Dear Umbra,

With rising — OK, skyrocketing — gas prices, I would like to invest in a car that gets good mileage and is reliable. However, I can’t afford a new Toyota Prius. Do you have any suggestions for environmentally friendly used cars that those of us on a budget might be able to invest in? Living in Wyoming, I have to travel long distances on a frequent basis, and public transportation is a joke here, so any suggestions would be appreciated!

Lindy Johnson
Sheridan, Wyo.

Dearest Lindy,

Until today, I thought general guidelines were all the car-purchase advice I was qualified to give. Car experts are people with grease under their fingernails, not papercuts on their fingertips. Then I remembered that I have years of experience buying, owning, repairing, and hearing friends talk about cars. I’m actually very opinionated. So here goes.

Older and wiser.

Photo: Wieck Media.

First, let me simply regurgitate the basic steps: Figure out the smallest type of car you could use. Look on Consumer Reports’ list of most reliable used cars or the Car Talk guys’ site to pick three or four that you could afford and enjoy driving. Visit Environmental Defense’s Tailpipe Tally and the feds’ fuel-economy guide to get an estimate of their spewments. Eliminate any stinkers, and start shopping.

Now, I gotta be me, and me has two words for you: Honda Civic.

From my experience, and that of friends and family, I would buy a Honda Civic (or maybe an Accord) if I were looking for a fuel-efficient, affordable, reliable, used, gas-powered car. They’re small, they’re cheap, they come in nice colors, and they last forever.

Toyotas are also notoriously reliable, but “retain value” on the used market (aka, “cost more”). Anytime you ask a Toyota fanatic about their brand loyalty, they’ll say 100k is just the engine getting broken in. And a friend of mine just traded in a Subaru with over 200k on it, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Subaru with similar fuel economy to a Civic. I won’t mention other names, as I am polite, and if you ask me to talk about American cars, Volkswagens, or Saabs, I will speak about the weather.

Ha! An actual opinion of cars. And I bet you’ll have an opinion about my opinion.

Here’s another resource, besides me, the web, and your own self-reflection: mechanics. They fix cars. Next time you’re near your mechanic, or any mechanic, saunter in and ask what their top lemons and best picks are. If you’ve already chosen a range of models and model years to consider — say, a ’98-’02 Honda Civic — ask the mechanic if one of those years is a clunker.

Most of all, trust your instincts.

Jedi-ly (and not Jetta-ly),
Umbra