What Will Car Boy Buy? Help Me Choose My Ride. Part One

Posted by: David Kiley on October 15, 2007

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Buying a new car can be exciting, as in “I’m so glad to unload my clunker, and smell that ‘new car’ smell again. Or it can be a drag, as in, “I’d rather go to the dentist for root canal on my way to a tax audit than go to the local dealership.”

If you are an auto industry journalist, like me, the process is unique. First, the “new car” smell is not exactly something I covet. I drive new cars all the time as pat of the job. That means I don’t have to go for a lot of test drives at dealerships. Thank Goodness! Nothing against dealers, but if I didn’t have the advantage of driving new cars all the time, I’d have to engage with a whole slew of hungry salespeople just to test drive a half-dozen cars, and the endure all the follow-up e-mails.

No, my problem is a different one. I know too much. Not only have I had a lot of seat-time in all the cars I am considering for my next purchase, but I know very well the cars that are around the corner, arriving next year. I don’t know if I can hold out. I need a car to use in between press cars, and I don’t fancy renting. I had a paid-for 1998 Subaru Outback until recently. I could have driven it another five or six years, I imagine. Grrrr. Maybe I should have. It had about 135,000 miles on it. But I decided to gift it to someone in need of a reliable, inexpensive ride.

I am going to share my shopping journey with our readers, step by painful step, until I decide on what I am going to buy. And then I’ll share what happens when I finally sign on the dotted line.

By the way…feel free to offer me suggestions.

First: what am I looking for? Here are the parameters. I want something that is fun to drive, a car that gives me some feedback. I want a vehicle that gets terrific gas mileage. Gas prices are going to hover above $3.00 a gallon where I live for some time to come. And, I predict, we will see $4.00 per gallon in the next 24 months. I prefer a hatch-back, though I haven’t shut out the possibility of a sedan. I prefer an all-wheel-drive option, but it might not be a deal breaker. I want factory installed satellite radio and heated seats. And I prefer a manual transmission. I also prefer not to spend more than $25,000. As far as I am concerned the cheaper the better. And I’m not totally sold on a new car. I considered a used car this week too.

For now, here are the choices I have narrowed down to (the range may surprise some): Ford Focus (2008); Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Saturn Astra, Saturn Vue Green Line, Honda Civic Hybrid, VW GTI, VW Rabbit, BMW 325ix (2005 used), Ford Fusion (manual transmission), Chevy HHR, Mazda3, MazdaSpeed3, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Volvo C30, Scion xD, Scion xB. The cars coming next year that I am anxious to consider are the 2008 VW Jetta TDI, BMW 1 Series and MINI Clubman.

Well…Let the games begin.

Reader Comments

throwback

October 15, 2007 4:07 PM

3 suggestions, Mazda 3, VW GTI, and Chevy HHR-SS. The last one in particular should be a brilliant drivers car. There is a video of a prototype blasting around the Ring available on Autoblog. Of the 3, the GTI probably gets the best mileage.

John H

October 15, 2007 5:04 PM

First of all, prioritize. As a professional journalist, you cannot say that you’re interested in a Honda Fit, a Honda Hybrid, a Saturn Vue (!), a BMW 325ix and a Ford Fusion at the same time. It’s impossible. We’re talking about totally different categories and types of cars here. Virtually, you added every single car under $25,000 in your list!

From what I understand, you’re looking for a fun to drive yet practical and frugal ride. Let’s forget about SUVs, Hybrids and sedans and concentrate on the compact hatches/coupes (no Fit or Scions). If you where in Europe, I’d advise you to get a diesel-powered GTi like the VW Golf GT Sport with the 2.0D 170 Hp. But you’re not so let’s see your (U.S.) alternatives.

MazdaSpeed3 and VW Golf GTi – Great cars. A blast to drive and practical, but not so frugal if you decide to have some (turbo) fun. Personally, If I where to buy a car as a journalist, I’d avoid the VW Rabbit and Mazda3. You want to your personal ride to pinch you in your behinds every time you take it for a spin.

