How Do I Find A Wagon That’s Affordable And Efficient?

On the first edition of Rachael’s Bluebook, we help a reader who wants to try and have it all.

byRachael Workman|
Car Buying News photo

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Rachael’s Bluebook, where readers can ask me anything about buying or servicing a new or used car. Today, we're here to help a buyer who kind of wants everything, and while that's not possible, we can help them get close.

The goal of this column as I test the waters of working weekends at The Drive is to help people understand how better to buy cars and not get burned in the process. I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about here—before I got into the writing game, I sold cars.

I developed the Internet Sales Departments at two Infiniti dealers in Connecticut from 2008 to 2011. (I was that person who called and emailed you twenty times a day until you bought a car or told me to drop dead after submitting an online inquiry.) After that, I worked in sales ops for Nissan North America itself, and then I was a Service & Parts Area Manager and Dealer Placement Manager with Fiat Chrysler in the D.C. metro area until 2018. I later did commercial aftersales for Mercedes' Sprinter arm in Seattle.

I have experience in sales on the retail and corporate levels, I know all about servicing cars, and I am here to take the last decade of my life and distill it into a place where you can ask me about all the dumb shit dealers put you through. I can help you make sense of the process and hopefully, even enjoy, buying a car. I’ll share all my secrets about dealer tricks (and myths), how to buy and service smart, and advice about all of your deepest automotive anxieties. 

Let's address some now, in fact, with this week's question:

Dear Rachael,

I need help choosing our next car, and I'll warn you ahead of time, I've got a long list of preferences, some of them conflicting. Here's the situation: we're a family of four. Our main family car has been a 2009 Prius, which we bought used in 2016. I bought it in cash for under 8K, and it had under 80K miles and 20K miles left on the warranty. It was in good condition, but is now starting to act up in little ways. I think Priuses are ugly, but I will admit, I love it. My wife loves it. It's been super reliable. It's gone on tons of road trips. It had way more space than it would seem. It gets great gas mileage.

Prior to the Prius we'd bought a used Ford Freestyle, which we had to sell three months after because it almost had a catastrophic transmission failure. Prior to that, we were leasing an Outback, which we loved, but we hated leasing, due to the monthly payments. Also, we love road-tripping but not watching our mileage limits. No more leases. We want a used car but with lower mileage.

Prior to that, we were driving a '94 Ford Explorer. It was a gas guzzler, the gauges didn't work half the time, the CD player was broken, and the transmission had started slipping. No more Fords, and efficiency is key.

We prefer wagons or large hatches over SUVs, we want efficiency, we want reliability. It has to be used because it’s better for our budget and our lifestyle.

My wife and I have become more and more into the idea of owning and driving a car that sips less gasoline, as it would save us even more money and be better for the environment. But we also want to be a little more aspirational in the style department.

$15,000 is the top of our budget. Less and/or way less would be way better.

So what are our options? Is there an Audi e-tron or Volvo or VW wagon that is hybrid and affordable? If so: are they reliable? Prius V seems like an easy option, but it lacks the fun/style aspect. The RAV4 plug-in hybrid seems like a rock-solid choice, but do we have pre-owned options there? Is Mazda still a strong contender even though it's not electric?


Conflicted Car Consumer

Dear Conflicted,

One of the best things about your automotive choices right now is also the thing that is holding you back: choice. There’s an abundance of options to choose from, and besides maybe Mitsubishi these days, all the manufacturers make Good Cars. It’s about what you like and what your family needs. And of course, the budget. Fortunately, you’ve got a good handle on your preferences, so that’s a good place to start. 

Since leasing isn’t an option for you, this closes some of the more advanced hybrid/plug-in options that are only available on newer cars. Going used also means that there’s a car for every budget. But of course, this cuts into the age/mileage/reliability factors. What I recommend is prioritizing the list of wants and separating the must-haves, just like when you shop for a house. 

Your family needs a reliable car that is cost-effective and can haul around kids and kids' stuff. You and your wife want style, and environmentally friendly is also an important bonus. I think until all the car companies are offering affordable electric cars, with environmentally conscious ways of recycling batteries, and an infrastructure in place nationally for drivers to quickly and easily recharge, going all-electric may be an ambitious stretch at this point. Save that for the next go-around. 

You mention you love wagons (because, duh, wagons are cool as heck, and not everyone appreciates this, which puts you in the upper echelon). So let’s make it a little easier, let’s just narrow down all of our variables to just wagons.

That leaves us with the Subaru Outback, Volvo V60 or V90 and their Cross Country variants, Audi Allroad A4 or A6, Mercedes E-Class, Mazda3 hatchback. For price and sanity, I’m going to exclude the soon-to-die Jaguar XF Sportbrake and Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo. 

Now the question really is, how big do you need this wagon? Will the Mazda3, which is a fairly small hatchback, give you enough room for comfort and cargo? If so, that rules in the V60, and the A4. If not, you’d be better suited in the Outback, the V90, A6, or the E-Class (though you could also go up to a Mazda CX-9). 

Which brings us to the next question: Which is the most fuel-efficient? Without knowing the exact year, make, and model of each vehicle you find in your budget, it’s impossible for me to compare MPG. But overall, these vehicles are all in the 20+ MPG mark city, and since you do a lot of road-tripping, your average will generally be in the 25-30 MPG highway range, depending on how you drive. 

So I think this brings us to our last criteria, style: what do you like the best and what can you get in your price range? If you’re trying to spend $15k or less, that might rule out the Benz, the V90 and the CX-9.

For reliability's sake, I always tell people to get a car that still has some factory warranty on it, or if you can splurge, go for Certified Pre-Owned, which gives you some peace of mind. So while the plug-in Toyota RAV4 will be hard to find on the used car market, it won’t be impossible. There will be some starting to pop up soon, but you’ll be giving up a little on style.

This, I think, leaves us really with the Subaru Outback. For $15,000 you'd get into the 2016-17 range with low miles, which is fairly new and could allow for some remaining warranty. A 2016 gets over 30 MPG highway, which makes it a great option for the cost of ownership. It’s a beautiful looking wagon, it’s reliable, it’s great in bad weather, will fit the kids and all their friends and will give you a lot more car for your dollar. 

If you were willing to go a little older, you could go for style and choose the Volvo (my personal favorite of the options from an aesthetic standpoint). The Audi is nice and is known for its bangin’ Quattro system, which would be a plus on winter road trips, but it’s a little ho-hum, and they’ve had a bad reputation forever for being unreliable. It’s a stigma, I know, but do you really want to go there? Now you just have to avoid an argument over the color.

Happy motoring. And for a chance to be featured in an upcoming installment of Rachael’s Bluebook, please send your Ask Rachael letter to rachaelontheroad (at) gmail dot com.