Kelsey is a freelance sports writer who lives in DC. She hasn’t owned a car in a long time but given the current circumstances, she isn’t jazzed about using transit and rideshare. She is looking for a car that can get her out on the weekends and go hiking, but is also easy to park around town. What car should she buy?
(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )
Here is the scenario:
Hello buds! I’m in a bit of a weird situation. I live in DC and I haven’t owned a car in almost ten years, and have been really happy without one in my very walkable city. I didn’t realize, though, how often I was using ride sharing services until this pandemic set in. Now I feel extremely trapped in the walkable radius of what used to be a vibrant and fun area to live in. This weekend, we got a zip car and went on a hike and my brain ignited. Ah ha, I thought, the answer to my trapped feeling is a car. But I have absolutely no idea where to start. I love read half the articles on this site, but I’m still completely lost! I don’t know how to drive manual, but would learn if I could. Are we allowed to learn right now?? Everything is so strange and scary.
I am not a daily driver. But I want to drive the car about 150-200 miles each weekend to go for nice day hikes with our dog. I will also take the car for reporting trips which can be as long as 12 hour drives, so I need something reliable. This has left me confused about something even as basic as used vs new. I would also like to use the car to drop off little gifts of baked goods to my friends in the city, so I guess it should be good for city driving too.
My new favorite hobby is hiking. Most of my hobbies are indoors: cooking and painting and reading. But my husband wants the car to be able to carry his guitars and amps and shit for shows if those ever come back.
I don’t like to be too high off the ground because it makes me feel too far from the road (is this crazy). I’m torn between buying something used and cheap for like $10,000 or maybe getting a new car for up to $26,000.
Budget: maybe $10,00 or maybe $26,000?
Daily Driver: Not really
Location: Washington, DC
Wants: Reliable, practical, low to the ground, easy to park
Doesn’t want: Something too big or too tall
Kelsey, you are among what seems to be a growing trend of city dwellers who are rethinking the idea of car ownership. A lot of folks aren’t super comfortable with being crammed into public transit given the current pandemic situation, and rideshare has its own set of issues. What I have also found while speaking with car buyers in similar situations is they share your used versus new cars conundrum. A lot of people think if you get a used car it needs to be really cheap or you have to swing in the opposite direction and just get a new car, that’s not really true.
The tricky part about buying used cars under $10,000 is that these are often best purchased from private sellers and most dealers peddling the cheaper stuff aren’t usually the most cooperative. Getting a pre-owned car from a private buyer will likely result in a better value than a dealer, but also requires more legwork and precautions with the current situation.
Since your budget allows for it, I would suggest looking at quality used cars around the $15,000 mark. At this price point, you can get something newer, with reasonable miles, and perhaps some warranty left. There is no shortage of good picks in this range, but I would start with something like this 2017 Toyota Corolla iM, with under 30,000 miles. These cars are super reliable, easy to park and the hatchback provides plenty of space for baked goods, music gear, and whatever else you are moving.
Kelsey! As I read your e-mail, my mid-morning mental fog began to lift! Eyes wider with every new sentence! Interested in learning to drive a stick! Lowish to the ground! Room for dog/amp/cakes! Great on a road trip or a mountain road! Easy to park! Could it be? Kelsey is... a prospective GTI owner? It certainly could be!
Now, you didn’t mention performance as a requirement, per se, so a normal Golf or even a wonderful Golf Sportwagen could be your answer. But when the joy of driving is so affordable, so sensible, so practical, why not get this GTI? Why shouldn’t our friend Kelsey have the satisfaction of winning the odd stoplight drag race? Doesn’t she deserve to follow a nice hike by flowing effortlessly downhill, around corners, windows down, with stereo playing a favorite song? Doesn’t unnamed husband need to load his gear into a solid German hatch with plaid seats? Guys, of course!
For better or worse, I spend a lot of time with real auto journalists—people who drive hundreds of cars every year. The GTI is a car that a lot of them paid their own money to buy and it’s a popular recommendation. It’s quick enough to be fun but not intimidating. There’s a ton of useful interior space, it’s comfortable and easy to see out of. I’ve had three of ‘em if you include my wife’s current car, a 2015 GTI manual.
I remember hiking! I used to do it all year long when I lived back in California, and the family’s trusty 1992 Camry trudged up the Sierras to trailhead after trailhead. This is to say that you don’t need a big chunky car in any way to go hiking, but something reliable and roomy, something that encourages you to go out.
So you’re looking for a practical, used, probably Japanese delivery vehicle, but with some style.
This vehicle exists! Not only that, but in the late 1980s, Nissan designed a vehicle specifically for this purpose!
It’s called the Nissan S-Cargo. It looks like a snail, it has a super high roof and tons of space for all your shit, and even though it was sold in limited numbers, it was made using normal economy car parts designed during the Bubble Era, when Japanese carmakers were flush with cash and willing to invest in overbuilt designs meant to last.
Certainly a new Corolla hatchback would do a similar job, as would a recent GTI. But I think the S-Cargo is the way to go. A couple are for sale around your budget at Duncan Imports over the mountains in Christiansburg, Virginia. Look at that face!