By on August 10, 2011


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.


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49 Comments on “New or Used: To Play In the Mountains?...”

  • avatar

    Used X3
    Used Outback XT or Forrester XT
    Nissan Juke (a bit small though)
    RAV4 V6

    Acura RDX or Mazda CX-7 definitely meet the bill everywhere but mpg

    • 0 avatar

      I was looking for something similar to the OP, and ended up with a CPO RDX SH-AWD. They’re off the radar for a lot of people, and the resale (at least earlier this year in the Bay Area) suffered accordingly. Consistently cheaper asking prices than a CRV EXL same year, same miles. Only 22 mpg highway, but couldn’t complain for the price and got CPO B2B warranty thru 2013, powertrain thru 2015 on a 2008. And its a surprising handler; faster point A to point B car than many realize. Apparently the Hondata reflash is even more impressive.

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, my CPO BMW 328xi gets over 25 highway, and would take all comers in the twisties (even in wagon form). Ground clearance is poor, but I found the AWD to be superb even in 6+” of snow on all season rubber. Climbed hills like a billy goat. Easily obtained with CPO warranty for $25k. But “rough forest roads” will make you rupture your spleen. Then again, you managed in a Civic SI.

    The Forester and Escape are solid. You might consider a Mazda CX-7. Decent handling compared to the Subie and Ford, turbo 4. Easily in the price range.

  • avatar

    I 100% agree with Steve. Get a used stick shift CUV, but then invest in coil-overs with the money saved over new and lower the car just a little bit (to just above station wagon height). Then, keep your stock rim size and sidewall height, or maybe even go more sidewall, so you aren’t creating a uselessly stiff vehicle, but instead, one with better milage and performance. You, as an Si owner, will not be happy with the switch to auto/haldex/rolly-high ride height. At least not past the new vehicle’s honeymoon stage.

    Good luck actually getting 25 or better with a useful awd system (early gen Haldex type systems suck) and a tall car. I’d go for a fwd CUV instead, and invest in serious tires, which are much cheaper once you start hitting the lower rim diameters. This way to can also avoid the expense of keeping all your tires perfectly matching and the added cost of drivetrain maintenance in general due to the awd system.

  • avatar

    The US didn’t get an Si in 96…

    Not that it matters, I’m just wondering where the typo is.

  • avatar

    I know they’re everywhere in Colorado (as in the rest of the Rockies) but a Subaru may be your best bet. Fun to drive, well engineered, and tough. The MT models are full-time 50/50 AWD, same goes for the Impreza and Forester models with a manual.

    My 2007 Outback 2.5i MT averages 24mpg in both city/hwy mix and on long trips (Boise to Portland, Boise to SLC) it gets around 28mpg. And 8.5 inches of clearance with the Geolander A/T-S tires.

    In fact, I would suggest a used 2005-2009 Outback if you want some room to grow or will be bringing along some buddies. Usually around $15-20k depending on mileage and trim level. An XT can be had with a manual as well, but are very hard to find and around $25k. Don’t need as much room? Go with a WRX wagon or Impreza wagon. If you do that, I’d wait for the 2012 models (maybe the VX would be up your alley).

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I agree. A stick XT would be perfect for him. The offer a surprising amount of clearance (8.5ish?). The Forester XT 5spd from the last gen (07-08) would be even better. Smaller, more tossible, better approach angles and great handling.

  • avatar

    Jeep Patriot.

  • avatar

    Easy. Get a used Impreza WRX Sti. It meets all of your requirements, except ground clearance. But if you’ve managed in a Civic so far, this shouldn’t be an issue. It’ll handle waaaayyy better and therefore be safer to drive on an icy road (with a set of decent tires) than any CUV and will be 1000x more fun to drive. The car is reliable as long as it hasn’t been abused too much by its previous owner. It still has 4 doors and is practical. If you really need the ground clearance afterall, get a used Subaru Forester with manual tranmission. Done!

  • avatar

    Poor Suzuki. Nobody even thinks about them anymore…

    A 4×4, manual trans SX-4 with every conceivable roof mounted gear holder doesn’t cross $20k MSRP.

  • avatar

    It’s possible to put a forester suspension on a WRX. I read about it on a forum somewhere. Apparently, it just bolts right on.

  • avatar

    This one is easy… your needs scream Subaru. Consider a WRX hatchback if you want more sport, or a Forester XT if you want more utility.

    One more wild hair suggestion: Keep the Honda, and get a Jeep Wrangler. An original owner stock Civic Si is very rare, if its in good shape you may want to hold onto it. Selling it can sometimes be a challenge, because the people who want one dont have the money to pay you what its worth, esp if it has high mileage. Going skiing, rockclimbing, and backpacking in a Wrangler in Colorado is lots of fun, and if you dont have to pay the gas mileage penalty when you dont need the SUV, you have a great combination.

  • avatar

    If you plan on taking the vehicle on unpaved roads, the more ground clearance the better. Also, AWD or 4WD will mean ~25 mpg highway at best. Expect 22 to 23’ish, if you like to 80 mph.

