Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Baby Got (Hatch)Back: An Automotive Snark

Last week, car shopping went abruptly from "I should think about that" to "I need to do this right now," so I've spent way too much time lately at dealerships and on car websites.

Apparently, someone passed a law saying that all car salespeople must be male. Over the past week, I've dealt with I don't know how many salespeople, and they've been a multiracial, multiethnic group of young men. The demographics are pretty much the same as a minor league baseball team. I have no explanation for this.

I thought car shopping would be easy enough. I had my Consumer Reports at the ready, and I knew the parameters I had in mind. Cost is a real issue, given that the whole family is on one academic paycheck, so the cooler, more expensive cars were out of the question. Reliability is key, as is mileage; I consider money spent on gas or repairs to be money wasted. I don't do SUV's. And most important of all, it had to have enough headroom in the backseat to accommodate tall children. Still, I figured, with car companies desperate for customers, how hard could it possibly be?

Yuck yuck yuck.

I didn't get the memo, but it seems that, at some point, the car companies collectively decided that anybody who wants rear seat headroom should just buy an SUV or minivan and be done with it. Cars – by which I mean, “not trucks” -- have incredibly short back seats these days. It seems that the trend of higher bodies has collided with the trend of aerodynamic shapes to squeeze backseat headroom.

Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Fusion, Ford Focus, Mazda 3 – no backseat headroom in any of them.

The Honda Fit has headroom, but awful rear-seat crash test ratings, so I ruled that out, too.

The Scion xD has headroom, but it's butt-ugly, gets terrible mileage, and has one of the shorter windshields I've ever seen – it's like the thing is squinting. I sort of like 'visibility.' I use it every single day. No, thanks.

I've had lousy luck with Toytoas – I've buried two of them – and Corollas just make me sad, so that was out. (The Prius was out of my price range, anyway.) And I won't do Dodge or Chevy, just because I don't enjoy spending time in repair shops. (How Chrysler stays in business is a complete mystery to me. A few years ago I rented a Sebring, and couldn't believe the overall crappiness. My brother in law bought a Dodge truck new three years ago. At 50,000 miles, the transmission went. His mechanic told him they're notorious for that. Amazing. They're like big American Yugos, without the charm.)

After burying two Toyotas bought used in my grad school days, each having consumed several years' worth of repair shop intensive care, I have an allergy to the concept of buying 'used.' There's just something comforting in the concept of a warranty. I know that, say, a used Camry wouldn't have been an unreasonable option, but I'm just not there psychologically. Twice burned, real shy. Besides, with the two greatest kids in the world, I'd like the most current safety features I can get.

So, my latest in an ongoing series of hints I like to drop for the Big Three automakers: some of us have tall children, and don't want SUV's. Hint freakin' hint. Produce something decent -- reliable, safe, efficient, not-butt-ugly -- and you'll own this demographic.

Or you can keep producing unreliable, squat, poorly-engineered pieces of crap, and try to make up the difference with union concessions. Your call.

Also, I'm fairly sure that equal opportunity laws apply to car salespeople. I'm just sayin'. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that it's not actually technically illegal to have women on your sales team. Whether it would help, I don't know, but I'm guessing that the overall level of cluelessness might be a little less bad. ("I don't know about antilock brakes, but check out the CD changer!") Worth a shot, anyway.

And then there's Idiot Feature Creep. When did sunroofs become moonroofs? And why do about half the cars out there suddenly have them? I didn't get that memo, either. Little known fact: when they put in a sun/moonroof, you lose about an inch of headroom. When there isn't enough to start with, that's a big deal. Clearly, this is a conspiracy of short people. They're getting back at the rest of us for those high shelves at Barnes and Noble, or maybe that Randy Newman song.

So after all these years, and all this research, and all this looking, I'm back into the hatchback habit of my grad school years. Back to the egg. As The Wife puts it, I'm returning to my roots. All because the ()#%)# car companies haven't grasped that some of us have tall kids.

Confidential to the Ford Motor Company: Seriously, are you guys even trying anymore?

