First Car Purchase


Hello, my wife and I are looking into purchasing our first new car by the end of the year. We need something that is safe enough to drive in the snow (And manly enough of course, e.g., 4wd). But it is mainly to be a family car. Good gas mileage is a bonus.

We’re penny pinchers, so we’d like to get a good bang for our buck, but we’re willing to pay for quality.

Most likely we’ll buy a used car, we’ll have around $20,000 cash to spend by the time we purchase the car, so I’m hoping that will open up our options a little.

We’ve never purchased a car for ourselves, so I thought I’d question the field for car make/model suggestions, but also tips as well.


P.S. My wife isn’t too fond of minivans, especially since we’re looking for something that isn’t prone to getting stuck in the snow.


A tip: Don’t get to caught up on needing 4wd, unless you live in a mountainous region. In snowy/icy conditions stopping power is vastly more important, and 4wd isn’t going to help you there. Besides, you aren’t going to get stuck unless you go off the road, and 4wd probably wouldn’t get you out of the ditch anyway.

Are you looking to spend $20k total, or is that a large down payment? How large is you family?


Other than those few people who live in those few areas that get lots of deep snow and don’t have snow plows clearing the roads, you don’t need 4WD.

4WD will help you get going and get out of a ditch if you slide into one, but it will not help you stop or stay on the road. It is very rare that 4WD is needed to keep you going on the road. On the other hand modern Winter Tyres will help you stop and stay on the road under those conditions and even help you get out of the ditch in the event you don’t stay on the road. Maybe not quite as good a 4WD (with winter tyres) but almost as good.

That said the biggest safety factor in snow is the driver. Skill is important but prudence is even more important.

Frankly there is not really much difference from one car to the next for snow. The only one factor that may come into play is ground clearance and that is only an issue in a very few situations when the plows have not yet cleared the roads and not enough cars have passed by to pack it down after a deep snow and you are fool enough to go out.


Winter tires are key to not getting stuck and having full control in adverse winter conditions(stopping and turning). I have no idea where you live so not sure if AWD required. AWD can always be helpful for poor driveways and access though even with capable in the winter all-seasons.

If you need AWD your budget range can get you into a brand new Subaru Forester and Outback. They offer good fuel mileage for an AWD vehicle(eg mid 20’s). There is one minivan but only used with AWD (Toyota Sienna) that is recent.


I go along with the others in suggesting that 4WD is not always the perfect solution to winter. But I’m not going to dwell on that. What I do question is your decision to spend up to $20,000 on a used car, a family car. That is a healthy amount of money.

Take a look at new car prices. There is a wide variety of compacts and midsize cars that fall within your budget. You can buy a new 2009 model and have change to spare. You’d get the latest in safety features and fuel-savings options. And of course, you’d get the full manufacturer’s warranty.

You said that you prefer to buy used because “… I’m hoping that will open up our options a little.” No, it reduces your options to whatever’s available at shopping time. Maybe you can find a 5-year-old luxury car or upscale vehicle that has now depreciated to your budget, if this is what you truly have in mind. I still suggest you investigate what $20,000 will buy from a new car dealership. If the car of your dreams slightly exceeds your savings you can always put down a majority deposit and finance the remaining few thousand dollars.


I agree that buying a brand new car is always a terrible deal, especially if you only want to spend $20K. Anything new that you can buy for $20K will depreciate very rapidly, and you don’t have a chance of getting a 4WD/AWD. I would aim for mid-price cars that sold in the $40-50K range and are now in the 5 year/100K mile range. You have to decide on which specific make/model you want and test drive a bunch of them. Make sure you have a good pre-purchase inspection performed and reserve some of your budget for maintenance/repairs. You may find that you can find something you like for $10-15K and you can save the rest, just about anything will be nicer that the stuff you can buy for $20K new (rental car type junk).

I’m sure you can decide for yourself if you want/need a 4WD, AWD, etc. so I won’t lecture you. Just buy the best car you can find/afford and plan on keeping it for a long time. Let other people waist money buying new cars every few years.



I would stongly recommend that you go down to the local Barnes and Noble or Borders book store and pick up a copy of the Consumer Reports New Car Buying Guide. It’s a brillant book that shows every new car on the market(there’s so many to forget) their retail and invoice price, reliability data, tested fuel mileage and more.

As for my personal opinion, I personally prefer Honda or Toyota vehicles for their reliability and resale value with various other makes sprinkled in by model. Subaru as mentioned before makes some AWD models that achieve decent fuel mileage. The 4WD/AWD vs front wheel drive debate is a legitimate one depending where you live. I myself live in New England and I’m used to seeing the occasional 2-3 foot storm. If you’re the type who never plows his driveway after a storm, wants to blast through deep snow drifts or lives in an area full of mountains, a 4WD/AWD is a legitimate option. That said, a regular sedan can do wonders with snow tires and sometimes manage just with all-season tires.


I suggest that you consider a 2005 or 2006 Cadillac CTS. Go test drive one and see if you and the spouse like it.


