Car Shop For Me

On April 6, 2009, in Culture, by psu

I’ve been looking at cars lately. I have never really shopped for cars in the past because for reasons that are too complicated to get into we’ve always just bought minivans. But, the current van is reaching the end of its useful life and for various other reasons that are too complicated to explain, it’s time to find a car for me to use as a commuter. I have found the experience to be both enlightening and confusing. Maybe you in the intertubes can help with the confusing parts.

I think the first thing to say about me and cars is that I’m not much of a driver. I didn’t learn to drive until late in life. I don’t find any particular fun or enjoyment in the act of driving. For me, driving and recreation are related in this way: driving is the thing you do, if you have to, to get the bike to the start of the bike ride. My other idea of a fun drive is one where the car is never so noisy that I can’t hear the podcast.

I am using the car primarily to get to work which involves one stretch of suburban strip mall road and another stretch of highway followed by a little jog through the Oakland area of Pittsburgh. This is not somewhere that is “fun to drive” no matter how much you spend on the vehicle. So I want the car to go in a straight line, turn when I tell it to, and otherwise basically be invisible. Quiet, smooth, big enough to fit my bike inside, and invisible. Note: the bike must go inside the car. Bike racks are for insensitive monsters who like to get dirt and crap all over their bikes.

The second thing about cars that are important to me is that I never have to take them to the dealer for any reason any more often than once a year. I take my bike to the shop about once a year if I don’t crash it. I have the same threshold of laziness for the car. The only reason I’m looking for a new car is because I’ve had to take the old car to the shop a lot the last few years, and it’s getting annoying.

After these two priorities, I am mildly interested in good gas mileage. This is where the confusing things start, because as far as I can tell, gas mileage has not improved at all in the last 25 to 30 years. For example, the Prius gets all this press for doing 40-45 mpg (yes I know yours does better), but it seems to me that back in the day the little compact go-kart cars used to do at least as well and didn’t need a gigantic NiMH battery to do it.

This leads to a second confusion: why are all the cars so huge? With only a few exceptions, cars have bloated to ridiculous sizes. The Prius, for example, is a “small” car, and yet it’s not really that much smaller than some of the SUVs that Prius drivers make fun of. Compact hatchbacks of today are as big as small wagons of yesterday. The RAV-4, which used to be a tiny pastel matchbox car is now as large as a Jeep Cherokee. The Honda Civic is now as big as an Accord and the Accord is as big as a really large BMW.

The whole size issue is frustrating because there are very few cars that are actually small that will also hold my bike in a convenient fashion. The best ones are the mutant cross-breedings of cars and SUVs (Honda CR-V), but none of these are all that much smaller than the minivan that I drive now, so what’s the point?

Probably the best current small car for bike hauling is the Honda Fit. But considering that you have to put up with a cheap interior and a buzzy loud engine you’d think that you could get more than 35mpg on the highway.

The Mini Cooper fails the bike hauling test completely, and I conclude that it is more for people who actually like driving. The automatic transmission costs too much.

I should probably consider the VW Jetta TDI wagon. But then I’d have bought a VW. Rounding out the list of possibilities are the Volvos, which are too expensive, and the Mazda 3 hatchback which is well-liked mostly for being “sporty”. The gas mileage on the Mazda is pretty bad though.

In the end, I will probably end up with a Prius, even though it’s a bit too big, a bit too expensive, and a bit too annoying to get a bike into. I think it does the rest of what I want better than the other cars. It won’t use that much gas, and it will be quiet and no fun at all to drive. I’ll be able to enjoy those podcasts as I sit in stop and go traffic and stare at the little graphic that shows you where the power comes from. It’ll be great.

Maybe I’m missing something though.


18 Responses to “Car Shop For Me”

  1. r. says:

    Except when the little graphic in the Prius crashes after two years, and only shows two wheels turning backwards and power going into the wrong hole. Then you’ll curse the fact that you bought a car that doesn’t hide the fact that it is full of computers, like sensible cars do.

    IMHO get an already old car that stereotypically will run forever (AKA Honda, Toyota), and just run it into the ground for 4-5 years. At the end of that time, get a new one. Never take it to the shop.

  2. peterb says:

    Interestingly, I’m in the same boat as psu at the same time, with two differences:

    (1) No bike to haul around, although I’d like to seat 5.
    (2) I actually like driving.

    The other constraint is that I’d like good gas mileage, but not at the cost of the car not being fun to drive.

