By on May 22, 2012


Mark writes:

Hi Sajeev and Steve,

Sajeev tried to save me once before but I didn’t listen. Maybe this time I will. Last year, I bought a bomb of a project and he did his best to scare me away. He saw the monstrosity in person. That monster being the 1995 Ford Bronco I bought on a whim. We talked on the phone before I purchased the OJ Bronco. Sajeev told me to avoid it like the plague. Yet, I didn’t listen. I got burned. I owned it for less than 6 months (3 of those months being spent in my garage) before selling it to an offroader in Ohio.

But, now I am in a different situation…

I am back in Canada where gas is significantly more expensive (very unlike cheap Houston Texas gas). My girlfriend and I will be in the market soon for a vehicle and we have the following criteria:

1) Fun to drive: must be a manual, preferably RWD or AWD, and a bit chuckable (not in the “chuck it in the garbage” sense of the Bronco).
2) Practicality: I don’t need a gas guzzler. Something efficient. Two doors are doable. Four doors are better. Wagon or hatch is best. However, it must have enough room for my girlfriend and I, plus two black Labrador mixes (see cute doggy brothers picture).
3) Utility: It needs to be able to tow two motorcycles (~400lbs each) and trailer. Also, we need another room for camping gear, even when the dogs are with us.
4) Realistic: We have finite funds (like most people) so we would definitely be going for something used, under $8000. I couldn’t care less what badge is on the front.


Steve answers:

If you fold down the rear seats, most any modern-day AWD wagon should do the trick.

Subarus tend to be fully priced. A Mazda 6 Mazdaspeed version would be rare and priced too high for your budget. Hondas have stiff price premiums and no real wagons in that price range… at least in the states. Nissan only offers wagon-like SUV’s with AWD, although a Versa hatchback may be just enough to fit the two pooches with the rear seats down.

But that Versa is front wheel drive as well. To be frank, most of what I usually recommend would be front wheel drive because precious few hardcore enthusiasts would ever get the virile satisfaction of actually using the capabilities that come with a good RWD or AWD setup.

This is not an easy deal. You need to figure out whether FWD coupled with a great set of tires can already take care of your sporty needs. If so, let me offer a real dark horse to this race. A 2007 Ford Focus ZXW. Surprisingly chuckable. Great fuel economy. Cheap to maintain. Plus with the seats down in the back, it should be enough to transport the two labs. You should be able to get a very low mileage one and keep it until the Blue Jays win a pennant.

Yes, I am aware that it probably fails the ‘fashion du jour’ test. If you must have AWD and a stick there is always a Subaru Legacy, a Saab 9-3 or a Volvo S60. But I have owned and/or driven all of these cars from the 07′ – 08′ time period and I believe the better bang for the buck can be had with a domestic. Consider the Astra XR AWD as well. Good luck!

Sajeev answers:

Oh man, did I ever try hard to show you the reality of your situation!  Then again, I shoulda known better.  Nobody learns their lesson until they burn their finger on the waffle iron. Many people like the notion of owning a cool old vehicle and think they can make it work, but even I had to give up on that notion and buy a new vehicle to get to work.

I like Steve’s recommendations, except for the towing part.  Then again, you are probably towing 1500lbs or so, and any of these vehicles can make it happen…stopping at highway speeds is another concern.

If you insist on a stick, a Subaru Forester does it all.  Find one with your manual trans, a long service history and scan the forums for potential problems with that particular year and powertrain. Also keep your fingers cross it wasn’t abused.  Not that I’d recommend this option, especially they can be awful thirsty…but it does make sense considering your requirements.

A Focus wagon is great for your budget.  Maybe a Toyota Matrix XRS or a Mazda 6 wagon, too.  None of these are great for towing, but maybe you can overlook that. Just like you and the laughably horrible Bronco I saw many moons ago, you want a vehicle that doesn’t exist at your price range.  Time to make some compromises (fuel economy, manual transmission, budget, tow ratings) and see what you REALLY need in a vehicle.

