February 8, 2012

DTQ: I'm Buying Another Car?

DT Short Answer: Yes.

After some nutty estimates on the cost of restoring our 1985 Mercedes diesel coupe, and after some frank analysis from one of the younger guys who actually works on our car regularly, it's sadly clear we are not going to keep our beloved [by me, anyway] car much longer.

We'll use the car for school runs and hauling stuff [our other car, an E-Class, has a comically small trunk, whereas our old coupe could fit like eight hypothetical hookers back there, plus the no B-pillar windows meant you could even fit big paintings and stuff in the backseat.]

So here's what I'm thinking

Top priorities:

  • great gas mileage, the better the better

  • can haul stuff, if not necessarily 4x8 plywood

  • so a wagon, probably, but no SUVs--unless there's a miraculous, issue-free, 5-door, 30+mpg Gelandewagen, which is NOT the same thing as a G-Class, don't even start with me--and no minivans--unless you can get me an honest-to-goodness TDI VW Eurovan

  • doesn't require quarterly $2000 visits to the shop [see above]

  • costs a little more than the annual maintenance costs of the current ride, or about $10-15,000

  • not cheap or tacky

  • looks great

And what I'm looking at [and not]:

I will not buy a new Mercedes. And that goes for a whole slew of other new cars that somehow manage to lose 60-80% of their value within a few years. Of the only new cars I'd really consider--the Nissan Cube, the Honda Fit, and the Prius V--only the Prius seems to have any actual space. Is that true? I guess it doesn't matter, because some folks around here--not naming any names--really hate the Cube.

Am I missing something? Do you have one of these cars, and love/hate it? I almost want to set up brackets and have a playoff.

e-class_wagons_dtq.jpg

MB E-Class Wagon, 2000-2005 or so

Pros: 3rd row, high-quality, perpetuate futile illusion of success and status. Our Mercedes guy will still love us.
Cons: we already have a sedan. mileage is not that great. CDI didn't come in until 2005.
Tentative Conclusion: no, it's perpetuating our status quo, not lowering the amount of gas we burn. Also, getting the diesel is probably the most expensive option among them all. So while it'd win against almost any new car purchase, it loses points in this mix.

volvo_v70_dtq.jpg

Volvo V70 Wagon, early 2000s

Pros: comfortable anonymous assimilation. Seriously, 40% of our DC neighborhood has these. I would really try to drive it with self-awareness, if not irony. Third row.
Cons: mileage is really amazingly bad, like under 20mpg. It's as if using less gas didn't even occur to people in 2000. Sporadic comments about maintenance issues.
Tenative Conclusion: no, because the mileage, and because what I really kind of want in a Volvo wagon is a 960 or a diesel, and those are basically the same portfolio of old-to-vintage car maintenance issues we're facing now, only with no experience or trusted mechanic. Not a net gain for me in some important stakeholder eyes. [Hi, honey! Almost done here!]

vw_passat_wagon_dtq.jpg

VW Passat Wagon TDI, 2004-05

Pros: I really like the looks of these Passats. Which also means I don't like the design of the newer ones, or of the newer Jettas. Great mileage, 35-40mpg. Nice space.
Cons: wow, some people howl over steady, expensive, maintenance/reliability issues. Three friends with Passat wagons [non-diesel] jokingly beg us to buy theirs. This only gets worse for similar Audis [like the A6 Avant], which get worse gas mileage and have less interior space. Also, no third row, only 2.5 rear seats, especially with booster/car seats installed.

Also, it turns out to be very hard to find very low-miles examples of these TDIs. Everyone seems to have driven them 20-25,000 miles/year or more.