BMW 1-Series Coupe. I’ve driven the3door and 5door versions and they are hot. Unfortunately they won’t come to the US. The coupe/convertibles will, but don’t expect a base price under $28k for the basic 128i 3.0L 230Hp version.

Volvo C30: Stylish but less fun to drive than the MazdaSpeed3 and VW Golf GTi. Fast it is, but it lacks the sport finesse of its two rivals. Plus, it won’t fit anything in that minuscule space in the rear-end that Volvo calls a boot.

My opinion? Take the 200Hp Golf GTi in a polar white color; add the amazing DSG transmissions and the bucket seats and you’re all set.

Wan Chun Hung

October 15, 2007 10:33 PM

No question about it. Your parameters point straight to a VW GTI. Hatchback, handles like a dream, and that awesome DSG (it's considered a manual right?) mated with the turbo FSI engine will give you great mileage.

CT

October 16, 2007 7:10 AM

Focus: only if you can get the European one. For all the b.s. about a "new" Focus, it's the same chassis/structure they launched in 1999, meanwhile the C1 platform underpins the real "new" Focus in the form of the Euro Focus, the Mazda3 (the car you should buy, more on this later) and the Volvo S40/V50. The Versa, the Fit and regrettably the Astra don't have the torque you need, Saturn picked the wrong engine for the U.S., should have gone with the bigger gas turbo. Civic is also torqueless, so passing/accelerating is a non-event until about 4500 rpm. The Volvo C30 wallows badly. And costs too much.
Rabbit gets horrible fuel economy for what it is. Fusion, used, is a very, very smart choice, highly underrated car. Corolla will be new next year, but naturally aspirated 1.8 liters are going to keep you with your foot in it the whole commute.
The Jetta TDI, the 1 series are both super good, but do you really want to finance all that depreciation? Dumb. #1 cost of a new car? see above. Speed3 is ridiculously good, but fuel economy suffers relative to the regular Mazda3, and you can't used that power very often. I bought a used 2005 Mazda3 hatch for $13,750 four months ago. Fanstastic. What the Focus of 2008 should have been (structure, not body style, but that too). Quick enough for the commute, handles like my '97 M3 (NO exaggeration), but still over 30 mpg highway. If you're going to spend the $ on a new car, I'd say the GTI is the best blend of sport, comfort and luxury, plus depreciation augers well for it over the long haul, plus quieter/rides better than Speed3. HHR SS is very intriguing if you're ok with the styling, but rest assured it will be thirsty (that motor should go into every GM pass car under 3,600 pounds, price it so they make money on it, every bit as good as that Audi/VW 2.0 DISI/FSI motor). Speaking of which, how about a used A3? My vote: used Mazda3 for 50-60% the cost of new. Mine had 32,000 miles on it and feels new. Elantra? I dare you. Not going to help your mojo Dave, let's be fair. You may want to buy a beater focus until you can get a BMW diesel, then you'll be able to buy one car that will last until you retire.

Cheers, Chris Terry

Scott

October 16, 2007 8:01 AM

my votes goto:
Mazda3 hatch - because i have one and love it

C30 - not as practical as the MZ3, but way cooler to look at

Jetta Sportwagen TDI - nothing on the market will be able to beat it for its combination of fuel econ and cargo hauling capabilities

Honda Fit - Fit = fun

MINI Clubman - urban cool to the max

Noz

October 16, 2007 2:06 PM

For a mature (both body and mind) adult, I think there is nothing better than the latest HONDA Accord EX-L V-6 coupe or sedan.

Jingoists can take a chance in terms of reliability and resale value with anything GM or Ford, or if desperate in terms of rebates and whatever other incentives that might be offered, something from Chrysler. Tho I know not what.

HONDA makes the selection and purchasing about as easy as possible, the others complicate the process in the hopes of confusing the customer and wearing him/her down to wring the most possible out of the deal. Thanks, I don't need it nor do I even want to consider doing business with those folks.

ASL

October 16, 2007 2:44 PM

Gotta go with the Mazda3: comes in a hatchback style, excellent 10/10ths handling, great interior ergonomics, responsive 2.3L four, and available in a good 5-spd manual. Heated seats on the uplevel Touring/ Grand Touring models. All that and 0% financing for 36-months!

Brandon W

October 16, 2007 6:25 PM

Perhaps you could pick up a 2007 Impreza inexpensively as they try to clear the lots with the 2008's coming in.

JohnH

October 17, 2007 2:08 AM

First of all, prioritize. As a professional journalist, you cannot say that you’re interested in a Honda Fit, a Honda Hybrid, a Saturn Vue (!), a BMW 325ix and a Ford Fusion at the same time. It’s impossible. We’re talking about totally different categories and types of cars here. Virtually, you added every single car under $25,000 in your list!

From what I understand, you’re looking for a fun to drive yet practical and frugal ride. Let’s forget about SUV’s, Hybrids and sedans and concentrate on the compact hatches/coupes (no Fit or Scions). If you were in Europe, I’d advise you to get a diesel-powered GTi like the VW Golf GT Sport with the 2.0D 170 Hp. But you’re not so let’s see your (U.S.) alternatives.

MazdaSpeed3 and VW Golf GTi – Great cars. A blast to drive and practical, but not so frugal if you decide to have some (turbo) fun. Personally, If I were to buy a car as a journalist, I’d avoid the VW Rabbit and Mazda3. You want your personal ride to pinch your behinds every time you take it for a spin.

BMW 1-Series Coupe. I’ve driven the3door and 5door versions and they are hot. Unfortunately they won’t come to the US. The coupe/convertibles will, but don’t expect a base price under $28k for the 128i 3.0L 230Hp version.

Volvo C30: Stylish but less fun to drive than the MazdaSpeed3 and VW Golf GTi. Fast yes, but it lacks the “sportiness” of its two rivals. Plus, it won’t fit anything in that miniscule space behind the rear seats that Volvo calls a boot.

My opinion? Take the 200Hp Golf GTi in a polar white color; add the amazing DSG transmission and a the (cloth( bucket seats and you’re all set.

carloan123 net

October 17, 2007 3:41 AM

No question about it. Your parameters point straight to a VW GTI. Hatchback, handles like a dream, and that awesome DSG (it's considered a manual right?) mated with the turbo FSI engine will give you great mileage.

Shaune S

October 17, 2007 7:40 AM

You should consider anything Volkswagen.

Rui

October 17, 2007 8:47 AM

Volkswagen GTI. No questions asked.

Just make sure you get the 6 speed and not the DSG. You wont regret it.

Dan S.

October 17, 2007 9:19 AM

Where's the loyality? A nine year old Outback with 135,000 miles which you thought enough of to give to a friend who needs reliable and inexpensive transprotation and Subaru isn't even on your short list. Shame on you!

solomonrex

October 17, 2007 10:47 AM

You miss your Subaru Wagon, so fun probably isn't high on your real wishes - you just don't want to look like a fuddy-duddy in from of the 'car and driver' enthusiast market.

Go with your gut. There are too many choices and options to choose from nowadays, esp. if you already know everything, it's paralysis by analysis.

But you'll never regret what your gut tells you - which points to the only used car on your list.

Happy hunting.

Robert Scoble

October 17, 2007 11:34 AM

I have a Saturn Aura and love it. My wife also has a BMW 325i and it's a great car, albeit much more expensive. Can't wait to see what you choose!

Chris

October 17, 2007 12:23 PM

Scion tC. Very much under-rated car. I understand that most journalists are not a fan of the tC in it's stock form. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever read a favorable review of the car...except for the fact that it holds it's value very well.