    The Boy Toy choice for me is the Mazdaspeed 3. But deep inside I keep getting torn to look back at the VW Jetta TDI. It gets great gas mileage, it gets a nice tax credit and the sales tax deduction, and it’s a blast to drive. My only fear is the obvious one: it is made by VW.

    I keep eliminating it from consideration. But it keeps coming back.

  3. ChrisC says:

    The prius is actually suprisingly good for carrying bikes. I have stacked two in the back easily, and think it woud not be hard to put 3 or 4 in there.

    It sounds like it matches what you want almost perfectly, except: it is expensive, noisier yhan some sedans at highway speeds, may require trickier maintenence as it ages, and has posts set up to give you way too many blind spots as you drive.

  4. Dr. Click says:

    I don’t suppose you’ve looked at the Scions?

  5. psu says:

    The new Scions suffer from what I will now call “RAV-4″ disease. They took the XB and turned it into a bulbous monster. It’s huge and gets shitty mileage and it’s not clear it will hold a bike better than the average smaller hatchback.

  6. Faisal says:

    The gas mileage thing is twofold:

    First, the cars have gained size a slightly greater rate than the engines have gained efficiency.

    Second, the rules for calculating and reporting efficiency have become more realistic. By the old standard, the first-year Prius got 52 mpg city, 45 highway. By the new standard, the first-year Prius got 42 city, 41 highway. Similarly, by the old standard the Prius gets 60/51, whereas by the new standard it gets 48/45.

    On the issue of size, cost and mileage, you might also look at a Hyundai. I never thought I’d be saying that, but they seem to have tightened up their process.

  7. Benoit says:

    The mileage rules got “more realistic” because everyone drives with a giant lead foot, trying to see how fast they can go from 0 to 25 and back.

  8. Alex says:

    How about a toyota corolla? I would get an older one personally (10 to 15 years old), but the new ones don’t look too bad.
    My 94 one has loads of space, if you fold down the back seat, and hasn’t seen a repair shop in ~18 months. Still runs fine, though needs an oil change, new air filter and carburettor needs cleaning.

  9. Michael says:

    Fitting a bike in my Prius is no problem as long as I take the front wheel off. I’ve put two in there before, too. You might want to try the 2010 Prius in a couple months — they increased the engine size for better highway mileage, but I imagine that’d reduce the highway noise level too. But yes, I average about 50 mpg in my Prius.

    Part of the reason cars aren’t getting smaller is the category people call “safety.” I put this in quotes because there are people who won’t drive any car smaller than a Bradley tank. There is some merit to this, of course, but I see it as just another arms race. But I think this is like asking “we have better technology now, so why aren’t cars cheaper?” We just keep raising the safety standards; I can’t imagine the Tata would be approved for sale in the US. I suspect that actual safety standards have a lot of implications on car size.

  10. Mike says:

    If you’re considering Toyota, both the Scion xD (roughly the same size as a Mini Cooper Clubman, but with four real doors instead of 2.5) and the Matrix / Pontiac Vibe (both NUMMI cars!) come to mind. Cars keep getting bigger, generation to generation, so manufacturers keep slotting models in at the bottom and rolling them off the top; witness the Civic, which is the size of an Accord from ten years ago, which created a space for the Fit/Jazz at the bottom.

    In general, though, the most rational choice for me, size-wise, is a four-door hatchback; when I drive myself, the commute is a hundred miles, roundtrip, and the Impreza wagon/hatch works pretty well: it’s not so huge that I feel like I’m toting around a bunch of wasted space, but with the seats down, it holds a useful amount of stuff. Plus if you drive it with a reasonable foot, you get nearly 30 mpg on the freeway — this is with AWD, but not the turbo engine. And with four doors you don’t have to apologize about taking passengers around when they’re needed. Two doors are for people who hate passengers. And kids.

    Our family car is actually a Mazda5 — reasonable mileage (I suspect the new 5-speed auto they have in this year’s model is better), and the sliding doors are useful in real-world parking situations, where you thoughtfully don’t dent everyone else’s cars wrestling kids in and out of car seats. There is, theoretically, room for six (at least there’s seatbelts for that many) as long as no one brings any cargo.

    Here in southern California there is no significant advantage to having AWD aside from theoretical day-dream trips to the mountains, and even in places it snows, stability control is probably more useful. That said, also consider the Suzuki SX4 if AWD is on your shopping list, and the Saturn Astra if it’s not — now that Ford has dropped the Focus hatch/wagon, there’s relatively few European-influenced 4-door hatches on the road in America.

