A couple of years ago I traded a minivan for an elderly Corolla. It recently became time to retire those four wheels into assisted living, as my 70-mile daily commute was simply more than she could handle. I left her is the able hands of my college son, who no matter how hard he might try, is way too busy to drive even one-tenth of that. Plus he was willing to pay to keep it running, so no more skin off my wallet.
But I digress. Again I was faced with a consumer decision that was going to have repercussions every day for several years. What could I get within my budget? How could I balance the tradeoff between mileage and price? How could I reduce my carbon footprint with this purchase, or at the least keep it about the same?
I approached the process with over-analysis and a ridiculous amount of research that I’m known to exhibit in such situations. (Of course one first should evaluate alternative methods for transportation. For me, driving is the only viable option.) Yet I had a process, and the outcome was one with which I am content.
Step 1. Establish a budget. I defined a price range. Then I lowered it because I decided I didn’t want to spend so much on a car. My line in the sand was $100/month.
Step 2. Keep to the budget. Buying a car is an emotional experience. We’re culturally convinced that what we drive is an extension of who we are. The automobile industry has spent the last half-century telling us that a car is more than transportation. So we tend to see cars as more than transportation. Which makes it easy to lose one’s discipline in the process and overextend financially.
Step 3. Review how you will use the vehicle. My analysis showed I would be alone in the car commuting for 95% of the miles. No hauling a bunch of kids or junk. No super long trips.
Step 4. Calculate monthly gas expense at different MPG rates, based on your driving patterns. With the high cost of gas, most of us need to budget for gas. Seeing the real amount is helpful. Remember to consider hybrids, not only from their gas savings advantages but also their tax advantages. And consider manual transmission, as it is both a gas saver and price reducer. For my commute, a 10 MPG difference at current gas prices means a one-dollar difference each direction each day. While that does not seem like a significant amount by the time I pay off my four year loan it would have made (at least) a $1,900 difference.
Step 5. Based on usage and MPG, determine car type. I decided on a small sedan or coupe.
Step 6. Find the mileage and year ranges that fit your criteria.
Step 7. Read independent reviews of cars that meet your selection criteria. Consumer Reports online and Edmunds.com are credible sources.
Step 8. Narrow down to a few makes, models, mileage combinations.
Step 9. Shop! Besides Edmunds, I found Cars.com useful. I also searched online inventories of the largest local used-car dealerships. And look at the Carfax for those you seriously consider; it shows accident repairs and previous ownership specifics. Most dealers I came across offered the Carfax for free. It was important to test drive several cars; I tried the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Fit, Nissan Sentra,Toyota Corolla, Toyota Yaris/Echo, and others.
Step 9. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If it doesn’t meet your selection criteria, don’t buy it. I liked the Elantra a lot, but couldn’t find one in my price range for the model years that it was decent. Honda Fit was OK but seemed overpriced, even used. After much looking around, Sara found an Echo online. She had run around with a friend in one years ago and remembered it well. So we drove across the river, looked at it, and drove it.
But it was a manual transmission (5 speed)! I had not driven one in decades, yet I has owned two manual-transmission cars in my early car owning days. Our embarrassed sales guy had to call another because he couldn’t drive it to take us for a spin. I ended up taking it for a test drive anyway and it WAS like riding a bicycle — I remembered how.
Step 10. Buy it. We tried to haggle with the no-haggle dealership, but to no avail. But it was a good deal — excellent condition for a 2003; 63,000 miles, two owners. Most importantly it met my needs within my budget.
The Echo with it’s 4 cylinder, 1.5 liter engine gets 40 MPG, which is the amount touted in advertisements for the NEW Scion. Plus it’s fun to drive. It won’t win many races but has decent acceleration and handling. The windows are manual and there’s no cruise control. It’s not a status symbol in the traditional ways. Yet I like it and feel right about the decision.