New or Used: Whither Station Wagon?

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

Could be worse!

Mike writes:

Sajeev and Steve,

This is not a pressing question (yet) but it is a frequent and ongoing conversation with my wife and several of our friends. We are expecting our first child in one month. One. Month. We are as ready as ready can be, but recognize that our wheels might be an issue before long.

My wife has a 2002 Camry 2.4L with about 140k miles. No real problems, although the valvetrain was rebuilt about 30k miles ago due to what Toyota emphatically claimed was not sludging. It is also going to need new struts soon… Austin streets are just brutal. It still gets about 32 MPG on the highway, which is our baseline requirement for fuel economy (the wife commutes about 60 miles round trip). It’s also paid for. Our rear-facing child seat fits in the back no problem, leaving legroom for both driver and front passenger (those things are unbelievably massive). Hypothetically, once we load up the dog, luggage, and all the baby accoutrement (and what if we have another?), it’s pretty cramped at best. Problem.

We have looked at numerous CUVs available and none meets our expectations for fuel economy or price (want to keep it in the $30k range, if possible). Honestly, crossovers seem like a a bit of a ripoff. I’d rather have a Fusion wagon than an Edge, but whatever. We briefly talked about a minivan, and aside from the basic aversion, it just doesn’t seem like a good solution for us, basically for the same reason as CUVs. We’re pretty sure what we want AND need is a new or certified used mid-sized station wagon. That seems like the ideal intersection of size, cost, versatility, fuel economy and style. Jetta TDI? TSX Sport Wagon? Audi A4? We liked the Volvo V50, and thought maybe we could get a deal on a used or even a leftover new one, but are worried about service and support now that Ford no longer owns the company. A dearth of wagons exists in this country, unfortunately. I’m flummoxed.

Then there’s my car. I drive a 2007 Fit. It’s paid for with about 25k left on the extended warranty. It’s also small. The child seat will only fit on the passenger side, forcing the front seat bolt upright and almost all the way forward. I thought it was maybe just the design of our child seat and I could get another, but asking my Fit forum, I discovered it’s an almost universal problem. That’s mostly OK as we never take my car for any road trips, but I do foresee some friction when as a family we ALWAYS have to take the wife’s car because we won’t fit in the Fit. And again, add a second kid into the mix, especially if the first is still in a rear-facing seat, and I have some real problems.

That was kind of a long introduction to the real issue (not that we couldn’t use some advice or industry insight into the wagon conundrum)… How do families do this? Realistically and responsibly, I mean. We’re both frugal people, although I’m a certified car nut and demand at least a little fun from my daily driver (I also have an ’82 Alfa GTV6 for my tinkering and hooning needs). We have a decent amount saved for a down payment, but we’d still have several years of payments on a $30k car. My wife wants to keep the Camry at least four or five more years, or until it dies – she believes all modern cars should last 15 years with regular maintenance, which really isn’t too crazy a notion. However, I’m pushing to get her a new car within the next 12 months, while the Camry is still worth something, and so that we’ll be able to pay it off before I have to trade up. I got the Fit used about two and a half years ago, Honda Certified with 50k miles on the clock, and although it hasn’t had a single mechanical problem it’s closing in on 80k miles, almost all of them in hard stop and go urban traffic. I don’t know if I can make it last another 8-10 years, which is her plan. I can see us in a bind, either having two car payments due each month, or worse yet needing two new cars at the same time.

I feel like this is one area that could potentially bite us and could use some factual insight to argue the point, if it’s valid.

I had another ancillary question, if it’s possible to include it? For the life of me I can’t figure out how interior volume is calculated. For example, my ’07 Fit has 111.4 cu ft total with 21.3 cu ft of cargo space with all seats in place, but a 2011 Mazda3 hatch has only 111.6 cu ft of total interior and 17 cu ft of cargo with all seats in place. I know the Fit is an amazingly well-designed package, but I’ve driven a Mazdaspeed3 and it seems to be a much larger and more spacious car, especially in the “boot”. Is it an optical illusion or just tricky math (like counting the “storage” under the rear seats) of the Fit?

Steve answers:

I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version: your wife is right, you’re wrong.

Keep the Camry. You have another four to five years to consider another vehicle. Given that you can’t pay cash for your next car and the Camry has the space you need 99+% of the time, your best bet is to not do anything.

We have a dog as well. What we usually do as a family of four is have the neighbors give her walks and attention whenever we’re out of town. Doing this is a lot cheaper than getting another five figured debt on your driveway.

Sajeev answers:

Steve is always right about the new car and debt thing. Which especially blows when you want a station wagon, but can’t get one for a decent price. And while you complain (rightly so) that CUVs are pretty lame in the value department when you consider the fuel economy, have you considered the cost of ownership of any of those wagons compared to any mainstream CUV? I reckon the wear and tear, insurance, and the inevitable major electronic/powertrain item replacement on a fancypants wagon will totally eliminate the fuel “surcharge” of a CUV. Even on the Volvo.

So my advice is simple: when you want a new vehicle, get it. Debt be damned, there’s a reason why we all need it, so have at another vehicle. But it’s time to stop crying over spilled milk (which we do quite often) and get a CUV. Yeah, they suck for many reason. No, you don’t have a choice in the matter. Find the one that is closest to your liking and pull the trigger.

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.

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

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  • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Oct 19, 2011

    Kind of late to the party, but can the OP afford/have space for 3 cars? The Camry is paid for, gets decent mileage, appears to keep his wife happy (for the time being - she sounds pretty smart for trying to eek out 15 years from more or less a known quantity). The Fit is paid for, gets decent mileage, and seems to keep the OP happy (for the time being) and is more or less a known quantity also. With that said I could see getting a medium sized SUV (Escape, Equinox/whatever the GMC version is, Sportage, you name the rest) for kid duty (keep the Fit for commuting so you're not burning too much fuel unnecessarily), when the Camry is otherwise being used, and have the 3rd car for those oh crud moments when one of the other two get burned out/go into the shop. This may not be possible, but it is probably what I would do if I were in a similar situation.

  • Jethrow Jethrow on Oct 20, 2011

    The car you really need is the Holden Sportwagon. Check it here Suggest you badger GM till they bring it in. Available in auto or manual, V6 or V8!

  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
  • 3-On-The-Tree We also had a 1973 IH Scout that we rebuilt the engine in and it had dual glass packs, real loud. I miss those days.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Jeff thanks. Back in 1990 we had a 1964 Dodge D100 with a slant six with a 3 on the tree. I taught myself how to drive a standard in that truck. It was my one of many journeys into Mopar land. Had a 1973 Plymouth duster with a slant six and a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom with 318 V8. Great cars and easy to work on.
  • Akear What is GM good at?You led Mary............................................What a disgrace!
  • Randy in rocklin I have a 87 bot new with 200k miles and 3 head gasket jobs and bot another 87 turbo 5 speed with 70k miles and new head gaskets. They cost around 4k to do these days.