Uhmmm...Dean Dad, I hate to point this out, but a compact car for a family of 4 tall people isn't going to work.

You do need a bigger car. Try a Camry, Buick, Mazda 6 or Honda Accord. I'm pushing 5' 11'', and can easily sit in the back of an Accord.

The bad news is, of course, these cars are more expensive than the Civics and Corollas. But all have fairly good ratings, are OK on gas, and will give you the room you demand.

Yes, yet another trade-off that needs to be confronted....
"Confessions of a Car Salesman", edmunds.com.
Good luck, Dean Dad.
DD, I too am tired of American made crap in the auto industry. So last year I went with a Honda Accord and love it. $20K got me 30 miles/gal. and plenty of room. The 4 cyl engine is enough in the mtns of NC and saved me about $3K.
The moonroof thing - ever since Ford put their first one in, I think.

I know that's what they called it on my dad's early 90s or late 80s Taurus. The interwebs tell me it used to just be Ford's term for sunroof (since the 70s) but that it is now sometimes applied generically to describe glass sunroofs.
There was a good review (? right word?) of the 08 Accord in the NYT over the weekend, since I was going to say what calugg said.
I'm 6'1" and on my second Accord in 14 years. My previous coupe lasted just over 10 years, 120K +. Only two major repair issues- blew a seal and air conditioning compressor a few years apart. By that point it was paid for and repairs were cheaper than a car payment for the next 4 years.

I had to upgrade to a "family car" (4 doors) with my latest, just about the time the coupes started to look REALLY cool. It was a sacrifice I had to make since the wife drives a MommyMobile (Toyota Sienna).[sigh]

You might check out the new VW Beetles. They supposedly have a lot of headroom (but only two doors.)

An internet buddy that was in the car business for a couple of decades says the best time to buy is December- the dealerships will cut you the best deal to get cars off the lot.

Try to look at this without the biases you are holding.

Your needs: a vehicle that comfortably fits tall passengers in both the front and back seats at a decent price.

Your desires: A vehicle that is small (not SUV or minivan) and brand new.

Your results: Misplaced frustration at automakers because your needs and desires do not match.

Suggested alternatives: My family of tall people (my mom was shortest at 5'11 and my dad, brother and I were all 6'2") had a minivan and a 4 door F-series truck. We tried the large car route and it simply did not work for us. As much as Suv's and minivans are maligned, there is rationale for their existence. In addition, you should consider used. I have had goo luck have a used car inspected by an independent mechanic prior to purchasing it.
Two words for you:

Subaru Forester

Loads of headroom. Unbelievable reliability/safety. Passable gas mileage. Not technically an SUV, since it's a wagon (and you're still smaller than most vehicles on the road). And, according to my wife, not at all ugly. I'll admit that the jury's still out on that one.

It might not be for you, though. As the salesperson said when we bought ours: "There are Subaru people, and then there aren't."
Re: VW Beetle

Front seat headroom is great; back seat headroom (and space in general) is AWFUL. I'm 5'9 and felt enormously cramped in the back seat of my friend's Beetle.
Come on, you're a Dean. An early 00's Saab is calling your name. There is no safer car (see Folksam, http://wse000412-503-8.hosting.win.pi.se/trafikforskning/eng_sakrabilar.asp)

There's a wagon (9-5) or a hatchback (up through 2003, 9-3). The cars are mainly 4cyl turbos, which means 35mpg on the highway, and did I mention that they're the safest cars out there?
What about a non-SUV SUV--like a Honda CRV?
True, academia and SAAbs would seem to go together. BUT...

We bought a 6-year-old SAAB 900 from a friend for $6500. in the five years we owned it, we spent that much again in repairs. we longer have that car.

