Into the land of used cars – a car shopper’s tale

By Bruce A. Smith

After living without a vehicle for the past seven years, my sister gave me $5,000 to buy a car. Of course, I’m grateful, but it’s also scary. I want to purchase the right vehicle and not get a junker, so I’m taking it slow and doing research. Here is what I’ve learned over the past two weeks.

A few things. To begin, I see this adventure as having three parts: first is to visit dealers and learn the names of the vehicles. Then, I need to sit in them and see if I fit – I am six-foot and 250 pounds – and along the way get basic info, such as gas mileage and base sticker prices for comparison.

Secondly, I need to find reputable car lots and take a few potential vehicles – probably 10 years old and 125,000 miles on the odometer – for a spin to see how they handle and if I can envision myself driving it for years. If I don’t see something that I like and can afford, then it’s off to Phase III – Craig’s List and searching for a private sale.

The first phase wrapped up yesterday with a visit to Honda. But first, I had to FIND the Honda dealership, which took a bunch of asking and driving. I had originally thought that it would be in the car lot strip called “River Road” in northern Puyallup, which is the Center of the Earth as far as I can tell for car sales. However, Honda is about the only major dealer not there.

But Honda is next door in Sumner, WA and I fell in love with everything they had on the showroom floor. Hondas and Toyotas are my first choices, and I visited Toyota on River Road last Monday with my friend Ray. Then it was Ford, two red lights down from Toyota.

Here’s what I’ve learned, and my basic comparisons:

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Honda:

  1. I fit into everything I tried, including the minuscule “Fit” which gets 36 mpg combined, city/hwy. $17K, base sticker price, brand new.
  2. Next up in size is the Civic, which is great on gas (33) and is snug and cozy, but okay. $20K.
  3. Accord is the next size sedan bigger and it’s a real family car. Plenty of head room, elbows, knees, etc, plus it gets 26 mpg combined city and hwy. $24K.
  4. But my favorites were the mini SUVs: the CR-V (27), which has been around a while and I should find a used one, and the brand-new HR-V, which is a tad smaller; 29 mpg combined. Both are $22K.
  5. The Pilot is the battlewagon of the fleet and I didn’t bother to get into one since I don’t have an army of kids to schlep around. Same with vans, such as their Odyssey.

~

Toyota:

  1. Yaris – I didn’t even bother getting into one. Tiny, but it does get 40 mpg on the hwy. Base sticker is $15K.
  2. Corolla is their basic family car. 32 mpg combined. comparable to the Civic. $18K.
  3. Camry is next in size, comparable to the Accord. 34 mpg. $23K.
  4. RAV-4 is their mini SUV. It’s a sweet rig and my favorite all around. It has been very popular for years. It feels like a truck, and I do like the feeling of sitting up higher on the road. 29 mpg. $30K.
  5. Prius, the world’s most popular hybrid, I believe. Certainly the most common in the USA. Little did I know there are four different types of Prius’, all with at least 50 mpg.
    A. Prius Hatchback. The most popular and most common in the used market. But I didn’t fit into the showroom model very well. Also, the severe slant of the windshield is distracting.
    B. Prius Liftback is new and is slightly bigger. Windshield slant not as extreme.
    C. Prius “V,” is a stretch vehicle and is designed as a station wagon type of car. My dealer didn’t have one for display.
    D. Prius Prime, is the newest model and is a super-duper hybrid. It has a bigger storage battery and is a “plug-in,” so it can be charged directly from an electrical outlet. As such it can drive solely on the battery for 25 miles before the gas motors has to kick in. Therefore, Toyota estimates that normal usage will generate over 100 mpg. $27K.

~

Note: A “hybrid” means the vehicle has two motors – a gasoline-fueled engine and an electric motor that is synchronized to the gas motor for supplemental power – and thus delivers better gas mileage. The technology is so advanced that the two motors work together seamlessly, and Toyota seems to own the hybrid market. Besides the Prius, it also offers a Camry Hybrid that delivers 42 mpg, and a RAV-4 Hybrid that is near 40 mpg. However, the only Camry Hybrids that I’ve seen “used” are on public auctions from governmental fleets, such as the city of Sacramento, and their mileage is 125,000+. Thus, their batteries have seen a lot of recycling and there is some concern how much life would be left before the battery would have to be replaced – read pricey. One of my DB Cooper chat friends mentioned this concern as he has family members who have Camry Hybrids and they love them.

As for hybrids, Honda makes a few, I think, but their featured hybrid is called a Clarity. It is comparable to the Prius Prime, as it is a plug-in as well. However, the Clarity has a greater charge capacity, so it can drive 47 miles before it needs the gas motor. As a result, mpg estimates are virtually impossible to predict, but certainly 100+ mpg, probably 130+ for most drivers under most conditions. Base sticker price for the Clarity is $36K, which is several thousand more than the Prius Prime, and delivery time for the Clarity is measured in weeks, not months or years, as the early Prius’ did. Current delivery times for a Prius Prime escaped me, though.Note: One strange oddity of hybrids is that they get better gas mileage under city conditions than highway. That is because the technology to recapture braking energy has advanced so far that it can recharge the battery more efficiently than the gas motor can at high speeds.

