Car talk

VW JettaHonda Civic
Mazda 3Subaru Impreza

One of my goals this year is to buy a new car.  The idea is to get a small car good for commuting, and turn the wagon over to Stacey.

Above are pictures of four possibilities: Volkswagon Jetta, Honda Civic, Mazda 3, and Subaru Impreza.  All of them are decent cars, if reviews are to be believed.  Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

My requirements are:

  • Reasonably efficient
  • Reliable/low maintenance
  • Fun to drive (more fun than a wagon, anyway)
  • Good handling and acceleration for beltway driving
  • Sunroof available (I want this to be a “fun” car, at least a little bit)
  • Good sound system (built-in MP3 player adapter would be nice…)
  • Comfortable (smooth ride, nice seats, quiet), since I’ll probably be sitting in it for over an hour, five days a week.

Some notes on the cars:

  • I love Subaru, and all things being equal I’d stick with them.  But I’m not sure the Subaru offering stands up to the others in this bracket.  While the AWD is great, the lower gas mileage, lousy sound system, and all-around ugliness are problematic.
  • I love VW styling, and I know they have a reputation for great handling.  But I’ve heard they have a problem with being finicky and high-maintenance in recent years.  Is there any truth to this?

Any thoughts or experiences you could share would be appreciated.

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  1. I have a friend who bought a Mazda 3 last year and loves it to pieces.

  2. I would get the Honda Civic Hybrid, personally, as high gas mileage is important to me.

    1. I would not get the Civic Hybrid, as the regular civic gets exceptional gas mileage anyway, and is exceptionally cheaper.

      1. Hybrids are also only better on gas mileage for city driving; highway commuting is not their optimal purpose.

  3. I have a 2000 VW, it is a maintanace hog. Expensive upkeep. If I ever get another VW it will have to be a made in germany. Most of current VW are made in mexico.

    My 1987 Jetta wolfsberg addition was a deream car, had 247K on it with mostly original parts.

    1. There seems to be this trend with Mexican made cars anymore. My dad bought a Dodge and was harassing me for my Honda. I knew for a fact that my car was actually built in Ohio, and I told him so. Then I asked where his car was made. He was suprised to discover his truck was made in Mexico. At least it shut him up.

      1. VIN number

        You can tell the country of origin in any automobile by reading the VIN number. The first couple of digits will tell you where it was made and by whom.

        I won’t buy a car unless the VIN starts with “J”

        1. Re: VIN number

          J for Jersey, Johannesburg, or Japan?

          1. LOL

            J = place where they build the best cars.

            It sure as hell isn’t Jersey -new or old…

  4. I’ve always been a Honda fan. My current is a ’95 Civic with 145,000 miles on it. It still runs great, gets great gas mileage, AC and heat work good, etc. I haven’t had a bit of trouble with it since I bought it. That’s just my two cents. I’ve heard good things about Mazda’s… but never owned one personally.

    1. You can hardly go wrong with a Honda or Toyota. At 145K it is just barely broken in. If anything other than minor upkeep things have gone wrong at under 150K it would be an anomoly (or abuse).

      If I were you I’d keep that Civic for another 10 years. Do the required maintenance by the book and it will go 300K no problem. Neglect to and you might run into some issues as it ages toward 15 years. Even replacing all the wear items and all the rubber bits under the hood will cost you MUCH less than buying a new car.

      1. Don’t I just know. It may not be the flashiest car, but it’s definately dependable.

  5. Hondas and VWs have the same deal with maintenance: there is a regular and sometimes agressive maintenance schedule, which can be seen as costly. The tradeoff is that these cars tend to have exceptionally long lifespans. I can’t speak for the new VWs that they’re marketing in the states, but the ones over in Germany live forever. My family is a Honda family, and we’ve never had any problems so I can speak directly from experience that Hondas are great cars that live forever.

    I like a car that I don’t have to worry about, and can basically bond with and be with forever and ever, or until I drive it into the ground. Space for my home away from home is more of a consideration for me, which is how I ended up with a Honda CRV. Haven’t regretted it yet. I’ll also add that Honda has excellent customer service, and that I might be able to get you the Smulian discount if you visit the dealership in Owings Mills; everyone in my family has purchased a car there, and we regularly refer people to our favorite sales guy, Mark, who gets our back by treating them pretty well. Maybe one evening we can go test drive a civic instead of getting coffee?

