New or Used?: Escaping The One Car Family

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used escaping the one car family

Steve writes:

I’m no lover of cars, but since I sold my motorcycle, going bicycle only is proving problematic. Being a one-car family has worked better in theory than in practice. I spend a lot of time mountain biking and trail running. So I need something that can handle muddy, sweaty people and haul dogs and bicycles and the occasional road trip to races. The dog is a collie and my wife and can get by fine with a hitch rack. I don’t the need the car for commuting to work – I ride a bicycle to work every day rain or shine, 12 months a year. Also, I have fundamental distrust of automatic transmissions.


I have hated the two Subaru’s I’ve owned. Found both of them to fall apart and be quite expensive after 70,000 miles which is saying something from someone who thoroughly enjoyed owning an 1988 Alfa Spider and a 1994 Range Rover Country. Both of which I found to be near perfect cars: The Alfa had a great manual and it felt like you were going 100 when you going 50. The harder I drove it, the better it ran. The Range Rover gave me 150,000 miles of joy (with the last 30,000 miles being frustrating and expensive). It was perfect for 4-wheeling, surf trips with camping on the beach. When the weather was nasty (big rain or big snow) the car got me headed to the beach or to the mountains when I otherwise would have had to stay home. The interior was perfect for returning from backpacking trips or driving back from the beach (easy to clean and didn’t retain smell). I always swore that I would never buy a car with an automatic transmission, but the Range Rover proved compelling. I would look for another one but pulling up in one of those and everyone thinks you are douche bag and the new ones have too many electronics that can go wrong.

I think $15,000 for a used car sounds reasonable and was thinking/dreaming about a 2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (probably hard to get at that price range unless from an auction and Chrysler reliability does give me pause). I would try an old Series III Land Rover but want something more reliable. I feel claustrophobic in Tacoma’s and large pick-ups seem like overkill. What do you recommend?

Steve (Lang) Answers:

My advice will probably be contrary to what you have heard from other folks. I would not give so much as a glance towards fuel economy. You apparently only drive a certain number of miles (congrats on the two wheel conversion) and the vehicle du jour should reflect your outdoors hobbies and your free time. So I am going to give you a three tier answer.

For a beater that can do everything you want and ‘stuff it all’ I like the off-brands. Older Montero’s, Trooper’s, and Land Rovers may be among your favorites since you apparently like the Land Rovers quite a bit. There is something to say about sitting high with a nice open greenhouse and all of these have depreciation levels that rival Mount Everest. Although large greenhouses are not a virtue here in Georgia, a lot of folks in the Northern country love the spaciousness of these vehicles.

My second choice will surprise you even more. I regularly see Expeditions and Suburbans with well over 200k and the powertrains are absolutely bulletproof. I prefer the Suburbans (and shorter wheelbase Tahoes) because they tend to have nice interiors, the powertrains can be worked on and modified easily, and I just happen to think that domestic full-sized SUV’s are the best overall. You can stuff everything you want in one of these vehicles, mud included, and the drive will be very compliant and comfortable. If you plan on doing a lot of hauling in the future beyond bikes and boards, I would go that route.

Finally you have the ‘compact’ route. Sajeev (is about to) mention the Ford Escape and I particularly like the older ones with the 4-cylinder and 5-speed. My brother-in-law bought a four year old version for about $6k to $7k back in the Katrina days and found a full leather interior on Craigslist for only a couple hundred bucks. 90,000 miles later, he has yet to regret his decision. The RAV4 has an unjustified price premium in my book, and the CR-V drives a lot like a minivan.

Speaking of which, you could just opt for a Toyota Sienna AWD and get better comfort, space, fuel economy, and even automatic doors. My neighbor down the street uses a Town & Country for his canoe, bikes, and fishing gear… and I’m willing to bet he’s just as testosterone ridden as he was five years ago. If you aren’t doing any serious off-roading that would actually be my top choice. The value quotient for a good used one these days even trumps an SUV since most folks have become used to $3 gas and prefer masculine lines over useful functional designs like minivans.

Good luck!

Sajeev Answers:

Sorry about your “fundamental distrust of automatic transmissions” since that almost necessitates you moving to another continent. Not that I don’t empathize with your situation, but unless you like the warranty denying, hit or miss (to put it mildly) durability of Subaru products or upkeep-intensive rides from Europe, it’s time to change your tune. Just last week I helped someone in your situation, so here goes.

She is a spec-Miata and LeMons racer. Has a hunting dog (named Apex, dontchaknow) large enough to need a 3×2’ kennel and camping equipment to go with. She wanted an SUV to haul all that goodness with a stick and decent driving dynamics too, but heard horror stories about Subies. I mentioned the Ford Escape along with other CUVs, and the 4cyl, manual cog Escape was my front runner. So her mission was clear: test drive small CUV’s from Honda, Nissan, Ford etc. and see what worked with her needs, kennel in hand at every showroom visit.

Never mind that the Escape is one of the only CUVs with a stick; the square cargo hole and perfectly flat load floor (seats folded) was doggie-approved. The shift-yourself Honda Element drove like a bus, so that was out. One drive in an Escape proved it, and while she purchased a V6 model for the occasional tow, the proof is in the pooch: Apex sleeps like a baby in the Escape’s tomb like cabin, appreciating car-ish like ride more than his owner. That’s not gonna happen in any fast-roof (i.e. kennel tilting) crossover, and definitely not in the NVH-nightmare known as the Jeep Wrangler. Ask yourself, do you want to take a road trip with a restless doggie?

Plus, there’s an optional storage area for dirty boots under the rear carpet. Pooch and owner are happy: I’m patting myself on the back. So there it is, your only choice for vehicular perfection. Well, actually three, if you consider the Mazda and Mercury derivatives.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to, and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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2 of 41 comments
  • Ajla Ajla on Nov 16, 2010

    I'd look into the current-gen Grand Vitara. Those with the 2.7L V6 are a bit low on grunt, but it is a true SUV and overall a good one. It is also far less ubiquitous than the Escape- if that matters to you at all. You should be able to get a low miles '06-'08 4x4 manual-equipped example for a few grand under $15K. Heck, if you can forgo the 4WD, a new manual Grand Vitara can be had around $17,500. _____________________________ Also, with it being TTAC Korea Week, it might be worth mentioning that the last-gen Kia Sorento was available with a manual transmission.

  • Denvertsxer Denvertsxer on Nov 16, 2010

    Oh, man, those EarthRoamers (pictured Jeep) are awesome! The huge Ford F-450 based ones even more so -- granite and marble interiors, extended off-the-grid capabilities, solar power, you name it. Very cool vehicles. Built in Colorado. Sadly the company hasn't done so well in the new economy. Sorry, not exactly on-topic.