Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buying a New Car, Part 2: The Search

By Scott Araujo
In my last post, Buying a New Car, Part 1: The List, I'd created a list of cars I was interested in checking out to replace my old Honda Civic. Now, the time has come to actually get behind the wheel.

Day 1

With the list pared down to a more manageable size, Andy I suited up for a day of car shopping at the local dealerships. Up first was the Chevy Spark. I was pretty sure this would not be the car I wanted but after SCC's glowing reviews, I felt it deserved a fair chance. We got to the lot and were quickly assaulted greeted by a well dressed young man turning on all the charm. I said I wanted to test drive a stripped Spark with a stick. Of course we had to first pass the gauntlet of being taken to the show room, shown other cars, turning them down, etc. before he went off to fetch the car I asked for in the first place. It was the quintessential car sales experience, but the car I asked for was brought up and off we went.


Chevrolet Spark
A "Lemonade" yellow Chevrolet Spark. Also available in hideous pink.
I have to say, I was impressed. While not a rocket ship, the Spark had no trouble getting up to highway speeds with three grown men aboard. Handling, brakes, clutch, and shifting were all acceptable, nothing really bad here. The car was a bit noisy inside but nothing terrible and to be expected at this price point. The body and exterior fit and finish were quite good. For a 1200cc car with a $12k price tag, it is far more than I expected. The interior shows some areas where costs were kept down. Again, nothing terrible but not top of the line either.

In the end, the car was way more than I expected for the price but not what I wanted. It was a bit snug and only seats four passengers, not five. Our salesman had a scheduled appointment arriving so passed us along to one of his colleagues, another well dressed, well rehearsed young salesman. Now I had already decided I was not going to buy a Spark and when he asked I told him why.

"How about a Sonic?" he asked. No thanks. Though it's very similar looking, I just don't like the Sonic's lines, and at a higher price point, there are other cars I'd consider first. So I said no, but that did nothing to keep him from trying to sell me a Sonic two more times. Andy was getting impatient by this point. I had mentioned the Mazda3 and he said they had some used ones at another lot. I said I wanted new.

"How about a new MAZDASPEED3 for $18k?" he asked again. I asked if it was new.

 "Well nearly, a 2013 with 5,000 miles." He brought up a pic from the other dealer's site that was clearly marked $24k, so I don't know where $18k came from. I also couldn't understand why anyone would trade in a Speed3 with that little mileage and why a dealership would want to dump it for so little. At this point Andy was steaming. He has no patience for relentless, slimy salespeople. I asked for a business card to signal the conversation was over and pried us away so we could move on to the next dealership. Chevy Spark off the list.
  • Scion xB
  • Kia Soul
  • Mazda 2 hatch
  • Mazda 3 hatch
  • Chevy Spark
  • Subaru Impreza hatch
  • Honda Fit


Next on the list was the Scion/Toyota dealership to see the xB, and maybe take a peek at the Yaris SE. Even though the SE with a stick isn't avaialble around here, it's still a good point of comparison. Scion is a brand that's a bit different. Their "Pure Price" policy states that the advertised price you see in print or on the dealer website is the price you'll pay. It may be higher or lower than MSRP but there's no haggling. Since I hate the negotiation part of the process this was appealing.

The ultimate box on wheels.
I'm no purist and have no deep rooted loyalty to the first generation xB, so I have no qualms about the new model xB. I see it for what it is: a roomy, comfortable, stylish family truckster. Could one argue it does not hold to the spirit of the original? Yes. Do I care? No. We arrive at the local Toyota/Scion dealer and scope out some xB's. While there is no haggling there are 2013 leftovers, and most dealers discount them. So my hope is to score a deal on one of these.

From the outside they're nice. Big, obviously well put together, and marked at $16,999 with destination included. They're parked next to some leftover xD models. I tell Andy that the xD didn't even make it on the list since I remember how tight the back seat was the last time I sat in one at the auto show. Andy asked, "Are you sure that wasn't the xA?" Oh, you're right! What's the xD like? "Well it's basically the Scion version of the Yaris four door but with a bit bigger engine." Dude, seriously? In all our chats about trying to get a four-door Yaris stick in Oregon and how impossible it was you never thought to mention this? It seems we'll be looking at two Scion models today.

We are approached by a nice, older salesman who is very friendly. I explain that I'd like to test drive the xB and xD. So less than three minutes into it and it's the exact opposite of the experience we had at Chevy. Low pressure and totally amenable. We open up the xB to sit and poke and prod. After a few minutes of that we're on the road.

