New vs. vs. later

I’m seeking the infinite wisdom of the collective audience on the Car Talk forums to help guide me on my next automotive step.

Short story: I bought a 1996 Jeep Cherokee in July 2008 to “have no car payment during graduate school,” which turned out to be fallacious thinking. I’ve put in about $9,000 of repairs, including a new clutch, new A/C system (New Orleans was too hot to go without it), completely new front brake systems, shocks, springs, and a rebuilding of the steering system. Now that I’ve completed graduate school and am gainfully employed I’m looking to make a decision on my current vehicle situation.

The question(s) is do I keep the Jeep, which is running okay (I can probably get another year or two out of it without any significant repairs (cross your fingers), or do I buy another vehicle and dump the Jeep? If yes, New? Used? Certified? Lease?

I’d like to have a monthly payment no more than $300, ideally less than $200. I would like a sedan that gets good MPG, has a sun/moonroof, and is safe. I’m transporting young children in my car as a part of my job and safety is a huge concern of mine.

What says the collective Car Talk audience?

200~300/month should put you around the 10~12k price range.
I’ll let the others comment on what you should get, but I’ll pass along some advise about the buying process:

1: NEVER tell the salesman how much you want your monthly payments to be, this will hurt you in more ways than you can think. If they keep pestering you about it, come up with some exuberant amount like $600/month, $750 if the car is REALLY nice, then watch their face, and then continue with the conversation.

2: Don’t talk about trade in until you’ve worked out what the vehicle you’re looking at will cost out the door

3: When looking at used cars, maintenance is more important than brand. If buying from a person, ask them for the maintenance records. If they can’t provide them, then keep looking

4: Always have a car checked out by a mechanic BEFORE you by anything. If they won’t allow you to take it to a mechanic, or atleast meet you there, keep looking.

5: Check insurance before you buy too. You may find that a Fusion is cheaper to insure than a Focus, or something like that. But it will give you an idea on where to start looking when you get the various quotes. Look online at places such as and copy the VIN down and call your agent.