I personally drive a 2006 tC with a 5 Speed manual. Stock, the vehicle is relatively ho-hum. Add on the upgraded suspension (springs and rear sway bar) and different tires, and the thing turns into a blast to drive...while remaining practical. If you're gentle on it, you will see an average fuel economy in the very high 20's low 30's.

The 2.4 I-4 has plenty of torque and decent high end power. You won't win any races, but it certainly is spirited if desired.

The best part is the practicality. The fact that the vehicle is a hatchback makes up for any short comings. I moved across the country (Detroit to Phoenix) and fit all of my personal belongings in the vehicle. With the back seats folded down, I was able to fit a queen sized bed from IKEA back there with the hatch closed as well. I fit my 164 cm snowbard in the back with no problem, hauled a 32" Tube TV, and carried various other large box items without a problem. I've surprised many a Costco employee with all the stuff you can fit in the car.

While it has gotten a relatively bad rap...it's more than likely due to it having the youngest buyers in the industry. Drive one with upgraded suspension and different tires than stock, and you will be pleasantly surprised. The practicality built into the car still continues to blow my mind, and price will undercut just about anything else on your list.

bobmarley

October 17, 2007 3:23 PM

Mazda 3 is good, but what about the older honda civic SI's, their sporty fuel efficient hatchbacks. But I do like how the 3 is a wagon. You did say you prefer AWD so on that note i would go with a subaru WRX.

i guess it depends on what most important to you, feul efficiency, performance/sportyness, AWD, and price

Andy

October 18, 2007 2:13 AM

After a short trip to Sweden (we live in Germany), we knew we absolutely had to have a Volvo C30.

The Volvo is simply stunning from a design standpoint, plus it's a premium brand with the corresponding fit-and-finish and quality (MINI has premium prices but a terrible interior).

We ordered a 2.0 diesel - too bad you can't get it in the States - because it easily accelerated to 120 mph on the test drive but still gets more than 35 mpg when you drive like a sane person.

Considering how smooth, torquey, and efficient common-rail diesels are, I would say you almost have to get the Jetta, though, since you can't otherwise get a diesel in the USA. In Germany, though, the Jetta is considered a car for really conservative old men and farmers.

Also, I saw the 1-series coupe in Frankfurt, and it is unbelievably ugly from the back - totally stumpy.

I was really surprised to see that you hadn't mentioned the Audi A3. That would also seem to fit your criterea.

Robert

October 18, 2007 4:44 AM

Has no one mentioned or thought about a 08 subaru wrx 5 door? yes, the stying of the 08 is a bit bland, but the resale value will be better, and there will be tons of aftermarket options.
I would go with an 08 WRX or 08 Jetta TDI if i could hold out.

DrewDA

October 18, 2007 8:28 AM

Go for the GTI with a 6-speed and a real clutch. You will fill all your requirements, save for the AWD. And if you look for an '07 with a stick that is still on a dealer's lot, you could probably get a huge discount.

The Mazda3 hatch is undeniably a better looking car, but it simply cannot match the handling and power of the VW for a similar price.

I'd say either go with the GTI or up your budget a couple grand and grab a new WRX hatchback.

Chris

October 19, 2007 12:29 PM

I will 2nd all the GTI recommendations. The Audi A3 is also quite similar, but the GTI is usually priced better. A car from the same heritage you should take a look is a used Audi TT Coupe. They get great mileage for a sports car and have great looks. But I think you should also seriously take a look at Mini Coopers, which have a phenomenal steering response and are great fun to drive.

David Kiley

October 22, 2007 6:17 PM

My Subaru has been good to me. But I balk at the styling of the new Impreza. And I just don't want another Outback. And, as I have written before, Subaru hasn't paid eneough attention to fuel economy.
If Subaru delivers on the diesel turbo they are talking about for around 2010, then I will cue up fast and trade in whatever I wind up buying this time around.

Paul Bianchi

October 23, 2007 9:17 PM

You are moving on from a sport station wagon (Outback) but want better economy and a fun drive. Sounds like the Jetta Sportwagen TDI to me.

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