Small car for long trips

There was an interesting discussion on small cars and highway driving recently, but I’d like to solicit some more detailed recommendations.

I’m a car-less city guy moving to a small town where I will definitely need a car. However, I don’t need it in town at all – I would use it exclusively for trips to other cities, especially for 1000-mile roundtrips to see the family.

I’d like small and as fuel efficient as possible; but one criticism I’m hearing about the Fit/Yaris types is that they are perhaps a little underpowered on the highway – and 90% of my driving will be on the highway at 70mph.

Since Tom and Ray are so adamant that a new car is never cost-effective, I’m starting to think about an older Civic or Corolla, or something along those lines. I’d greatly prefer hatchback for carrying camping gear, etc, so that seriously limits my options.

Other possibilities would seem to be Accent (but evidently cheapish and not much fun), Focus (but I’ve never bought an American car and am leery), Golf or Jetta (but they seem not to have the reliability of the Honda/Toyota).

So: First, am I correct in thinking that a slightly beefier car will handle the highway better (e.g., Civic over a Fit)? Second, if I can get a Civic hatch with 80,000 miles on it for $10k, is it worth just shelling out another $5k for a new fit? Finally, what other models should I be looking for?


Since you “don’t need it in town at all” the best small car for long road trips would be a rental car. Your per-mile cost will be much lower than actually owning a car (new or used), paying for insurance, registration, taxes, depreciation, parking, maintenance, etc. If I lived in NYC this is what I would do – no car needed during the week, rent a car for the weekend. With a rental, you get all the advantages of driving a new car with none of the disadvantages. Give it a try for a while and see if it works for you. If not, then go used car shopping. And, get a bicycle for in-town trips and exercise.


First I would not count out an American made car. While they don’t always have the best reliability records, I believe if the numbers were available we would find out that they are as good or better than any other cars.

Most, but not all, differences in reliability between makes is not a difference in cars, but a difference in owners. If an owner fails to do the maintenance or drives it hard, there are going to be reliability problems.

I have even less information about VW cars, but I suspect there is some sort of similar issue with them that may be owner related rather than car related. I have had several VW’s and have kept them about 200,000 miles each and I seem to have escaped any real problems.

Do pay attention to Twotone. He makes some good points. You will need to determine what works for you, but there are many people who could save a lot of money with his plan.

Note: I have never owned an American made car and they have never been my favorites, but there really is noting WRONG about them, they just don’t generally fit my personal needs and desires.

You’ll do fine with a 2 year old Civic or Corolla, my brother’s Civic a/t consistently give 38 mpg highway. While you say you won’t need it day-to-day, will you really? Most small towns have no public transport, so weekly shopping, etc, can require a car. If you truly only need a car every other month, then rental’s a good option.

Even a five year old civic would be fine, but after reading twotones and teaxases answer I think he/she has the plan for you. No maintenance, no annual insurance, no repairs, and no parking costs while not in use.

For a 500 mile one way trip, I’d be more concerned about comfort than gas mileage. Something along the lines of an Impala, Malibu, Accord, Camry or Fusion

Great comments, thanks to twotone and texases and waterboy for the perspective. I have actually been considering exactly this solution. I’ve been entirely bike-sufficient for nearly a couple of decades now, so I am confident that I don’t need a car for 99% of in-town trips (I just came from riding to Target and Lowe’s out in the strip mall). For that reason a rental is very appealing. However, in a town as small as this one, there are a lot of longer trips that aren’t quite doable by bike (and there’s almost no transit) – for example, if any of my city friends takes the train to visit, I’ll need to pick them up 25 miles away. Renting a car for that seems silly. And then there are trips to see bands in the next town, and dates three towns over… so I do think that a rental would restrict me too much. But I’ll see how it goes; I’ve only been here a couple of days.

A quick estimate, by the way, shows that the costs of a $10k used car are roughly equivalent to getting a weekend rental for about 40 weekends a year, or maybe 10-12 days a month all year – which really puts the extreme costs of car ownership into perspective.

Thanks. I have never owned American either, only Hondas, but most of my rentals are American and I find them uniformly poorly designed, with terrible visibility and boatlike steering and unnecessary size. But perhaps a little Ford Escort or something would be worth looking at.