Tentative Conclusion: I'm kind of bummed, but maybe not. The Passat TDI is what I've been comparing everything else to in this process. If the reliability thing is a canard, I think I'd be glad to get one of these for running around town. While I like the new Golf a lot, and older Golf and Jettas, too, especially those 1999-2003 Jetta wagons, they're really all too small.
Tentative is a relative term: LOL, just found this exact discussion about this exact car from 2004 when it was still new. I guess I like to take my time to decide sometimes.

prius_v_dtq.jpg

Prius, 2004-6 or Prius V

Pros: Mileage, obviously. The pious thing is not a dealbreaker. Fairly decent number of low-miles examples in our desired price range.
Cons: Space. Hippies. Boring.
Tentative Conclusion: My yuppie guilt says yes, but the reality of that tiny cargo capacity and rear seating says no. Then the issue is the Prius V, which was so surprising to see on the street a few weeks ago, I had to take a picture [above]. And now, it's like Tribbles, they are freaking everywhere. The entire first boatload of Prius Vs came to DC. Frankly, it reminds me of a peoplemover, so the Mazda5 or something. Which, sure, but no.

tangerine_dream_scion.jpg

1st Gen Scion xB, 2004-6

Pros: dude, seriously? This car is awesome. I've wanted one from day one. Great mileage. plenty of space. Headroom. Ugly awesome. Proudly cheap. Not easy, but not impossible to find very low-miles examples, which may have been driven gingerly by conscientious old people, or which were tricked the hell out as promo cars and driven almost never. Also sometimes include sick, sick stereos and multiple LCDs.
Cons: Also sometimes include sick, sick stereos and multiple LCDs, seriously, people, do you really think you're going to get even 10 cents on the dollar for all your cockamamie mods? Or that I want to pay $14,000 for a 6-year-old $15,000 car with 100K miles?
Tentative Conclusion: I guess the real DTQ is, "Should I get a Scion xB, and if so, what are the things I should consider, like should I get a sick show car and try to make it a little less embarrassingly normal, or should I just go for the stock box, and do my own occasional sick vinyl wraps, or is the cheap box experience of driving it a little too pronounced to ignore, please say it's not, because I used to think that I was too old for an xB, but now I've come around to thinking maybe I'm too young, but could I pull it off somehow, or am I really kidding myself and begging to be saved from a really comically lame midlife crisis, just get the Passat or E-Class and be done with it?"

UPDATE Oh, I totally forgot the Losers Throwback Bracket, which are so cheap [$3-5k] and so counterintuitively awesome, they just might work, no joke:

97_ford_taurus_wagon.jpg

An OG oval Ford Taurus wagon, non-SHO, probably the first year, 1997 or so, with the most bug-eyed headlights, not the redesigned retreat from radicality of the 1998-99s. With the money I'd save, I'll buy some carbon offsets.

[hold on, dinner...] OK.

beige_camry_wagon.jpg

Then there's the odd-but-endearing and solidly reliable 1991-6 Toyota Camry Wagon, which occasionally did come with a third row seat, amazingly. I just followed one home from ballet lessons tonight, a very clean white one. But they're mostly beat to hell; who takes immaculate care of a mid-1990s Camry? Nonetheless, totally fine by me.

jdm_honda_accord_wagon.jpg

And the last, which I really came close to pulling the trigger on a couple of weeks ago, actually, sight unseen, a 1997 Honda Accord Wagon. The US models are usually pretty beat, but this is one of the very few models of cars to win DOT and EPA authorization for grey market importing, because the JDM models--which were made in the US, ironically-- were deemed to be "very similar" to the domestics. And so there was an outfit in Orange County a couple of years ago who started importing very clean, very low-miles RHD Accord Wagons for like $9,000. One just sold on eBay out of LA for $8,700. Servicing's apparently no big deal, but drivethroughs, obviously, are. Anyway, the mix of boring and interesting more than makes up for the smaller size. And then I could start going to ricer meetups.