    As for the VWs, my friend Becki Lee has a Jetta, and it’s super fun and drives great. If you are looking for a car that’s fun, with a killer sound system, you’ve gotta go with the Jetta.

    If you get either a civic or a jetta coupe, you’re looking at less than $20,000, which is pretty cheap for such reliable and decent cars. Sedan will cost you a bit more, and be a little less stylin.

    Mazda’s may have a less intensive maintenance schedule, but they are not known for reliability, so you’d be making a tradeoff there. I’ve heard good things about subaru reliability, but I have no idea how “fun” they are 😉

    1. Maintenance schedule

      VW maintenance will cost you more/job than most american or japanese vehicles. It’s hard to find many mechanics who will even WORK on VW’s these days as they are a bit “odd” and “flaky.”

      Expect to pay a premium on both labor/hour and hours/job as well as more jobs/mile with the VW. It tends to pile on. Then add to the pile the fact that VW charges a gold-plating fee to all of their parts.

      My X-wife always wanted a New Beetle. I wouldn’t let her get one -outright refused to touch it if she did. She ended up buying a new Camry to “replace” her old one (This was in 2001 and I’m STILL driving her old camry that we “replaced” with a 1997 model).

      After the divorce her ’97 got totalled by an undocumented american who was also (surprise surprise) uninsured. She bought her dream car -a new beetle.

      She now admits what a mistake it was. I’ve got a feeling her next car might be another camry…

  6. VW’s are very high maintainence, less so with the more recent models though but in my experience VW’s are owned by people who like to fix cars. After 2004 they are better.

    Don’t know much about the Honda.

    Mazda 3 is what I have, basically (It was called the protege then) I love it, mine has almost 200,000 miles on it and the only non routine thing that’s broken was the air conditioning compressor. (aside from struts which I broke in an accident) I didn’t really maintain it terribly well either. It used to get 35 MPG highway, which is better than average (it’s a 1998). It gets closer to 27 in the last several months but that may just be because I do mainly city driving now. At this point it burns a quart of oil per tank but that’s fairly typical for it’s age. It’s only broken down once and that was because of the aforementioned airconditioning, and it wasn’t really broken down but the belt was burning because of the compressor.

    My dad had a Subaru Impreza, despite the all wheel drive I found it not to handle as safely as my car, possibly just because I drove it less, I think maybe in part because it was so small it didn’t stick to the road well. The back seat was extremely uncomfortable, no one over five can sit in the back comfortably. The gas milage was ok but not as good as my car. The maintianence wasn’t bad but again still more than my car. Can’t say how long it lasted, my dad totaled it at 160K. I wouldn’t buy one. Now, I’d buy a WRX, if I had 25,000 lying around. 😀

    1. Struts

      Most manufacturers say that struts should be replaced at about 100K. I’m stubborn and my ’94 Camry has almost 300K on the original struts. But it’s a bit hairy to drive -it really needs new struts but it would cost more to put 4 struts on than the car is worth.

      1. Re: Struts

        Well mine had about 150K on them before I hit one of those concrete dividers they have at the beginning of parking spaces. My car made bad noises for a long time afterward and I couldn’t figure out why but kept driving because it didn’t seem to be getting worse. I just learned to drive so it made less noise. Then when I got it inspected they said I had to replace the struts and I thought what the crap do they mean, I didn’t even know they checked those, but afterwards, no more noise, lol. I doubt I would have had to replace them except for that, there’s a lot of theoretically routine maintenance that I’ve never had to do like replacing water pump, timing belts. Of course those could die on me any day but at 200K who cares anymore?

        1. Timing belt

          Unlike a bunch of other things you can “get by” not doing the timing belt is NOT one that I would suggest you ignore.

          When timing belt breaks (on most engines) you can call the wrecker and have it towed to the junk yard as the engine is toast. If the car is older than 5 years old it’s not worth rebuilding it. Pistons kiss valves and everything is shot -even the rods and lower bearings if it happens at anything over 10 MPH.