The salesman is great, just the nicest guy. He retired recently but came back. None of his friends are retired yet so he was bored sitting around all day.

The xB is nice. While checking out the car's interior before we drove out, Andy noticed the interior door panels were a bit flimsy and the interior as a whole is a bit on the cheap side, not much in the way of soft touch surfaces. Still, it's super roomy inside, lots of storage space, comfortable, handles well, and has decent power from the 2.4-liter motor that's been motivating Camrys for years. The handling is decent and would probably be even better with some TRD sway bars installed. There's only one thing I don't like, my elbow hits the center arm rest every time I bring the gearshift back. I try to work around it but unless I jack my elbow way up or open the console storage lid and leave the arm rest sticking up in the air, I hit it every time. It's pretty annoying. I guess it's just a side effect of how few standard transmission cars get made these days. With it being so little of the market share, I suppose the designers just don't worry about the ergos around the gear shift much. I'm sure my lanky arms don't help. Other than that the car is great and would suit me really well. I am definitely a fan of boxy cars for all the interior room they provide.

The ultimate box's little brother.

Next up is the xD. If feels very much like a smaller xB in many ways, but the dash doesn't have the center mounted gauge cluster and there's no center console to hit with my elbow. I've seen a few reviews that say it's tough for taller drivers to find a comfortable seating position, but at 5'11" I fit just fine. The back seat is a bit tighter than the xB but still adequate. Likewise, there's less storage space behind the rear seats but it's also adequate. I should mention that the car we're looking at is the limited edition Scion Series model, with limited edition paint and lots of bells and whistles. On the road the car is nice. It definitely handles tighter than the xB and Andy can tell the 1.8-liter engine gives it more pep than his Yaris has. This is definitely a contender.

One oddity was the clutch pedal. The clutch feel was fine but the pedal itself felt a bit odd under my foot. If I move my foot up I hit the actuating lever. If I move it down the pedal digs into the ball of my foot. I figured it might be the shoes was wearing.

We're back at the dealership and poke into a Yaris SE with automatic. Though a smaller car than the xD the back seat has more headroom. It's really a shame I can't easily get it with a stick here in Oregon. We get the salesman's card and head to the next dealership.
  • Scion xD
  • Scion xB
  • Kia Soul
  • Mazda 2 hatch
  • Mazda 3 hatch
  • Subaru Impreza hatch
  • Honda Fit


We head up the road to the Mazda dealer. We meet a few of the salesman and are handed off to a very friendly young man. Like the Toyota dealership it's totally low key and he's all smiles and good vibes. I told him I was interested in the 2 and the 3, base models with a stick. We find a 3 with a stick. Their lot is set up on a weird hill and getting any car out is a hassle. I tell him to just let me sit in it and check out the center console. If this is going to be like the xB then there's no need to even get it out of its spot. Sure enough, my elbow hits. Not as bad but enough that I figure this won't be a car for me. It was one of the most expensive choices on the list anyway. We move on to the 2.

I chose a rear 3/4 shot so Andy wouldn't have to look at the car's infamous 'smile'.

They bring one around and we head out for a drive. Right away I can feel that trademark Mazda handling. Even the cheapest car in their lineup handles like it's on rails. It's so nice! We take a nice long spin. Back roads, side streets, highway, everything really. The salesman is really funny, telling great stories the whole time and totally willing to both take jabs from us and return them. Not the most knowledgeable guy on cars but really fun.

We get back and it's just not the car for me. It's a little slow, a little tight on cabin space, and the interior is just a slightly lower quality than I really want. The salesman asks that if we could work out numbers today would I consider taking it home? I say no and that's the end of the sales pitch, back to friendly and low key. I get a card and we move on.


Just a few doors down is the Subaru dealership, so we stop in to see if they have an Impreza with a stick. When we looked for my wife's car, we drove an automatic and I was really impressed with the car. Very basic and very high quality. We meet a few salesman and ask about an Impreza with a stick. They say they're pretty sure they don't have any sticks on the lot. Now there are Imprezas as far as the eye can see, it's about the only model they have in their large front lot. They check, nope. They offer a CVT for a test ride but I'm not interested. We depart.

