Car Advice - 41-year-old city dweller who's never owned a car!

Dear Car Talk Community,

My name is Julie and it would be great to get some advice from this community. As a resident of Manhattan and San Francisco all of my adult life, I do not know so much about cars, nor have I ever owned one. I do have a license and use Zipcar. My office is now relocating me to Los Angeles and so I’m about to take the leap into lease/ownership. I’d be grateful for any advice from this community for cars to explore. My wish list includes fuel efficiency and on the smaller side. My plan is to lease to start and I don’t need anything super expensive, just good quality, fun and a good value.

Much appreciated. Thank you.


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How about a Prius

The regular one, not the plug in

And not the Prius C . . . it’s supposed to be low quality, compared to the regular Prius

I grew up in LA where the only people that don’t have cars are homeless, and now live in the Seattle area, home to some of the worst traffic in the country.

I think part of your decision will be based on where your office is and where you will live. I worked in Torrance with a guy who lived in Lake Elsinore because that’s where he could afford a house. I had a high school teacher who lived in Mission Viejo. My aunt worked in Century City and lived in Laguna Beach. If you’re looking at a 40-70 mile commute to work everyday that may take 2 hours, comfort and luxury may become more important to you than economy. My aunt had a very nice BMW stick shift that she had to trade in because 2 hours on the 405 every night shifting gears hundreds of time was wearing out her wrist.

Traffic moves quickly there and you need to be confident in your driving skills. And you’ll soon find out that like it or not the car you drive becomes a part of you as much as the clothes you wear.

Go test drive cars and find the one that feels the best to you, that you are most comfortable in, and that looks the most like you. Since you plan on leasing, issues like long-term reliability and resale value shouldn’t be issues for you.

leasing is only for those who intend on ALWAYS having a perpetual car payment AND do not accumulate enough total miles to end up paying that penalty…or… who will turn it back in at the end of the lease and not attempt to buy it at the inflated price.

You see, when leasing long term , you may end up with a new car every three years but you’ll still have that renewed car paryment for that next three years…rinse and repeat…every three years.
– and maybe that fits your overall plan…many people choose that BECAUSE they want a new car each cycle and the perpetual payment is low enough to fit the budget.
When intending to keep that same car for the long term…buy it now.
Leasing first then buying costs MORE…you’ve essentialy payed RENT before buying.

“I’m about to take the leap into lease/ownership”

Seems to me OP has not decisively made up their mind yet :sweat_smile:

If you live close enough to work, you might consider an electric car. Be careful with this one because your range is going to be less than 100 miles, and that will mean no long drives, and certainly no drives to Las Vegas or San Francisco. Hybrids are interesting in a couple of ways. First is gas savings. Another possibility is single occupant (you) in the HOV lane. You may already be aware of it. If you meet the requirements, you will be issued a white sticker. A used car may have a while, green or yellow sticker on it. The yellow stickers are no longer valid; avoid that one. Here is the CAV info:

Some cars that are not hybrid or electric might meet the CAV restrictions and qualify for the white sticker. There is a telephone number on the above reference to call to find out. If you buy or lease from a dealer, they should know. Of course, you should verify what they say at that telno. I prefer driving on surface streets, and always got to a destination before my local friends did that took the 405. But my experience was in the LA beach area. I went there entirely too much on business for 7 years.

Unless you can charge off the cost of leasing a car on your income taxes as a business expense, leasing is usually not the best option. This subject has been flogged to death on this forum many times. Do a search for ‘lease’.

Asking for suggestions from strangers on the web is like asking how long is a piece of string. There are as many opinions as there are cars and respondents. By using ZipCar, you have probably tried out several models so you have a good idea what fits, and what you like to drive. Renting other models you have not tried, for an overnight trial, is a good idea too. A five minute test drive with a pushy salesperson is NOT enough. To get the best deal, arrange your financing through the institution of your choice so that you will be paying a dealer (or individual) outright. Taking the dealer’s financing is usually not in your best interest. Even those 0% deals have hidden costs and will be discounted if you are paying with the bank’s money.

The biggest issue with leasing is the miles per year allowed by the lease. In LA it is easy to rack up a lot of miles. 12,000 miles per year might look like enough to the OP who has never owned a car. It isn’t, once the OP has a car available every day and weekends she will use it a lot more than she realizes.

With a lease, you give the dealer 2 shots at extracting big bucks from you. Excess mileage (>12K) and any dings/scratches/stains can cost you thousands on the backend.

I would “keep it simple” and buy a Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla or Mazda3. For commuting get the smallest engine and automatic. Have at least air conditioning, power windows, door locks and cruise. Also get an AAA membership.

These cars are reliable cheap to run and have good resale value. If you’ve never had a car before you don’t want something high tech as a start.