IIRC, the AWD option was not added to the CTS until the 2008 model year. Are you seriously suggesting a RWD car for someone who is interested in 4WD?

If the OP lives in snow country, a RWD vehicle, even if equipped with traction control, will be at a distinct disadvantage as compared to FWD vehicles and AWD vehicles.


A little more information is needed on where you live. If you’re in a big city, then you really don’t need 4wd since most cities have snow plows that come through to clear the roads. If you live on a road where your nearest neighbor is a mile down the road(that’s barely wide enough for 1 car, let alone 2), then you might actually need 4wd. Also, a minivan will probably be less prone to getting stuck in the snow as a 4wd, since you might get too comfortable with it and wind up losing control.


“Are you seriously suggesting a RWD car for someone who is interested in 4WD?”

You betcha! Why not? Snow tires and a healthy respect for road conditions will go a long way. I had a Jeep as a rental in Boulder, CO. I never needed the 4WD during the snow storm. RWD and tires with lots of tread were an excellent antidote to the weather. Anyway, Craig58 lives in that-there snow country and he drives an RWD car.


Front wheel drive will be just fine for 90% of winter driving with good tires. The rest of the time you should stay home anyway. 4WD concerns me with the extra baggage but also how to correct in a skid. Most of the 4WD I’ve seen in trouble on the road never can correct once they lose control and just hit the ditch or an on-coming car.

I strongly suggest looking at new in this market place. There are great deals out there right now on great cars with long warrantees. You don’t need to pay cash if you can get 0 to 2% interest, just sock the money away instead. Honda, Acura, Buick, are personal favorites of mine-some in your price range and some not.


I have to agree with most of the others, 4WD/AWD is almost never really needed by the majority of people driving around with it. But, as Craig58 says, it’s your call. For $20,000 I’d be looking at a new Honda Accord or Hyundai Sonata or something along those lines, but that’s me and I prefer mid-size 4-door sedans. I pretty much always have. I’ve had smaller 4-doors, 2-doors, pickups, and even a Ramcharger (SUV), but I always go back to a mid-size 4-door. I like a quiet comfortable ride and room for 2 or 3 friends/family to ride in the back seat.

Front wheel drive and good tires will keep you from getting stuck in the snow. What other criteria do you have? You could be looking at anything from a Mini Cooper to a Cadillac Escalade, you really need to sit down and think about what you want and need and will use this car for and then decide what best fits those needs/wants/uses.

By the way, “manly” is knowing how to drive well enough to not need 4WD. :wink:


I’m with Ranck. For $20,000 or less, you can get a very nice new or few-year-old sedan. Some of the newer Fords have optional AWD, if that’s something you decide you want. You could also look at hatchbacks like the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, and the Mazda3 and Mazda6 5-doors. Some hatchbacks have optional AWD too, depending on the year.

You don’t mention children, so I’d stick with something relatively small to maximize your gas mileage. By the way - as a general rule, 4WD/AWD decreases your gas mileage fairly significantly. You’ll save money initially buying a car without AWD and you’ll save money on gas too, so only get it if you need it!

Just put snow tires on whatever you get, drive slowly, and you’ll be fine (do this even if you get AWD!). I’ve lived in the snowiest parts of New York my entire life and driven a minivan, an SUV with 4WD, a 2-door coupe, and a sedan, but I’ve never been stuck in the snow or even had a real scare.


Another option would be buying a cheap new-ish car for about 15k, then using the 5k to buy an almost new 4wd vehicle for those horrible days you actually need it. There’s tons up for sale with owners practically giving them away because they cost so much to fill up.


Hmmm…I replied a few days ago, but it looks like it didn’t show.

Ok, we currently own a 2003 Toyota Carolla with ~60k miles. It’s in great condition, and as far as a nice compact car, it is great.

We currently have one child, with another on the way (and surely another 1 or 2 children within the next 4-6 years).

We will be living in Rexburg, Idaho this next winter starting in January. Last Christmas we had to pull out a Honda Accord 3 times in one week. The place we will be living is on top of a hill, and potentially will have heavy snow. Long-term, we will be living in Idaho Falls, which gets less snow, but we will be traveling up to Rexburg often to see grandparents, etc. (not to mention recreational trips such as Island Park, Yosemite, which don’t necessarily require 4wd, but lend themselves to having 4wd).

Oh yes, and plowing/salting is not something they do so well in Rexburg…when they do, they usually plow a 2-4 plow of snow right in front of your driveway, just so you can practice shoveling snow =D.

Thanks for all of the replies thusfar, all very good things to consider.


Well, your Toyota should last awhile, so you don’t need to replace that, my $5k idea still stands though. There have been some posts on this board saying that dealerships are refusing to take SUVs/trucks in on trade because their lots are packed full of them because no one wants them. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find a 5 year old or newer SUV for about $5~7k, or you might get lucky and the sales manager might just give a new one away to get it off the lot. :stuck_out_tongue: