things I’ve learned about cars

Heyyyyy I bought a car today!

Did I want to experience this milestone right now? Not especially! But, I learned some things in the process so here is some wisdom.

Note that about 90% of this wisdom was gleaned from my dad, who saved my a$$ by coming down to NC for the weekend to help me buy a new car one week into my new job. My dad is a born Car Guy and gave me so much invaluable information on the science of what makes a good car, different brands I hadn’t initially thought of, what is and isn’t worth paying for, etc. etc. I seriously don’t know what I would have done without him. The only thing I knew going in is that I wanted a car that was safe, reliable, and fuel-efficient. Now I have all this extra knowledge from him!


On hybrids

Pre car-totaling accident, it’d always been in the back of my (crunchy!) mind that I wanted my next car to be a hybrid. I just didn’t expect “next car” to come so soon. However, my new job (I’ll blog about it soon!) involves home visits with patients. Lots of small trips around town. Yes, I’ll be reimbursed for mileage but I still want something fuel efficient that isn’t going to wreak havoc on the planet doing lots of inefficient, lots of braking, short little tips.

Here was how I looked at hybrids, as a category.


  • I mean duh they’re more fuel efficient. Mine averages 42 mpg.
  • I mean duh they’re lower in emissions.
  • Now is a good time to buy them, price-wise, because gas prices are relatively cheap and hybrids are relatively low in demand. Whenever gas prices zoom back up, there’s going to be more demand-> higher prices for hybrids


  • They’re more expensive. MSRP on a 2017 Toyota Camry starts at $23K; on a 2017 Camry Hybrid it’s $27.7K.
  • You’re limited to certain brands (for example, I LOVED driving various Mazdas but Mazda doesn’t currently make a hybrid. Ditto Subaru)
  • They have considerably less trunk space (hybrid battery’s gotta go somewhere!)
  • They usually have a decent warranty on the battery (in most states, ~10 years; more if you’re in California where they actually encourage people to care about the environment), but once the warranty on the hybrid system is up a new battery is at LEAST $3K

I went into the car buying process planning to look only at Toyotas and Hondas. Here were some things I realized:

  • If I wanted something comparable in size to my old car (a Toyota Camry), I’d need to get the Camry Hybrid or the Honda Accord Hybrid. Both were wayyyy out of my price range to buy new. Accord Hybrids had suuuuuuper limited inventory locally. There were more Camry Hybrids but they were still super expensive even used (I looked at 2015 and newer; more on that thought process below).
  • I initially was like, “Oh, I want a hybrid car, I’ll get a Prius! Duh!” However:
    • The 2016 Prius redesign is UUUUUUUUUUUUGGGLYYYYYYYYY! I ruled it out pretty quickly for aesthetics and $$$
    • I test drove a 2015 Prius and was annoyed that the features were not updated compared to the regular, non-hybrid Toyotas. My rental car I’ve been driving has backup lines on the backup camera, which I’ve grown quite fond of, but the 2015 Prius still had the old school camera without the backup lines; and with poorer video quality that honestly looked like some fuzzy night vision video of Seal Team 6.
    • I also hated the rear view of the Prius- when you looked in your rear view mirror the hatchback made it so there was a line across the window and made it, IMO, more difficult to see what was behind you.
    • I test drove a Prius C, which is sort of the econo-Prius. A bit smaller, obvi, in both the body and (especially) in the engine. I liked the back windshield better (no stripe in your rear view mirror!) However, Consumer Reports hated it and though I didn’t agree with everything CR said, they were pretty spot on with the flaws of the Prius C. It was LOUD (and no wonder, the little teeny engine had to work hard!) and it felt pretty cramped. Having comfort for my passengers was important to me in a car.
    • In general, I thought the Prius wasn’t a real responsive car- you really had to gun it when going from being stopped (like at a red light) to even a low speed like 35 mph. My dad said disparaging things about CVT transmissions and this may have contributed to this problem.