Nothing says Portland, OR like owning a Subaru.  Make sure you're wearing your Columbia jacket.
It was getting late so we went for some dinner and beers and car talk. So the Mazda2 and Mazda3 are off the list and the Scion xD is on. I'm torn on the xB, I want to like it. It's roomy and it will run forever, but it's got the lowest MPG on the list and there's the center console issue. We talk about lots of other stuff and then head home. I talk to my wife and relate all we saw today. She vetos the xB right away. Her point is that if they can't even design the center console right it's not worth considering. I told her it would come right off with two screws. Nope, no dice. She's right. End of day one and the list is much shorter.
  • Scion xD
  • Scion xB
  • Kia Soul
  • Mazda 2 hatch
  • Mazda 3 hatch
  • Subaru Impreza hatch
  • Honda Fit

Day 2

A few days later, the weekend arrives and while my son is down for a nap, I leave the wife at home and go out solo to see if I can get a few more test drives in. The first place I hit is the Kia dealer. I had rented a first-gen Soul a while back for a few days while I was in San Diego visiting friends. I liked it right away for its cavernous interior, still-cool styling, and amazing utility. On the downside, it had very grabby brakes and more bump steer than any car I've ever driven. I'm pretty sure the brakes were at least partly a maintenance issue, but the bump steer wasn't. Fortunately, Andy had been to the launch of the second gen Soul and the handling and brakes were both very much improved. Combine that with a super low MSRP and I was very excited to see this car.


I got to the lot and met a very nice salesman. I told him I was looking for a base model with a stick and no options and we set out walking through the lot to find one. They had a ton of new Souls on the lot and we found one pretty quickly, he went off to get the keys. We opened it up and started looking around.
New school box on wheels.
Wow! Kia really did their homework. Just looking under the hood was impressive. No strut to prop it up, gas cylinders hold up the hood. I haven't see that in a long time. And everything under there was clean, clean, clean. Nothing looked unfinished. We started looking in the hatch and the interior and the attention to detail continued everywhere. This is one very well designed and executed car. It's a notable step up from the last gen in every way.

I sat in the driver's seat and dug it immediately. The binnacle around the instruments looks awesome and the instruments light up with a red-orange glow. Combine that with the dark interior and it feels like your sitting in a fighter cockpit, if only fighter cockpits were this roomy. The last model had seats with almost no lateral support at all. While these aren't Recaros, they're not bad. Firm, supportive, comfortable, and with at least a modicum of side bolstering. The back seat feels even bigger than the xB. With the pre-flight check complete we take off.

I had told the salesman about the brakes in the last Soul I had driven. I tap them before we even leave the lot just to get a feel. I'm disappointed to find they're still pretty grabby. We continue on for a spin around the neighborhood and short run down a secondary highway. Once again it's obvious Kia really listened to criticism. The bump steer is gone, I really looked. I wandered around the road looking for potholes and cracks and never met with a wandering wheel. The suspension is also a good bit firmer. I suspect some people may find it too firm, but I liked it. Interior noise also seemed down.

The clutch and the steering feel were the most disappointing aspects. There is no clutch feel. None. I put it up and down several times, engine running, engine off. It's super light and I can't tell where it engages by feel. To take off I just gave it a touch of throttle and slowly let off until the car starts moving. You get used to it quickly but the feel just isn't there. Likewise, the steering wheel is pretty numb and doesn't tell you much about the road or what the car is doing on it. None of the three steering settings seem to improve it. I've driven worse, at least there's enough feedback to keep it between the lines. Still, with the brakes, clutch, and steering together this is not a driver's car.

The engine is ... adequate. It's not a drag car but it gets up to speed easily enough and stays there witout feeling labored. The salesman says he has driven both the 1.6 liter stick and the 2.0 liter automatic and can't really notice much difference. The six-speed gearbox is really quite nice. It's smooth and the throws are short and precise.

One further note that this car is not a gearhead's choice: no spare. You get a can of fix-a-flat and an air compressor. Again, Kia has done their homework. The people buying this car are not changing flats, they're calling for roadside assistance. So they conveniently ditched the spare and the associated weight to help bump the MPG up a touch and the cost down a bit. It should be noted here that other markets like Canada do get a spare as standard equipment.

If it sounds like I'm down on this car, I'm not. The car has it's shortcomings but it's also a pretty nice little vehicle, and amazing for the price. While it is definitely not a driver's car it's amazing how much you get in the base model for around $15k. Road feel aside, it really looks like quality design and manufacturing went into every nook and cranny of this car. And it's HUGE inside. While it looks a bit smaller than the xB from the outside you'd be hard pressed to tell it's smaller on the inside. Cavernous doesn't begin to cover it. Still, for me the handling and brake issues are annoying enough that it's not my pick, and I reluctantly cross it off the list.
  • Scion xD
  • Kia Soul
  • Subaru Impreza hatch
  • Honda Fit


I drove just across the highway to the Honda dealership to check out the Fit. My brother has had one for many years now and really loves it. He's 6'4" tall and fits in in better than he fits in many larger cars. I drove one with an automatic a couple of years ago when looking for a car for my wife. It struck me as a bit loud and a bit slow but otherwise really nice.

