get about 80mpg cost equivalent.

    Do you want to save money? Or do you just want a new car?

  11. I spent a couple of years looking for a replacement for our 98 Sienna minivan, which gets about 20mpg around town. There isn’t anything comparable in load capacity/size with better gas mileage, in fact I made an offer on a 2007 Freestyle 😉

    Seems odd there is nothing, but that is the state of auto art unfortunately. We need a Tesla minivan..

  12. If you don’t want to go full minivan, you might want to look at a Mazda 5: http://www.mazdausa.com/MusaWeb/displayPage.action?pageParameter=modelsSpecs&vehicleCode=MZ5

    It’s sometimes called a “microvan”; it’s laid out much like a minivan, but is a more reasonable size. It holds a respectable amount of stuff with the third row of seats folded down. Gas mileage is acceptable, if nothing to write home about. We like ours and several people we have recommended them to have bought one.

    The main question is whether you could fit in it comfortably, which I can’t speak to (my brother’s family has one and he is 6’2″, for whatever that’s worth).

  13. Hey, man. Long time no talk.

    Finding a small or mid-sized car for a person your size is a challenge. Automakers have been tending toward busier center consoles with more structural reinforcement, both of which put more of a squeeze on knee room, as you saw with the Subaru.

    One of my brothers in law is about the same size as you. He and my sister have a full-size GM sedan (which I do not recommend) and a Honda CRV. If you’re interested in going the CUV or minivan route, the upright seating position may be what you need.

    If you’d rather stay with a traditional car style, I suggest looking around for models with good interior room and lots of travel (fore and aft) in the driver seat. Take a look at the Nissan Altima. It fits 4 adults comfortably, and the front seats can roll back a long way. If you like Ford, take a look at the Fusion, not the Taurus. Although the Taurus is dimensionally larger its poor interior design leaves less useful space. Mazda has always done a good job with space, too. The Mazda3 is a compact that a tall person can fit in by rolling back the seat. The new Mazda6 is certainly worth a look; I haven’t driven one personally to be able to give a stronger recommendation.

  14. Just an idea, but have you considered an army surplus 2-1/2 ton all terrain truck with a honking huge winch?

    It gets all of about 10 miles per gallon diesel and has a top speed of just under 60 mph but this is heavy duty vehicle suitable for pushing your way through traffic jams, deep mud, snow, dirt embankments or anything else you need to get over.

    Given that it normally uses a compressed air starter it usually has its own compressor and a very heavy duty alternator. With a few minor modifications you can run air tools and, with an added inverter, a good part of your house when the power goes out.

    It has plenty of room for kids, or a large camper body, in back. No worry about spilled drinks or ice cream because you can hose it out, or wade a stream.

    It is a blast in the woods:


    Remember, being an adult is just an option. You are bigger now so your toys should be bigger.

  15. You might look into the Prius V – my brother-in-law doesn’t fit in our regular Prius but does fine in a Prius V. I’m 6′ 2″ and fit fine in a regular Prius, he is probably 6′ 4″.

  16. SteelyKid is on the cusp of the age of team sports. I didn’t particularly want to turn into a minivan driving soccer mom, but when you start thinking about how to manage a three family soccer car pool where the kids still need to be in booster seats (through age 8) and nobody can be in the front seat, it’s hard to do it with a sedan.

  17. You’re unlikely to get enough improvement in gas mileage to overcome the cost advantage of keeping the Freestyle and doing some pro-active repairs on it. The Mazda 5 mentioned above is the only utility sized vehicle that’s likely to get you into the 20’s for short commutes, and it’s at the smaller end of the range and may not have enough room for all the kids and stuff. My wife loves her new Mazda CX-5 and it’s running at 27 mpg for medium commutes, but again the crossover form factor might not have enough space for you.

  18. I drive a VW JETTA Sportwagen with the 2.0 l TDI diesel engine.
    In So CA most of my driving is freeway but I still do a lot of around town. The wagon holds an incredible amount of stuff. The car is a 2009 model and currently has 109 K on the odometer. Since purchase it has returned 43.4 mpg. (Dutifully calculated by me with no resort to the electronics in the dash). With the exception of a small leak in the moon-roof (fixed at VW’s expense) there has been no outlay for repairs.

