Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Like Buying a Swimsuit...

by B. Strong

...only much, much more expensive.

After 18 years and around 175k miles, our sole car, a well loved 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon, is reaching the point at which repairs are more frequent and more costly than we'd like. Plus there's the whole lack of AC thing, which didn't seem like such a big deal in the car's original hometown of Seattle but makes for rather sweaty and unpleasant traveling in New York's summers.

We didn't think we were terribly picky when it came to automobiles. (Did I mention we drive a 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon?) But, it turns out we are. See, we'd like a car that can do some modest hauling (in particular, of kegs & carboys, bicycles, and camping equipment, sometimes concurrently), isn't an SUV, is reliable, will fit through the door of our vintage garage, and gets roughly the same gas mileage as the Corolla (still 30-33 mpg in "city" driving).

After hours of on line research, it turns out our ideal car is ... a 1990 Corolla Station wagon.

Suggestions from readers or co-bloggers who actually know something about cars and likely car manufacturing trends are welcome.

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Comments:
How about a 1991 Honda Civic wagon?

Maybe this will help:

wagons by mpg
 
The Toyota Matrix is a Corolla wagon, more-or-less. Its passenger room is only 5 cu. ft. less than a Camry's, and cargo volume is decent. It gives up a little fuel economy relative to your Corolla (30/36 with a manual, 29/34 auto), but gives you "safety" in return.

The Prius is very similar in passenger capacity, but a bit smaller under the hatch. Friends who have 'em, love 'em, and real-world fuel economy is still very good.

The Mazda3 5-door is more powerful and relatively fun-to-drive, and can be equipped with heated front seats if you're inclined to splurge. Its fuel economy is a bit short of the Toyotas (26/33 manual), but the 'Touring' models come with traction and stability control systems, which are an important safety feature (also optional on the Toyotas).

Among mid-size wagons, pickings are much slimmer. The VW Passat wagon is very nice, but the 2-liter engine's rated mileage is 23/31 on premium. (Though if you have only one car that you drive about 10K miles per year, that may not be a totally terrible hit.) A TDI diesel model is forthcoming, and will offer both decent performance (esp. by the standards of your old Corolla) and excellent fuel economy -- the EU rates it at 27 mpg urban and 41 extra-urban. I don't know if it will pass NY state emissions muster, or if it'll be on sale within your time frame. While our blog pal Mrs. Coulter has had terrible experiences with her Jetta, Consumer Reports lists the new Passat's reliability as above average.

Feel free to e-mail me if you want more suggestions...
 
Thanks guys. Tom, I may take you up on that offer.

I do find it interesting that manufacturers seem to have so few (public) plans to offer hybrid wagons or even compact SUVs. (e.g., Why the highlander, and not the Rav4?) Maybe there's some financial reason related to production retooling, or maybe it's just too soon.

At any rate, I predict that within about 10 years, driving a SUV on the left coast is going to be about as socially acceptable as smoking, which is to say only slightly better than spanking your children. Or at least, it would be if car manufacturers offered better non-SUV alternatives for family transport.
 
There's a dirty rumor going around (and by that I mean, "I was told by the salesman") that Honda is going to offer a hybrid CR-V either this year or within the next 2-3. That's a small SUV (or a really tall station wagon, depending on your perspective) and so might work for you.

Dunno if it's true, but I can believe it might be since we're talking Honda here.
 
Honda is trending diesel for larger cars (which includes the CR-V by virtue of mass). They sell a well-regarded diesel four in the Euro Accord (aka Acura TSX) and CR-V -- 29 mpg on the EU urban loop in the CR-V and 31 in the not-for-US-sale Euro Accord wagon. That Accord gets 48 mpg on the extra-urban loop!

A next-generation version of this engine reportedly will meet US emissions standards and is expected to be installed in the new U.S. Accord in lieu of a hybrid.
 
So, if I understand Tom & the linked Honda article correctly, by the 2009 model year at least two of the Euro-diesels will be available in the US.

This sounds like a great excuse to procrastinate. Yup, it IS just like buying a swimsuit...
 
Heh indeedy.

An efficient CR-V is very likely, as is a diesel Accord sedan. I wouldn't hold my breath for a wagon (as an Accord or a TSX 'Touring'), though.

Anyway, you can fund a lot of repairs with the cost of a new car. So unless the Corolla is threatening to leave you stuck in an upstate NY snow drift w/o notice, procrastination pays.
 
I see I've already been invoked as the anti-VW voice, but I'm going to chime in anyway. The Passat wagon is very nice and roomy. However, I am wary of the CR reports--I was talked into the Jetta by a husband using positive CR reports...apparently it takes time for all the problems to appear. People rate them highly when they're new, because they're just so nice to drive. It takes time and experience to make you jaded on the whole thing. Also, the AWD Passats have a *terrible* reliability record, plus they're pricey.

Thus far, we've been pretty happy with the Subaru Outback we bought last year. It's had no maintenance other than scheduled oil changes (at this point in the Jetta's life, it had spent over a month total in the shop). The mileage isn't that impressive--about 24-25mpg in mostly city driving (I forget what the rating is--that's what our actual experience is). The back seat is a bit cramped, though, particularly when there's a car seat in it.

I believe that one of the Toyota SUVs is available in a hybrid now (the Highlander, I think?). My parents are soon going to buy a new car, and they have a legitimate need for an SUV (they now live at the end of a two-mile dirt road in a place where it snows a lot in the winter). They've been thinking about a CRV or a Rav-4, but I'm going to push them to look at the Highlander as well. Though my dad will probably balk at the hybrid premium.
 
The regular Legacy wagon sheds some weight, height, and price relative to the Outback, and yields another MPG or two -- esp. on the highway. It's not a bad choice as an AWD wagon, but as Mrs. Coulter says, its fuel economy is OK given its AWD but not great. The back seat room may not be so much of an issue relative to the Corolla.

The Highlander hybrid is nice but pricey -- its base price is nearly $10K above the RAV4/CR-V. I'd gotten the Lexus version w/the same engine as a service loaner, and while it was smooth and powerful, I wasn't too impressed with its mileage given the hybrid premium.

It's reasonable to take CR with a grain of salt for brands whose quality history hasn't been that great. (On the flip side, your problems date roughly to the start of VW's quality CF; turning points are hard to predict by any means, and flatly impossible to predict with retrospective surveys.) On the plus side, their methodology will pick up longer-term problems if they're latent. Still, auto execs should take note of the cost of convincing people that their cars no longer suck.
 
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