29 Comments

Funny, before I got to the end of this post I was going to recommend the xB. We have a 2006 that hauls our family of four and all our stuff around. I can fit our large bike trailer in the back with all of our bikes loaded on the car, I don't have a ski rack at the moment, so skis go inside- it'a amazing what you can put it it without putting the seats down and when you put the seats down you have a lot of space. We put our kayaks on top and all coordinating gear inside. I've never sat in the back row of a car this small and been so comfortable. Though it's inhabited by our car seat riding kids 99% of the time, adults who sit in the back are always stunned. It gets a thumbs up from me. I was going to say that the styling is love it or hate it, but apparently that's no problem with you- good man :)

Cons for me: bit of a bumpy ride at first but before this I was riding in my husband's grandmother's Oldsmobile 88 which was like a cushioned boat. No side airbags in this generation. I wish the mute button for the stereo was on the steering wheel and that the rear windshield wiper had more than one setting. That's about it.

A Subaru comes to minds Ours has been a great car with little service. It can be fast but under the radar. The winterized gadgets are worth a lot to me even in a subtropical climate... I don't know what I'd do without them elsewhere. They are fortified for safety and real AWD, but a you know that hits the gas mileage. Ours replaced a VW which is a never again brand for us, maintenance being the reason ( attitude and frequency).

The Fit is a wonders contraption that will hold more than you can imagine. Like, an entire bedroom suite from IKEA. Or four adult hikers an all their gear for four days, with room for extra snacks. It is smaller than a minivan, but not by as much as you'd think...

What you're missing is the 1993-1997 Saab 9000 aero. Like a zillion horsepower, more interior room than anything this side of a Vista Cruiser, 30-plus MPG highway, rock solid. Heck, you could even look at a 9-5 wagon, although I don't know if the mileage is as good.

9000 Buyer's Guide http://www.hemmings.com/hsx/stories/2007/02/01/hmn_feature26.html

Both the later E-classes and the Jetta are heaps of crap--reliability is not a canard. You will be left stranded. I'd add Audi Allroad but they do not get the mileage. At least there's an excuse.

You could look into the incredibly-still-available-with-a-five-speed Mazda5. They're interesting, and like 11Gs used with 50K miles.

Problem with the Xbox is living with it long term. Jittery short wheelbase, et c.

Look into a Mazda 5. We have one, haul three kids and it is, surprisingly, sporty. I suggest a model that is 2-3 years old. Mazda clearly ruined the aesthetic with the latest redesign. Also, we have a 5 speed...it makes it less lame. At least, that is what I tell myself.

I'm going to be the outlier here and say The Acura TSX wagon. It's probably disqualified because it's been around a year or two and with only about 4000 a year being sold, you won't be able to find a used one at a cheap price, but still. If you keep the car for a long time, as it seems you do, the first year or two's depreciation makes less of a difference.
Pros: Looks good, Honda/Acura reliability, handles well, good (but not huge) cargo space, you won't get lost in the Pentagon City parking lot among the 5,000 other Prii, tons of airbags.
Cons: good but not super mileage (22/30/25), being an Acura it might have high insurance rates, some people just don't like the Honda ambiance.
One reason I would take a larger car like this or the VW Jetta/Passat or Volvo over the smaller ones is for long trips. I just hate driving tiny cars on those long interstate trips. Not sure if this really applies to you though.

The Consumer Reports that came in the mail this week had an early look at the Prius V and - long story short- they really liked it.

Currently we're a Camry/Accord family and I'm just waiting for the old Accord to die so I can get the Prius V.

CR also loves the Mazda 5, as do my neighbors who have one.

I've rented a Nissan Cube and it was miserable on the highway. My gut tells me that the xB wouldn't be much better.

Hmm, I failed to take into account your $15k limit. In that case I'll just buy a 2006-7 Dodge Magnum SRT8 and screw the mileage.

Honda Element? Like a Scion xb for grownups. Amazing room in the back seats, once you climb through the half-door. Great cargo room if you (easily) remove the back seats, or fold them out of the way. Even with the seats in place you can haul a lot of stuff, huge hatch plus gate back there. Gas mileage, eh, I think it is about 22 in mixed, aggressive driving. If you keep your foot out of it you can probably do a lot better than that. And then there is that weird sunroof thing in the back, that you can remove entirely for some reason?