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50 Comments on “New or Used: Yo Dawg, Listen Up this Time!...”

  • avatar

    From one Mark to another, I’d recommend a Volvo XC70, or V70 if you can live without AWD). We’ve got 2 V70s (a 2000 and 2006) and are using them for almost the same tasks you are.
    Towing is absolutely no problem – they are rated for 3300 lbs, and I’ve towed my Ural on a regular 8×10 landscaping trailer with no difficulties. We’ve got 3 decent sized dogs (70-110 lbs) and they all fit in the way-back for shorter trips. On longer jaunts one dog sits in the rear seat, but we can manange luggage for 2 people in the remaining spaces. Get the roof rails for a roof box or hitch carrier if you need extra luggage space. You can also get a cargo barrier to keep the doggies in place.
    MPG is around 25 in mixed driving, 30 on highway trips, but down to about 20 with the trailer. The 2000 has 125K and no major repairs beyond a new A/C compressor. The 2006 is at 80K and only has needed regular maintenance.
    Snow tires on steelies go on for the winter and we haven’t gotten stuck yet.
    $8000 should get you a decent one.

    Good luck!

    • 0 avatar

      I usually catch slack for sending picture of my dog riding shotgun in the convertible with the top down and unsecured. :)

      I was going to recommended a Saab 9-5 wagon too. Slightly more space and higher tow rating(towed 4,000 lbs GA to OH 23.5 mpg -nothing can match it towing!). But if you have a difficult time maintaining an old Bronco you don’t want European. Ford Focus wagon might be a better choice.

  • avatar

    The Focus wagon is actually a really good suggestion. As Steve noted, you’ll pay top dollar for a Subaru, Honda or Toyota.

    You might also think about a previous-gen Ford Escape or a Jeep Patriot as well (which can be purchased for a decent price up here in the GWN).

    Finally, as a pitch slightly center of left field, you might consider test-driving a Kia Soul. They’re fine little vehicles, though dog space might be a little cramped.

  • avatar


    In your answer to Mark, there were two things that drew attention:

    1) “To be frank, most of what I usually recommend would be front wheel drive because precious few hardcore enthusiasts would ever get the virile satisfaction of actually using the capabilities that come with a good RWD or AWD setup.”
    This made me feel sad. Anytime you downshift (double-clutch or otherwise), if you do so on slippery surfaces with FWD, the vehicle will be partly (or not so partly) destabilized; but with RWD, the effect is like putting out a drag parachute. And I’m sure even less than hardcore enthusiasts down-shift once in a while!
    (Living in a snow-belt state, I see lot of little FWD cars off the road in winter, usually with drivers standing outside scratching their heads and wondering what happened. The second largest group of off-the-road head scratchers are people with AWD, often big SUV’s, because they thought they were invincible, and that the Laws of Physics applied only to “that other guy”. )

    2) “You should be able to get a very low mileage one and keep it until the Blue Jays win a pennant.”
    Actually, I think you meant to say that you would get very HIGH mileage (i.e., mpg), and very low fuel consumption. (^_^)…


    • 0 avatar

      mile·age n.
      1. Total length, extent, or distance measured or expressed in miles.
      2. Total miles covered or traveled in a given time.
      3. The amount of service, use, or wear estimated by miles used or traveled: This tire will give very good mileage.
      4. The number of miles traveled by a motor vehicle on a given quantity of fuel.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks, Tonyola..

        Good research! But in common usage, most people think of mileage in the form of “gas mileage”, in which bigger number = better, meaning more miles travelled per gallon of fuel used**. But who knows….(^_^)..


        ** The Europeans have an allegedly better system of liters used per 100 km traveled, which seems to make calculations easier. I just have difficulty relating to that for some reason.


  • avatar

    Suzuki SX4 AWD Hatchback
    Saab 9-2 Aero

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately the Suzuki is really too small to hold two full-sized dogs plus much luggage, even with the back seat folded down.

