What car should we buy?

Our trusty 1999 Mercury Sable station wagon has developed a leak in the power steering system, and we’ve been quoted over $1000 to fix it. We think it’s time to look for a new car, instead. We can afford to shop around a little, but since my husband is getting to work by filling up the power steering fluid once or twice a day, we need to get a new one soon.

We could buy either new or used, but we’d prefer something no more than a few years old. He uses the car to drive to work, occasionally to haul lumber or other equipment, and to take the kids to daycare (2 kids, ages 4 months and 4 years, so we have several years of carseats ahead of us still - Washington state requires a booster until age 8). We don’t want a car with a high center of mass and a high rollover risk, and flex fuel would be nice, but not by any means essential.

We don’t really care about most luxury car features. We can afford to spend a fair amount, but we want it to be for function, not for “styling” or features we don’t really need. We’re not interested in a rear-seat DVD player, for example. We don’t camp, and I can’t envision circumstances where we would need an off-road vehicle. But we would prefer a four-door, because that has a big functional advantage when you’re trying to get a baby in and out of the car, and we do want something big enough to haul around big boxes, crap from Costco, etc.

What models would you suggest that we look at?

The old standby Honda Accord seems to fit your bill. If you want to spend the same amount of money and get fewer amenities, you could go with the Toyota Corolla. Both vehicles have solid performance histories and will likely last you ten years.

Did you even read the OP? Neither of these small sedans would work well in hauling lumber unless a roof rack were added - even then it would be a pain.

I don’t think the OP needs a truck or SUV, but they can get a lot more utility by getting something like the Honda Element.

My daughter has a '98 Olds Regency sedan.

It has a huge back seat, huge trunk, gets 22 mpg around town and 31 on the road if you keep the cruise @ 70 or less.

Mechanically similar cars built through the middle of this decade are Buick LeSabre and Pontiac Bonneville. The Buick is preferred because cautious old folks are the likely first owners.

I doubt that the Honda Element beats a Le Sabre’s gas mileage and that status-symbol “H” in the grille means they won’t deal like a Buick dealer will.

You’re not going to get much lumber in the back of Buick LeSabre, either.

What about something like a Suburu Outback? There’s plenty of room for hauling stuff around, but it still has a pretty low center of gravity. Reasonably fuel efficient, and my friends that drive them love them.

From your description of your needs in the OP, I would recommend another station wagon. It’s hard to find new ones anymore, because everyone has gone the way of the cross-over. The Dodge Magnum is classified as one. There is also the Subaru Outback. Saturn also made a great wagon up until 2003.

Ford has a few crossovers and Dodge has its Caliber (much cheaper) and I think Chevy’s HHR is a “crossover.” Those are cars with SUV-like room and fold-down seats, with a low center of gravity. You might like those if you’re coming from a wagon.

Sounds like you need a minivan. Sure, they’re terminally uncool, but they’re designed especially for people like you.

If I may channel the Car Talk guys (Click and Clack), if there’s nothing else wrong with your car and it’s been reliable, why not fix the power steering system, a one-time $1000 expense is certainly a lot cheaper than the cost of a new car and/or spreading out payments and interest

Well, this will be the third big-ticket item in the past year, and no guarantee there won’t be another. The car is just wearing out. DH takes great care of it (the mechanic at the shop commented on that when he brought it in for the quote on this system), but a lot of things are staring to go wrong, and he definitely doesn’t need the hassle of being stranded somewhere with a 4-month-old - it was bad enough the last two times it broke down when he had the 4-year-old with him.

Are there minivans that don’t have the center of mass so high up? I think that’s DH’s main objection to them.

I’ve been eyeing Subaru Outbacks on the highway and thinking they look like a great possibility. But I know very little about car makes and models, so the collective expertise of the Teeming Millions is great. Thanks!

You sound like my mother. She thinks any car that’s not a sedan is going to tip over going around a corner.
I don’t think any minivans have a high center of mass. They all ride fairly low to the road and have a wide wheel base.
I’d second someone else’s suggestion and look at a Honda Element. Extremely versatile and family friendly.

The Mazda 5 is a nice blend of minivan utility and car-like size and feel. It’s considerably lower to the ground than most minivans and doesn’t look half bad.

Also, the 5 debuted in 2006, so the first crop of post-lease used models should be hitting the market right about now if you’d like to go that route.

If you like the idea of a Subaru Outback, what about a Baja?


They stopped making them in 2006, so it would have to be used. But, it’s a car with a truckbed - really practical for lumber hauling.

Also, look at the Forester. There’s a new model this year, and it is now Consumer Reports’ top-rated small SUV.

Snark noted. Guess I missed that one word in the three paragraphs and must now be punished.

I just bought a Saturn Vue, which has lots of room, particularly when you fold down the rear seats, but you probably aren’t thinking of an SUV. However, they do come in 2WD, are very stable (at least the '08 models are), and are on sale at the moment.

Just to expand a bit on the Subaru recommendations, please note that the Outback is basically a higher-spec version of the Legacy. Based on the OP’s comments, a Legacy wagon would likely be more appropriate, as it has most of the same features for a few grand less.

I highly recommend Subies, of whatever model. My Impreza wagon, purchased new in Nov. 2000, has passed 125,000 miles without a significant mechanical malfunction.

All minivans I can think of essentially use an adapted sedan suspension and powertrain layout, and at least the ones I’m most familiar with (Chrysler family and Toyota) actually have the engine sitting pretty low in the bay. I don’t have stability numbers on them, but while the driver certainly sits higher in a minivan than a sedan the c.g. of the vehicle is probably not much higher than a car (the vehicle shape is high and blocky, but most of the mass is the transmission, engine, and lower chassis).

However, there are other things about most minivans I don’t especially care for, specifically the crash ratings. I second the Subaru Legacy/Outback sedan; the Forester (basically an estate wagon) is also a good choice if you want a light SUV-ish vehicle with decent cargo capacity and a low c.g. I’ve owned several Subarus and can say only good things about most of them (the Justy sucked, though).

Doesn’t Honda still make an Accord wagon? That would be a good choice as well.


OK, upon a bit of research, it looks as though the Legacy wagon has been dropped for 2008. Bit of a shame, that.

A 10-foot surfboard and lots of CostCo stuff, plus kids will fit inside a Honda Fit.

Have you considered a pickup truck? The prices have dropped tremendously. I’m partial to the Dodge Ram quad cab which seems like it would meet your needs.

Check out the Mazda3. I’ve had the 5-door for a year/13k miles, and I’m quite happy with it. Quite a bit of room, nice interior, very respectable handling and performance. I get 30+mpg on the open road.