    The newer Subie Forester with a MT is the best bet -as both a car for everyday use and a part time unpaved Forest Service or BLM roads that aren’t Jeep trails.

    I have an older Mazda Tribute, a.k.a. Ford Escape with the 5 speed manual / 4 cylinder combo mentioned by Steve and its o.k. for the occasional unpaved track, that isn’t a 4×4 Jeep track – but not ideal. The 2 liter, naturally aspirated, 4 cylinder gets a bit wimpy climbing a 12,000 foot Forest Service or BLM pass.

    Honestly, for Forest Service and BLM tracks, I’d rather have a Tacoma 4×4 with 32″ tires and pray for 19 to 20 MPG on the highway at moderate speeds.

  • avatar

    Mazda CX-7

  • avatar

    Going against the CUV – Get a FJ Cruiser. It will go anywhere you need to, but not at 25 mpgs. Also it rides like a truck, but it seems to fit your lifestyle. It’s not that large as it may seem. It’s classified as a mid-size SUV. Or just get a Wrangler.

  • avatar
    Point Given

    Tough to go against a Subaru with what you are seeking.

    That said….I’d suggest an EX35, awd still fairly low to the ground, small, fun in the twisty bits. Fuel econ is 24mpg according to us governments site.

    That said I’d still sit in camp Subbie on this one.

  • avatar

    I love the Subie Outback, I drive my partners 2002 but it’s as noisy as hell on I70 and god, I swear I had to get out and push it the other day on the way up to the Eisenhower Tunnel – we were in Leadville for a weekend and at 1000ft it feels like the engine is AWL! Don’t get me wrong the standard 180 odd hp engine is fine around for pissing about Denver but get her higher up and she’s gonna be hurting. I’m spoilt as my old A8 165k miles never seems to run out of steam up that hill but you probably don’t want to go there – you’ll need balls of steel to own a 99 A8!

    I suggets a either a V6 or a turbo Subie. Lots more power and the newer ones 2010s are so much quieter I’ve heard- some one back my up on this? If you can live with a content drone then go with a 4 cyl but you really gotta keep her around 70 or so. At 80+ your gonna be hearing a constant roar of the poor little engine.

    EX35s are nice too. FJ cruiser, nah, how you gonna take those turns at 90!

    On a final note, get something that has stability control, may save your life. You can see a database here –

    • 0 avatar

      the newer outbacks (the previous gen starting in 2005 and the current one) are very quiet cars. I’ve owned every generation of them, so I understand your pain with the older one.

      Subaru has gone out of their way to pad the cars to quiet the din (they even use framed windows now to cut down on wind noise.)

      The down-side is that I find the older legacies and outbacks way more fun to drive, probably because they were lighter and the suspensions were tighter/less floaty.

      • 0 avatar

        2005 quitter?: my buddy has a 2005 and on i70, I don’t notice much difference in the noise level and the front passenger seat is a torture device! I may be comparing it’s level of quite to my A8 but I can’t see much difference in either subaurs and I’ve done at least a 1000+ miles in each car on the same road in winter and summer.

        Yeah, the framed window helps and I have yet to ride in one but the 2002 and 2005 just seem too noisy, especially if you’re going to fork over $15. God, I’d rather get an old A8 and spend the money on parts :) And every time I drive in his 2005 I joke about the smooth boxer engine – sounds like a bloody tractor and put your hand on the gear lever and see how much it vibrates! Don’t get me wrong I love Subies and when my old A8 dies I’ll probably be leasing a slow old Legacy for $199 pm.

  • avatar

    Avoid the WRX STI if you want to get 25 mpg highway; it simply will not happen. I struggled (hyper miling) to get better than 21 mpg highway, and this was an important reason that this spring I sold my 2008 with just under 15,000 miles.

    • 0 avatar

      Same here. If I stay at 60, I can get 23-24, but at 70 it drops like a rock. I just drove my wife’s 2011 3.6L Outback a couple thousand highway miles, and get 29.xx. I was astounded, as that thing feels like a boat.

  • avatar

    Maybe a Mini Countryman, although with 6 inches of ground clearance, maybe not.

  • avatar
    Rick Korallus

    Keep the Civic and get a Wrangler-Rubicon-4 door with a hard top and a roof rack. Sounds like you hold on to your vehicles for a while. A 4 door Wrangler gives you a little flexibility in case you ever need to seat more than 2 somewhat comfortably and haul gear. If you’ve never been off roading beyond forest roads, don’t let the lockers pull you over a cliff in loose rocky conditions! If you do not do true off roading, you won’t need the Rubicon, get a normal Wrangler, hard top. Before you buy any of the aforementioned CUV’s, make sure you can put chains on them before you buy! How’s the job scene out there? I hate being a flat lander!!!!!!!!!

  • avatar

    4th gen Subaru Outback XT or 2.5i. However, you may struggle to get 25mpg hwy with the XT.