      I agree with Sajeev: the described vehicle doesn’t exist here. Gotta compromise on something, fuel economy, towing cabability, sportiness, or price.

  • avatar

    Used AWD Chevy Equinox. Done.

  • avatar

    1st gen Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix – either 180 hp 1.8 & 6-spd manual or 140ish hp 1.8 & AWD, maybe manual, plus the price of the Pontiacs is a bit lower, and they’re very reliable. The Vibe GT/Matrix XRS w/ the 180hp engine is pretty fun to drive, if you don’t mind revving it a bit, but prob wouldn’t be the best for towing since the low-end is a bit weak

    • 0 avatar

      We have an ’03 Vibe GT, heel-toe with 8000rpm is good times. I’ve test driven plenty of sporty near luxury tackle and been super glad to get back into the vibe afterwards.

      Stock clutch is weak, other than that I’m sure towing a small utility/motorcycle trailer won’t be bad, and the GT/XRS have disc brakes out back as opposed to drums on base/awd models.

      I’d probably recommend a forester/outback/impreza to OP, preferably the turbo models (XT/XT/WRX, respectively).

  • avatar

    Pontiac Aztek. Cheap enough to overlook the ugly aspect.

  • avatar

    How about a second-series (1997-2001) Jeep Cherokee? Sturdy, tidy size, available with manual, room for the dogs, cheap and easy to fix if something breaks.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    My suggestion: delete the manual from your wish list. That opens up a lot more opportunities, even among the vehicles suggested.

    My second suggestion: consider whether you really need 4WD/AWD. It adds to cost, vehicle weight and gasoline consumption. I think there’s a real trade off between AWD/4WD in fuel consumption. If you don’t care about fuel consumption, there are any number of Jeep vehicles that will meet your specification; but they suck a lot of fuel — think 21 mpg on the highway and less in the city.

    My third suggestion: What about a mini-van? The optimum combination of space, utility and price . . . assuming you don’t want to go rock-hopping. They will probably use less gas than a Jeep Cherokee or Liberty. Of course, its not sporty.

    • 0 avatar

      Hello, DC Bruce…

      I tuned in especially to your second suggestion. You are right. Very few people actually need AWD/4WD unless they live at the end of something like a 3,000-foot unplowed mountainside driveway in the northern NY snow belt! We just think we do. If you have a manual transmission and put winter tires on the vehicle, with proper weight in the back, and then drive sensibly, there should rarely be a problem. Certainly a limited-slip differential will help too, without the gas penalty from AWD/4WD. Mark did not say what part of Canada he is in now, so the snow situation is an unknown.


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Mazda 6 wagon or hatch. They are as unloved on the used market as they were on the new market. You may have to travel a few hundred miles to find one optioned the way you want it to be. And they can be had with a manual trans and the V6 if you look hard enough.

  • avatar

    BMW 325iX – an early e46 wagon is in your price range, AWD, exists with manual transmissions, can tow plenty, and enough room for the doggies. Assuming you can turn wrenches yourself based on the Bronco debacle, so not too terrible to maintain. MUCH nicer to drive than anything else mentioned so far.

    Even better would be an e39 5-series wagon, but they are harder to find with a stick. Out there though.

  • avatar

    Raise your price limit and get a mid 2000’s Subaru Impreza.
    Manual – Check
    Hatch / Wagon – Check
    Ability to tow – check
    AWD – Check
    Chuckable – Check
    Good on gas – check (but just barely)
    Plenty of them in the Great White North – Check

    And you’re done.

  • avatar

    The Focus wagon may be fine as long as you stick to a manual. My 03 ZX-5 is on its third automatic transmission, so I’m wary about suggesting them. How bout a Nissan Xterra with the 4 cylinder and manual tranny? Mileage is 17/22 and you get rear wheel drive.

