The practical IWU student’s guide to buying a car

The practical IWU student’s guide to buying a car


Jeff Neukom, Managing Editor


For those of you who will be buying a car, this article is for you. This past weekend, I visited Bob Dennison Toyota, located at 1508 Morrissey Drive here in Bloomington. Escorted by Mike Haggarty, an Illinois Wesleyan grad, I checked out a few cars that fit practical needs and a college budget.

This time around, I stuck to an “Under $10,000” budget. At this price point, you’re likely looking at higher mileage cars with some cosmetic issues, but rest assured – you don’t need to spend $25,000 to find a car you love. The cars I assessed were a 2007 Toyota Rav-4, a 2006 Toyota Matrix, a 2005 Ford Focus SE and a 2011 Ford Fiesta.

When you’re looking to buy a car, simply reading Consumer Reports and checking the Carfax won’t cut it. What you really should do is sit in a few cars and test drive them if you can. I was unable to test drive this time around, as they didn’t have plates available because of an advertising event at a local high school. Even still, I was able to assess the cars based on important features: miles per gallon, cargo and seating space and reliability and comfort.

Even though the cars belong to different genres, I thought it would be appropriate to rank them based on how they matched my criteria.

Fourth place: 2011 Ford Fiesta. From a miles-per-gallon standpoint, the car is great, rated 28 city and 37 highway. The Fiesta is an unabashed economy car, exchanging typical American values (bigger everything) to keep the price down and maximize fuel economy. As a hatch-back car with the economy in mind, the car sacrifices quite a bit of interior room. You might be able to store a backpack on the front passenger seat to keep you company, but don’t expect the Fiesta to accommodate you well if you have a lot of cargo. Rear-seat space is tight, but a couple of adults can fit with cooperation from those up front – I don’t advise it, but it can be done. I didn’t care for the fandangled instrument cluster (where your speedometer is located) and dash display, as I’d prefer something a bit more subtle in place of such a blatant display of modern tech. As great as technology can be, I think the Fiesta suffers from a technological overdose. Despite Ford’s attempts at creating a lovable, little economy car, the Honda Fit and Nissan Verse both offer similar economy car characteristics. The Fit offers a bit more space and the Versa offers a similar package for much less green.

Third place: 2005 Ford Focus SE. There was a time that I owned a 2004 Ford Focus SVT, which you could say was the more muscular older brother to the SE. Call me biased, but the SE just did something for me the newer, more updated Fiesta couldn’t. Sure, the SE comes with older engine technology and thus lower mileage, but MPG isn’t the only thing to like about a car. The SE offered more backseat room and a much more substantial trunk. Being 10 years old, the SE did show its age, representing technology of a bygone era: manually-adjusted front seats, and much simpler stereo controls on the steering wheel. It was equipped with cloth seats, in contrast the leather of the Fiesta, but cloth seats have their own advantages. Not to mention, you wouldn’t be driving around in a neon green runt. My only word of caution is that the car is getting to the age where Ford dealers may or may not have replacement parts available if need be. Provided you can source the parts you need, the grizzled veteran of this car collection is a testament to my belief that newer isn’t always better.

Second place: 2007 Toyota Rav-4. If you’re not one for a compact economy car or sedan but also don’t want a full-fledged SUV, the Rav-4 would be a nice choice. It offers a comfortable, almost plush, interior. The car offers a potential three rows of seating, which is great if you have to play chauffeur for the night. The back seats are roomy, and the car leaves plenty of space for your supplies with an extravagant trunk. Conveniently, the trunk is equipped with a cover to prevent potential thieves from seeing what kinda heat you’re packin’ – or, you know, what kind of budget groceries you just bought from Kroger.  Car and Driver selected the RAV4 as “Best Small Sports Utility” for 2007, and I’d have to say, I was impressed.

First place: 2006 Toyota Matrix. You might notice that two Toyotas made the top of my list. Well, it’s no coincidence. Toyotas hold their value for a reason. They offer more of a luxurious feeling than Ford, as doors close with more of a hushed whoosh versus a metallic clunk. The Matrix’s seats are more comfortable than both the Focus and the Fiestas (and even more so than its sibling, the Pontiac Vibe). Not to mention, it’s a pretty sharp-looking ride in comparison to some of its peers. So, while you enjoy a semi-plush ride inside, you can rest assured that bystanders are looking on with envy… probably. Its 1.8 liter, 4-cylinder engine is rated at 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, and you could probably squeeze out a few more MPGs if you bought the manual. Speaking of manual transmissions, for those of you fortunate enough to have mastered the lost art of driving a stick-shift, the XRS version offers a slick 6-speed transmission. It is the only car on the list offering a 6-speed option, which will always earn points from me. The Matrix offers a pleasing combination of fuel economy, cargo & seating space, reliability and comfort. Just to show off, it throws a 6-speed manual transmission option and a sporty appearance on top.

Next issue, the Matrix will square off against a fleet of sporty sedans. And next time, I’ll put them all to the test where it matters: the street. Stay tuned.