New or Used: To Play In the Mountains?

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used to play in the mountains

Pete writes:

Hi guys,

I’ve got a tough set of requirements for you. I’ve been driving a 1996 Honda Civic Si for many years and it’s time to retire the old girl.

I live in Denver and I love to play in the mountains. I ski, backpack and rock climb, so I need a vehicle that can handle icy I-70 and rough forest service roads (need some ground clearance). I don’t need a large vehicle and I’d like to get at least 25 mpg highway. But I also really enjoy going quickly through the twisty bits, so handling is important too!

I’ve been considering the Kia Sportage SX, although the fuel economy in the AWD model isn’t great and I’ve read the Sportage steering leaves a lot to be desired. Still, the new 2 liter engine sounds fun. I’m mostly looking in the $25-30k range. For something really nice I could probably go up to $35k.

I feel like there must be some other options out there, but I haven’t had much luck finding anything!

Steve Answers:

On the new side the Subaru Forester is a definite consideration. The current RAV4, CR-V and Tucson have always struck me as a bit too ‘family’ focused and I’m still not a fan of the Kia Sportage.

I’m glad that you’re willing to invest $25k to $30k on your next ride. But you may want to take a look at some unique packages that were available in older models. Specifically those that offered a 5-speed with a well-matched 4-cylinder engine.

Back in 2005 I managed to get a four year old Ford Escape for my brother in law that had that rare 5-speed and 4 cylinder combination. He found a pristine leather interior on Craigslist for a couple hundred bucks and has since driven it over 100k with nary a hiccup. The older Foresters and RAV-4’s also have far better sporting pretensions than their current bloated ilk.

Most folks will get the new, the automatic, and the bloat. My advice is to go off the beaten path and find a ride that will truly endure. One that you never will want to sell.

Sajeev Answers:

From the information given–especially the ground clearance and active lifestyle part–I see you liking a simple, easy to use and cheap to maintain CUV with a V6 and their (basic) AWD systems. Or maybe a Subie Forester, does that actually qualify as a CUV? It should in this case.

There are a few CUVs that I enjoy driving in the twisties, but I haven’t driven ’em all. I’d take a run in the Subie, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4, Hyundai Tucson and (yes, really) the perennial big box Ford Escape. The Nissan Juke is an interesting candidate, but I have reservations to its utility. Everything from the B-pillar back is just a swoopy, sleek joke.

Oh, definitely sell the Si on Craigslist. You’ll easily find a sport compact enthusiast who would love to keep the flame and pay top dollar for it, if you have the service records to go with it.

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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4 of 49 comments
  • Campocaceres Campocaceres on Aug 11, 2011

    I, too, am jumping on the Subaru band(station?)wagon. They're everywhere in your area of the country precisely because they do a great job of filling that very specific need that you and so many others there seem to have in common. I used to a drive a used 98 Outback that I loved (even though a lot of its features were useless here in Dallas). It handled very well with a lower center of gravity and was surprisingly fun to drive on pavement (with a stick, which I'm willing to bet is your preference), rain or shine (we don't get much snow here). High enough ground clearance and very capable 4 wheel drive for off-roading and inclement weather. Generally good quality cars, Subaru has been up there in reliability as far as I'm aware. I believe there has also been an Outback version of the Impreza, which could be worth looking in to. If I was you, though, I'd keep the Si and find myself a gently used older Subaru. I'm sure in your neck of the woods you can find some examples out there if you keep an eye open. Good luck!

  • Obruni Obruni on Aug 11, 2011

    all this talk of turbocharged wagons, and yet no mention of the Volkswagen Tiguan.

    • See 1 previous
    • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Aug 11, 2011

      I like the Tiguan, and I love VWs, but I wouldnt consider them tough enough for the kinds of outdoor adventure sports he mentioned. Just throwing a bunch of mtn climbing gear back there would destroy the delicate plastics VW uses. Probably would be a lot of fun on the paved roads though, just like a taller GTI.

  • Jeff S Years ago Kentucky issued a license plate with a horse running with the words "Unbridled Spirit." The religious right objected and did not want the plate because they believed it encouraged people to go to the race track and bet on horses. Anyone who knows anything about Kentucky knows its famous for raising horses and yes there is Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run but horses in themselves are not sinful. It got so bad that the state issued a blank sticker to put over the horse and the logo. Kentucky also issued a plate for those who were offended stating "In God We Trust." The latest KY plate has no logo and nothing. I always picked the horse because I thought horses were something to be proud of and associated with Kentucky.
  • Old Scold As a Marylander, I got those plates assigned to me when I purchased my car in 2016, 4 years after the so-called anniversary. I figured they were using up NOS, and it never occurred to me to check out the URL. I still don't care. It's a stupid issue, but I have my tag number memorized should I need it.
  • Hpycamper I drive a car with automatic braking and have nothing good to say about it. It has activated going around corners on mountain roads when the hillside is close to the road, when lawn sprinklers turned on and sprayed the car, and driving past cars on the shoulder that are making right turns. Luckily these phantom brake activations have not caused a wreck. The systems are just too dumb.
  • SCE to AUX How long until that $90k yields a profit for my grandchildren?
  • Ajla I do wonder what the legacy of the Alpha Camaro will be. It was higher performing than the Zeta but lacks the pop culture imprinting of that gen or the earlier F-body. And somehow it managed to be less comfortable than the Zeta. I guess it depends if this is really the last traditional Camaro.