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Help Me Buy a Car (or Two?)

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After trekking across country with a newborn and a dog in two older cars we are thinking its almost time to have them replaced. My wife's car, a 2004 Jeep Liberty had a little trouble starting on one of the legs. The mechanic "juiced" the battery (technical term?) and we were good for about two weeks until it started to have the same starting problem again. Maybe a new battery is all it needs, but it has 120,000 miles on it and with the baby (a whole quarter year old today) we entered the "reliable transportation" part of our lives. Ugh.

Along those lines, it's time to look at my own transportation, a 2001 Ford Mustang. Nearly 12 years later, it's a good time to consider a better car for the New England snow. That limits me to just about every other car made in history. The only problem is that it has relatively few miles on it, 90,000, and drives quite reliably (if you don't consider the two breakdowns for a new battery and fuel pump last month).

It turns out that December is one of the best times to buy a car. In fact, five of the bests days of the year are closing out the year.

Today, we test drive cars. We just don't really know where to begin.

I've done a lot of research online, and to be frank, my dog makes better progress chasing his tail. We know we want an SUV that's good in snow. My wife also wants more of a luxury model, because she passed that up in the past... and well we can afford it. We've got a little of the Clark Howard family thing going on where I am happy with the best value car because it is a depreciating investment and his wife isn't quite as frugal (hey few can be). She's been looking at a used Audi Q5 or a BMW X3. She's looking for the bells and whistles, but honestly, the first thing she looks at is whether it can connect to her cell phone and play her music over it. Since almost all cars do that today, there may be hope to swing her to a more practical model.

After doing so research, I think our price point is around $35,000. With the luxury models that would be about a 2010 with around 20-25K miles on it. I hopped on Consumer Reports and saw that their extremely highly-rated Lexus RX450h fits the bill as well. The Lexus RX450h is a hybrid and it gets a very good 29 miles to the gallon, which I estimate will save us roughly $5,000 in gas vs. the Audi Q5 or BMW X3. My wife was quite receptive, fewer stops for gas is a good thing. I was confident we were on the same page, a good compromise between luxury and frugality... until I saw a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It doesn't have the same luxury name (though its the same company), but it does have many of the same options with the great gas mileage and it also one of the top SUVs according to Consumer Reports. So we've now got too great options, right?

That's where the research kind of fell apart.

The hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander costs about $6,000 more that the tradition non-hybrid version. So while we would get fewer stops at the gas station, it might not save us any money over the long haul. Going with a hybrid of either car might not save us money... and that's a stiff right hook to my frugality ego. It's made me think that it's worth opening up the search again... and why not test-drive a lot and see what's out there?

Also as I was looking into the Lexus RX450h, I noticed that TrueCar.com has quite a few people paying around $40,000 for a 2012. I had been seeing the 2010s for $39,900 that I figured I could talk into the $35,000 range. Now I'm wondering if we're just better off going with the 2012s that I expect them to want to clear out. I think I'll have to play that one by ear when we get there. I noticed that the online prices for the 2013 RX450h are around $56,000 and the TrueCar MSRP is around $46,805, quite a big difference... I can't imagine that they come with $10,000 of options.

As for what kind of car I might get, I haven't a clue. That Toyota Highlander might be a good fit, but it looks like prices can approach the Lexus'. That frugality side of me would probably be interested in test driving a 2010 Kia Sportage or whatever SUV Hyundai has (as you can tell, I've put a lot of thought into this) as I could probably get it for half of the luxury SUV that my wife is looking at. I've got a solo 401K that has tons of room to maximize and my eye on an investment property that I think could bring in a few hundred dollars a month, which just might be enough to make my car free.

Since neither of us really have any strong brand affinity, have any suggestions for us? I'm not too interested in particular reliability stories, but I've found they are all over the map. You can always find people who had trouble with any kind of car and people who will swear it is awesome. Without a big sample size, the information is kind of pointless and I think it only muddles our decision-making process.

Final Thought: If we do come home with a Lexus, I'll have to take a shower from all the egg on my face. For more than a few years, I've been writing about how much I hate Lexus' marketing in December: One Less Car Company to Consider and Surprise Honey, I Just Added $60,000 to Our Debt. If we do it, I'll probably have to post a picture of it with the bow, even though it is after Christmas.