So, did I rule out a hybrid? NO! I did end up getting a hybrid! My dad arrived and encouraged me to think outside of the Toyota/Honda box. What happened next:

  • First he recommended that I check out the Kia Optima hybrid. That was only a brief consideration since Consumer Reports said it couldn’t be counted on to be reliable, and reliability was my #1 concern
  • Then he recommended investigating the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. My dad knew the Sonata- he’d recently helped my stepmother’s friend buy a car and had been really impressed with the non-Hybrid Sonata.
  • First I test drove a 2015 Sonata. The most geographically convenient dealer to test drive that one only had a Limited model (<- more bells and whistles: moonroof, heated leather seats, etc.) The verdict on that was that I liked some things about it but I hated all the bells and whistles (moonroof= less headspace in the car, leather seats= are you kidding it is 90 degrees out, etc.) I also felt a bit crammed in it. However, it didn’t have the tedious acceleration of the Prius, and handled pretty well.
  • At this point, I was torn between one non-hybrid choice and the Sonata Hybrid. While I took a walk to recover from a day of visiting MANY car dealerships, my dad prepared one of the most gorgeous spreadsheets I’ve ever seen, analyzing the 2015 and 2016 Sonata hybrids and comparing them to my (to be discussed) top non-hybrid choice, the Mazda 6.
    • Hyundai made a biggggg leap in the 2016 model in terms of size. It had a difference of literally quarter inches in terms of length and width compared with the Mazda. It actually had a not-insignificant extra six cubic feet of head room in its cabin compared to the Mazda.
    • Fuel economy went up by 10% to 44 mpg highway/40 mpg city, making it even more appealing.
    • It had a “stiffer platform” (<- this phrase means more to my dad, hahahaha. But it handled nice!)
    • Best of all, there was a 2016 model with a pristine Carfax history, a mere 6,000 miles, and an awesome price in Greensboro (about an hour drive away). It was a basic model (no moon roof or leather nonsense).

So, we drove to Greensboro today and test drove it. My dad ended up spontaneously switching with me and driving for a minute (he really enjoyed the “sports mode” it does and enjoyed cranking up the gas!) It met all my needs and the price was right. So!

Yours truly is now the owner of a 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid!


Tools I used in my car search

  • I used the USAA car buying service. First of all, it has some fun features (like you can put in what kind of car body you want, what your budget is, how many miles per gallon you want, etc., and it’ll match you up with a car). You can go in and do a search for both new and used cars and it’ll show you what inventory is in your area. You also get a price guarantee- if you say you’re interested in a car at one of their approved dealers (there were at least three options for every single car model I looked it! Lots of dealers!) then the dealer will automatically email you a price guarantee sheet so the dealer can’t try to squeeze in any hidden fees when you’re paying. Also, if you use the USAA car buying service, you can get a reduced APR on a USAA car loan. For me, I could’ve gotten a 3.49% APR loan from USAA for any car, but since I used the car buying service my APR was 2.99%.
  • Obviously, not everyone can join USAA. I spoke to a money guy and he mentioned that he also recommended the Costco car buying service to his clients. So that’s another option!
  • I joined Consumer Reports to review their road tests/safety info/etc. It’s $6.99 a month. To me, it was a no brainer. I found it really helpful.

How old a car should you buy?

This is 100% my dad’s recommendation: he said get a car that is about two years old. At that point, it will have done some major depreciation (he said there’s a 10% hit just from driving a car off a new car lot), but it’s still under manufacturer warranty for at least another year or two.

That being said, my dad also said, and I quote, “But if you want to buy a brand spanking new car, you have my blessing too. Everyone should be able to enjoy that newcar smell at least once in their lives. :-)”

A final dad tip: be wary of buying a used car after a hurricane, because badly damaged cars can trickle from other states where the natural disaster took place. Also, use the Carfax when buying used and be wary if a car has traveled through many many states, as it can be used to hide something being a salvage title (something that’s had scary flood damage, etc.) My car had only ever been in NC!

What features are good? What features are lame?

  • Things I cared about: keyless entry, backup camera, cruise control, adjustable steering wheel. Obviously things like antilock brakes, power windows, but those things are pretty ubiquitous now.
  • Things I didn’t care about: fancy stereo, built in navigation or fancy bluetooth (I just use Siri), fancy trimming, active lane control. I did end up with dual climate control and while I didn’t need it it was nice! I wouldn’t mind cloth heated seats (like my mom has in her Subaru) because not only are they great in the winter but the heat on your lower back is great for menstrual cramps. But oh well. I’ll just use heating pads outside the car 😉
  • Things I actively avoided: leather seats, moonroofs (hahaha can you tell I have strong feelings about these two things?!)

Big car or small car?

