Saturday, June 13, 2009

Facing the end

The end of the automobile comes in many guises. Some people choose to live in a post automotive world for moral or social reasons. Some, like Boulder's Ryan Van Duzer have never even driven a car. He is about to set off across the US on a 3 speed cruiser bike. Many others are trying to wind down their car habit by biking and walking more. For most of us, a car is a necessity for daily life. Until communities are designed to be navigated by something other than cars we're going to need some motorized transport.

Sometimes the end comes with a whimper. The $7 Accord went that way two weeks ago. I had an opportunity to buy a small Subaru wagon and I couldn't in good conscience pass it on to anyone else. 20 years, even in Colorado's rust free climate, is a long time for a car. Honda is one of the better manufacturers when it comes to supplying parts for older cars but even they get disinterested after a quarter century. Eventually the list of little things that must be fixed adds up to a good down payment on something newer.

In my sister's case the end came with a bang. She pulled up behind a municipal dump truck that went into reverse and crushed her 2000 CRV.
This sort of unplanned and unavoidable end is the hardest on people. If you need a car for work as she does you have to get going on a replacement process immediately and without the luxury of much research. You are tempted more than usual by emotional rather than informed decisions that can be costly in the long run. Pam knows she can afford a payment of about $250 a month and is hoping that her insurance will give her $5000 or more for her 9 year old 200,000 mile car. Using the payment calculator at that gives her a budget of about $17,000 including sales tax. A tricky price range given her need carry a lot of gear for her job and her preference for 4 wheel drive. Since her payment is based on her average reimbursement for mileage fuel economy is a big issue too.

The list of new cars that fit the criteria and the budget is pretty short. Used cars are a good value but always involve a more complicated search. You have to find one that looks good and then have it inspected to see if it really is good or you have to assume some risk. After a long discussion we came up with these candidates. Starting with the new car choices:
Suzuki SX4
A Japanese made car that is often overlooked. Probably the value 4 wheel drive alternative in the market. It has a well deserved reputation for durability and gets reasonable gas mileage in the mid twenties for most people. The dealer network is a little thin but available incentives make it a terrific value. It comes in under budget. I think it's worth a look.

Saturn Astra (aka Vauxhall Astra by Opel)
Pretty much the same MO as the Suzuki but without 4 wheel drive. It's European genes should make it the most comfortable car in the mix. The uncertain future of Saturn make it more of a risk. Still, Opel cars are enjoying a good run in Europe right now and odds are that someone will be sure to continue to market them in the States. This wouldn't be my pick for a 20 year car but given that my sister will drive it 20,000+ miles per year and lives in Northwest Ohio it won't have to be.
Honda Fit
Doesn't have 4wd but heck it's a Honda. It does come in at the budget limit though with the most Spartan interior. I'll be interested to see how these fare in the test drive phase.

Toyota Matrix with available 4wd and Scion XB before their recent redesigns would have made the new car list but I'm just not feeling the love for the new changes. The Matrix would also be pushing the budget envelope with 4wd and a comfortable trim level. Pam would be counting on a lot of help from her insurance company to keep payments at a comfortable level. As used cars the old models represent a good value. For those who drive less miles and want the car that is most likely to be supported for 20 years these might be the choices.

One thing that has to be kept in mind is that most post 2000 cars have little maintenance beyond oil changes and filters for 100,000 miles. A good thing if you are making car payments. The other side is that they usually have an expensive service list due at that mileage as well as a list of consumable parts like brakes and exhaust parts. If you buy a car with 75,000 miles or more you are going to be starting on these lists pretty soon along with the car payment. You will want to figure that into the budget.

So the used choices that will be under budget and good for the long haul:
Pontiac Vibe/ Toyota Matrix
Built on the same assembly line in the US they differ only in the body panels. 4wd is available but relatively rare which could lengthen the search time. Pontiac is also due for the chop at GM though that shouldn't cause too many problems. Lots of ex lease and rental cars out there but many are in a pretty pedestrian state of trim.
Scion xB
Another Toyota and the best example of a box big enough to fit just about anything. No 4wd is available and you'll have to do without cruise control though you may get a jack for your iPod that the Suzuki lacks. Like the Matrix/Vibe and Fit you will get the best gas mileage in the group at 30+mpg. Not a small consideration if you get paid by the mile. Of course if you drive a lot of miles every day you may not mind paying more to get a seat that is comfortable at the end of the day.

Test drive day is today. I'm waiting by the phone. Details will follow.

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

Aw, I'm sorry that we won't be hearing any more stories about the seven-dollar Accord anymore.

This is a great overview of the options available--Pam, I'd be happy to go test-drive some of these when I come up next week!