A regular Prius isn’t high tech

Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but no longer

Not only that, they’re far too common to be considered high tech

Do not get an EV. It will severely limit your ability to explore LA. A Prius is my first suggestion, or a Civic/Mazda3/Corolla. I don’t think you can get a car pool sticker any more with just s hybrid.

This is the perfect situation to lease a car, it makes more sense than buying. She’s relocating to a new city and has never owned a car before. How does she know what kind of car she likes? How does she know if the car fits her new lifestyle? How will she know if she drives 20 miles a day or a hundred? What if the new job doesn’t pan out and a year later she’s moving back to SF?

“you’ve essentialy payed RENT before buying.”

That’s exactly the point and the goal here. Do you just spend the $400K or more that a house will cost or do you rent a place for a year, figure out what and where you want to live and then buy?

Lease a car you find comfortable, get settled in, and then figure out your long-term car needs.

If all your friends are vegetarians get the Prius, otherwise I’m with Doc on the Mazda 3. Very nice and happy cars.

If all the driving she does is in and around LA, a Prius might might make sense. I’m sure there are many folks who work on them daily. Once she gets 100 miles east of the megalopolis, it’s a different matter. Only a dealer, if there IS a dealer in Podunk, is likely to know anything about one.

As far as AAA is concerned, I dropped them when they started getting into political things and I discovered that I could add roadside assistance to my car’s insurance policy for about $1 a month extra. AND I’m not stuck with AAA’s contracted tow company. Triptiks? So what, I have GPS on my cell phone.

This is about the time for new car shows. See if one is near you and you can look at a large variety in one place and see the prices.

Just in defense of AAA-I’m not a member but used to sell it, they have been political from way back in the 20’s. They’re the reason that the gas tax was to be used solely for highway use and therefore supported it. They will stick their noses in anything that would be a detriment to the motoring public. What other organization is there solely for the motoring public?

I have the towing insurance too but the thing is when you need service out in the middle of nowhere, you need a number besides 911 to call. Plus try getting a tow on a holiday without the motor club. I’ve tried and its not easy. Tow companies under contract MUST respond 24/7. Never had to use bail bond or check cashing but thats there too. And there are hotel discounts and so on. Is it worth it? I dunno but I’ve had both for years and do a lot of traveling and made use of the services before. Also have the Acura 24/7 service that will get me to the nearest Acura dealer that may be 100 miles away plus a car to use.

Just sayin’ towing on your insurance for a dollar and a motor club are apples and oranges.

I suggest waiting until the move is final, that way you know how far you will need to travel everyday. If a 5~10 mile commute is what you’re looking at, a small car could work out for you. But if you’re looking at a 50 mile commute, a larger car, like the Fusion or Taurus would be a better bet. You lose out on MPGs some, but comfort would be better.

Keep it simple. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel here. Like Texases says above, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, or Mazda 3 are probably the best choices for you. All are among the biggest sales volume cars in America, so there are scores of shops who can service them, parts are easy to find, and since you have a lots of shop and parts source choices, you can get service quickly and for less $$. All of them are economical. Take some test drives. Choose the one of those three that best meets your needs.

For best reliability, choose a car with as few options as you can live with. Especially avoid add-on electronic gadgets of all kinds. Automatic transmissions are probably the number one complaint posted here, so if you are able to drive a manual transmission, that will save you a lot of $$$ and grief down the line. However, if you intend to return to San Francisco and drive in the city with your car, you probably already know that an automatic transmission is preferred there due to the steep hills.

If you decide to buy rather than lease, and you want to save a little money on the deal, the sweet spot is one of the three cars above, about 3 years old, with less than 100K miles. Be sure to pay a $100 or so to an independent mechanic to do a pre-purchase inspection before making an offer if you buy a used car. Best of luck.

Priuses are extremely common even in smaller California burgs. Anywhere near the LA metro area there will be no shortage of people who can work on them. There are dealerships all over the place. I agree that the Prius is an excellent choice if you have a commute of any length. If you have a shorter commute the savings on fuel will take a long time to pay for the higher purchase price. If you have a shortish commute the Honda Fit would be a good inexpensive choice. It’s remarkably roomy, and a very good value. The Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Mazda2 are other inexpensive, well made very small cars. None will be very comfortable for a long commute as they are noisier and don’t ride as well as bigger cars.

If you want something a little larger than the Fit, the Mazda3 is an excellent choice, very efficient, reliable, and even fun to drive. It comes as both a conventional sedan and as a handy hatchback. The ubiquitous Civic and Corolla are popular and very reliable, but also fairly dull. The Corolla is exceptionally roomy and has a nice interior. The Hyundai Elantra is another popular car in this category, and can be a good deal.

The mid-sized Mazda6 is also an excellent car, but in a class with many other fine cars. They are very economical and get gas mileage very similar to compacts (highway mileage.) The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima are also fine vehicles in this class (plus several others).

It used to be that conventional hybrids got the stickers to use car pool lanes, but now they are reserved for certain plug-in vehicles, most not very practical as an only car.