  • My dad made a decent case for getting a bigger car: “You may only need a small car now, but you’re probably going to keep this vehicle at least five years. I’d suggest a mid-size because it’s more comfortable, roomier when you need to carry five passengers in a pinch, slightly safer (more mass = more protection, per laws of physics) and the price difference is small, especially if you buy used. Remember the mid-sized car will also bring more at the other end when you finally sell it. And there’s little difference in fuel economy.”
  • That being said, for me, big= a sedan, not a crossover or SUV or anything.
  • Having my dad, who is over six feet tall, with me when car shopping was great, because just seeing him sitting next to me gave me an idea of what passenger comfort would be like.

What brands are good? What brands are lame?

  • Brands I was open to considering (I didn’t test drive all of these brands because I had essentially a weekend, plus a few evenings after work when I did some preliminary research, but I have friends and family who love all of these brands): Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru.
    • If I hadn’t bought the hybrid, I would’ve bought a Mazda 6. I also really liked the Mazda 3 (and found the driver’s seat to be SO comfortable- it was like being wrapped in a cozy hug as I drove around!) but wanted a larger car, as noted above. The 6 had the same appeal as the 3, which was that Mazdas are SO pleasant to drive. They just are really responsive to what the driver is doing and handle really well. They also don’t have the stupid CRT transmission. And, like most Japanese models, the fuel efficiency is great for a non hybrid.
    • Ultimately, what sold me over was that all things being equal, I’d prefer a hybrid. Also, the most appealing local option (in terms of mileage/affordability) was for sale on Carvana. Carvana is a USAA-approved dealer, so I guess they can’t be that sketchy. And my dad ran the Carfax for this particular car and figured out it was a repossession, so it wasn’t on the market because there was a sketchy accident in its history; it was just financial mismanagement. But, Carvana made me a little nervous (I’d have to wait for the car to be delivered to me, and then if there were any issues with it I would’ve had a week long delay in my car search for no good reason), and ultimately I wanted the hybrid. Also, a repo just seems like bad karma (Carma? 😉 )
  • Brands I didn’t (please enjoy some more classic dad quotes, in quotation marks):
    • “American cars: The Ford Focus is popular and pretty good. In general, US cars are cheaper than ‘Japanese’ (even Japanese made in the US). I don’t think GM has anything very interesting. Ditto Chrysler. Don’t buy a new US car though, because they depreciate so fast, but they can be really good buys used, especially when owned by little old ladies. (Remember, I bought my 2002 Dodge Intrepid, with less than 90,000 miles, for $2,000 — and I love it. Problems so far: had to replace support struts for hood and trunk lids, plus check engine light goes off every once in a while for no reason. Otherwise, flawless.)”
    • “Mitsubishi: No. Nothing wrong with their cars, but brand almost dead in the US — they’ll be gone soon.”

Car insurance

So if you use any of this information to buy a car, I am thrilled for you. Now a few rather intense reminders about how to ensure you are taken care of insurance-wise:

  • Get collision insurance! I didn’t get it because I didn’t think it was cost-effective. But, number one, I didn’t have any coverage for the accident I was just in, so I was dependent on the other driver’s insurance company to take care of me. Even though I was found entirely not at fault (hurray!) there’s still a wait on the $ from the other insurance company. I literally did not hear a word from them until the police report from the accident was posted, and that took a week. But, more importantly about collision insurance, I got a policy for the car I was driving (a 15 year old car with 170,000 miles on it) but then I was renting a car that obviously I wanted covered in case there was an accident. However, USAA did not let me add collision to my policy until I had a new car. Therefore, I had to pay for the “loss damage waiver” for the rental car, which was a ridiculous $30 a day (the car itself was only $12 a day with the USAA discount). While I’m confident that I’ll get reimbursed for the car rental in the settlement from the other guy’s liability insurance, my insurance warned me that the other guy’s insurance wouldn’t pay for the loss damage waiver.
  • It’s not a bad idea to get medical coverage through your car insurance. I sort of had forgotten I had, and then they called me after this accident! While obviously the other guy’s liability insurance will pay me back for medical expenses I’ve incurred thus far, at a certain point (likely very soon) they’re going to want to settle this and have me sign a paper that says I’m not allowed to ask them for money ever again. On the other hand, USAA will continue to be my insurance provider and they said they have a three year statute of limitations, so if something develops later after the accident (like the crappy headache situations some of my friends have had, alas) it can still be covered. I mean, thank God, I have good health insurance and this is something I have to worry about less than some, but still, if I end up needing physical therapy or something that can add up to a LOT out of pocket.

Okay I hope you all have enjoyed this car wisdom! Now that I have learned all this stuff about cars, I am going to try hard to forget it, and let my brain space be taken up by more interesting things!


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