Economical commuter, with a tolerable slushbox?

My daily commute is about 30 minutes, and my work requires me to drive a lot. I occasionally need to carry our baby, dog and bulky items. For the really big stuff I have a truck.

I think a fun little econo-hatchback is what I need. Easy enough, but there’s a catch: I often hit traffic, so even though I’m a manual-shift guy, it has to have an automatic transmission that won’t make me crazy.

Here are the criteria:

-fun to drive
-fuel sipper
-automatic transmission
-old is okay, but new enough to have airbags
-budget of around $6,000

What do you all think?

Mazda 3 or Ford Focus hatchbacks

The Mazda 3 is not a fuel sipper if you get the 2.3 liter engine. Go for the 2.0, but good luck finding one for 6 grand. I second the Focus, though.

I don’t know of any slushbox that’s gonna be tolerable. I guess a middle ground between a direct connection and PRND is a VW with DSG transmission. Of course, BMW, Mitsubishi, Smart, Toyota, not to mention Lamborghinis and Ferraris have automated manuals. All of them are either too small or too expensive. Try to find a Golf or a Rabbit so equipped.

Any make and model that fits you needs. After a few years of use, the difference from one model or another is not as important as how well it has been serviced. The worse car you can buy is the one that the prior owner is selling because it needs service, which he likely put off until it already has damaged the car.

The best you can do is to pick out one that might work for you and then take it to a local independent mechanic to find out what they think of it before you commit yourself. If they don’t want you to do that, pass on that one and look for another.

Good Luck

Honda Civic Si. I’d prefer manual even in traffic, but if you must have auto this car is still fun to drive.

I would add the Mazda Protege Hatchback; you can get a good one for less than $6000. It’s also more economical than the Mazda 3.

Looking again, a Mazda3 or Civic Si is out of your $6000 reach. However, you could find the Mazda 3’s predecessor, a Mazda Protege5 for that price. But it will likely have 100K+ miles on it. That’s probably the most fun to drive.

I think a Focus ZX5 hatchback or wagon is your best choice; great to drive and depreciates faster than the Mazdas. And that wagon holds a LOT of stuff.

Other choices are a Kia Spectra5 hatch, Suzuki Aerio hatch, or a high mileage Toyota Matrix. None are as enjoyable to drive as the Protege or Focus, but compared to a truck…

Stay away from any VW old enough to be only $6000. They are all pre-2005 and you don’t want to roll that dice.

Unfortunately, a lot of great hatchbacks have recently hit the market, but the selection is really limited for the years in which you will be shopping on your budget.

Always heard good things about the Focus.

After some quick CL searches, it’s hard to find a Civic Si hatchback that has an A/T or hasn’t been horribly abused by some spiky-haired punk. How did I miss out on this business of selling coffee-can exhaust tips and faux-carbon-fiber? Those guys must be making a killing.

@emajor, I’ve always had that impression about the VW’s too.

I’m not too afraid of a well-maintained car with 100k+ on it, in fact I think I’d prefer it because I won’t mind it getting a little beat-up.

What do we think about the Scion TC? Didn’t see anything in my range on CL, which is weird because I thought Scion was supposed to be Toyota’s cheapskate little brother?

Test drive the scion tc and it was no where near as fun as the Celica gts. Another one you can look at is the sadly forgotten Acura RSX

A 2wd Saturn Vue. Some of the early Vue’s had a Honda V6 (2002-2003), that would be the best one to get. The get 20-25 mpg and have lots of room and are quite compact on the outside.

2005/2006 Chevy Cobalt LT sedan. We have a 2009 and our kids love it. I’ve driven it several times and it handles well, gets good gas mileage, and is easy to get into/out of. That’s important when putting kids in the back. I would specifically avoid any Toyota or Honda product. They will certainly be reliable, but the initial purchase price will be thousands higher for an equivalent car.

II don’t know why an automatic drive would “drive you crazy” unless it was a very short trip. But my automatic is so smooth and jerk free that you can only notice the 1 to 2 shift. It is not an econobox tho.

@EllyEllis, the problem with an auto transmission is that it can’t read your mind, so say you goose the throttle to merge safely on the freeway, the transmission is usually in too high a gear to accelerate quickly and there is a delay for it to shift down. Sometimes the transmission can’t make up its mind and will “hunt” through several shifts to find the right gear. This can be very frustrating when there is an 18-wheeler bearing down on you.

Some are worse than others, and the problem is usually worst with the cheap, low-powered cars I’m looking for.

Well, none of the above applies to my vehicle. To me it seems to always be in the right gear. But like I said, it is not an econobox car. It ain’t a luxury car either. Some times on a long grade it will downshift but all you notice is the sudden more power. But I imagine you would have to downshift a 6- speed manual too. What you have to do is buy a GOOD vehicle with a GOOD transmission.

You may be thinking about significantly older cars. More modern auto transmissions are much better. A car from the mid-2000s won’t have the same problems you mention. When you test drive a candidate, take it onto the highway and see how it works. There is a long, steep hill near me that I use to test any car I want to buy. If it can’t make it up the hill without downshifting, it’s off the list. Set up your own “obstacle course” to test candidates on.

Seriously, there is no one more critical of a car than I am., ask my wife. I hate jerks, bumps sloppy transmissions, bad shocks and many other things. Oh and rattles. But I now have a minivan with 52k miles on it and the only time I can feel it shift is from 1st to 2nd gear. I can slow down to turn a corner and it surely downshifts but I can’t tell when, and I can’t tell when it shifts back up. I can kinda tell by the sound of the engine, which by the way makes more noise thru the firewall than I like for it to. It doesn’t even jump or move when I put it into drive or reverse. It shifts into 3rd and 4th so smoothly that I wonder it it is OK. If it has a Torque converter clutch, I can’t tell when it locks up.
I don’t know how many vehicles have this smooth of a transmission but I never plan to drive a manual shift car.
SO, Dustboy, insist on an automatic, you will not be sorry!!
P.S. I drove a 2001 4 cylinder S-10 with an automatic over 200K miles for Carquest Auto Parts without any repair to the transmission. And I have driven automatics for 60 years and have never had one repaired. The last one I drove 140K miles before trading for my present vehicle. (in 15 years).

Don’t the Nissan Versa’s have CVT? No shifting to worry about.

Well, dustboy, even the best automatic is not going to know you want to be in a passing gear ahead of time. Not until physicists figure out how to place little blackholes and wormholes inside your transmission computer. Then your transmission might read into the signal that you’ll order up in the future.

For now, you either have to lock it in a lower range yourself (in that case, I’d save my money and DIY old school style) or push down with your right foot well ahead of time, by leaving enough space between you and the car in front so you would have room to do it.

As much as I hate automatics, I have to say that the 5 speed automatic in Mom’s Honda Fit was one of the best that I’ve driven in a small car. An extra gear allows the car to be in the right gear most of the time. It’ll hold any gear that it needs while going uphill. Choose the “Sport” version and you get shift paddles behind the wheel. If you are feeling adventurous about VW reliability, I’d reiterate their dual clutch transmissions offered in their diesel versions, as they have the most direct mechanical connection between the engine to tires.

chunkyazian, as far as I can tell, my transmission does fine when I need passing gear. Have you ever driven a “real car”??
You must hate automatics as much as I hate manuals. Now the last auto I owned (before this one) had a feature that I disliked. If you were cruising down the freeway and needed more power, the TCC would release and it would shift down to 3rd gear at the same time, when all it needed was for the TCC to disengage.