Walking Into the Drive In


So this post is really a plea for help. I’ve never owned a car. Growing up, I occasionally drove my family’s Mazda MPV to school when they would let me, but most days I rode my bike. For a while my father owned a black Alpha Romeo Spider, which was a beautiful car. I also loved my parents’ pea green pop-top VW camper, a relic of the seventies–some day I hope to subject my own family to this mode of vacationing. But then, there you have it, pretty much the extent of my car knowledge.

So here I find myself in Pittsburgh. Today I took a walk down Penn Avenue. The traffic rushed by. I was the only pedestrian for miles. When I finally reached an intersection I met another human, a homeless man carrying a small cardboard sign, and then it started to rain.

Yesterday I took a walk with my sister. We passed a store where they sold beer (which, by the way, is a whole thing here. You have to go to a beer store.) I thought I’d better take advantage of being there and buy a six pack…which I then carried the half-hour walk back home. I think I may have embarrassed her.

And again, this morning we were going to see friends who had kindly invited us for brunch. We thought we’d take the bus. Ha! Haha. Fussy babies and no nap later we looked at the bus schedule. Two transfers, and one bus per hour. Hm…

So if it was a pain not having a car in Brooklyn, here it’s laughable.

Anyway, I’m going on a bit, but what I really want is advice. We’d like to buy a car used. How old of a one is too old? Mileage maybe less than 60,000? My inclination is to try to find a car as cheaply as possible (Let’s get this over with and just get some wheels to get us around town!), but I’m fighting that, because that doesn’t seem wise, and I’d like to invest in something safe that won’t fall apart next year.

A few people have recommended the Mazda 5, a small minivan. Some say that’s no good because we’ll need four wheel drive for the icy winters. Frankly I’ve always fancied myself sort of a hybrid person. I’d love a Prius. But the Prius is so much more expensive–would fuel efficiency make it worth the price? And is it big enough? I’ve heard Subarus are solid. But maybe Honda is most reliable? Or, um, Scions are kind of cool. You can see I’m all over the place.

Please help. What recommendation do you have for a car that’s safe, reliable, big enough for a tall driver, twin babies, and all the cargo that comes with them, plus doesn’t get terrible gas mileage? What year? Where should we start? Leave a comment! Any thoughts much appreciated.


20 thoughts on “Walking Into the Drive In

  1. There’s a lot to say on this subject, but I’m tired, so I’ll try to keep it simple: I don’t think you should look for the cheapest car possible in terms of absolute price but instead seek out a good value. Knowing what that means involves having some idea about how you plan to use the car and how long you want to keep it. I’d look for newer used cars through a real dealer (not a used-only place), and investigate a credit union loan. You can probably also finance through the dealer, but credit unions offer very good rates and terms, generally speaking, and without the hard sell of a dealership. A newer used cars offers a good value because someone else has taken the initial depreciation hit but it’s theoretically a car you can hold onto for a long time if you want to. I’m guessing that you do.

    It’s hard to generalize about mileage, because that depends on how much you will drive and how much you want to keep the car. Under 50k is good; under 30 is even better. A lot of used cars are former leases that will have pretty low miles, but there’s obviously a premium on low-milage cars when they’re up for resale. I don’t necessarily think that a hybrid is worth it—there’s a bigger upfront cost that may or may not translate to savings in gas for you. If you want one for philosophical reasons, that’s a different story. All-wheel drive, which Subarus have, is great but will bring down your gas mileage. Snow tires will do wonders in winter weather, but a lot of cars do OK without them, and honestly, a lot of it is knowing how to drive in snow and ice and then knowing your limits.

    Jay and I like Hondas and have had good experiences with them. They are reliable and are easy and relatively cheap to repair. Everyone wants a used Honda, though, so they can be a bit pricier than some other cars on the used market (also true of Toyotas and Subarus but maybe not quite like it is with Hondas). I’d look at the most recent Consumer Reports car buying guides (a library should have them) and do some online research on car websites about good used models that could be under the radar and offer you a better deal than a Honda might. Then you can start looking at dealer websites to get a sense of the market and what’s available before you go to test drive cars.

    I don’t know how Pennsylvania works, but in Massachusetts you need a Mass license and an insurance policy to register a car, so start getting insurance quotes too. The exact figure will depend on the car, but they can give you a ballpark quote without it. Don’t go for the absolute cheapest here either. See if you can get a discount for renter’s insurance and auto through the same company, and if you can get in with someone good like Amica or USAA (if you’re eligible), do that. If you actually need to use the insurance, you’ll be happy to be with a reliable company with good service over like, Joe’s Cheapo Insurance.

    • Thank you, Katy for all the good information! This is helpful in just thinking about where to start (yay library!). And your point about buying a less old car seems good. Hope you’re all well up there in Mass and staying warm 🙂

      • Glad my word vomit was helpful! I was intensely jet-lagged when I wrote that, and re-reading it now, it seems obvious to me 🙂

  2. So funny because normally I would be kind of useless on this but we were kind of sort of thinking of getting a new used car and I saw a Prius for sale today and asked my hubby what he thought. Turns out, very bad idea to buy a used Prius because the car batteries die and cost a fortune to replace and can put you in a dangerous situation (think fire!!. Other than that, yes, you should probably try to purchase something with under 60,000 but you can do more with Japanese (Honda and Toyota). Also, must be very careful with salvage titles but sometimes they can be okay.

