In Which a Nervous Car Gal Dips Her Toe Into The Water, Part 2-The Test Drive

The  2008 Toyota Camry  LE goes from snark fodder to a downright respectable choice for this car shopper.

I never thought much of Toyota Camrys. As a long-time favorite of the much older drivers in my neck of the woods, I never gave the Camry  a second glance. Plain. Boring. Stodgy. Frumpy.

And popular. The Camry is one of Toyota’s best sellers and a leading contender in the busy mid-size sedan segment, so they can’t suck that much. I mean, really.

My neighbor’s son-in-law has his 2008 Camry LE up for sale and I’m feeling my way back into the car market.

What did I have to lose? I made arrangements for a test drive.

My community is the perfect test chamber for a car: the streets serve up a combination of wide open stretches, hills, speed bumps, crappy conditions, cul-de-sacs, and even a roundabout thrown in for good measure.

While the car lurched a bit during initial acceleration (red flag #1) it had no trouble darting up the winding roads on my way to a hilltop housing tract where most of my testing would take place.

The 2.4 liter, 158 hp 4-cylinder engine handled the uphill haul well with little to no fuss.

The Camry was nimble as I worked my way up the curving road. I love cars that offer a smooth ride while being agile and  sure-footed at the same time. Good road manners do count.

While the cabin wasn’t as quiet as I had hoped, it was still bearable.

Once I reached the top of the hill, I headed for a cul-de-sac. Front wheel drive cars are prone to CV boot issues, and I wanted to rule that out from the beginning. After a few tight turns in a circle left and right, with radio off and windows down, there was nary a peep. Sweet. Onward.

The steering was tight, and this car has an excellent turning radius, something I missed from my Volvo-owning days. Braking was another story as the brakes were grabby (red flag #2).

The car had a distinctive pull to the left (red flag #3) as I drove a straight line with hands off the wheel. Low tire? Crappy alignment? A future million-dollar fix? Hard to tell without a thorough  pre-sale workup.

Vanilla interior, thy name is Camry

The interior was dutiful and bland, but holy moly, was it spacious. I could easily seat two tall adults in the back seat with plenty of head and leg room, sloping roofline be damned. The driver’s seat was a perfect fit. I had plenty of head and leg room.

The plain interior has an upside: it serves as a canvas for some personalized touches. I could easily make this car mine with some simple tweaks.

Controls in the center stack were well-placed and ridiculously easy for me to use. I popped in a Strauss CD and the sound quality was glorious.

However, visibility in this car isn’t just bad, it’s terrible. Had I not been as vigilant as I was, I easily could have sheared a fender or two while backing out of a parking stall. Rear visibility is just awful. I would need lots of road hours to get used to it.

I deeply and sincerely hope to hell subsequent Camrys have better visibility. Thankfully, backup cameras are now standard as of this year.

Aside from the car’s drawbacks, I found it to be a likable, potentially viable option for a driver like me. Of course, the thought of shouldering both repair bills and a loan payment made me sick to my stomach; over 93000 miles on the odometer, so an eventual big-ticket fix isn’t that far-fetched. Eep.

Stay tuned, as the seller and I will be arranging for a pre-sale workup and I’ll be digging into the maintenance records.

Close, But No Car

beggars can't be choosers when it comes to old cars

This  Elantra is pretty damn close to the one I was offered, but in much better shape.

In which my search for safety, economy and reliability come up short

I turned down a car that was offered to me.  If you’ve been hanging out in my ramshackle corner of the Internet for awhile, you’ve known how much I need to get a car.

My neighbor at the end of my street has two college-age sons. They shared the old family car when they were in high school. Now entering their second and third years of college respectively, both kids have decided to pass on car ownership for the time being. The aging Hyundai Elantra GLS has been idle for months.

The kids’ dad  offered it to me last week. I could buy it for next to nothing. “Just get it off my hands. It can’t sit in the drive because we just don’t have the room and I want it gone.”

I wish I could say it was a perfect match. Based on  what I’ve observed over the years, I knew better. They never really took care of their cars. I looked the car over. It had been washed and prepped for sale. The radio didn’t work well, and the window motors were iffy. It squeaked by smog testing earlier this year. Barely.

Service records were scarce. Understandable from a busy family with two kids and not a clue about cars.

This Beggar Needs To Be  a Chooser

Still, I need wheels. Beggars aren’t supposed to be choosers, right?

