Which new car would you buy?

Last week via email, reader David Hatch asked:

If you were going to buy a new car, what would you get do you think?

I wrote a short email reply…then decide this topic is worth a deeper dive (of only for my own personal edification).

You see, Kim and I have been talking about cars lately. Mine is fifteen years old and hers is over twenty. Although both are running fine, we realize that we'll have to replace one (or both) of them in the near future. When we do, what will we buy? What kind of new car is right for Kim? What kind of car is right for me?

Let's start by looking at the cars I've owned in the past.

Every Car I've Ever Owned

I am not a car guy. Even though I can appreciate nice cars, I don't have any desire to own them. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because my parents never had nice cars when I was a kid. They had practical, serviceable vehicles that got the job done.

During my 33 years of driving, I've owned five cars.

In high school, I inherited my father's 1980 Datsun 310 GX. I drove that little red beast until it died during my senior year of college. I had a lot of fun with the Datsun, but I treated it poorly. The best part about this car was that I could perform a lot of the maintenance myself — even though I don't have much mechanical knowledge. (Driven from March 1985 to March 1991 — six years.)

After the Datsun died, Dad bought me a $1000 Ford Tempo as a college graduation present. It was a POS from the start. I drove it for less than six months before giving up on it. (Driven from March 1991 to September 1991 — six months.)

When I landed my first job (which turned out to be the worst job I ever had), I also bought my first new car: a 1992 Geo Storm. Naturally, I bought it on credit…before I'd even received a paycheck. I loved that $12,000 car the entire time I owned it. (Driven from September 1991 to December 2000 — 9.25 years.)

On 01 December 2000, a semi sideswiped my Geo Storm on the freeway during morning traffic. The car spun 360+ degrees before striking an overpass guardrail, deploying the airbag. The car was totalled; fortunately, I wasn't hurt.

The left side of my Geo Storm (after accident)

After the accident, I purchased a brand-new 2001 Ford Focus from a friend who worked at a local dealership. I paid $15,000. I hated that car from Day One. It was awful. (I should have read the Consumer Reports reviews before buying; I would have steered clear!) I bought that vehicle with a loan too. (Driven from December 2000 to April 2009 — 8.25 years.)

In 2009, after years of dreaming about it, I realized I could afford to buy a used Mini Cooper. By this point, I'd been writing GRS for three years, so I put my own advice into practice. I shopped around. I bought used. I paid $15,000 cash. I've owned that 2004 Mini Cooper for more than nine years now. In fact, as of this month, it's the car I've owned longest in my lifetime.

J.D. and his Mini Cooper

As you can tell, when I buy a car, I tend to drive it for a long time. I rarely (if ever) get the new car itch. I wish I could say this was because I'm rational about my car-buying decisions, but that's not it. I'm just not a car guy. (Computers, though? Well, I want to upgrade my computer every year. I am a computer guy.)

But David didn't ask about the cars I've owned in the past. He asked what car I'd buy new.

What Kim and I Own Now

Kim and I have been thinking about this question for a couple of years now. Neither of us is eager to buy a new vehicle, but from a pragmatic perspective, we're both going to have to do so relatively soon.

  • I currently own the afore-mentioned 2004 Mini Cooper (with roughly 150,000 miles) and a 2016 Harley-Davidson Street 750 motorcycle.
  • Kim owns a 1997 Honda Accord (with roughly 240,000 miles) and a 2005 Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle.

Both of our cars run about like you'd expect. Kim's is very reliable and never has major maintenance issues. It also has air conditioning that works. (The Mini has a coolant leak that I'm unwilling to pay to have fixed, so we no longer use it for long summer trips.) I've had to spend a few thousand to repair the Mini over the past couple of years, but it's running fine at this moment.

“I've been setting aside $600 per month in my car fund,” Kim told me the other day. Before our RV trip, she was saving for a new car, but she cashed out that money to help pay for our travels. “I have about $12,000 saved now. That's not enough for a new car — especially not for a Tesla Model 3 — but it's a start.”

“You plan to sell your Honda to the girls at some point, right?” I asked. We know two sisters who should be getting their licenses soon. Kim has promised them they can have her Honda for $500.

“Yep,” Kim said. “That's the plan. But should I do that if I don't have enough saved to pay cash for a new car?”

“That's a tough question,” I said. “You could always drive my Mini Cooper to work. I don't use it much during the week. And for about half the year, I could ride my motorcycle instead. I'm not sure what I'd do during the winter.”

“Well, are you still thinking about buying a beater pickup?” Kim asked. Since moving to our country cottage last summer, we've come to realize that our lives would be much easier if we had something that would let us haul lumber and ladders and dirt and gravel and plants and furniture and so on. I'm hoping to find a small pickup that runs well priced at a few thousand dollars.

