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Advice for choosing a safe, fuel efficient, inexpensive new used car?

My husband and I are in the market for a new used car. We have one 11-year-old daughter, and we often drive her and two or three of her friends around town. We live at sea level in Santa Cruz, California, and we travel 2-3 times/year to the mountains, sometimes in winter. Our current cars are a 1992 Volvo 240 station wagon without functioning air conditioning (which we use for highway driving and family camping and ski trips because of its relative safety in a crash) and a 1998 Honda Civic coupe (which we use to drive around town because of its better gas mileage). We want to replace the Honda with an air conditioned vehicle that will reduce our transportation-related fossil fuel combustion AND that will be relatively safe and comfortable for family trips that may include skiing, camping, or cycling gear. We can spend ~$10,000-12,000 on the new car. Obviously, we are cheapskates, and we want to choose a car that is also inexpensive to insure and repair over the long term. We have been considering a Prius (too small?) or a (bio-)diesel Jetta station wagon (too expensive to repair?). Any advice on these cars? Or, suggestions for alternative vehicles we should consider? Help, soon! I cannot go on another trip in the Volvo without air conditioning!

First, you need to realize that virtually any car manufactured in the past 5-8 years is going to be safer than either of the cars that you currently have. While Volvo may have had a safety advantage 20 years ago when yours was made, that '92 Volvo is unsafe in comparison to modern cars that are smaller than your Volvo. That is representative of how vehicle design has improved over the years. The only exception to this is probably the Chevy Aveo, which was a tiny disaster on wheels that GM has thankfully discontinued.

That being said, here are some fuel efficient cars in your price range for you to consider.
They are ALL very safe vehicles, as well as being reliable:

'07-'08 Ford Fusion 4-cylinder
’05-'07 Honda Accord 4-cylinder
’08 Hyundai Sonata 4-cylinder
’08 Kia Optima 4-cylinder
’07 Mazda 6 4-cylinder
’07-'08 Mercury Milan (clone of the Ford Fusion) 4-cylinder
’06-'07 Nissan Altima 4-cylinder
’06 Subaru Legacy 4-cylinder
’07 Toyota Camry 4-cylinder

All of that being said, you need to seek cars from this list that come with full maintenance records, as even the most reliable model can become a breakdown-prone labor-intensive one if it has not been maintained at least as well as the mfr specifies. And, even with a documented history of good maintenance, any finalist for purchase still needs to be inspected by your mechanic prior to purchase.

I agree with VDC…

You said that you are going to trade in the Civic, did you mean to say you are going to trade in the Volvo? That would make more sense.

I’d look at an Accord/Civic, Camry/Corolla, Maxima/Altima (although I think Maxima is only available as a V6), or maybe the 4 Cylinder Malibu…Also check out Hyundai’s line of small SUVs.

If you grab an April copy of the magazine Consumer Reports (aka the car issue), it has a comprehensive list of reliable cars to suit virtually every price range. It’s a good place to start.

Just invest your time before you invest your $ and take the ones that interest you on a nice long test drive, and drop it off with your mechanic for a pre-buy inspection before you pay a dime for it.

-Accordion

You’ll want space for all that gear so a newer wagon or minivan should do the trick.
From what it looks like, your Volvo is rated 18/23 mpg. A Taurus wagon(2005 was the last year they made them) or a Freestyle wagon(2007 was the last year for these) will get about the same MPG while being light years away in terms of safety. Either of those vehicles will be in your price range. In 2008 and 09 they made a Taurus X wagon which was kind of the successor to the Freestyle.

Don’t expect much from your Volvo in trade, it’s worth maybe 2 grand with a working AC unit. The dealership will likely offer you scrap metal value since the AC isn’t working.

Or check out the Honda Fit.
You will be surprised how roomy it is and not bad on the fuel as well…

To further add on my previous post: take your gear with you when you look at vehicles. This will give you a great idea on what you’ll want to look for.

Maybe you CAN get all your skiing/camping/cycling gear inside a Camry or Accord, but the only sure way is to take the stuff with you and possibly how ever many people you do those things with(2 adults and 2 kids? 5 adults? 2 adults?).
Yes you can buy roof racks for bikes, skis and such, but why mess with the hassle if you can avoid it by getting something you can put everything inside the vehicle.

You might also consider a minivan if you like the roominess of your station wagon. They are very comfortable, easy to drive, and there aren’t any really bad choices out there. The worst of the lot, repair/reliability wise, is probably the Kia Sedona (some will advise avoiding Chrysler products due to transmission issues, but that’s a 25 year old myth that refuses to die) and '99-'05 Honda Odysseys due to their high transmission failure rate. As for safety, anything made in the last ten years will be safer than your Volvo in a crash. Vehicle design has come a long way in recent years, and even though the Volvo looks like a tank, it would get its butt handed to it in a crash test versus even a pathetic looking Yaris.

Ditto all that above about ditching the 240 because cars are much safer now than it is. I’d wager even your Civic might be better.

I couldn’t find a report for a 1992 Volvo 240, but IIHS shows the 1985-87 240s with an actual death rate of 1.2 per 10,000 registered cars, better than the 1.9 that IIHS said they had predicted.

IIHS no longer reports deaths per 10,000. Instead they use deaths per 1,000,000. Average is now 48 per million, which equates to 0.48 per 10,000.

In other words, the average car today has a much lower fatality rate than the 240 did in the mid 80s. Granted the 92 was probably much safer than an 85-87 model… but enough to beat an average car today?

FWIW, NHTSA’s crash tests show the 1992 240 at 5 star for driver, 4 star for passenger. The 1998 Civic came in at 4 star for both, with 3-star for side impact (240 was unrated on that test). By contrast the 2005 Ford Freestyle that was recommended above came with 5 star for driver, passenger, and side impacts. Rollover it got 4 stars. Not only that, but the numerous standard safety features not available on a 92 240 make it less likely that you’d even be in an accident in the first place (its best not to need the protection, IMO, though having it in case is certainly a very good thing)

I would add a Ford Escape to VCDrivers list if the other choices are just too cramped…The lower the mileage the better goes without saying with ANY used car…Don’t get hung-up on fuel mileage, it’s not that important…

Count me in with the crowd. A 1992 Volvo is not safer in a crash than any recent cars, so you’ve been under a misguided assumption. It’s also not a good car for cheapskates. Get rid of that one.