  • avatar

    No love for the Volvo XC70? Seems like it would be the perfect answer to me. Highish ground clearance and able to haul about anything you need inside and on top.

  • avatar

    Actually, the AWD Tucson GLS is a perfect fit. It’s loaded and has plenty of ground clearance. The 174hp 4cyl is plenty powerful, especially with the 6 speed automatic.

    Overall, it’s a level above Subuaru in terms of technology, and more stylish than many others. Plus, the frame is pre-drilled for a Class II hitch and the roof rack holds 200 pounds. The back seat has lots of space.

    It’s not overly trucky and the cargo area is bigger than a hatch but not so big as a CRV or RAV4. It comes with stability, trac control, and ABS standard. The suspension has been redesigned for 2012 so it’s not so stiff. The OEM tires, however, are tuned for 30MPG and are too loud.

    The interior can be had in a delicious dark red cocoa, and the stereo is pretty nice. It’s a classy little CUV that, while lacking a trucky interior, pretty much ticks all the rest of the boxes for rugged small crossover.

  • avatar

    I’d vote for either a Subaru or Forester just because it will be easier to buy snow tires. That’s going to be the biggest difference in making anything useful in the winter. There are also lift kits for any of the old Impreza/Foresters, which were pretty much the same car (and why you get so many wheel/suspension options). Any of the CUVs are going to have some light truck tire that’s going to be more expensive, heavier, and generally more of a pain so you’re less likely to get a real tire for the conditions. Granted you won’t be much worse off than most people in Denver; just expect to crash and be crashed into because you can’t move around very well.

    I had an old Accord when I a student in Denver that went all over the mountains: over Rollins Pass (as far as you can get in either direction, anyway), Boreas Pass, and up to Argentine with no modifications other than a leaking master brake cylinder. I nearly got stuck above Idaho Springs in a snow storm once, but proper tires pulled me through everywhere else.

    In winter a friend of mine had a Pathfinder while his fiance had a Geo Storm with studded tires. Because they were dinky 13 or 14 inch wheels they were a lot more affordable than anything for the Nissan. Guess which car they used when going skiing?

  • avatar

    I had a situation similar to yours. I went with a Subaru Outback, it is great! I don’t like the RAV4 because the stupid tailgate opens sideways, what a piece of junk!

    The Outback is WORLDS better than the Forester and up at 7000ft the CR-V is anemic.

    I would look at (all brand new):

    Outback 4 cyl CVT

    Outback 6cyl

    Chevy Tahoe LS V8 4×4

    Toyota Highlander V6 4×4

    Toyota 4Runner 4×4

  • avatar

    I used to live in Golden, essentially Denver’s gateway to the Rockies. You learn to appreciate ground clearance. Also turbocharging (being a mile up) and why an E30 M3 isn’t a smart idea for a winter car.

    Everyone who is voting for a used WRX or STI is overlooking the grave difficulty of finding one that hasn’t been thrashed. I spent weeks looking here in Seattle, and was unable to find one that was worth having a shop check out.

    I would go with a 2003-05 Forester XT Turbo. Tuneable, the suspension can be raised or lowered per your needs, and the car can take virtually all the tweaks designed for the Impreza/WRX. Most of these cars have been well treated by their owners; check out, the enthusiast’s website. Lots of great info there.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, excellent choice, that forum rocks and buy some lightly modded wagon that has 300+ hp. I’ve often cruised the classifieds section and it has some great cars. You may have to buy a plane ticket to get your car.

  • avatar

    My personal choice would be Impreza WRX wagon + rally spec suspension if you want a bit more ground clearance, and then go to to order the Impreza skid plates and urethane flaps.

    You won’t need an STI. A regular WRX will be fine (and probably cheaper to buy and run)as even that will be a rocketship after the Civic.

  • avatar

    The Honda Element seems to meet your desires, except perhaps for handling. Perhaps the suspension could be upgraded?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I like Steve’s sugestion. Find an older Escape with 4cyl, 5speed manual, awd.

  • avatar

    The newest Forester isn’t bulky like Steve claims it is. That and if you want something to throw around a bit, then an Impreza or WRX wagon variant is the way to go. I’ve owned a 3 and liked a lot about each of them. The happiest medium for me has been a 2.5i Impreza wagon.

  • avatar

    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!

  • avatar

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

    • 0 avatar

      I was in this exact same situation. Live in Colorado, replacing my old, low-riding sedan. I wanted a few extra inches of clearance for forest roads (not Jeep roads, mind you, I’d rather bike or hike those areas). I test drove pretty much all the compact SUV/CUVs and ended up getting an AWD Tiguan. Unfortunately you can’t get the AWD with a manual in the U.S., but it was a fair trade off for me.

      So far it has served me well. It has just enough clearance to get me to some previously-inaccessible trailheads, a great turbo that doesn’t putter out at high altitudes (just had it at 14,100 ft last weekend), and it’s a blast to drive on the twisty highways around here. It fits right in the suggested budget range, too. Only drawback is a relatively small cargo area, but it’s handled everything I’ve needed it to so far.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

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