The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

I Need A Car For A Beginner! What Should I Buy?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled I Need A Car For A Beginner! What Should I Buy?

Kelly is a reporter and her husband works in theatre. They live in Brooklyn and don’t really know the first thing about buying a car. They want something safe, reliable, and affordable. That is, they want something good for a “beginner.” 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 Jalopnik friends! Kelly Stout who used to work at Jezebel here. By virtue of living in cities from age 18 on, both my husband and I have never owned cars (unless you count the $300 1985 Volvo station wagon I drove in high school which I bought with cash). We’re 32 years old. It’s embarrassing. We don’t know the first fucking thing. But now we find ourselves wanting to own a car so we can go visit my mom who lives alone and wants company—without getting on a train. We also want to go visit an uncle who lives in Massachusetts. We want to buy a car for beginners. But it’s not just that we want the car to be for beginners, we also want the buying process to be for beginners. What is leasing? What is a loan? Again, I know this is embarrassing. How much are cars even supposed to cost? Why is it that one car will be like, 3,000 bucks but then one that doesn’t look that much nicer is like 30,000? Help. I know this is embarrassing. Please be nice to me.

We don’t make a lot of money and we don’t really want to spend a lot on a car. I guess we should buy something around $10,000 or under. I do know that I do not under any circumstance want an SUV, but we need something big enough to fit the two of us and our 60 lb dog.


Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $10,000

Daily Driver: Sort of

Location: NYC

Wants: Safe, reliable, affordable.

Doesn’t want: An SUV

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Okay Listen Up...

Image for article titled I Need A Car For A Beginner! What Should I Buy?
Image: Hertz

Kelly, a lot of your questions isn’t so much about the vehicle itself but rather the process. So I’m going link a whole bunch of stuff that would be good reading before you even start thinking about the specific vehicle. These two posts cover understanding your budget, and what you need to know about being a “cash buyer.” The next group discusses the issue of pricing and negotiating used cars from dealers, you may be surprised that there typically is not a lot of wiggle room on the asking price, and that a lot of dealers are going to play games just to get you in the door. Finally, here are some common mistakes used car buyers make and some warning signs of shady dealers.

If after reading all that you feel like your head is going to spin, I’m going to give you a bit of a shortcut: Buy a used rental car from Hertz. That company is undergoing bankruptcy and dumped a ton of used cars onto the market. Don’t listen to the people that tell you that rental cars are “abused.” Rarely are people taking their rented Nissan Sentra off jumps and doing burnouts. In fact, if you look at the majority of used cars under $10,000 on dealer lots in the NYC region, the rentals are in pretty good shape. Here is Hertz Certified 2018 Kia Forte with 50,000 miles for just under your budget. Of course, you will need to pay tax and fees, but there won’t be any games or nonsense. Unlike the shady used car dealers, with Hertz you will have a return policy, so take it your a trusted mechanic and have it checked out. If there are any issues found, give it back.


Expert 2: Jason Torchinsky - Don’t Be Embarrassed, Cars Are Tools

Image for article titled I Need A Car For A Beginner! What Should I Buy?

Kelly, first, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. Just because we’re all a pack of insufferable automotive obsessives doesn’t mean we expect everyone to be, too. We understand that for many people, cars are tools, transportation appliances that you use as needed, and can still even have fun with. Like a dishwasher. Who doesn’t have occasional fun with their dishwasher?

Brooklyn is a bit of a challenge for car ownership as well, but it’s certainly possible. Because I’m a believer in good utility-to-scale ratios, I’m going to suggest you get a smallish car with a box-like design to maximize the internal volume to the external space it takes up. Since my old favorite in this category is getting maybe a bit older than you’d like, I’ll suggest a Kia Soul.


The Soul is a good little car: the boxy design affords a lot of interior room, it’s small enough to be parkable and manageable in a dense urban area, and I think they’re even not boring to look at or drive.

Here’s a 2016 one in Queens for just six grand! These are great normal-human-life, multipurpose little transportation machines, and Kias have proven to be pretty reliable and easy to maintain, generally.


A Soul seems like a safe, rational bet that won’t bore you into a coma and isn’t a needlessly huge SUV that gives you no actual advantages. Trust your Soul.

Expert 3: David Tracy - This One Wasn’t Easy


I’ve tried to make a rational car purchase only one time in my life, and that was a Honda Accord, which I bought for $1,000. I figured “Hey, it’s a Honda. It’s known to be bomb-proof, and I’m buying it from a coworker, so this can be my reliable winter car.” The Accord ended up being a nightmare, so from then on, I abandoned the idea of buying “rational” cars in favor of just buying whatever the hell I wanted, regardless of condition.

I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make other than that I’m not the best person to be giving sensible car advice, though after spending 12 hours in a sensory deprivation tank, I was able to squeeze out a single, solitary rational thought—my first in at least a year. That thought is: 2012 Mazda3.


The one shown above costs eight grand, apparently comes with a warranty per its Facebook Marketplace listing, only has about 68,000 miles on it, has a great tan interior, is the coveted hatchback body style (meaning it’s practical), and gets good fuel economy. My brother owns a 2010 hatchback, which has a different powertrain, admittedly, but he’s loved it.

Anyway, that’s about all of the sensible advice I can give for now—that was painful. To help myself feel a bit better, here’s a $3,500 1990 Mercedes 350 SDL—yes, that’s a diesel S-Class with a long wheelbase. It’s awesome.


Expert 4: Raphael Orlove - This One Wasn’t Easy

All of my coworkers are right, of course, except that they’re all wrong. I myself wanted to buy as simple, straightforward, and sensible car that I could. That meant buying a car with technology from the 1930s and is so simple that I did once fix a broken part with chewing gum. (I’d always wanted to do that.) I bought a 1970s VW.


Now, I don’t know if I would do that in your case, particularly because my personal VW is, at this very moment, in a sorry state that took about three days to drive home from the Finger Lakes, but I will say that buying a car that is meant to be totally utilitarian, simple, and affordable doesn’t preclude you from buying something underbudget and interesting.

[Editor’s note: At this point Raph’s computer died, leaving him unable to recommend a creaky 1990s van only sold in Japan or put a picture below his name. It’s for the best. To put a cap on this, he says instead you should buy a Honda Fit. As the owner of a Honda Fit and fellow city dweller, I could not agree more. Here’s a 2015 model that’s a little above your price range but with low miles and is certified pre-owned.—Erik Shilling]


Do you want us to help you find a car? Submit your story on our form.