One of my friends is a tech over at the local Shell station, so I ran the car over there for a pre-sale inspection.  I hovered while he checked it out and rode shotgun while he drove it. Too many knocks, creaks, and squeals for my blood. I knew that from my short drive to the station.

The rear bearings were shot to hell to add insult to injury. I also worried that it would burst into flames just when I needed it most.

“You could go back and counter-offer him about a grand less, because that’s how much you’re looking at to get it really road-worthy.”

NOPE. I’ve been down this road before. No sooner will I sink a grand (which I don’t have in the first place) than I will have to sink yet another grand into the next crisis that pops up. I remember driving an aging car. I lived in crisis mode the last three years of that car’s life.

I can’t and won’t do it again. Call me crazy, because I don’t have a lot of options here,  but I have neither the nerve or the resources to take on another elderly car. I don’t have the tools or the space to fix it myself. I sure as hell don’t have the cash.

It was sold two days later, most likely to someone with the emotional and financial wherewithal to take on an aging car that needs serious work. More power to ’em.

For the sake of my sanity and finances, this beggar is gonna be a chooser.


2012 Nissan Leaf: A Delightful Mutant Catches My Attention

I’d been researching used cars online for months now, but I hadn’t really narrowed down my list. It’s times like this when I really miss my dad more than I usually do.

“Look. Just ask your dad what kind of car you should get,” a friend told me. She, too, had lost her dad recently and talks with him all the time. “He’ll give you a sign. He really will.”

I no sooner said, “Dad, I’m really hitting the wall on this car thing. Too many to choose from. Could you help me out here?”

Immediately afterward I saw it. A blue Nissan Leaf, parked by itself near one of the local shops. I shit you not. The normally jammed parking strip was nearly empty, save for the car and two others.


2012 Nissan Leaf SV sunning itself in captivity at my local CarMax. Identical to the one I saw on the street immediately after asking my dad for a little sign.

Well played, Dad.

Indeed. I’d been snubbing alt. fuel cars for the past few years. Ugly. Gutless. Too expensive. Driven by smug greenies.

My dad, on the other hand, loved alt-fuel technology, and swore up and down 25 years ago that alt. fuel engines would be the norm.

I headed to my local CarMax pronto for a no-hassle test drive, and walked away a true believer.

In which a jaded car gal eats her words

I got into the Leaf and pressed a button. It clicked, hummed and chimed itself to life. The dashboard was easy to read and provided readouts of battery power, usage, and mph, and mpg equivalent, among other things.

I was surprised at how solid this little car was. High-quality materials, controls within easy reach, and the oddest egg-shaped gear selector I’d ever seen. A push of a button puts it in “Park.” and a nudge puts it in drive.

I put the car through its paces, fully expecting it to be gutless and unenthusiastic. I was dead wrong. While it certainly won’t blow the lane markers off the highway, I was impressed with its power, finesse, and composure.

There was no engine noise, just a quiet whirring sound as the Leaf idled, and a silent, silky smooth ride while driving. I fell in love with this little mutant quickly.

I was impressed with the NHTSA safety ratings, it strong reliability record, and its overall handling.


Take me to your leader…er, garage.

An EV the Rest of Us can afford

The price range for a used 2012 Nissan Leaf SV (the model I tested) hovers around the $9,000-$10,000 range. That’s a fairly steep depreciation from the MSRP of $34,000 new, so that gave me pause.

Time for a little further research.

Still, I could buy a much smaller, cheaply-made car for the price of a used Leaf, and get a lot less car for the buck, and be disappointed in the long run.

The Leaf comes with its own charging kit, and it plugs in to any 120v outlet. Overnight charging takes about 12-17 hours. Battery range varies, depending on the terrain driven, and whether or not I’d run the heat or A/C.

Range anxiety really is a thing, according to a neighbor who drives a Fiat 500e.

I think I can make that adjustment.




Real Life Review: 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS

Used car buyers looking for a roomy people mover could do far worse than the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe

Being without my own car has its perks. I get a chance to borrow and drive various cars from time to time. I had a couple of appointments in the next town and so I scored a neighbor’s 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe. He bought it two years ago from a seller on Craigslist and  he loves it. I can see why.