“Yes, I still think the pickup is a good idea,” I said. “And that could certainly be my winter ride.”

“I guess we don't have to make any decision yet,” Kim said. “We don't have to decide anything until one the girls learns how to drive.”

What Kind of Car Would I Buy?

Although I spend most of my road time in vehicles that are fifteen or twenty years old, this year I've had a lot of exposure to modern cars.

During both my trip to Florida in January and my trip around the Southeast in April, I rented a car. I've spent four weeks of 2018 essentially test-driving modern mid-sized sedans. They all feel like they're from the future. (I think I had a Nissan Versa for one trip and a Hyundai Elantra for the other.)

I'll admit: I like some of the new features. Back-up cameras are kind of cool. Sound systems that automatically pair with your phone are awesome. I like the whole keyless thing, too. (The other night, Kim pointed out that her car was so old that we still have to hand-crank the windows!)

While visiting Nashville in April, a friend gave me a ride in his new $150,000 Mercedes. Holy cats! The interior of that thing was like the U.S.S. Enterprise (the fancy Picard-era Enterprise, not the utilitarian Kirk-era Enterprise). I have no desire to own a luxury automobile, but I can certainly appreciate the design touches.

If Kim were to buy a new car, she'd buy the Tesla Model 3. She's a fan of electric vehicles. If she can't afford a Tesla when it comes time to buy a new car, I suspect she'll end up with a Honda or Toyota hybrid. (I'm not sure, though. I haven't asked her.) She just wants a comfortable, reliable car to get to and from work, and for us to use on long road trips.

Me? Well, I've delayed answering this question for more than 1000 words because I don't really know which car I'd buy if I had to buy a new car. Let's think it through together.

  • I prefer smaller cars. I have zero desire to own a modern truck or SUV. I don't want a minivan. I don't want a large sedan. I like vehicles with small footprints. They're easier to park, fuel efficient, and generally more agile.
  • I like something a little sporty. I'm not a fast driver, but I do like to be able to accelerate now and then, either to overtake another car or to enjoy twisty country roads.
  • I want a car with ample cargo space. As I mentioned earlier, I haul stuff all the time, so I want a vehicle that lets me carry stuff from the hardware store. It'd also be nice if I could transport a kayak or two. (Believe it or not the Mini has decent cargo room. It certainly has more usable cargo space than Kim's Accord.)

Based on this, I'd focus my search on three classes of vehicles: compact pickup trucks, compact cars, and subcompact cars.

Unfortunately, compact pickup trucks are a dying breed. Yes, Ford is bringing back the Ranger in a few months, but currently there are only five options in this category. The only one that gets good reviews is the Honda Ridgeline, and that costs $30,000 — or more.

There aren't many options in the world of subcompact cars, either. Most of those options also get poor reviews (and low customer satisfaction scores).

There are plenty of choices in the world of compact cars, however, and at prices that don't scare me. Both the Toyota Corolla and Toyota Prius are highly-rated and affordable. That said, if I bought a compact car, I'd probably pursue a Mazda 3 or Hyundai Elantra. Plus, I'd have to consider the modern Mini Cooper. (My ex-wife's boyfriend is a mechanic and fellow Mini fan. He's warned me that newer Minis are both larger and less reliable, so I'm skeptical that I'd choose a Mini again. But I do love mine.)

Cars I Might Like

The Bottom Line

So, which new car would I purchase? Honestly, I don't know. I don't want to buy a new car, and I hope I don't have to make this sort of decision for many years.

Having said that, I am absolutely in the market for a beat-up but reliable pickup — preferably a compact pickup. Something like this seems perfect:

A Pickup That Tempts Me

As a wildcard, I suppose a used Subaru Outback might be a smart choice for me also. (Actually, a Subaru Outback would be an excellent choice for our current lifestyle.)

The older I get, the more I view vehicles as tools. They're not status symbols for me. I don't get an adrenaline rush from a souped-up sports car. Right now, I want a car that runs reliably, allows me to haul stuff, and doesn't take up a lot of space. That's it. (Except when we take long road trips — which happens two or three times each year — I don't care about comfort.)

Realistically speaking, here's what I expect will happen:

  • One of the girls will get her license in the next year. Kim will sell the Honda to her for $500.
  • Kim and I will pool money to buy her a new car. It won't be the Tesla Model 3 that she wants so badly. It'll be a Subaru Outback or a hybrid Toyota or Honda.
  • I will continue to drive the Mini Cooper until it is well and truly dead. At that time — or perhaps before — I'll buy a beater pickup for use around the homestead. (Yes, we may end up having three cars at some point — but only for a little while.)

What about you? If you had to buy a new car, what would you buy? Why? What features are important to you? Are there certain makes or models that you prefer? Refuse to consider? And based on what I've told you here, what kind of car would you recommend for me?

More about...Transportation

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