Many new readers have been asking me for car advice recently, and there have also been some useful discussions on the matter in the Money Mustache Forum.
I find myself typing out the same list of recommendations over and over again, so I thought the best strategy would be to dig in, do some up-to-date research, and lay down the law on exactly which cars are most worth owning.
There are two things that matter above all else in car selection these days: Fuel economy, and passenger/cargo space. Depending on your personal taste, you can then sort the winners based on things like acceleration, ground clearance, color, smell, style, NHTSA safety test results, or other things. But the important thing to note is that all of these traits are available even in fuel-efficient cars, so all gas hogs can immediately be ruled out. Note that I didn’t mention “price”, because thankfully, the fuel-efficient cars are usually the less expensive ones anyway, so you automatically win by prioritizing efficiency.
“But what about reliability?” you are asking. “My uncle had a Ford F-150 that lasted him 46 years, but my cousin had a Honda Civic that was always breaking down. So I only buy Ford Trucks now”.
The key to finding a reliable car is to throw away all the anecdotal personal stories that you might have heard, and look to a source that actually collects this data from thousands of people. The two best places to get this information are Consumer Reports magazine, and Phil Edmonston’s Lemon-Aid Used Car guide. Both of these are useful publications, and for this article I have consulted both and done my best to combine the results.
At my local library, I found a copy of the latest edition of Phil’s book. I was pleased to note that he has become even more crotchety and demanding of cars in the decade since I last read his stuff, which is exactly what you want in a car reviewer.
Lemon-aid guide collects reliability data from its millions of readers and also from government agencies. Since Phil Edmonston lives in Canada, much of his research is done there. That country is an ideal testing ground for cars, since the demanding driving conditions really bring out any reliability problems. The book then sorts the cars into five categories: Recommended, Above Average, Average, Below Average and Not Recommended.
The vehicles are further broken into classes like “Small, Midsize, Large, SUV, Sports Cars, Pickups”. Since these are North American classifications, where even a “Small” car is big enough to fit five of me comfortably (just over 6’0″ and 180 lbs), the Small category is the only one a sane person could rationally consider except in the case of very large families, physical disabilities, or business use such as construction or delivery. (If you need more cargo space occasionally, just add it temporarily).
To add a second perspective, I bought you a subscription to the Consumer Reports website (consumerreports.org), and read all of the used car guide articles there. Consumer reports is a great organization, but they are still a bit too “Consumer” oriented for my tastes. Most notably, they only have reliability data on the most recent 10 model years of cars, while for many Mustachians, the newest car they would consider is more than 10 years old. I mean come on, it’s 2012 now, meaning a 10-year-old car is a 2003 model year. I consider that to be “almost brand new”.
They also fail to point out the fact that all but the smallest cars (and virtually all trucks) are stupid choices for the average person. A car is not a luxurious salon for you to lounge in while you flaunt yourself to the world. It’s a handy machine that helps you get to very distant places on those rare occasions that you are too much of a wussypants to bike there. Over time, these occasions will become more and more rare, meaning you will be using a car less and less as you get your life in order. If you choose wisely, your next car might be the last gas-powered vehicle you need in your life!
But boiling it all down, the following list contains the fairly recent used cars that best combine reliability, fuel efficiency, cost, and hauling and handling performance.
There are some real shockers on this list – for example, I never would have guessed that the Hyundai Elantra would score above the Honda Civic in statistical reliability, and many people don’t realize that Volkswagens are some of the most trouble-prone cars around in the pre-2006 model years likely to be considered by readers here. Read through the list and then I’ll try to calm you down and dry your tears afterwards.
Honda Fit (2009+)
This is a jack-of-all-trades car that combines fancy style, high cargo and passenger space, and a 35MPG highway rating. The latest model is pretty new, however, so it’s one of the most expensive options here (about $12,000 for a 2009 with 36k miles).
Hyundai Elantra Touring (2007-2009)
The Elantra Touring is a nice choice for those who need an even bigger wagon. It delivers at least 31MPG highway, is available with a manual transmission, and a 2009 model can be had on the used market with low mileage for about $11k.
Suzuki Sx4(2007-2009) Useful for those who drive mostly on steep snowy/dirt roads since this car has a cool driver-selectable all-wheel-drive system. With 24MPG city/30MPG highway, you definitely pay for the all-wheel-drive, although it’s still better than Subaru’s mileage ratings. Should be $7900 for a 2007 with about 65k miles.
Toyota Echo (2000-2005) This car is a dorkier looking mechanical cousin of both the Toyota Yaris and the Scion Xa Hatchback that I own. All are solid, versatile cars (although the hatchback design available with Yaris and Scion is more useful). A 2005 with 75k miles is worth about $6400 for the Scion, $5200 for the Echo.