Hyundai’s popular workhorse

I had to do some serious highway driving, and the 185hp V6 handled it well. Passing and merging were hassle-free.  I was cruising through a major speed trap on the main highway at one point and was horrified to discover I was going 15 mph over the speed limit. The Santa Fe doth protest not nearly enough. I had no idea I was going that fast til I checked the speedometer.

While the Santa Fe has taken no vows of silence by any stretch, the engine gave no indication we were humming along at 70 mph in a 55 mph zone.

The four-speed automatic shifted smoothly for the most part, save for a rough shift out of first. Mind you, this car has over 100,000 miles on it, so all was forgiven.

Like others in its segment, the 2007 Santa Fe has plenty of cargo room: 34 cubic feet with the seats up, and 78.2 w/the rear seats folded down. This is the perfect hauler for a growing family that doesn’t want a minivan or full-size SUV.

Front and rear legroom was more than generous. Same goes for headroom.  The interior cabin is spacious, with a well-organized center stack. I noticed I could adjust the A/C with my eyes still on the road, a big plus in this land of distracted drivers.

Well-executed interior with space to spare

Since this was a 2007 model, it didn’t have the full tech suite that newer cars have, and for that I was grateful. The controls were clearly labeled, within easy reach, and easy to use. No guesswork. Same went for the cruise control. The aftermarket radio/CD/MP3 player left much to be desired, but the car’s owner swore it was easy to use after a steep learning curve.

This model came equipped with cloth interior. My one complaint about the interior: too much plastic.

Like most SUVs, there is plenty of cup holder space, and a generous center storage unit for change and other goodies.

I was disappointed in the mushy handling.  While it scored a 4/5 stars for body roll safety, the Santa Fe felt much less restrained. This SUV felt a little too tippy for my taste. It didn’t feel firm or well-composed.

After all, it is nine years old with some miles on the odometer. However, a Toyota Highlander with similar miles and in the same model year was much more sure and composed when I drove it for comparison.

Family hauling at a bargain price

That being said, if you’re in the market for a used mid-size SUV, you could do far worse than the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe. The Santa Fe has plenty of cargo space, generous head and legroom, and plenty of compartments and cup holders.

The 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe is the perfect car for a growing family on a budget that needs a roomy car that will run strong and look good while doing so. Prices in the metropolitan Southern California area range from the mid-$7000s to $8500.00, depending on condition and trim line.

Available trim lines: GLS, SE, Limited

Model tested: GLS

Miles: 104,400

Drivetrain: Front wheel drive

Seating: Seats 5 comfortably. Third-row seating available on higher trim lines.

Engine/transmission: 2.7l V6 with 4-speed automatic. Available 5-speed manual

MPG: 21/26

Safety: 5- star crash test rating from NHTSA, highest rating from the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).

10 Under $10,000…Part 2

Cars under $10,000 don’t have to suck. Here’s proof:

Cars under $10,000 don’t have to be bland econoboxes. You can land a cool car and a great deal with some detective work, a finely-tuned BS radar, and patience. Here are five more cars for under $10,000.

2005-2006_Honda_CR-V_--_02-29-20122005 Honda CR-V: The predecessor to the wildly popular current model is a sturdy, reliable people mover. This is a great little SUV for around town or for a cross-country haul: this “cute ute” features 1500-lb towing capacity. While less stylish than the current models, the 2005 CR-V is all about practicality.

You won’t find tons of extras, but you will get 23 mpg along with Honda reliability. The 2005 CR-V features a 2.4 liter 160-hp engine paired with a 5-speed automatic. While the mpg is among the lowest in its segment, the CR-V is a sure bet for reliability and durability.

2008-Kia-Optima-LX-32008 Kia Optima LX: This mid-size favorite introduced better safety features and reliability in 2008, making it a good bet for a used car. Kia has stepped up their game over the past 10 years. It shows in better workmanship, improved style, and enhanced safety features. The 2008 Optima LX earned a coveted 5/5 stars from NHTSA. This is an ideal first car or a daily driver for commuters.

The 2008 Optima features a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder paired with a 5-speed automatic. This popular sedan gets 26 MPG combined. While it doesn’t generate as nearly as much power as similar cars in its segment, the 162-hp is strong enough for daily driving but not too overpowering (or tempting) for a younger driver.