But the '95 toyota Tercel i got new for grad school is going strong after 143000 miles. And DH got 230000 miles out of his Accord.
I second the comment regarding the Camry. It sounds like you're adverse to buying used but I would also encourage you to consider at least test driving a used Avalon if you can find one in your price range. They're wonderful for myself and my tall fiance! It annoys my father to no end that my used 1996 Toyota Avalon purchased for 6,500 dollars with less than 50,000 miles three years ago gets better miles/gal (between 26-28 freeway miles--I'm not making this up) than his brand new Corolla which he persists in driving like it's stolen...
Hmmm, we're on a similar wave length today. I posted about shopping for a (shudder) minivan this morning.

My brother is 6'4" and has plenty of headroom in his Focus wagon. Do you guys have the wagon version down there? They stopped making them in 2007, but I've been very happy with the two we've had.

Sigh. I miss the days of my old Mazda 323 hatchback, circa 1990.
What is wrong with Toyotas? Have you done any research at all? They are dependable and economical. Still driving our 2000 Sienna van, very comfy, I'm 6'4" and love it. I'm over trying to look "cool" or "trendy" who cares, I'm happy and so are our 2 kids.
My parents have the Subaru Forester that Prof de Breeze suggested. It has head room galore, handles well, etc. But from experience I can tell you that there's very little legroom in the back seats; less, I would say, than in my 2003 Honda Civic. Also because of the all-wheel drive, the mileage is pretty poor (20/26mpg) for such a small car; its footprint is identical to the current generation Civic which gets 25/36.
If you can still find an '07 Accord or Camry, you can probably get it for around $16K - $17K (I just bought an Accord in that range). Decent, not great, gas mileage. Good rear seat room. Reliable (this is my third Accord; the prior two lasted in excess of 150K miles--and I drive in a nasty place--Chicago).
My parents could have ranted your rant back in 1983, which is why they ended up buying a VW Jetta. With a daughter rapidly heading for 5'10" none of the domestic models we tried on "fit."

Same problem for us now. I'm the 5'10" daughter; I married a 6'0" man and have two children who are, while young, tall for their age (and need the massive carseats that small children who grow quickly wind up needing).

We ended up in a Subaru Legacy wagon. More room in the backseat than the Forester, more room in the trunk for gear. Yeah, the AWD cuts down on your milage. And around here, at least, they're ubitquitous (that which is not Subaru is Honda in this town). OTOH, in the Midwest they're hard enough to spot that I'd imagine service might be an issue.

But yeah, my dad ranted the same rant in 1984, down to the "Stupid Big 3 manufacturers are going to wind up BANKRUPT if they don't continue to ignore actual needs of actual people!!"
VW Jetta TDI; you'll have to buy it used. Make sure it's been obsessively maintained; so long as that's done, it will get 45 mpg and run forever.

(I'm 6'4"--it's the first car I can actually sit up in the back seat that I've seen.)

As a vertically challenged person (5'3") I have sat in smaller cars where my head was only 2 inches from the cieling. I can't imagine car limitations if I were taller. I went Prius and am loving it. The car cost more, but on average I get 45 miles to the gallon. As a woman, I feel more comfortable dealing with a car salesWOMAN. It has been my experience that women and older men are better at selling cars to families than the 22-26 year-old guy. I think the car industry is ignoring the needs for most drivers. I have aging family members that feel limited with car choices due to a lack of understanding of the aging driver's needs. How much longer will American car makers ignore how and why Toyota and foreign cars are outselling them? I read that the high schools and technical education centers around Detroit and other auto industry areas are redesigning their educational programs due to the dwinding job opportunities for their graduates. That says alot.
Two words for you Dean Dad:

Fleet manager.

Call and ask to talk to the fleet manger. Quote him a price for the car you want that is $500 above the invoice price. Settle for nothing more.

The Motley Fool has a great, humerous guide to car buying that is spot on. The best part is their "Fax" method of pricing vehicles. http://www.fool.com/car/car12.htm

Good luck.
Anonymous 6:25 has a point. The compact lines you're looking at aren't designed with four tall people in mind. I'm reasonably comfortable in the back of my 2003 Hyundai Elantra hatchback, but I'm vertically challenged. My husband, who is 6'2" and long-bodied on top of it, tends to feel cramped even in the front.