  3. I suggest a Mazda 5. Perfect for your family. Lots of space and good gas mileage. If you want 4-wheel drive you should think of a Subaru or an SUV, perhaps a Ford Escape. Both of these options have worse gas mileage.

  4. We have a ford mondeo estate… I don’t know if they’re marketed with the same names in the U.S. It has a Diesel engine, so very fuel efficient. It’s a big car, so we have enough room for lots of luggage when visiting family. I have a 10 yr old Renault Laguna. It’s very solid and reliable so far but I don’t do much mileage, just to school and the shops. If you can get away with one car, I’d spend a bit more if possible. When cars give trouble it’s such a pain. We have 2 cars because we live so far out and there are no transport links. Make sure you can fit your buggy in the trunk and have a little think about whether you want more kids! If you want another, you’ll need to put 3 car seats across the backseat. Lot of Irish families buy cars with a 3rd row of seats. Good luck! :0)

    • Good advice–thank you! So many things to think about. At least in the meantime we signed up for a car sharing service, so we can get a car when we need one. That will take a bit of the pressure off so hopefully we can make a good decision.

  5. We bought a very used Subaru Outback (1999) to take to Ithaca with us a few years ago (2010). It was cheap to buy, but not so cheap to maintain. We had to put a few thousand into it within the first year, so it would have been better to buy something newer even if it was initially more expensive. Plus, I would always worry about it breaking down and it felt like we were always taking it to the shop — you don’t want that hassle! But on the plus side, it’s still running, and we’re hoping it’ll stay that way for a few more years, even though we don’t drive it much! Subarus are definitely long-lasting cars.

    • Thanks Sarah! That does sound like a big hassle. Good point. We will look for something newer than that. I’ve been looking at some 2007, though, which is also not new. Not sure how old is too old. Hope you’re all well!

  6. I will tell what you vehicle to avoid like the plague – a Ford 2002 Explorer. We have one and it has been the bane of our existence. We recently purchased a 2013 Honda Civic because of the gas mileage and because of how reliable Hondas are. Along with the fact that they really hold their value when it comes to resale. I would go with something along the lines of Toyota, Honda, or Nissan…we have not had good experiences with Ford. Sites that have been really helpful for me when purchasing a car has been http://www.vroomgirls.com and also carcomplaints.com which tell you what cars you don’t want to buy. Vroomgirls is awesome because it breaks it down in a way that’s easy to understand, and also speaks mommy language (like I was looking for something that would accomodate our lifestyle with twins). We almost purchased another SUV but it was too expensive and the civic had much better gas mileage. Having a truck has been useful for the horrible winter we’ve had though, we used it on the crappy snow days. Hope this made some sense, good luck!!

    • Thanks for the warning! Will try to stay away from Ford Explorers. And that’s funny about vroomgirls. I did a search last night for cars for twins and ended up reading a page they had about best cars for that, which was helpful. I will look up carcomplaints, too! Thanks!

  7. My Honda Civic was the first hybrid and we bought it in 2004.I take it to the dealer in Medford for service but it’s wonderfully reliable and usually needs only an oil change. The gas mileage is 45 in mild weather and 38 in winter. I expect the newer ones get even better. It has about 85,000 miles on it and only once did something go awry in the electrical area. Honda replaced it for nothing (a $4000 job) even tho it was well out of warranty. And yes the Prius is notorious for having to have the batteries replaced. Nothing but Hondas in our car history for the past 35 years. Car-buying is my least favorite shopping experience and I hope not to have to do it again!

    • I like the sound of reliable. Maybe we should think more about Hondas. I’m trying to gather as much information as I can about car buying before we actually come into contact with a dealer.

  8. I have a few mom friends who love their Subarus…one has a four door sedan and the other a hatch back. Four wheel/all wheel drive will be your best friend in the winter! We have always bought a used car with somewhere between 20k and 30K miles…enough to drop the price significantly but still give you some factory warranty coverage. I hope you have a positive car buying experience!

    • The more I learn the more I think we might want a slightly used car as opposed to a very used one. Might be worth the investment. And before I started researching this at all, I thought I wanted a Subaru, because I drove one of a friends’ years ago and it seemed reliable and safe. Now I’m not really sure about anything. Hope it goes well, too!

  9. I also have two young children. I find automatic sliding doors indispensable—they make life so much easier. Although, I have to say our caravan is a bit of a gas guzzler. You may want to check out CarMax or similar—I saw some great deals for low mileages family vehicles with great warranties. Best of luck!!

    • The sliding doors do seem like a major plus. Don’t have to worry about kids throwing them open in the same way, maybe, though mine are still babies. I will check out CarMax. Thanks for commenting!

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