Reader Question: College Kid Car Buying?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Bryan asks:¬†Heard you on with Bill Meyer today and thought about calling in to the show from the other side of the building ūüėȬ† Shopping for a car for my son – something that will get him through college. Practical small sedan, good economy and safety rating, maybe $8K budget.¬†We’ve been looking at Elantras – the Civics, Corollas and Subarus seem a little over-priced compared to Hyundai and Kia.¬† Any insights from you would be greatly appreciated.¬† I always enjoy listening to you on our air.¬† Thanks Eric.

My reply: The most important thing to take into account when used car shopping isn’t make or model or even price. It is the specific used car you’re considering. Because it’s used. Which means it may have been abusively used. You can take a really great car – when it was new – and turn it into a really bad car.

People sometimes make the mistake of thinking it’s always safe to go with a “blue chip” make or model – a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, for example. And these are great cars. But abuse – which includes neglecting necessary maintenance – can turn an automotive Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde.

So, put condition to the top of your shopping list. A car with a documented service history, that has clearly been well-maintained, shows no evidence of abuse, should be a strong contender. Sometimes, you can find such a car by mentioning to friends, family that you’re looking. You might get clued in to a car owned by someone you know – or at least, a car owned by someone who is known by someone you know, who can vouch for that person.

I would certainly include later-model Hyundai-Kia vehicles on my list of candidates. The quality/durability of their cars is now on par with Toyota and Honda and if you find one that’s say four or five years old, it should still have a large portion of its original 10 year/100,000 mile factory powertrain (engine and transmission, etc.) coverage still in force.

That said, regardless of the make or model, approach this deal like Mr. Spock would. Be cold and logical. Do not let emotion – especially your kid’s emotions – rush a purchase.

Shop slowly.

Take each car for¬† test drive long enough to make sure all the car’s systems are working as they should. Check all dashboard lights for operation, watch all gauges as you drive; look for erratic or abnormal temperature/oil pressure/voltage readings. Try the wipers, the AC and heat. Floor the car from a dead stop and see whether it accelerates normally, paying particular attention to the way the transmission shifts.

Apply the brakes firmly from 45 MPH or so. Does the car track straight or jerk to one side? Is there any shake/vibration coming from the steering wheel?

Pop the hood and have a look. Either too dirty – or too clean – is a bad sign. Check the oil dipstick – and I mean the dipstick, not the oil on it. If the dipstick is stained/varnished, it indicates infrequent oil changes. Pull the transmission fluid dipstick and smell the fluid. If it smells burned – or is brown or black – run, don’t walk away. How does the fluid in the brake master cylinder look? If it looks like mud, look out.

If all the above checks out and you like the car and think you may want to buy it, see whether the owner will let you have it inspected by a mechanic you trust as a condition of sale. If he says no, walk away.

The car should also pass emissions/safety if you have those in your area – as without them, you usually can’t register it and get plates, etc.

Don’t sweat stuff that’s easy to fix, such as worn tires – or even worn brakes. Sweat the big stuff, such as problems with the engine or transmission or major electrical stuff as well as structural damage (accident damage) that may have been patched up.

You might find my book about car buying – Don’t Get Taken for a Ride – of interest. You can download¬†a copy by clicking on the cover jacket blurb on the right side column of the main page.

Keep us posted on your search!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. I go to a college , periodically to do work. It is hard to find a parking spot. I noticed that one advantage of an electric – plug in car is that they always have a great spot to park and always have open spots.

  2. 100% agree – we try to buy only one owner used cars directly from the owner. Often we pay a bit more, but I can look the owner in the eye and that has led me to walk away from some cars. Who knows.

    The other thing I would say, for kids, is to take them to CarMax and let them try all the physical car models that are in your target list. Not all of the cars will be able to be adjusted so that your child has NO BLINDSPOTS from the mirrors. My son’s 1996 Civic fits him perfectly, the previous years model did not fit him due to some change in the fixed seat height and mirror angle. NO BLINDSPOTS is super huge important, IMHO.


    PS – My daughter has an Elantra and we recently saved over a grand due to the 100K mile warranty on the drivetrain. Bam!


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