I get to the dealer, this is the same dealer where we bought my wife's Civic and where I usually get parts for mine. There's a bit of the corporate glad handing and I've got a salesman looking for a Fit with a stick. There's only one on the lot and it's a Sport model. Since the mechanicals are exactly the same that'll do, and we're off for a drive.

After 17 years of loyal service from my Civic, how could I not test drive the Fit?
The first thing that strikes me about the Fit is how small it feels inside when compared to the xB and Soul and how much light is coming in. I think the footprint isn't much smaller but the sides are angled in. It makes the car look less boxy but the window is closer to you and you feel like you're in a greenhouse more than a cockpit. Also, the interior isn't laid out as well as my own Civic. My '97 is small but the space is exactly where you need it. It feels super roomy and comfortable, everything is easy to see and get to. The Fit isn't like that. It feels a bit cramped and my knees are right up on the dash.

We pull out and I'm a bit suspicious that the salesman has brought a CD with him. He pops it into the radio and turns it up. It's a very nice stereo but after a few remarks I turn it off so I can hear the car. The car is OK but not great. The transmission is silky smooth just like Andy told me, though throws feel a bit long. Overall it still feels slow and a bit loud. Now if you're coming from a '97 Civic with 200k plus miles and another car feels slow and loud—it is! No two ways about it. Handling is fine, as is road feel and everything else, but nothing is sensational. Combine all that with the so-so ergos and it's not for me.
  • Scion xD
  • Subaru Impreza hatch
  • Honda Fit

Subaru Revisited

One last stop for the day, I head to the other Subaru dealer across town to see if they have an Impreza with a stick. I asked for a salesman I had met there before but it turns out he has retired. I'm introduced to another salesman who is very nice. He tells me what the other dealer told me, they just don't get many Imprezas with manual transmissions. However, this dealership is in the middle of town and not all their cars are right on the lot. They keep some a few blocks away at a storage lot.

They just got a new shipment in and they're not in the computer yet. As it's a very nice day we decide to take a short walk over and see if there are any that have come in. We have a nice chat on the way and arrive shortly. Unfortunately, no luck, there are no sticks here either. Oh well. We walk back and he offers me a card. He also takes my info and says he'll call if one comes in soon. Impreza off the list.
  • Scion xD
  • Subaru Impreza hatch
So it looks like I've whittled down the list pretty quickly to the xD leftovers. I decide to take a day or two to think about it, chat with my wife, Andy, and Mercedes. If it still feels like a good choice then I'll start checking dealers for who has one in a color I like at a good price.


Lee Seelig said...

What about the Golf or Jetta wagon? 6-speed manuals are still available!

Patch said...

Why the Spark and not the Sonic?

Craig Stanfield said...

The Fit you looked at...You said "Sport" and low beltline. Was it a 2014? Or was it the all new 15 ( that doesn't seem to have a sport version. ..but does have a high belt line and 6 speed manual...along with gdi). Just curious as i too was looking at Fits this week.

Unknown said...

I have a 2012 Impreza with a 5-speed manual and I really like it. I previously owned a 2011 Mazda2 and I loved its sporty handling, but I wanted to upgrade to a quieter, more comfortable, but still fun-to-drive car, and the Impreza turned out to be a great choice, especially with the added bonus of AWD. So I'd say it's worth waiting to drive an Impreza with a stick before you make your final decision!

Ducati Scotty said...

The Gold 4 dr and Jetta wagon are both a little more than I'd like to spend.

The Spark and Sonic are very similar but I like the lines of the Spark a bit better. The Sonic looks boxier.

I was looking at the 14 Fit. The 15 is very different.

Stay tuned ;)

Anonymous said...

The Scion dealer should be doing whatever it takes to sell you that xD, especially in stick.

Nick McKay said...

You should try a Sentra, i know you ruled out the Versa, but a sentra is a little bigger, and while the motor might be a little lackluster, I was able to fit in the cars back seats (at 6' 2") and a 5' 11" girl was in the front seats, you can get them in about 15K$ and most of the dealerships are pretty chill about the test drive.

Ducati Scotty said...

Oh, just wait and see what the Scion dealer did.

The Nissan Sentra is a great little car and a super bargain but it's pretty bland and doesn't come in a hatchback.