New or Used: Idiot is a Relative Term!

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used idiot is a relative term

TTAC Commentator Astigmatism writes:

Dear TTAC,

My wife wants to replace her 275,000-mile 1999 RX300. Its sins, in order: fuel economy (15-17mpgs at this stage in ordinary driving); brakes that don’t inspire confidence (we’ve had the fronts completely replaced, and the rears and ABS checked multiple times, but it still pumps and grinds like crazy coming to a full stop); and the general feeling of looseness in a high-mileage SUV (not to mention rust spots, tears in the leather, etc., etc.). She’s starting school in the fall, about 15 miles away through city traffic, and my hope was to have a replacement by then if possible.

She really wants something with much, much better mileage (read: 40+), for environmental reasons. Unfortunately, this comes at a time of $4 gas (yes, this is being published VERY late – SM), which means that used hybrids are commanding utterly stupid prices. She’s not the slightest bit a car person, so driving enjoyment isn’t a priority, but I’d like her to be in something reasonably safe and not Gen-1 Insight impractical. I’d also like to keep this south of $20k if possible. Current thoughts are a 2008ish CPO Civic Hybrid (I’m guessing the Prius will be considerably more expensive and, even with snow tires, more useless in the winter) and just eating the current market mark-up. Is there a better idea? Any guesses on how long it will take to wait out the current combination of sky-high used Japanese and hybrid prices?

Am I an idiot for even thinking about this right now?

Steve answers:

The Gen 1 Insight is impractical? I’ll have you know that the first Insight was absolute perfection incarnate as a daily driver AND as a mobile office. I’ve used one for over 2 years and it’s given me 55 mpg and a perfect space for handling my light paperwork.

Then again, I am only one person. You need to invest for the long haul. Since your wife is a non-enthusiast and isn’t commuting that much I would suggest…

A cash vehicle for $5000.

Follow my process for buying a used car ( 1 2 3 4) and do yourself a favor. Don’t even remotely believe that the brand will have the greatest impact on the longevity of the vehicle. When it comes to an older used car, it’s the owner that makes all the difference. Find something she’s comfortable with… preferably with four doors if the two of you plan on having kids in the future.

Get a nice sedan and plan on keeping it for five years. She won’t need more than that.

Sajeev answers:

“Idiot” is a relative term, my good man. Honestly, you’d be a fool to buy your wife a cash vehicle as per Steve’s advice. Not because Steve is a fool, I love him to death. But this time, I ain’t agreeing with him no matter how many Panthers he saves from less scrupulous dealers that might sell a precious beast to the wrong buyer.

You need a late model sedan, on the small side. That means Civic, Corolla, Focus, Sentra, Cobalt, etc. Hybrids? Not a chance. CPOs? Dream on, this isn’t an Audi.

From what I’ve seen on the CPO side versus New Car incentive side, you are far better off buying new instead of used. A straight up used vehicle is worth considering, especially if you find a desperate soul on Craigslist with a super clean 2009 Civic and a burning need to get more than trade-in money for it…but how often does that really happen? Not often enough.

You can get plenty of new cars for less than 20k, be it Fiesta or Corolla or whatever other cheery name you wish to choose. As someone who is used to a Lexus, I’d probably avoid the odd (Civic) and maybe even the unfamiliar (Cruze?) for something more Corolla like. The cash on the hood ($1000 in my neck of the woods for a Corolla) is good, but its usually better outside of Honda and Toyota land. Mileage is 40MPG, if you really try hard enough. Overall you will have more useful years of life than any used vehicle, never need to deal with the hybrid premium. Long term value FTW!

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.
Join the conversation
4 of 42 comments
  • Ajla Ajla on Dec 20, 2011
    Don’t even remotely believe that the brand will have the greatest impact on the longevity of the vehicle. What if it was built in Italy, France, or England? I've always avoided those nations due to longevity fears. Could I be out there pursuing the Land Rover or Alfa of my dreams?

    • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Dec 21, 2011

      No. But in those extreme cases you may be 'pushing' the car of your dreams.

  • Astigmatism Astigmatism on Dec 21, 2011

    Thanks guys! Yes, this question was posed a while ago - back in May, to be precise, when gas was over $4, Japan's automakers were basically shut down, and used car prices were completely out of whack with common sense. Two of those things have changed since then. In the end, we sold the RX300 and have been making due with my 2008 TL as the only car. It turns out that my wife can usually drop me off at work on her way to school, and I either take the subway home or catch a ride back on days that I'm lucky. We've only needed two cars once, for which I rented, which was a PITA but not nearly as bad as paying upkeep on a second car. Interesting bunch of replies - pretty much all over the map. I think we're sticking with my car for the next year or so, but after that we'll likely need a second car when we move, and if the market still undervalues Prii at that point, that sounds like the solution to me (I had no idea about that, btw).

    • Kingofgix Kingofgix on Dec 21, 2011

      Another Prius data point here. I drove a 50 mile daily round trip from the Denver foothills to downtown Denver for the past 7 years in a Prius. I never put snow tires on it and I never had an issue getting around (except in those few extreme Denver cases when EVERYBODY has trouble getting around, maybe 4 times in 7 years). And in those 7 years I put on nearly 120,000 miles and it still has the original lead acid battery, the original NIMH battery, the original brake pads, all the original light bulbs, all original belts, if fact all original everything except oil, filters and wiper blades. To say the "other than normal maintenance" cost for the car has been $0 understates the case. Only a hybrid could do 120,000 in city driving without new brake pads/shoes.

  • Lou_BC Legalize cannabis for racing
  • Add Lightness Range Rovers have come a long, long ways from their original concept of a gentleman's Land Cruiser. Pretty useless off road now but the wannabees will love them until the warrantee expires.
  • ToolGuy 'Non-Land Rover' gets 2 bonus points for the correct use of carbon fiber in an automotive application. 🙂
  • ToolGuy "a newly developed vehicle platform it says will double driving range"• Anyone know what this is about?
  • ToolGuy "Toyota recommends that no one ride in the front passenger seat until an inspection or fix can be performed."• This is a good opportunity for the back seat driver in your life. 😉