What about the Elantra Touring? It seems to have more headroom, legroom and cargo space than most Camry-class midsize cars, yet is almost a foot shorter (great for parking in the city) and is cheaper. And it has a roof rack just in case you need to haul even more stuff.

I haven't actually driven one yet, though, and the less-econoboxy SE trim only comes with those stupid low-profile tires that look nice but usually ride rough. Plus the gas mileage reportedly falls short of the 30mpg highway claim (the newest Elantra sedans get WAY better mileage).

There's also the mid-2000s Mazda 6 Sport Wagon. It's also not that great on gas, though.

A Passat is reliable, but old ones just break down. I blew mine up, twice...

Jaguar X-type wagon. Everything you're looking for. (don't know how much they cost over there, your budget would easily buy two good ones over here).

Greg, I'm not sure my comments made it past my phone acting up, so here it goes again.

Subaru is missing from your list.

We had a Passat and it was awful - a maintenance nightmare. And, to add insult to the frequency and magnitude of repairs, the attitude of the service department was bad; this has been proven time and time again with our friends who do not heed the warning. For us: Never. Again.

The Subie replaced the Passat, and it has been a breath of fresh air. Works and is easy to work on if needed. Service is great.

No trouble in 5 years, and it is a nice car to boot.

They can be fast, if you choose the right options. They have winterized features that are wonderful (even in our warm climate). I really love that car. It is a geeks car. The Subie forums are good reads and helpful.

Subaru has several models that meet the hauling needs; I would recommend considering one.

Ford Escape (Hybrid)

I have a 2005 Ford 500 SEL Limited and I totally love it. HUGE interior, comfortable for the 6'3" hubby and for me, at 5'2", because of adjustable everything including the pedals.

Gold standard of safety. airbags everywhere. Solid. and the 60/40 fold down seats with passenger fold down mean I have moved 10 foot long art works and all sorts of other things my friends with trucks only dream of. And then it converts back to a leather seat luxurious ride for date night.

wow, thanks for the great comments so far. I will take a look at the Mazda5. I like the Element in principle, and I didn't mind driving one, but the door thing seems problematic, and the 4 seats thing. Our house is pretty split on it, so it's probably not going to happen.

I do like the Acura. The Escape is nice, too, but a little too SUV for us. That Saab is insane, I had no idea. The Elantra, also no idea, but I find myself liking the look of many Hyundais these days. And finally, VW has been ejected for Subaru.

As for the xB and other small cars on long drives, it's the single biggest issue for me about our current old, MB tank. I take that thing to NYC and back in a day just for fun. I love cruising in that thing. I think buzzier cars will not have that.

Oh, and yes, Jaguar wagons are around, interesting, and cheap. Very cheap. We'd probably have some brand-related hurdles to overcome, but let's see.

Get the Volvo V 70. Our family of four has a 2004, bought used. Safety first. F the mileage.

There are two V70s at the office here, both with over 175,000 miles and running beautifully. But they ALL have that kind of mileage. It's been on my list but I can't find one with low miles.

As a serial Subaru wagon owner, I can say that 25 MPG is a pipe dream. They do handle good, though.

Acura TSX is tight inside. As would the Elantra be. haunt the Saabnet classifieds, be happy.

Passat. But the new one. It's pretty nice. I make do btw with a Jetta wagon in our family of four which likes to make long travels in the family care. For Europe anyway. Each year 3000km for holiday in that car.

Have fun choosing the right one.

Clark's got it right. Element. You get the Honda indestructibility and the xB's space and boxy looks. Win-win. We have a 03 that is at 130K with no big issues other than constantly having to replace the brakes. Probably because I have a lead foot.

Forget the Passat wagon. If you a get a good one, you're fine. Ours was wired by drunken monkeys, which caused the car to shut off at 75 mph in the left lane of the interstate. As soon as that happened, it's days with us were numbered.