  19. Is the Toyota 2014 RAV4, $23,550 msrp, 24/31 est. mpg big enough/cheap enough/petrol consumption OK enough for you? The Toyota 2014 Highlander Hybrid, $47,300 msrp,
    27/28 est. mpg, may be big enough, but the cost is another planet, and mpgs maybe not enough saved. Maybe the Toyota 2014 Prius V, $26,750 msrp, 44/40 est. mpg, mentioned already above, might be right? We have a Toyota 2005 Corolla that has served us well.

  20. I would consider the Toyota Avalon hybrid or the Toyota Camry hybrid. The avalon averages about 40 mpg on both city and highway, and has loads of interior room. Not sure about the trunk space of the hybrid, but the non-hybrid Avalon has a huge trunk.

  21. Normally I would recommend an electric or a plugin. My Prius plugin set a new mileage record for my 46mile commute (97mpg). But you want something bigger, and you don’t drive much, so the capital outlay isn’t justified. (The plugin would be great for your wife). I guess if I really don’t drive very many miles, I’d let the math do the talking, and it says keep your existing vehicle.

  22. My next car is a Prius C, when my 2003 Prius finally gives up the ghost (135K and doing just fine). I hate the back windshield design of the plugin/regular Prius (terrible visibility), plus I want a true hatchback for kid bikes and things.

    I’d love it if the Prius V fit Chad, because my dealership/repair shop has been really good to me. Chad traditionally has bad luck getting his legs comfortably arranged in Toyotas, though, and the question of a third row of seats is a serious one.

  23. The Volt is fairly spacious in the front, as far as I know and, since it’s a plug-in hybrid, you won’t use any gas commuting in the local neighbourhood (range is about 30 miles or so in winter before you need to use gas and gets a lot better in the summer).

    It’s pretty good for hauling groceries or even a decent amount of gear, but if you want to go camping, you’ll probably be popping one of those rooftop carriers on it.

    However, it can only hold 4 passengers max. I think the only hybrid or electric with a third row of seats is a Tesla, which is insanely expensive (and not for kids who get carsick while riding backwards).

  24. I know someone with a Fit. I can’t imagine that Chad would fit into it it, particularly if the larger Subaru is a problem, but it would be a LOT of fun watching him try it on for size at a dealership. Please post pictures if you do!

    Sounds to me like you could really use an Escalade with an engine swap to a tiny turbo diesel, but there is always the risk of gaining weight until you fit the space available in your new car. I’ve seen that happen.

    Did you look at the Ford Flex that sort of replaced your current SUV? It has solid “good” IIHS safety ratings in their earlier ratings. However, the Equinox has top IIHS safety ratings with their latest small-offset test and also looks like it gets better mileage in the 4-cyl version.

    Be sure you look at both the IIHS ratings and fueleconomy.gov while you are web shopping.

    Minivans are convenient with lots of driver room, but I’m not in that market so I don’t know what their mileage is like these days. I do know the one my brother had back when the kids needed hauling everywhere drove OK as long as you remembered that they actually ARE a box on wheels with something that merely pretends to be a suspension where handling is concerned.

  25. The Tesla model X looks bee-utiful and from what I can see (based on test driving a model S), it can fit your size. If the financing is generous enough, I’m thinking of it. But it comes out next year.

  26. I love my Honda Fit, but if you can’t squeeze comfortably into a Prius or any Subaru, I doubt it would serve.

    I’d say that if your sole motivation for replacing instead of repairing is better gas mileage, it’s probably not sufficient justification. It sounds like you don’t drive very many miles in a typical week. I seriously doubt the savings in gasoline burned from replacing it with a more efficient vehicle are going to make up for either the environmental cost of manufacturing your new car, or the monetary cost of buying one. It might be interesting to try the calculation, actually.

  27. The thing about the Tesla Model X, or any full electric, is that, even if you can afford it, it’s really only practical if you also have the means to install a home charger with more power than 110 house current, so you can charge it overnight (a Tesla will take regular 110, but it only supplies a few miles of range per hour). I think that’s going to be an obstacle for some for a little while.

Comments are closed.