Car suggestions for Central NJ

We’re moving from SF to central NJ. While in SF, we have only needed one car, but now that we are moving to a less dense area, a second car will be needed again. The current car is a 1999 Beetle with 150,000 miles. My previous car was a 1984 Buick that died on its third transmission with 140,000 miles. The point of that was to let you know that I run my cars into the ground.

So I need some help identifying possible cars. Since I do keep cars for a long time, I think that our second car needs to be a little more practical and cushy for my now more aching bones.

First, I have not lived in the Northeast when I was an actual driver, so have some basic questions.

1) Is rust from the salt on the roads a huge issue that I need to address in the car selection? How do I make sure I minimize corrosion once I buy and start driving?

2) Due to the corrosion, how do you evaluate a used car to determine if it has been properly cared for? Is it just better to buy new?

3) How important is 4WD in central NJ for the winter?

4) Are the seat warmers worth considering for the winter? Are there other amenities that I should really consider?

Next, I need some help identifying possible cars that meet the following criteria. I plan to do some extensive test driving, but feel a little out of my element to figure out where to start.

a) I need good gas mileage to feel okay about myself. I’d like to match or beat the 99 Beetle if possible. I am open to diesel or hybrid.

b) I need a reliable car. Since I keep my cars a long time, I don’t want to hate it in two years because it is in the shop all the time.

c) I like smaller cars, but feel less pressure to buy a subcompact now that I am moving out of the city.

d) I want 4 doors on my next car. After my knee surgery, I learned how hard it is to climb in and out of a backseat, and my friends and I aren’t getting any younger. If I find a 5-door hatchback I like, I would be thrilled, but there’s not many on the market in the US.

e) I want comfy seats so that 10 years from now, while I am still driving it, I won’t be stiff getting out. I also want the amenities: GPS navigation, MP3 player.

While I was thinking new, I was thinking that a recent model used car might be a better fit, and would certainly have a better sense of reliability with a few years history on the model.

Thanks for reading my long post and for any suggestions!

Since I live in Central NJ, I think that I am at least as qualified to respond to your questions as anyone else. While our climate is definitely not as nice as that of the Bay area, I think that your perception of Central NJ as being somewhat akin to the Yukon is not necessarily accurate.

Yes, we do get snow, but in most areas, snow is cleared from the main roads very quickly, and the secondary roads are passable a few hours after the main roads are cleared. (Important note: Woodbridge, in Middlesex County is the notable exception, and that town has a tradition of terrible snow removal) The total amount of snow that we get is far less than you would experience in areas such as upstate NY or New England. That being said, I do have an AWD vehicle and I put Michelin X-Ice winter tires on it in the winter–mostly because I enjoy the ability to stop in a much shorter distance on wintery surfaces. Most people in this area get by with FWD vehicles with all-season tires, but I enjoy having a significant safety edge.

All of this being said, rust from road salt is really not a very significant problem anymore, due to major advances in rust-proofing. As evidence, I would point out that after-market rust-proofing places like Ziebart can no longer be found in this area, and the only rusted vehicles that one is likely to see are more than a dozen years old. If you take your car to the carwash soon after the roads have been salted, and if you pay a dollar or two extra for the “underbody wash”, you can rid the chassis of most of the accumulated road salt.

I also want to point out that “Central NJ” encompasses a lot of territory, and driving conditions and traffic density vary considerably through the region. Middlesex County has much higher traffic density (and much worse pavement condition) than the more rural Somerset, Morris, or Hunterdon Counties. The latter three are among the “top 10” counties in the US in terms of personal wealth, and this affluence clearly benefits the roads, as well as other aspects of the quality of life. However, the definition of “Central NJ” is somewhat broad, and can include the very urban Union County, as well as Mercer County, which varies from toney Princeton and environs to the grimy neighborhoods of Trenton, the capital.

Given all of your requirements in a car, I would suggest that you look at the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic, the Mazda 3, and the Subaru Impreza. The Impreza is not as economical as the others, but it has the advantage of standard AWD–in case you would like the added security of that feature. No matter what you buy, I think that using winter tires is a good idea, but as I said, most people do get by with just all-season tires on these FWD cars.

As to seat comfort, that is so individual that you have to evaluate seats in terms of your own perception. Many people say that Subarus have uncomfortable seats, but I find them comfortable–at least on the newer models. Conversely, many people feel that the seats in Hondas are great, but I always got a back ache when driving my '92 Accord for more than an hour or so, and the same thing would happen when I drove my friend’s '01 Accord. Honda seats are traditionally mounted very low to the floor of the car, and that leads to having your legs extended forward more than on many other makes of car, thus leading to back and leg aches for me–and for many other people. You really have to evaluate car seats yourself, and I would suggest an extended test drive in order to get a good idea of comfort.

As to used vs. new, if you spend some time in this forum, you will see a lot of posts from people who have not maintained their cars properly, and who are now crying the blues because their cars are failing prematurely. These people will eventually sell these poorly maintained cars. Yes, it is possible to get a good used car, but unless you are very wary, unless you obtain full maintenance records, and unless you have a used car inspected by your own, trusted mechanic, it is also possible to buy one with concealed “issues”.

Since you want a car with a lot of modern amenities, I would suggest either a new car or a used car that is just a year old or so. If you want things like in-dash GPS and MP3 player capability, you definitely need to look at new cars or newer used cars. I value my heated seats far more than things like GPS and MP3 players, and if you look carefully, you may be able to find a used car with all three, but this combination of amenities may mandate a new car.

Personally, I don’t buy used cars, but you may feel differently. If you do your due diligence, it is certainly possible to get a good used car, particularly if you focus on the makes that I listed.

