What car should my family buy?
Shortly after we got married almost 11 years ago, my wife and I bought a used 2001 Honda Odyssey minivan. We have been driving it ever since. We drove both of our kids home from the hospital in it. We picked up our puppy in it. It’s been on every one of our road trips. I’m incredibly fond of it.
My wife, not so much. She does most of the day-to-day driving, so the nostalgia factor isn’t enough to overcome her aversion to piloting a suburban land yacht. It’s too big, too hard to maneuver and park on city streets, too fuel inefficient. She’s over it.
Consequently, we’re looking for a new car. We’re nearing a decision, but I thought I’d ask for input from you, Grist’s treasured readers. Cause y’all are smart.
Just to anticipate: Yes, I’m sure it would be wonderful if we had no car at all and got our kids around on the bus or in some fancy four-seater bike contraption. But … no. Where we live, what we do, we have to have a car. Maybe someday we’ll live in a walkable enough place that we won’t need one — I hope! — but not today. And also to anticipate: Yes, I’m aware the “greenest” thing we could do is just keep driving the minivan into the ground. But that ship has sailed. So, moving on … here’s our thought process so far:
This will be our main car (if I get my way, our only car, though there’s some internal dispute on that matter). It needs to accommodate me, my wife, my two kids, ages 6 and 8, and my 45-pound dog (who goes with us everywhere in town). The vast majority of our driving is daily commuting in the city. Here’s what we’re looking for:
- small, or at least un-huge, but big enough for all of us and some stuff;
- fuel efficient;
- tan interior, not grey or black.
Yes, my wife is adamant about the interior. (We all have our things.)
One thing that’s not on the list: driving thrillz! I know lots of people fetishize how different cars accelerate or stick to turns or … whatever else you see them doing on car commercials on the beautiful winding road out in the middle of nowhere with no other cars around. But let’s face it: I’m a married dude driving my kids to Little League games. I spend a lot of time at four-way stop signs. I could really give a sh*t if my car is “exciting to drive.” It’s an appliance. I just want it to be comfortable and to work.
In Europe, you see dozens of varieties of cars catering to exactly my consumer profile: young(ish) family that needs some room, but not a ton, and prizes functionality and fuel efficiency. In the U.S. market, though, I’ve found it to be fairly slim pickins.
To begin with, our requirements rule out sedans. We tried, in a rented sedan, to get around with the dog between the kids in the back seats, but it didn’t work out. Dog’s too big; too much competition from backpacks and bike helmets. It’s too bad. There are tons of nice, fuel-efficient sedans around, including some fairly cheap and well-reviewed non-hybrid ones like the Hyundai Elantra, which gets 29 mpg city and 40 highway. See also: Ford Fusion or
Taurus [oops, I mean Camry] hybrids, Honda Civic or Accord hybrids, and of course the Chevy Volt (which is too expensive for us anyway). The hybrid-sedan market is crazily well-covered. (Unlike, say, the hybrid-minivan market, which at least in the U.S. is empty, a phenomenon that absolutely baffles me.)
We don’t want an SUV. Too big. An SUV is just a station wagon built up to handle terrain that 95 percent of buyers will never travel on, including us. We don’t want something overbuilt; want something appropriately built. If we were going to be tempted by one it would be the Ford Escape hybrid, the most fuel-efficient SUV available at 36/31. There are moderately priced used ones available.
Some of the larger hatchbacks (or what they’re apparently calling “5-doors” now) would do the trick for us. The Lexus CT 200h is a pretty sweet ride, but by the time any amenities are added it’s in the mid- to high 30,000s, which is rather rich for our blood. The Hyundai Elantra Touring is nice, but it drops a full 10 mpg down from the sedan, for reasons I don’t understand. The Ford Focus hatchback is powerfully tempting — it’s about the right size, decently priced, extremely well-reviewed, and reasonably fuel efficient at 26/36. (There’s also the Focus electric, but it starts at $40k. The Nissan Leaf is similarly expensive.)
What about actual station wagons? Seems like there used to be tons of them — station-wagon versions of the Honda Accord, Ford Taurus and Focus, VW Passat, etc. These days, though, there aren’t many to choose from. Some of the nicest are made by Subaru, but Subaru is terrible on fuel efficiency. (WTF, Subaru?) There are two fuel-efficient wagons that have gotten our attention.
One is the VW Jetta SportWagen TDI, a super-clean diesel station wagon that wins for good looks and a credible 30/42 mpg. It’s got a nice, slim profile, enough cargo room, and VW’s sharp interior. (Seriously, why are VW’s dashboards so much nicer and more comprehensible than the crap in other cars these days?) Loaded up with the moon roof and etc., it’s around $29k, which makes my palms sweat, but is not out of reach.
Unfortunately, when I went and drove a TDI wagon, I just didn’t find it comfortable. The seats are too low to the ground for my taste and are shaped in that same horrible curved way that airplane seats are shaped, where your lower back collapses backward and your head gets shoved forward by a head rest. And the “fun” driving I heard so much about didn’t really strike me as anything special. I was sad not to like this one in practice.
All of which brings us to the new Prius v. (V is for “versatile,” not five.) It looks not much bigger than the normal Prius, but the back is big enough for the dog to sit in comfortably, even accompanied by some luggage. It has as much cargo space as most SUVs, especially with the back seats folded down. It’s extremely comfortable, as I found when I test drove it (yay, lumbar support!), and while not exactly a live wire on the road, it’s certainly zippy enough for me. The back seats recline, which is unusual. It looks plain, but I like plain (I loathe the swoopy look that seems to be in vogue). And it gets 44 mpg in the city, 40 on the highway, which beats just about any other car on the road.
The only other car I’ve been able to find that has the same excellent fuel efficiency in the right configuration is the Ford C-Max hybrid, which isn’t even out until the fall of this year. It’s not clear yet what it will cost, but I expect it will be in the same neighborhood as the Prius v. It also comes in a plug-in version, which I expect will be considerably more expensive.
I’m half-tempted to wait until the C-Max is out. It will have an advanced lithium ion battery instead of the
lead acid [sorry, I misspoke: make that nickel-metal hydride] used in the Prius, along with all the latest gizmo tech. It’s already winning awards. I like what Ford is doing lately and there is some small part of me that wants to “buy American.”
Still, we’ve been holding off on a new car for a long while and the wife is sick of holding. I’m well aware (readers have sent me spreadsheets!) that if we were only worried about total cost of ownership, it would make more sense to buy a cheaper car. It will take a looong time before fuel efficiency pays off the extra cost of the Prius. And I know that if we were only concerned about “green,” we’d probably be better off buying a used car. But it’s hard to find fuel-efficient used cars that match our specs.
Anyway, we’re not concerned with any one single metric, we’re concerned with the whole package, and the Prius v would be the right package of features for us even without the great gas mileage. With it, it tops the pack of contenders. The only problem is the $30k price tag, which is way more than I ever expected to spend on a car … or anything else, really. It makes me woozy. But it’s doable.
So, if any of you are still with me, I’m curious to know what you think. Have you hashed through the same concerns? Do you think our reasoning is off somehow? Let me know in comments. And I’ll let you know what we end up doing.