          I never replaced the struts on my car. It handles like crap but it keeps going. I won’t go over 90K on a timing belt (some only 60K). It’s like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later it IS going to break. They are not designed to go over 90K and anything over that is borrowed time…

          1. Re: Timing belt

            My Nissan Maxima (2000) had its stock struts go faulty on me by 50K, one of the rear struts was kinda fubar (Left rear always sagged, after removing the strut I noticed the strut rod would compress but would not come up on its own, unlike the others). I replaced them with Tokico’s top of the line aftermarkets (Illuminas) and they’ve been kicking for about 110K miles so far (got ~161K on the odo) but they are starting to feel less stable than before, so I’d say the 100K mark is a pretty fair one for struts.

          2. Re: Timing belt

            I had the timing belt go out on a ’99 Prelude of mine (one of those “anomolies” you mentioned previously). We very nearly had to have it scrapped, but our Honda dealership was able to reuse some of the parts and save us nearly 1/2 of what the original bill was. Now that I know how a car acts when the timing belt’s going out, I pay strict attention to such details.

          3. Re: Timing belt

            Best to just replace it at 90K on most cars. Things like belts/hoses thermostats, EGR valves and the like are all listed on the maintenance schedule of every car manual. The car manufacturers are not just talking out of their behinds when they put that stuff down.

            These items have a limited lifespan and will eventually break. You can wait until they actually DO break and leave you stranded at the side of the road requiring a tow or you can fix them all at once at the major maintenance and save a LOT of money fixing things one at a time (once they are in there and have the engine pulled apart it’s easy to do the rest of the stuff that needs to be done. Often they will suggest you replace the idler pulleys, oil seals and water pump once they have the timing belt apart. They don’t cost that much money but the labor to pull off the timing belt is high. I know. I’ve done some. I just got done doing my ’84 Camry. I’m sure it will drive without any problems until 60K when it is needed again.

            It’s just a good idea to stay AHEAD of these things. When stuff breaks or wears out it tends to take other stuff out with it too and/or leave you stranded at the side of the road. I’ve never been stranded at the side of the road in my own car in my whole life. I’ve , unfortunately, been other people’s car when it happened. That’s why I like to take MY car. I’ve been over every inch of it and kept it up and I KNOW it will not fail me.

          4. Re: Timing belt

            Yeah, I know, but at this point, it’s not going to get out of being junked for very long anyway. Though really it keeps holding out longer than I think it will, I didn’t think it make it through another year for the last two inspections and it’s coming up on the third.

          5. Re: Timing belt

            As long as it has good comrpression on all cylinders and isn’t burning a ton of oil it will pretty much go forever or until the timing belt breaks.

  7. What…no mini-Cooper?

    I’ve thought it’d be funny to get one. Park it next to the Dodge Durango. It’d be such a funny sight comparison.

    Hybrids can be cool, some actually have better acceleration. Some don’t.

    I wouldn’t mind a Chevy Volt. Albeit, such is not in production for some years to come.

    1. Ironically, my 1986 Honda Accord died just a bit over a 100,000 miles. It had been my great-grandparents and then my grandmother’s.

      I have the shittiest luck with cars. I bought my Dodge Durango and a 100,000 mile / 7-yr warranty to go with it. I plan on selling it as soon at it reaches that.

      For me, any vehicle I buy I want warrantied. I just have the absolute crappiest luck with cars.

      I am afraid of buying used. Every used car I’ve ever owned has drained my socks dry.

  8. Have you considered one of the Scion’s? They’re suprisingly well made for the price point Toyota was shooting for with them and (not to sound like a commercial, but) they’re suprisingly well-equipped without adding any options. They’re coming out with a new base model (the xD replacing the xA), and they’re updating the xB in 2008.

    That being said, a friend of mine just bought one of the new Civics and he loves it. I sat in it and it was like sitting in the cockpit of a jet plane. The ride is very comfortable and the dash is very well designed for viewign all the readouts. I very much recommend test-driving one of the new Civics.

  9. I have had such good luck with cheap used cars that I doubt I’ll ever buy a new one again. I have spent $600 and $800 for my last two cars, which have so far spanned about 5 years, with about that total amount put into repairs. A new car will cost that much in taxes and fees before you drive it off the lot…

    1. +1

      Lets hear it for old cars!

      My newest addition is an ’84 model. So far I have about $2500 invested into it with purchase and refurbishing Other than paint and a few cosmetic issues , is in 100% mechanical condition. I wouldn’t hesitate to drive it across the country (or won’t after I put a couple more small trips on it just to be sure)

      I couldn’t buy a comparable car (Diesel) for under $25,000.

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