+1 on Subaru. The current generation Outback is a bit chunky for my liking (but it does have a good amount of space inside) and there's no more Legacy wagon. But I like the last gen better. I drove an '05 Legacy GT Wagon with a manual transmission for 5 years and loved every minute. No quality problems. Felt the same the day I sold it as the day I got it. Incredible power from the 2.5 turbo and solid AWD. But they're not easy to find, especially with the MT. When I posted mine for sale I was getting inquiries from all over the country. Ultimate buyer took two train trips from Boston to NY to look at and then buy the car. Slightly more common is the Outback XT which gives you the same engine and a little more ground clearance. The Subarus with the naturally aspirated 2.5 are good but the turbos are something else.

My previous (probably overly verbose) comment was lost to the void, so I'll summarize:
Mazda5 is the choice of 2 Hooniverse writers. Drives great, great size, decent mileage. Cheap to buy and own.

Skip the 4-10 year old Euro wagons. They're as (at least) as needy as your classic MB, but significantly more expensive.

Dark-horse candidates:
Ford Flex
Ford Freestyle/Taurus X

[note to self: post video the kid made from the distant third row of the PR-borrowed Ford Flex, where we can't hear what each other is saying. -ed.]

We have an xB and a Mazda 5. The Mazda 5 is better for cargo room + kids. xB I sometimes worry about carting stuff with kids in the car. Not that that keeps me from hauling 8' lengths of landscaping edging from Home Depot.

I'm 6'4" and the xB is hands down the most comfortable car I've ridden in. My knees are properly aligned with my torso, and I have plenty of leg and head room. The Mazda 5 is fine for normal people, but I'm a bit uncomfortable in it on long trips. Of course the non-six foot people are happy as clams.

I looked at the (oddly not available in Canada) TSX wagon specs when I was buying our (non-TDI) VW Golf Wagon (Jetta Sportwagen in the US market); it's heavier, has roughly the same power as the VW, and no more (actually a bit less, I recall) cargo space.

We absolutely love the Golf, and I've actually pulled away from TSX drivers trying to cut into my lane. Must be the gearing...

(If memory serves, Greg's not crazy about the styling of the VW though, so it's probably off his list too.)

A guess a really pristine low mileage 240 wagon is out? Then get a V70R, if you can find one that hasn't been all riced out and/or abused. The mileage sucks almost as bad on the regular one, so you may as well get the R.

I don't really like the idea of being a Prius owner, but we are on our second one since 2004, and it is really just about the most perfect urban family boring car ever designed. Never had a single problem with either one, loads of space, quiet, comfortable. We average 51-53mpg.

Today the field got bigger by 1. Tesla Model X. Still two years away but pretty cool.

On the Volvo front FWIW our family has had six of them over the last couple decades (760, two 850s, early V70, S70, the original C70 convertible). and they are indeed great cars. The C70 was a lease that went back after a few years, but all five of the others lasted well beyond 100k more or less abusive miles (teenage drivers, erratic oil changes, very little preventative maintenance). The only major complaint was that every single one of the owned Volvos eventually had its air conditioning grow unreliable. And there's nothing that sucks more than a summer roadtrip with a busted A/C.

I ride around LA in my 2 year old XB and it is a great car EXCEPT it does not have "great" gas mileage. i compare it to my 2004 Corolla which has great mileage. That said, in all other ways we love the XB. You can hold a lot, including a thin or small adult in between two car seats in the back seat (I have even gotten 3 car seats back there) and a lot in the trunk, but its not an SUV or anything too horrible. And its a decent drive. I also wanted a Mazda 5 but the dealer is too far away from us. I wanted a jetta wagen but I was scared off by maintenance reports! xb is way cheaper.

I'd also recommend a Saab. The 9000's are more reliable than the 9-5 wagons, but not as pretty. For your budget you could buy three. Also, the 900 or 9-3 are good. More reliable than the 9-5 and they are very roomy inside. My 1994 900 is the best car I've ever owned.

We have a 2008 Volvo XC70 with which we've been very happy. So happy that we had decided to buy it out when the lease comes up next month.

Then Volvo had to go and offer a 5 year all-in warranty on new buys. The 2012 version of the same car (different colour) is currently floating over from Gothenburg. We couldn't resist.

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