We Want To Swap Two Crappy Cars For One Good Car! What Should We Buy?

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Image: Subaru

Tim and his wife want to switch from two older cars to one newer, but much nicer car. They need something family-friendly, but not too big. It should be fun to drive, and with decent fuel economy. Even with a respectable budget, this one is a challenge. What car should they buy?

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

Here is the scenario:

My wife and I have two young kids, and we’re looking to replace our two older, crappier small cars with one larger (but not huge) new car. Neither of us drives for our commute (whenever that starts up again), but we want something reliable and modern for errands around town, weekend getaways, the occasional road trip. We have a lot of desires, and we know we probably can’t tick every box, but we want to come as close as we can.

We need something big enough for family of four with decent cargo space, but don’t want a huge SUV. Really would like it to be as eco-friendly as possible (I work for an environmental nonprofit and we run an eco-friendly side business, so we’d like to walk the walk to the greatest extent we can, even if it’s still an ICE). Need an automatic transmission, and prefer FWD, but would grudgingly accept an AWD. We live in South Jersey so we don’t really get a lot of snow. We do want it to have some aesthetic appeal. And I’m not looking for a sports car or anything, but it would be great if was even a moderate amount of fun to drive. Finally, it would be nice if it could tow a small trailer, but that’s not a deal-breaker (we just sold our utility trailer for our side business, but may have need of another in the future).

I love the VW Sportwagen and the Ford Flex, but my wife is lukewarm to ice cold on them (she hates the Flex, and it gets garbage mileage anyway). We both like the Mazda CX-5 styling, but we worry it might be on the small side, cargo-wise. She likes the look of the Rav-4, and I don’t even mind it, but it seems really boring, and we’d like to spend a bit less. Neither of us are super into minivans, despite the practicality.

As for the budget we can spend up to $30,000

Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $30,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: South Jersey

Wants: Family and eco-friendly, fun, stylish

Doesn’t want: Something too big or too thirsty.

Expert 1: Tom McParland - You Need The Swiss Army Knife Car

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Photo: Erik Shilling

Greetings from a fellow South Jersey resident. On the surface, finding a decent family-friendly crossover for under $30,000 should be easy, but when you throw in the fun, fuel-efficient, and stylish components that complicate things. What I wanted to do is find you a nice RX450 F-Sport, which is about the perfect size for a two-kid family and has the hybrid powertrain, but the bulk of those cars have some serious mileage.

You can find very nice examples of the gas-powered RX350 within your budget, but the majority of these cars will be all-wheel drive, and will only get you about 26 mpg on the highway. Here is one up in MA if you are interested in that route.


However, what I really think you need is what I call the “Swiss Army knife of cars” which is the Subaru Outback. I get that you probably want something a bit different than your neighbors, but there is a reason why the Outback is so popular: it just does a lot of things really well but isn’t really excellent at any of them. The mid-size wagon offers plenty of space for two kiddos and gear and it comes standard with all the safety tech you can ask for. It’s also reasonably fun to drive and can achieve up to 33 mpg on the highway. The all-new body style has a starting MSRP of around $27,000 and is even rated to tow up to 2,700-lbs with the base engine. It’s not going to be an exciting car, but it will basically check every box you need it to.

Expert 2: Raphael Orlove - You Do Not Need The Swiss Army Knife Car


A car that does everything is not only 1) flawed but 2) boring! A plain Subaru Outback is by no means a bad car, but you’ll soon discover that all the little things that go wrong on it bother you. Why? Because you won’t even notice all the nice things it does (like carry all your stuff and family without drama) because it does them all with such a blithely competent air.

You need a car that is straight-up bad at certain things.

It is the badness of a few traits that are sure to highlight the goodness of others. And in your case, I would suggest trading normalcy, sportiness, and newness in favor of pure, cushioned, unobstructed comfort.


You need a Toyota Century.

Alright, a used Lexus LS would do just fine at the job of being a big car that won’t break down and will keep you relaxed in all situations. The Century, though, will have an extra dash of strangeness that will constantly remind you hey, I decided to have a car that is more relaxing than anything else on the road. The Century is the car you got if you were royalty in Japan. Are you royalty? You should feel like it, at all times. You deserve it, bud.


You will have to drive down to Christiansburg, Virginia to buy this 1992 in grey. It has less than 19,000 miles, comes with a digital dash, and is plusher than anything short of a 1970s Cadillac. For $21,000, I would make the trip.

Expert 3: Andrew Collins - Hard Truths

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Photo: Carmax

Hey Tim, I hate to be a pill but uh, “automatic, front-wheel drive, fuel-efficient, abundant cargo room, and fun-to-drive” are inherently incompatible. Especially if a Mazda CX-5 seems “too small.” You’re just going to have to make some compromises somewhere.

It sounds like what you mean to ask is: “What’s the least-lame large front-drive crossover?” You could get a nearly-new base CX-9 for under $30,000. They’re nice-looking, probably comfortable for road trips, and even can get close to 30 mpg. This 2020 model caught my eye, that one, in particular, isn’t near you but there are plenty for sale in New Jersey too. A few seconds on Carmax’s site turned up a few you could easily test drive.


You might want to peek at the last-gen Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, too. I put something like 600 miles on a 2017 model and found it very comfortable and classy. The “fun” is limited to neat ambient lighting and a nice sunroof, though. That’s just how it’s going to be at this type of car and price point.

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