In the past, I have owned mostly pick-up trucks. When I was in New York I needed them for my business, and then after I moved to Washington, in 1993, I bought a used 1984 Toyota pick-up with 115,000 miles on it. I loved it, and drove it until 2011 when it gave up the ghost at 464,000 miles. I would love to buy another one, but sadly no one seems to make these kinds of pick ups anymore. Certainly not Toyota.

But they do make pick-ups, so I took a look at the huge array of “full-sized” pick-ups, the Toyota Tundra, and the somewhat smaller “Tacoma.” But even the smaller Tacoma was more pick-up truck than I wanted or needed. The base model came in a fuel saving 4-cylinder engine, but it only got about 24 mpg. One of the reasons is the size and weight of the truck. The smallest has a crew cab, and it even had double doors for easy entry and exit. Whew. $25K, too.

For me, that leaves Ford Rangers and Chevy S-10s, which are now called “Colorado,” I am told. Dodge makes a mid-sized pick-up called a Dakota, but I have no interest in Dodge products. They all seemed primitive compared to Toyotas.

But my technical consultant, John, my ol’ mechanic down in Eatonville, tells me that Ford Rangers are the best of the lot. “But forget the Rangers with the overhead cam engines,” he told me. “They’re nothing but trouble. Get a Ranger with the overhead valve engine. They’ll run fine.”

Which brings us to Ford. I’ve owned Ford pick-ups: two F-250s and one F-350 dually, so I have a good history with the company. Plus, a lot of people buy Fords, so there are a lot of “used” Fords available, so they’re a reasonable source of getting a good vehicle for myself. Besides, the Ford dealership was near Toyota and I couldn’t find Honda, so I stopped in at Korum Ford, which has a huge lot, spanning blocks along River Road.

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Ford

  1. The Fiesta is Ford’s basic car and is tiny. Hence, I didn’t even try it. But it’s $14K.
  2. The Focus is their next car in size, and is comparable to the Toyota Corolla. 31 mpg combined, and it’s basic sticker price is currently $22K, but Ford is offering sizable rebates this month – April 2018 – and the Focus is eligible for a $4k discount, making it an $18K value.
  3. The Fusion is next, and is comparable to a Camry or Accord. It’s roomier, and definitely looks and feels like a family car. 24 mpg, and $24K.
  4. Ford has several SUVs and the smallest one is called an Echo. Again, I didn’t try it.
  5. The next-sized SUV is the Escape, and it is a sweet car. It’s like a RAV-4 or CR-V. The escape gets 24 mpg and is $24K, but the current rebate is $6K.

As with the Hondas and Toyotas I wasn’t interested in large sedans or vans. I understand that Ford does make hybrids, called a C-Max, but I didn’t seen any on the Korum lot. Nor did they have any printed materials or brochures to take home. One salesperson told that “everything is online.”

While visiting these dealerships, I also got to speak with other customers. I learned that “luxury” cars generally have their own name. Hence, Lexus is the luxury line for Toyota, Acura is the Honda variant, and I suppose Lincoln is the Ford equivalent.

Upon returning home from these site visits I sought some clarity with John. He told me that luxury cars, besides being more expensive than the “regular” models, also come with some down-side. First and foremost, repairs tend to be more expensive as most parts have to come from the dealership. In addition, the luxury models tend to be “loaded,” meaning they have lots of additional features, such as radar and automatic light dimming, which means that there are more devices and components that can need fixing.

In addition, John offered some advice on Ford products: “The Fusion is decent and is twice the car that a Focus is.” Another friend told me that he loves the Escape and has one that has traveled 285,000 miles.

In the spirit of Ford and Google, I checked out Chevy without going to their dealership. Here’s my take on their product line for vehicles I can afford and would like to drive:

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Chevy

  1. The Spark is comparable to a Ford Fiesta. 33 mpg, $13K.
  2. Sonic is comparable to a Focus. 33 mpg, and $25K
  3. A Cruz is next, and gets 31 mpg; $16K.
  4. Malibu is a full-sized family car, and cost $21K.

Now that I’ve gone to the dealerships and learned the names of the models I see on Craig’s List and on public auctions, it’s my time to cast my net a little further. Today I went to small car lots, beginning in Yelm. This is my second phase.

The last time I purchased a vehicle, I bought it at Attwood Motors in Yelm. So, I started back there. The economy must be booming because their inventory was quite low, but they did have a Camry for sale – only 112,000 miles and $5,000. But it was a little scary looking at a 24 year-old, 1994 model. However it was in tip-top shape. Unfortunately it was too small for me. Even after lowering the seat to its maximum, my head was still bumping into the ceiling.

John also advised me not to go to the giant used car lots on River Road, such as Northwest Motor Sports or Car Maxx. He said that outfits like this just buy vehicles at auction and don’t do much to secure its value or reliability.

My next step is to scour Craig’s List and find individuals who want to sell their car. In the meantime, I’m contacting all my friends and getting leads.

One irony exists, though. To buy a car, one needs to have a car to get to the dealership, small lots, or a residence. To that end I am grateful that a friend is letting me use his work truck to go hunting for a car. All I have to do is return it with a full tank of gas.

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