  11. psu says:

    I drove the Matrix, and it was OK. Again the MPG (with AWD, which is handy in Pittsburgh) was kind of depressing. It’s probably the current second choice behind the Prius which I have not yet driven and may yet hate.

  12. Dr. Click says:

    Actually, Faisal might be on the money with the Hyundai. My in-laws got an Accent over six years ago and it survived despite chronic non-maintenance. Check out an Elantra.

  13. Benoit says:

    My favourite rental cars are the Hyundais and the Nissans. Well, except for the VW hatchback stick-shift I rented in Lithuania.

  14. wvcii says:

    Context: I’m an engineer and I believe in function/quality first, form second. Having said that, I do appreciate a car that makes me feel pampered. :-)

    So, 7 years ago (before I was married and had kids) I broke down and splurged on a Lexus RX300. It is AWD and very solidly built. Now, (7 years later), it is as solid as the day I drove it off the lot. I fully expect to get another 7 years out of it, at least. From an investment perspective, it is the best car purchase I’ve ever made (previous purchases were Hondas and a Toyota). Ditto on overall satisfaction.

    The utility of the car is great. It is a hatchback and the rear seat is split and easily folds to create a large/flat space in the back. It gets around Pittsburgh just great in the winter. It is also a good highway car.

    The quality of the car is great. No problems, only regular service.

    The comfort is also great. The car was built on a car frame, but has high ground clearance. The ride is smooth and the handling is very good for my driving patterns.

    Sorry to sound like a salesman–not my intent. Perhaps, if new is too much to pay these days, this is a car that might warrant a look in the used market. I don’t know what my next car will be, but, back to first principles, I am very satisfied with the style (car/hatchback/SUV blend) and will likely go this route again.

  15. psu says:

    The Lexus sounds great, and I’d probably get one if it were Prius-sized. A full sized SUV just feels too big to me. At that point I’d just get another van and tear the seats out so I can roll the bike right in.

    Edit: I guess it’s not really quite a full size SUV, but it’s still large.

  16. WCE says:

    I’vw got the VW TDI Wagon and I love it. The mileage is good, but not as good in the city as the Prius, but its better on the highway in every way (having driven both). More important to me, it’s a blast to drive. It comes with tons of standard features, it rates out as very safe, it’s practical, with lots of bike hauling options, and feels very very solid – on the road and just using it.

    Did I mention that it’s quick? Yes, it is. It’s almost as fast as the GTI. It’s also not “diesely” Occasionally it lets you know its a diesel, by clattering in a mild way. But I’ve gotten some friends to ride in it who “knew all about diesels” meaning diesels before the Euros made them awesome, and they never realized they were riding in a diesel.

    What else? It’s German – that means the seats will be good (not mushy) and it will drive very well on the highway and at speed. It doesn’t cost a ton. The leatherette is basically indistinguishable from VW’s real leather (I’ve had both). Resale for VW diesels is incredibly high, and you get a tax credit for buying it.

    I love my TDI Sportwagen.

  17. Dave says:

    If you’re putting around 10,000 miles a year on the car, you’re going to have to take it in to a shop twice a year (because I know you don’t change your own oil) — you’ll want to change the oil every 5k miles, regardless of what the dealer recommends (although when it’s new you might want to get the first oil change at 2.5k).

    Aside from that, any new or relatively recent used (<2 years old) car made by Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, or VW shouldn’t require any more trips to the shop. VWs tend to be a bit more expensive on the maintenance, but otherwise I’ve been happy with mine (9-year-old Passat).

    Since your main criteria are how well the bike fits and how quiet the ride is, well, you bring your bike to the Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, VW, and Scion dealers and see how easy it is to get it in and out of the car you take for a test drive…

  18. OK, this is basically as waste of time for any of us to give you any suggestions because in order for the suggestions to be useful we would have to interview you for hours on end to enumerate all your wants, desires, idiosyncrasies, prejudices, preferences, future plans and budgets. Otherwise, this is a random walk through Edmunds.

    So, now I will violate that advise.

    Here is a generic suggestion. Get something you want. Not need. Want. It sounds like you will be the only driver, so indulge your whims. Don’t be too practical. You already have enough time served in minivan hell to earn a get out of bland car jail free card.

    If the car that you choose does not last forever, so what. Life is supposed to be an adventure. Take a tiny risk.

    It will at least give you something to blog about.