Good luck, and welcome to one of the most affluent areas in the US!

I would buy a nice mid size car like Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Buick model. They all get decent MPG AND are very comfortable. Also many larger compacts are good too. Another inexpensive choice that has average reliability but is very comfortable is the recent Ford 500(now renamed to Taurus again). It has AWD available. It is quite inexpensive used due to very low demand by public, this is not the case of Camry/Accord.

AWD is typically not needed unless you need to get to work no matter what or live on a road at the bottom of the plowing pecking order and especially when hill are involved. I will say Subaru Legacy (not impreza) offer incredible comfort and decent MPG for an AWD.

Those models would be more comfortable, but I didn’t recommend them simply because the OP ssems to be very interested in good mpg. These larger models get decent mileage, but the smaller models that I mentioned would be better in that regard.

And, no matter how comfortable you or I think that a particular model might be, this topic is so subjective that the OP really has to make the decision herself, after sitting in each model for an extended test drive.

Good suggestions, VDC! I would also add the Hyundai Elantra, which has become a very good car and the latest model has very good seats and roomy interior.

Yes, I agree with you Doc. I should have included the Elantra, as it now has excellent reliability, and is very competitive with the others that I mentioned. Additionally, it can be bought for a lower price than the others.

Thank you for the model suggestions and general advice. To clarify “central NJ” a bit, I will be working in Lawrenceville (near Princeton), but don’t yet know exactly where I will be living.

I had forgotten about the Mazda 3. It had originally been on the list for a city car but eliminated since it is longer than many of the other subcompacts, making it harder to park in those “between-driveway” spaces.

On the Subaru, can you turn off the AWD for the summer to get your gas mileage up? Or is “optional” AWD not really offered on small cars?

Is the Hyundai really more reliable now? I just remember them being such sad little cars, and can’t help thinking of Beck’s song “Debra”.

Are Ford and Buick reliable? The joke growing up was that Ford stood for “fix or repair daily” and my 1984 Buick went through 3 transmissions in 140,000 miles (I am at 150,000 on my first transmission for the VW (although on my second alternater)).

I see people talking about ratings for reliablility on other posts. I am a member of Consumer Reports, so can see all that data. Are there any other websites that provide complementary data?

How do you get an extended test drive? In the past, I have considered renting a car from Hertz to use for a couple of days (I have Gold so can request specific models). Do dealers let you do this too? I loved driving the Mazda 6 around after some kid side-swiped my Beetle in his parents SUV, but it is too big for me as an everyday car. Does the Mazda 3 have a similar feel while driving?

Lawrenceville is a very nice area, and you should be able to find many nice places to live in and around there. The best prices on rentals and home purchases are not to be found in Princeton, however. The cachet and the ambiance of that town have led to astronomical housing prices. A gardening shed would probably sell for 1/4 of a million $$ in Princeton!

The Mazda 3 is more of a “driver’s car” than the other compacts. If you are a “spirited” driver, you will probably like the Mazda 3.

The AWD on Subarus is constant, with no dashboard control to turn it off.
(Interesting triva factoid: Subaru is currently co-developing a 2-seater sports car in conjunction with Toyota. It is slated to feature a Subaru engine and RWD, and to be marketed by both Toyota and Subaru. Whether this car, which should hit showrooms in 2010, will have optional AWD is not yet known.)

Hyundais are now definitely more reliable than the earlier models were. Some Hyundai models are now among the most reliable in their class–including the Elantra.

Both Ford and Buick are reliable, and in fact, are probably the two best American marques in this respect.

In terms of an extended test drive, remember the power of the Law of Supply and Demand. Car sales are way down at this point, and many car dealers will be much more willing to accomodate requests like this than they used to be. Just don’t expect any courtesy or deal-making with the “hot” sellers, like the Prius and the Fit.

Central New Jersey around Princeton is not going to require 4WD or AWD. I learned to drive in Morris County, further North, and never had a problem with 2WD. Later I lived in Somerville and worked in Princeton so I know the area, though it’s been 30 years. Yes, salt is a problem for older cars. Washing the car and getting the under-body wash is the best thing to do for it. Just keep the gook hosed off as much as possible. I don’t see much need for seat warmers, but I must admit they are nice on a cold Winter morning. My Accord has them and my wife likes them.

As for specific models, I second the Hyundai Elantra as a much under appreciated little car. My daughter has had hers for about 6 years now and only needed a clutch master and slave cylinder in the last 6 months or so, other than that it hasn’t really needed any repairs except for a bad power window switch fixed under warranty in the first month. I do like the Mazda 3 also. It is more of a “driver’s car.” You should spend some time trying out seats to see what is comfortable for you. I like my Accord, but some folks on this bulletin board say it’s too harsh for them. Seat comfort is way too dependant on the individual for me to recommend anything specific. Good luck.

Can you get into and out of a car after the surgery? If your knees are still problematic, you might consider a small SUV. My neighbor and a friend both drive Honda CR-Vs due to knee problems. It’s very easy to get into and out of. It won’t great gas mileage, but it will be easy on your knees. A 2WD CR-V has EPA mileage of 20/27; the Accord gets 19/29 for the V6 and 21/31 for the 4-cyl.

Knee is doing much better, thank you. I could always get in and out of front seats even of difficult cars (stand with back to car, sit down, pop the brace to 90deg, swing legs in). The back seat was a whole different story, and I worry that my creaky old bones 10 years from now won’t like it either.

I never lived in NJ…but visited there enough to know it really doesn’t get a lot of snow. We get a lot more snow in NH and you can EASILY get around in a decent fwd vehicle with just decent all season tires. If that’s good enough for NH…it’s MORE then good enough for NJ.