I think you might well be happy with a Honda Accord, as suggested by several other people. We have one, and it's comfortable for tall people and carseats. It also hasn't given us a lick of trouble and is pretty fuel-efficient (30 mpg on average).
I have a 2003 Jetta 1.8T wagon, and it's great. I can put 4 full sized people in it (probably 2 adults and three kids would work okay, but the legroom's a bit short on the bump) and it's *still* considered a compact.

I know you said you weren't looking at used, but you can get really good deals at VW if you go in at the beginning of the model year and ask for *last year's* model -- I got mine in October for cheap because it was the last one on the lot and they wanted to make way for the '04 models.

It's never been the shop for longer than the oil changes took, except for one repair on the moonroof which was only that bad because I let it go for too long. I get about 28/33, depending on how much stuff I have in it.
I don't think that the fuel efficiency loss from AWD is necessarily a big deal, given that my understanding is that you would be using the AWD reasonably regularly during poor weather.

If what you want is a car with lots of space, good gas mileage, accident shedding construction, and great reliability . . . I think you're gonna pay pretty good money for it. I read that your car needs have increased nontrivially with the kids, so rules of thumb that worked before don't work as well now.
DD, my husband is 6'4" and we both drive Focuses (Foci?), and he fits FINE in the back. It's not super-comfortable for long trips not because of headroom but because of knee-room issues, but when it's just the two of us on a long trip and he wants to work in the backseat (spread out computer and papers), he just shoves the passenger seat all the way up and is pretty comfortable.
TB is only six or seven, right? How tall can he be? Have you considered leasing? By the time he's truly tall, you'll be done with the lease and maybe even have more household income.

I recently bid a fond farewell to a VW wagon. I recommend it. I've crossed over to the minivan darkside now, though, so you may not want to listen to me.
Man, I love my Camry. It's a 1998 with 248,000 miles on it. (You read that right.) We bought it brand new and we've only done scheduled maintenance and new breaks.

We have had great luck with Toyotas.

But, I feel your car shopping pain.
[shrug] Minivans are amazing cars. Sure they don't corner too well, but who cares? They are sooooooooo comfy to be in, for everyone.

Anyway. Look for cars with high roofs. VW Golfs used to be pretty good. Honda Civic hatchbacks are surprisingly room headwise, though they are a bit cramped in the leg. And wagons of course (volvo etc) generally carry a high roof line back.

Also, search out height adjustable seats. Those often go lower than fixed height seats. (try a VW).
I love my Subaru Legacy. I bought my first Legacy 15 years ago. It was used. I got another 14 years out of it. Then I bought another Legacy. It's purring along.

I talked to a retiring Subaru dealership owner a year or two ago. His one complaint with the brand? "They last too darned long. I see my repeat customers once every ten years."

When they're ugly and the paint is chipped and the upholstery is faded and rotting away, those darned cars will still be on the road.

And my 6 ft 3 dad can sit comfortably (well, almost) in the back seat.

The down side is that here in the southeast there aren't a lot of dealers. Mine is still under warranty but the closest certified repair shop is 2+ hours away. But in my previous 4 locations, everyone seemed to drive one.
Very happy with my 06 Nissan Altima. Rides like a big car, drives like a sports car. Put my 6' 6" former boss in the back seat for a 90 minute drive and he said it was not a problem at all. Gets 32-33 on the highway and 25 or so around town.
We have a 2001 Camry and love it. I guess I've had better luck with Toyotas than you have. My '96 Corolla had to be pried away from me (got rear-ended and insurance company called it "totaled." The Camry has become my car for the gas mileage while the husband is driving an '07 Rav4 as we do live on a mountain.
Look into buying a former lease or rental car (the ex-rentals are called programmed, that might include the leasees as well). They're not new, so you don't take the brunt of the depreciation, but you know they were well maintained. My parents bought three cars this way (over many, many years), and they've worked great. Of course, my parents bought two Camry's in a row, so they may have different criteria than you.
There's a whole market segment in Europe called "compact vans" - VW Touran, Toyota Corolla/Avensis Verso (I drive one and am happy with it), Mercedes A/B class (I drove one and was happy with it), etc. Both my cars did less than 7l/100km (I leave it to you to convert that...), had absolutely zero reliability and near enough zero repair issues, and were quite spacious.
I know you panned the Fords, but I have to agree with "Eyebrows McGee" -- the Focus we have has a ton of headroom. My husband's 6'4" (picture an offensive lineman here) and he fits into the car just fine. The backseat also fits three grown adults. I loved the Focus when we bought it because I'm only 5'2" and I can crank the seat UP so I can see over the hood.

