Suzaynn is a professor who lives in San Francisco and studies air-pollution. She plans on using an E-Bike to get to work but still needs a small car to carry people and things. While she wants to limit her carbon footprint the lack of easy charging limits her from getting an EV. What car should she buy?
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Here is the scenario -
I’m a professor and I study air pollution, especially biomass smoke. I’m shifting toward an e-bike for commuting and in town, but want a small combustion-powered car for camping and hauling people and materials. I’m newly divorced and equipping for independence. My curb parking space is 175 inches long, so I want a vehicle that’s under 175 inches. I need to be able to haul my cargo bike, which is 67" long and weighs nearly 80 pounds, so I want a vehicle compatible with a hitch-mount bike rack. Passenger comfort matters: my son is growing like a weed and my aged parents have a hard time getting in and out of my dying 2001 Corolla. Excellent mileage and mechanical longevity are important too. I like to DIY and build stuff, so rails for a roof rack for lumber or furniture would be great, but it isn’t mandatory.
Poor fuel efficiency and high emissions are not OK. I don’t want an all-electric vehicle since there aren’t any charging stations in the places I like to camp. I can drive a manual but I don’t want to deal with SF traffic and parking with a clutch. My budget is up to $15,000.
Budget: up to $15,000
Daily Driver: Sometimes
Location: San Francisco
Wants: Spacious but not too big, Fuel Efficient,
Doesn’t want: Anything longer than 175 inches
The E-bike life is a great one, especially in San Francisco but every now and again you need a car to do car things. I can totally understand you wanting to keep your carbon footprint to a minimum, but not wanting to go with a full plug-in.
There are a number of compact cars that are both fuel-efficient and spacious, but I think the Kia Niro might just be the perfect fit. In fact, I could make the argument that it might be one of the best commuter cars you can buy for the money. We have recommended the Niro before and I will continue to sing its praises. It is a blend between a crossover and a wagon with a hybrid powerplant that can get up to 51 mpg in the city and 46 mpg on the highway.
The crossover-ish ride height means your parents will have an easier time getting in and out. With the rear seats down the Niro will provide around 55 cubic feet of interior space and I’m sure there is any number of aftermarket add-ons like racks and such for any other gear you are moving. The Niro is 172 inches long, so tight parking shouldn’t be a problem. The only real downside is that you are going to have to cast a wide net to find nice examples within your budget. Here is a 2018 model with just under 27,000 miles for just under $15,000.
I see you have quite a bit of requirements here and I think I have a vehicle that meets all of them.
The Ford Escape Hybrid is a vehicle that sits high so your parents don’t have to sit down into a low car. It’s also short enough to fit into your parking space.
This vehicle also works well with DIY projects and camping. It has roof rack rails, a 110v socket and high ground clearance for when the road to that camping spot gets a little rough. Front-wheel-drive models of the Escape Hybrid are rated at 34 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. That’s not the best fuel economy out there, but I think it’s a decent compromise for the utility it offers.
Here’s one that comes in a cool green color with low miles. It’s pretty far from you but I’m sure you could have it shipped and still be in budget.
Suzaynn, what you basically described with your needs is a compact, reliable, motorized box on wheels. Happily, such a vehicle exists, and I know it well: The first-gen Scion xB.
I’m speaking from a place of very impressive authority here, because I have owned an xB, and can confirm that it will do everything you’ve asked: it’s small on the outside, shockingly roomy on the inside, absolutely reliable, easy to maintain, and gets excellent gas mileage for a non-hybrid; low to mid 30s in city driving is normal, 35+ on the highway.
There’s more rear seat legroom than in most SUVs I’ve driven, and I have an aged mom who got in and out of it just fine. Fold those back seats down and you’ve got a little van—I’ve had a big e-bike in there, as well as a full-sized washing machine, and many, many hardware store lumber runs.
Plus, they’re dirt cheap! Here’s a super-clean automatic one not far from you for only $3,950! Sure, it’s a 2004 and has plenty of miles on it, but these things are mechanically pretty bulletproof. With all the money you’re saving, just set a couple grand aside in case anything major happens and you’re good to go.
These first xBs are automotive multitools — roomy but compact, nimble, efficient, comfortable. Don’t overthink it — this’ll do what you need.
My recommendation could be seen as the boring amalgam of all the cars my colleagues suggested but I think that’s unfair. The C-Max is one of those cars that gets a bad rap for doing what it was meant to do well, which apparently some enthusiasts find unsettling.
The C-Max was Ford’s answer to the Toyota Prius and I think Ford got it right as I like the C-Max more than the Prius. It has Ford’s European styling; a little Mondeo here and there and when you pick the right color it can even look like a fun, practical car. There’s enough room for people and cargo and it fits your parking space nicely, coming in at about 172 inches long.
You can easily add a tow hitch and roof rack to bring all your kit, though that may dent your mileage, but not by much. You could opt for a C-Max Hybrid which we reviewed positively, or even go for something a little more interesting like the C-Max Energi.
You can find these under budget all day, and you could even spring for something that’s still backed by Ford. The one I’ve linked is nearby, seems to carry its warranty with the relatively low miles and looks great in ruby red!
If it’s reasonably-sized, fuel-efficient utility you want, I think I have the perfect suggestion: the Kia Soul. Now, the boxy Soul has been around for a while now, but it saw a redesign last year, and I reckon the new model is a pretty fantastic value considering your criteria.
Need a vehicle shorter than 175 inches? The Soul comes in at 10 inches under your limit. Need legroom and cargo capacity? The tall roofline will accommodate growing teens and adults alike, plus you’ll get 62 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded down. You could go the hitch-mount bike rack as you mentioned, and although the $15,000 one I’ve found near you doesn’t have cross bars or roof rails installed, you could add those yourself with a variety of first- or third-party options. Additionally, the Soul is rated at 28 mpg city and 33 mpg on the highway, which is robust even if it isn’t the most fuel efficient car here.
The only problem with the Soul is a similar one to the Kia Niro that Tom recommended: it’s new, so you’re not going to have the easiest time in the world finding one at or well under budget. Then again, the Soul is so cheap for what it offers — a brand-new 2021 base LX starts at $17,590 — that there’s no question affordable secondhand examples will be out there. It’s just a question of tracking one down at this early stage in the car’s lifecycle.
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