Car Shopping – The Rules

In our last episode of Car Shopping we introduced our contestants:

So how did we come up with this cast of characters.  Also from last time, here are our basic criteria:

  • all-wheel or four-wheel drive,
  • as close to 20mpg city and 30mpg highway as possible,
  • real passenger space for five (not just two up front and three bags of groceries in the rear seat),
  • cargo/trunk space for backpacks, sports gear bags, and the occasional saxophone, and all for
  • less than $30,000.

Let’s look a little closer at each of these requirements.

All-wheel or four-wheel drive.

In the often snowy Northeast winter traction is important; for us, at least, off-road capability is not.  While there are more vehicles available with all-wheel or four-wheel drive now than just a few years ago, this does significantly limit our choices.  It also incurs a fuel economy penalty, around 2mpg city to around 5mpg highway from what I’ve seen.

Auto makers have a bewildering variety of names for their all-wheel and four-wheel drive systems, with varying degrees of normal torque split between front and rear wheels and the amount of torque transfer to the driven wheel(s).  Here is a basic article (at least to start with) on the similarities and differences among AWD and 4WD systems, and another articleon the subject on Wikipedia.

In our case, either an all-wheel drive system which sends some power to all of the wheels all of the time and can shift power to the wheel(s) that have traction, or an automatic four-wheel drive system that engages only when a loss of traction is detected are preferred.  Since we won’t be driving off-road, rarely even on unpaved roads, having a 4WD system with low range or requiring driver intervention is neither necessary since desirable.  We’re looking for the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie of all-wheel/four-wheel drive systems:  We want to “set it and forget it.”

20mpg city, 30 mpg highway.

Sure, I’d love to have an all-wheel drive family hauler that gets 40mpg or more – who wouldn’t?  But it doesn’t exist – not yet anyway.  So I did a little research on, which has a handy way of filtering vehicle choices based on size, price, type, fuel economy, drive system (all-wheel, four-wheel, front-wheel, etc. – see above), seating capacity, and so on.  Using this tool helped me find the sedans, crossovers, and SUVs that get decent mileage and would likely still have decent passenger space.  This fuel economy requirement was also based on the car we intend to replace, though it requires premium unleaded (yet another way of reminding us that we are not the right kind of people… but, anyway…).

Real passenger space.

The primary mission of the new car will be taking my wife back and forth to work, but she will often need to pick up one or more of our daughters and sometimes a friend for a ride home.  She may also do more car-pooling this year, and having a car with decent adult-sized room in the back seat makes it a little more liveable.  Since I’m 6’4″ one of the key tests for me is to adjust the driver’s seat for me and then see how much leg room there is (or isn’t) for the back seat passenger behind me.  Ideally, I could “sit behind myself” comfortably, but that doesn’t happen often and we might be willing to (or have to) settle for something slightly less roomy.

Cargo/trunk space.

One of the things I have liked about the Suburban, other than the four-wheel drive capability, is its combination of passenger space and cargo space.  For the front seats and middle row, there is about as much leg room as you could expect outside a limousine.  Even the third row seat has decent leg room, but is also a very low occupancy space for us.  The Suburban also has a fair amount of cargo space even with the third row seat in use, and even more with it folded down or removed.  But how often do I really need the combination of all that passenger space and allthat cargo space?  Probaby fewer than a dozen times over the last five years.  Worth it?  No, not really.

So we don’t need to carry eight people, and all their stuff, or enough for a family of five to go camping for a week.  But we do need enough cargo space for each occupant to have a briefcase, backpack, sports gear bag (field hockey, softball, track, etc.), a tenor saxophone, etc.

Under $30,000.

Even among vehicles meeting all the other requirements there is a staggering number of trim levels, options, and accessories that can significantly jack up the price.  For example, the 2009 Ford Fusion SE (the lowest trim level available with AWD) lists for $23,930.  A fully loaded Fusion SEL, by comparison, lists for $31,300.  That’s more than $7,000 in leather trim, electronics, and other comfort and convenience features.  Nice?  Sure, at least some of them.  But really necessary?  That’s a matter of preference, I suppose.  Our preference, at least for now, is to take a pass on most of these.  Power windows, door locks, mirrors, and air conditioning come standard on most vehicles now, anyway.

The $30,000 price limit also has to cover state sales tax, the fact that we’re still a little upside down on the car we plan to trade, and want to keep our payment at or below what we’re paying now.  Sounds a little like “Mission: Impossible” now, doesn’t it?

Stay tuned.


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