Car Purchase 2: Judgment Day

A few months ago, I posted about our decision to buy a Prius after the fact. Although I’d mentioned for months that we were actively car shopping, I waited until after the purchase to discuss it.

And the flame war was mighty potent. The post currently sits at roughly 174 comments, about equally divided between positive and negative, and I’ve received at least that many emails on the subject.

Since we acquired the Prius, though, our other “old” vehicle has largely died. It’s capable of making it around town, but drives of any distance cause it to rumble so ominously that I’m scared to drive it more than a mile or two. We’ve had it checked over twice and the conclusion has been the same – it needs thousands of dollars in parts and repairs to get the truck back to any degree of stability and reliability – and that won’t fix everything.

So, for the last two months, we’ve experimented with essentially being a one-car family. And, to put it simply, it doesn’t work.

Although I work at home most days, there are many days when I have meetings or research trips outside the home (particularly with regards to my second book).

Another key problem is that we’re likely going to have a third child in the next few years, meaning that none of our current vehicles can safely seat our family.

A third problem is winter weather. While the Prius gets incredible gas mileage, it’s not adept at winter driving in Iowa. My truck is fairly adept, but it’s not reliable at all without some significant investment.

So, we’ve started the process for buying a replacement for the truck. Luckily, as we were researching the car, we were also doing research on what we might purchase for a truck replacement.

To put it in a nutshell, we’re looking for a late model used van, (strongly) preferably with all-wheel drive. Let’s walk through some of the concerns.

Our Criteria
As I mentioned recently, our primary concerns are reliability and safety. We also require seating for five, and prefer seating for another head or two. For this vehicle, since it won’t be used for a regular commute, gas mileage is still a concern but it’s a lesser concern.

So, what does that mean in terms of actually finding a good vehicle for our dollar?

As with the Prius, we expect our best deal with this criteria to be a late model used. Our research starts there – we’re looking at 2005, 2006, and 2007 model vans, but are open to looking at both newer models and older models with limited mileage.

Since reliability is a concern, one of our bigger factors is lower mileage. Although it’s not a guarantee of reliability (nothing is), lower mileage simply means that there’s fewer miles’ worth of wear and tear on the parts on the vehicle.

Since safety is a concern and we live in a winter climate, all wheel drive is practically a requirement. Add in the factor that both of our parents live in a similar climate and off the paved road (with one set of parents living at the top of a steep hill with a gravel road that becomes like a sheet of ice in the winter) and all wheel drive is very important. Recent years have seen us borrowing a four wheel drive locally in order to make it to visit many of our relatives – my very heavy but not four wheel drive truck can’t do the trick. To put it simply, our situation strongly encourages an all wheel drive vehicle.

We’re not married to any brand beyond the reliability numbers. I’ve spent time at the library looking at individual reviews and reliability data on vans in the 2004 to 2009 model years. The picture becomes pretty clear – the Toyota Sienna is clearly at the top of the heap for all wheel drive and reliability, with several other vehicles in the next tier.

The problem? The all wheel drive Toyota Sienna doesn’t depreciate much in price, so it’s significantly more expensive at the late model used stage than other options.

Our Plan
So, what’s our plan?

First, we’re trying to maximize the value of our old truck. This involves cleaning it up and detailing it, as well as getting a small amount of work done on it to make it road-worthy over the short term. We’ll likely trade the vehicle.

Second, I’ve already begun checking out the prices on such vehicles from all dealerships anywhere near us. Most dealerships have online listings so that you at least have a good sense of their inventory. I’m not ignoring new vehicles, but as of yet the prices aren’t close enough to late model used to really have them in the comparison.

Third, I have a few friends who visit bankruptcy sales keeping an eye out for me. This is a long shot (estate sales rarely have vans), but it’s worth a chance.

Fourth, we’re not going to “over-wait” like we did with the Prius. With the Prius, we sat around waiting for the “perfect” deal to arrive – but it never did. Along the way, we wasted quite a bit of money on repairs and jumping through travel hoops, negating any benefit of waiting around for the best deal. Instead, if we find a good deal, particularly towards the end of the month when salesmen are trying to hit quotas, we’re just going to jump on it. There are costs involved in waiting for a deal that’s just a bit better.

Thoughts? Comments?

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