  • avatar

    1993 VW Eurovan with a 5-sp manual (avoid the automatic!). I believe 93 was the only year they sold the manual in the US (I have one myself, with over 255k miles and still running strong). Look on the Samba, eBay and CL for good ones without major seam rust…limiting your search to 93’s with 5-sp does make it a little more difficult but there’s a surprisingly good number of them out there. You may have to travel a bit to find the right one, but it’ll be worth it. You can get a nice 7-passenger GL for less then $4k, or get a MV Weekender (with regular seating but with the pop-up camper loft) for around $8k. These are FWD, but with decent snow tires it’ll do better then any AWD in similar conditions, especially with so much weight over the front wheels. On the highway you can get 20mpg, which considering the size and utility of the vehicle, is pretty darn good. Plus, you’ll still have plenty of extra space for more dogs (and/or people!). 4000 lb. tow rating as well…

  • avatar

    Go ahead and get the Outback or Forester. Easy to find a manual, and prior to 07 they didn’t have stability control. It is a very “chuckable” vehicle when you want it to be, pretty decent of fuel mileage, lots of room, and will tow up to 2700 lbs. I put Geolanders on my Outback and it has never had an issue with traction unless I was driving it hard and trying to get the tail out on dirt/gravel roads.

    Much of that has to do with the manual-equipped models being 50/50 AWD, not some reactive AWD system that crossovers typically have.

    You may pay top dollar, but you won’t regret it. Getting the Outback or Forester over an Impreza also gives you the additional passenger room for later on as well as a bit more comfort. You can find great deals on used Subarus in the PacNW, and if it’s higher mileage or older go ahead and replace the head gaskets…they all go between 150k-175k, unless it’s a 2.2l boxer. Once it’s done, you’re good to go for a long time.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I feel that a stick 4cyl Outback is really the best answer too. I know we are biased, but given your needs, there are few vehicles that will do everything you want them to like the OB. Get a 2005 and up if you can.

  • avatar

    I would go for the Forrester or a Legacy, make sure it has a long service history and if it has over 60K have someone check the head gaskets that really knows about the 2.5’s. That seems to be the only real problem with the more modern Subarus is head gasket leaks off the drivers side head and only with the 2.5’s. And never get the thing hot, ever. Second choice would be, yes the Focus. Not much to go wrong in them really, and so far reliability has been pretty bullet proof. SAAB, um it would be nice, but expect repair bills.

  • avatar

    The Focus Wagon ZXW had these tasty options:
    Heated cloth seats and mirrors
    Trac control and ABS
    MP3 stereo

    What’s not to like? Try finding one. I did, and they are premium priced. However, it’s a compelling little package with lots of big windows and mucho space.

    Otherwise, the 1st-gen Matrix or Vibe is a very nice package too. And off-lease commercial Dodge Caravans are often very cheap and nobody hates a minivan AND owns one.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re hard to find because those of us who bought ’em tend to keep ’em. Mine is seven years old, has 136Kmi on it, and has been astonishingly reliable. If you find one, try it.

  • avatar

    Saturn Astra AWD? Not sure what you meant here (Saturn Vue?), but there was no AWD option in north america.

  • avatar

    A way left field suggestion is the scion xB. I love my 06 manual, it’s spacious, and gets good mpg. The towing might not work though

  • avatar

    Your requirements are tough for one vehicle to fulfill. What about a Nissan Frontier or Dodge Dakota pickup with a topper ? You need it to be versatile, right ?

  • avatar

    A Legacy wagon with a 5spd should meet every requirement stated. A 2005+ 2.5i may not be doable for 8 grand, but it could be close. Older models are definitely accessible at that price. The Legacy would strike a good balance when comparing fun (Impreza) with practicality and cargo space (Outback, Forester).

  • avatar

    I’m in the same situation. I’d love to replace my truck but still needs some towing (class II – 3500lbs.) would be enough. 1000-1250 lb rating of most small cars isn’t really enough.