I don’t know how a Honda Fit handles interstate highways, but I can speak to the Civic. I have a 2003 Civic EX, with 5 spd manual trans. 70 to 75 mph is no problem all day long. When I encounter hills with the cruise control on we go right up the hill no problem, no need to downshift.

I’d imagine the newer Civic’s do just as well. While not a hatchback the back seats do fold down and my Civic has a larger trunk than you’d expect in a small car. I won’t let my Civic go for $10K, and it now has 84K miles. By the way the mpg on those 70-75mph expressway trips is just over 40 mpg. That’s why I’m keeping mine.

After taking my 1998 Civic DX on many trips, I wish it had cruise control. It has a manual transmission, and in 5th gear, it has enough power to accelerate moderately going up hills. Its only shortcoming on long trips has to do with road and engine noise. All Civics have this problem. They were not designed to be quiet cars. I wear ear plugs when I take long trips on my motorcycle, and I sometimes think about wearing the ear plugs with the Civic, but I don’t since I would not be able to hear my iPod playing through the car radio. Sometimes after the end of 12-14 hours of driving, I will lay down in bed and my ears will ring a little. It isn’t a ringing really. It is more of a deafening silence.

Whatever car you get, make sure you test drive it for an extended period on the highway to make sure you are comfortable in the seat and you know you can stand the road and engine noise.

I suggest you test the Fit, the Civic, the new Honda Insight, the Corolla, and some Scions. Scion has some nice hatchbacks. While you are at it, take a look at the Nissan Versa and the Yaris.

The Civic’s power to weight ratio is about the same as the Fit. You need to test them both, and if you aren’t happy with the power to weight ratio, check out the Civic Si and the Corolla Type S. These are the sportier versions of these cars.

most of my rentals are American and I find them uniformly poorly designed, with terrible visibility and boatlike steering and unnecessary size.

Yes and that is one reason why I have never owned one, although I really liked the Corvair and an American Motors small car that my father had. However you need to remember that many people like that boat like feel and many people feel safer and more comfortable in a large car.

“Jumbo Shrimp”, “Army Intelligence”, “Small Car/Long Trips”.

I think you have it backwards. The heading should read “Small Car For Short Trips” or “Large Car For Long Trips”.

Small cars are best suited for short trips (lower speeds, frequent stops and starts, good city MPG).
Large cars are best suited for long trips (higher speed safety, comfort and good hwy MPG).

Large cars are safer in a collision, especially when involved with other large cars, trucks at highway/expressway speeds. Insurance companies know this and set the premiums accordingly.

The difference in MPG between small and large cars is not as great when most driving is done on highways/expressways.

A reliable, large, safe, comfortable, 30+ MPG American badged car with seating for six and a large trunk can be purchased at a bargain price and money can be saved on insurance premiums to off-set a slight difference in fuel economy.

You ask, " First, am I correct in thinking that a slightly beefier car will handle the highway better . . . ?" This is correct. Get a large car before heading out on the higher speeed byways and mixing it up with large cars and trucks. Personally, I don’t consider a Civic to be a large car, but I drive large cars.

You don’t want to be a “cross” on the shoulder of the road. Leave the less safe, less comfortable little cars, mopeds and scooters for the shorter, lower speed trips for which they are best suited.


P.S. Oh, I forgot “quiet”. My car is “library quiet” at 70 mph. That is very refreshing. Passengers can have conversations without raising voice levels.

I like big, heavy, roomy, comfortable cars. Like Crown Vics. BUT, I once owned an RX-7 Mazda that I could comfortably drive 600-700 miles a day no problem at all. VERY comfortable seats and driving position, and a joy to drive at high speed.

I Have Had RX-7 Company Cars. They Are Fun To Drive.


How about a used late 80’s mercedes turbo diesel station wagon

You would get great mileage possibly up to 40 mpg
The engines on these cars are indestructible
Plenty of room for your stuff
And it’s a benz

with 150-200k miles on them they are going for 4-6grand a piece

look into it?

Look into a sport coupe. I have a '96 Eclipse that still gets 25 mpg even though I “drive it like I stole it”, and I m comfortable for long highway stretches. Granted, the suspension is stiffer than for a bigger cruiser, but I think the seat is better suited for long distances (on a decent highway) than the seats in econo sedans.