Posted on December 26, 2012.

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11 Responses to “Help Me Buy a Car (or Two?)”

  1. Meghan says:

    The X3 gets 21.5 mpg and watch out for premium fuel requirements! I got one before I got serious about my finances. You can put mid grade in but not regular, so that is a cost. However, the used oftentimes comes with a 3 yr/ 100,000 mile warranty which is awesome. Mine finally runs out in March. Last note is that the steering wheel is tight. That’s great for handling but not so good for parking after you’ve had shoulder surgery. I’d like that Hyundai myself.

    • Lazy Man says:

      It seems like all the luxury SUVs require the premium fuel. That’s certainly something that we plan to look at, but the wife has to like a car that takes normal gas.

  2. Keli says:

    Careful of the Toyotas, they are loud! Meaning you won’t be able to talk to your spouse very well as you drive on the highway, it was like the windows were down. We bought a volvo xc60 for the same price point since it was so dang quiet. Depends on what’s important to you!

  3. robyn says:

    my clients that have hybrids find them highly overrated. they don’t get the promised mileage, the payback is 8-10 years and the batteries need replacing at some point, BIG BUCKS. i have a 2007 honda accord, 88K miles, no problems. worth every penny, bought it new. i had a 1986 honda accord, drove it for 10 years. my BF has a 2005 scion xb with 193K miles NO PROBLEMS, he bought it used in 2008 at 20K miles. consider HOW you will be driving in the future, road and weather conditions. also: TEST PUTTING THE CARSEAT IN. i rented a car once and couldn’t get the baby seat in the back.

  4. robyn says:

    oh yes, check the trunk space. can you get a stroller in and out easily?

  5. Jackie says:

    If you want to keep your frugality bone happy, look at total cost of ownership for the models you’re considering. Even things like oil changes can be extremely pricey for some cars.

    • Lazy Man says:

      Good thought, the Lexus TCO was really high – at least using Edmunds’ True Cost to Own numbers. I wish they’d let me put in my driving habits and adjust the costs… that would be a nice calculator to have.

      For myself, I’m looking more at the Subaru Forester. It’s such a New England car to have, but the all-wheel drive, space for our dog in the back, decent gas mileage (for its size), and price are all pretty good.

  6. Meghan says:

    Love Subarus but have heard that they typically blow head gaskets at high mileage. Out here in CO, they’re the state car anyway!

  7. MJS says:

    Considering my family is in the car business, I can give you a bit of first hand experience. We lease instead of buy (I won’t argue the pros vs. cons today), but I would say that when we looked at SUVs, we looked exclusively at Japanese (Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder). We eliminated the Highlander right away. It was too small for two kids and the trunk space was mediocre if you had suitcases and even a decent stroller. I am also partial to Honda and Nissan I guess. I just think they make better cars. We liked the Pilot and Pathfinder pretty evenly and just went with the Pathfinder because that was the best deal at the time we were looking. We like, but don’t love it.

    I know several people who recently bought used Lexus’ and they all love them. You can’t beat them for quality. There may be other factors for you, but in terms of pure quality, there is almost no comparison. I’ve driven in pretty much any car you could think of and I would take a Lexus over almost all of them (including the Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and Audi SUVs).

    • Lazy Man says:

      My wife had a very close family member get killed in a Nissan, she won’t even sit in one.

      I tried a Toyota Highlander and it felt huge to me coming from a Mustang. That was to be expected, but even my wife coming from a Jeep Liberty felt it was far too big.

      It was at that point that we looked into things the size as a Subaru Forester… better gas mileage and not too huge. It would be similar to the Honda CR-V. More on the car search early next week.

      My wife wasn’t wowed by a brand new Lexus RX450h, but a 2010 Audi Q5 was a dream to her. The Audi had too many miles, but I guess it just goes to show that you can never tell.

  8. Kosmo says:

    I’d definitely check to see if the Jeep just needs a new battery. Batteries aren’t exactly cheap, but it’s about the least expensive “problem” you can fix with a car.

    I think the “good in snow” attribute depends a lot on the driver. I’ve always driven pretty standard sedans (06 Taurus and 07 Elantra at the moment) and am comfortable driving anything in the midwest winters. However, we don’t get the extreme snowfalls you see in the northeast.

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