    “Although the Focus comes equipped with a four-cylinder engine, the 2000-2007 models are capable of towing a trailer of up to 1,230 pounds if the car is equipped properly. Ford does not recommend towing with the 2008 and newer models.”

    One suggestion is a used Ford Taurus X or it’s less expensive variant the Freestyle AWD wagons. I don’t think they are available with manuals, but the MPG’s are a little better than most SUV’s and has a tow rating of 2000 lbs. It’s not the 3500# rating I’d like, but it’s closer than the small cars.

    Ideally, I’d love to find a wagon that will tow 3500 lbs. The closest non-suv/truck I’ve seen in that price range are minivans. What else is out there?

  • avatar
    Canis Caeruleus

    Take a look at the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Rear wheel drive, available with a stick, and the rear swing out door is perfect for dogs!

  • avatar

    I’d recommend a Prius with a trailer hitch and trailer. You can strap the dogs to the roof Romney style.

  • avatar

    The Focus ZXW is a surprisingly nice car. I know a friend from school who’s now moonlighting with an office and airplane cleaning business, and he bought a Focus wagon to haul his equipment. Little old lady special, something like 30,000 miles and good as new, plus fully loaded – leather, sunroof, etc. He drove me to lunch one day, and I was surprised by how well sorted and substantial the car felt.

    Find one with a manual, and it would probably tick all your boxes, aside from the RWD part. Probably fine for towing a couple motorcycles too, with the biks and trailer, you’re looking at ~1500lb. I don’t think Ford rated the Focus for much towing in the States, but in the UK, the rule of thumb is that they allow a FWD vehicle to tow up to half of its curb weight, and they seem to manage just fine using their Focii that way.

    • 0 avatar

      Towing half it’s curb weight? It’s not the powertrain I’d worry about first when towing with on small cars, it’s the size of the brakes.

      Notice how Ford doesn’t recommend towing anything with a 2008 and newer Focus. That’s the year they made rear drum brakes standard.

      (I see that some ’12-’13 Focus do have rear discs – depending on the model. Towing still isn’t recommended by Ford.)

      • 0 avatar

        There are other concerns, of course, regarding brakes and drivetrain, but I have always found it interesting that other countries don’t even bat an eye at towing a 1200 lb trailer with a 2400 lb car, when, in the US, those sorts of vehicles usually get factory tow ratings of between -10 and 0 lb.

        I’m of the mind that if the British make it work without totally destoying their cars in a matter of years or winding up a pile of shredded steel rounding a curve, then there’s no reason that we can’t do the same thing here. Remember, the Kia Cerato won the “Tow Car of the Year” award in Britain, but the Kia Spectra was given a tow rating of zero in America. Same damn car, are we supposed to believe there’s some magical quality in British fuel that allows a car to tow a decent trailer there, but prevents the same exact car from being able to tow anything once its over here?

      • 0 avatar

        1000lbs is equal to four typical American males these days. Or three of the guys in my family. Is that a problem? If not then how is a 1000lb trailer a problem? I can tell you from having owned a 1000lb capacity utility trailer for 11 years that you won’t even notice it is behind you. And that includes towing it with the mighty 90hp Golf TDi that I owned when I bought the thing. Would I recommend panic stopping from 90mph while going down a 15% grade? No. But let’s be sensible here. When towing, SLOW DOWN, leave plenty of following distance, and don’t be an idiot. Even on the otherwise unrestricted sections of the Autobahn, cars towing trailers are limited to 90kph (~55mph).

        What also amuses me in this thread are the comments about how entirely adequately powered vehicles are “underpowered” when loaded up with people and chattel. Well gosh, put a bunch of wieght in a car and it is slower! What a surprising development. And yet, even a fully loaded CRV is faster than the average car in Europe. Where people actually drive a lot faster than they do in the US.

        Automakers in the US don’t recommend towing due to A: our insane product liability environment, and B: they would really rather you spent more on that nice, more profitable SUV or truck.

  • avatar

    How about a second-gen Honda CR-V AWD manual?

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