Of course, I'm now driving a Mustang Convertible (not a family friendly car, but sooo cool).

And our last Ford, a Ranger truck, had ~ 180,000 miles on it when the A/C went. We still see it on the road sometimes.

We've had our share of dud cars, but they all seem to have been Chevys. As for Toyota, we had a Toyota Echo that my husband could fit into (it seems to be egg shaped), and it had ~120K on it before my husband slammed it into the back of a semi. He walked away from it with 19 stitches, but the car was totalled (and the air bags didn't go off).
My family has had good luck with Toyotas as well. We currently have 2 1984s (a minivan and a Camry) and a 2000 Celica and they all run reliably. The van needed $800 worth of work this year (the power steering pump leaked on the alternator) and the Camry's had a few big repairs since the 15-year mark (new transmission and such), but they're all still reliable enough to be someone's main car and not let them down when they need to get to work on time. I know we've never had more than $1000 worth of repairs at any one time on either of the 84s within the past 10 or so years since that's around their blue book value (this may be a bit blurred because we do some of the "reasonably priced part, expensive labor" repairs, like the transmission, within the family). My Camry isn't comfortable for tall drivers, but I'm sure it's a different beast 23 or 24 model years later so I really can't speak to the current model. Anyway, we've never had an unreliable Toyota.
May I suggest a VW Jetta? My 2002 has good gas mileage, is super reliable and frequently finds itself comfortably seating 4 tall adults. My brother also has a Jetta and often drives around with multiple members of his University crew team, and these are some big guys, and they seem comfortable enough.
Mazda 5 is a mini-mini-van, looks like a car but seats 6, or 4 with lots of luggage room. CR recommends, and it has decent rear seat headroom, decent gas mileage too. $18k for the base model which has everything you'd need, no moonroof for heaven's sake, they all leak after enough years.

I'd like this as our next car, but the wife prefers Subaru. I'm 6'2", older boy is in the 100th percentile for height, both of us are quite happy in the back of our Legacy. You used to be able to get FWD Legacies, which helps with the gas mileage, not sure if they're still available.
We went out looking for a Ford Focus, but didn't buy, because Ford refuses to update it to the standard of the Euro ones (inc a diesel engine). We ended up with a fully loaded Nissan Versa for 18K$ and 1% interest. On the whole, we probably should have bought the model one level down, which would have gotten somewhat better mileage (we are getting ~ 30 mpg). The five door is worth a look.
PS Should have specified, Aveo *hatchback*. Why anyone drives a non-hatchback is beyond me.
Don't rule out the Prius. The headroom and legroom in the backseat are fabulous. It costs a bit more, but you'll save on gas and I think you can still get a tax break for buying "green." Also, I've never had a single problem with it in 3 years...
"What is wrong with Toyotas? Have you done any research at all? They are dependable and economical."

Toyota quality has apparently been slipping.

Honda Element. You want head and leg room? Can't get more unless you want to drive delivery van. People either think they're ugly in a cute way, or ugly in an ugly way. I love ours.
We're both tall, and have been very happy with our 1996 Camry, which we bought used. We decided to sell it recently because my parents gave us a late-90s Avalon. The Avalon is a tall family's dream car. Huge backseat, ginormous trunk.

I've also enjoyed driving Subarus; the one I own has a nearly spotless repair record.
I am 6'2 and found the accord a tight squeeze.
I am 6'2 and found the accord a very tight squeeze.
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