PonticVibe2008 Pontiac Vibe: Built on a Toyota Matrix platform, this popular model demonstrates Toyota-like reliability. Featuring a 1.4L 4-cylinder mated to a five-speed manual, the Vibe’s 126 hp essentially guarantees a young driver won’t  be drag-racing in it any time soon. This workaday hatchback offers 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space, making the perfect grocery-hauler or people mover. 29 MPG combined.


2005 Acura TL sedan: Here is a chance to drive a car that has all the bells and whistles, but none of the luxury car payment headaches. The 2005 Acura TL sedan features a full power suite (power everything) along with Bluetooth, satellite radio capabilities, and many more features you won’t find on entry-level used cars.

Combine the Honda luxury brand’s sense of style with a 270hp six cylinder, 5-speed automatic, and you have a car that will offer more sass and power than your basic econobox. 22 MPG combined. If you’re looking for a used full-size luxury sedan, the Acura TL could be your pick.


Geo Prizm: This mid-90s favorite shares its DNA with the ever-reliable Toyota Corolla. This best kept used car secret features a 1.6L inline four matched with a 5-speed manual transmission. The Geo can be hard to find in some markets, but if you’re lucky enough to find one in good shape, you can expect to pay from the low to mid $2,000 range.

Smart sellers are holding onto to these gems. They’re tough, reliable, and  fuel-efficient (26/31 mpg). The Prizm is a fantastic find for the savvy used car buyer looking for a sturdy commuter car. Easy to maintain and relatively cheap to fix, the Prizm is a good bet if your budget won’t allow for anything beyond $3,000.

Older used cars don’t have to suck. The good news is there are plenty to choose from in the lower price brackets, which could save you the headaches of car payments if you’re able to come up with enough cash for the sale.




10 Under $10,000…Part 1

Here is my fully subjective list of used cars under $10,000. If you’re looking for a daily commuter or a first car, there are bargains to be had for $10,000 or less.

On to the list in no particular order:

zombdrive.com2008 Mazda3: This is a perennial favorite. Mazda makes a helluva car, and the 3 is a popular choice for a stylish, fuel-efficient daily driver. It has enough safety features to make it a good choice for a first car, too. Look for one that has been well-maintained with low miles, and you’ll have a great car for years to come. Available as a sedan or hatchback.

MPG: 24/32  Drive train: 2.4 liter 4 cylinder, 5-speed manual, available 4-speed automatic


2003-2011 Ford Crown Victoria: OK, so this boat-like sedan isn’t exactly fuel-efficient, but it’s spacious, reliable, and comes equipped with a 4.6 liter V8 mated to a 4-speed automatic. No wonder law enforcement folk love  these cars. Add a vertical bars to the front grille and scare the hell out of people as you pull up behind them. MPG: 16/23

www.cargurus.com2006-2006 Infiniti G35: This is a winner if you have more refined taste. These cars come equipped with Bluetooth, leather upholstery, navigation system, keyless ignition and a host of other treats. A great way to indulge your champagne taste while honoring your beer budget. The 3.5L V6 offers more sass than other cars at this price point, and you have your choice of a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. MPG: 17/24

thedetroitbureau.com2007-2012 Nissan Versa: This one leaves me completely underwhelmed, but it’s a good point A to point B car. If bare bones practicality is your selling point, the Versa is for you. I’ve driven one on several occasions and the seats have all the comfort of a bus stop bench. Just warning you. The Versa is available as either a sedan or hatchback with either a 1.6L CVT automatic or a 6-speed manual.  MPG: 30/38

zomdrive.com2001-2005 Honda Civic: What is a cheapie car list without the Civic? Available in DX, LX, EX, and Si trim lines, the Civic offers a lot of features for the money.   Great MPG, Honda reliability, and simple architecture/layout make this a favorite. Make sure the timing belt was changed at the proper interval and beware of transmission issues. The Civic is available as a sedan, coupe, or hatchback. Comes with your choice of a gas or hybrid engine. MPG: 27/34

Budget cars can be great cars

Despite what your well-heeled friends may have told you, budget cars don’t have to suck. By doing your research, exercising caution (the seller is full of BS until proven otherwise), and getting a look at maintenance records, you can snag a great deal.

As with any used car purchase, have an automotive tech familiar with the brand perform a pre-sale inspection.

Buying used also means cheaper insurance, less sales tax, and lower registration fees. If you’re looking for a reasonably-priced ride, one of these cars could be your ticket out of public transit or bumming rides from friends.

Wednesday: Part 2 of 10 under $10,000.