car shopping

So, we went car shopping. (Thanks Kitty Non Grata for the inspiration!) We don’t really need a car until we leave in March 2011, but I’d like to get it sooner rather than later for Target runs, vet trips and weekend excursions to who knows where.

Andy’s opinion is pretty much, “Why pay car insurance before we really need to, and also, why not wait until a month before we leave so we don’t have to pay state sales tax?” Fair arguments, but still, I want a car.

Yes, you can survive in Arlington without one, but Arlington’s no New York City. The Metro doesn’t get you everywhere, and buses come much less frequently. Not having a car is annoying. And we’re going to buy it eventually, so why not now?

Andy’s not totally sold, but he agreed to look nevertheless.

Our criteria:

  • High clearance (Why? See here.)
  • Four-wheel drive

Our first stop was at the Toyota dealership to check out the Rav4, commonly referred to as “the car of the Foreign Service.” If it’s good enough for everyone else, it’s good enough for us, right?

Toyota Rav4

2010 Toyota Rav4

  • Retails from about 24k
  • Reliable
  • Good resale value
  • Good promotions right now
  • Drives smoothly
  • The verdict: Maybe

While it’s a solid car, there’s nothing about it that would make me go, “Wow. I’m proud to own this.” I’m especially not in love with the new design; I prefer the boxier frame of the old Rav4s.

While we were at the Toyota dealership, we also checked out this guy:

Toyota Cruiser

  • Retails from about 26k
  • Feels like the sort of car you should drive in Africa
  • Great for off-roading (or road tripping to, say, Timbuktu)
  • Higher clearance than the Rav4
  • Probably too wide and bulky to be practical for city driving
  • The verdict: No

We also ventured across the street to the Honda dealership to test drive the Rav4’s biggest competitor:

Honda CRV

  • Retails from about 23k
  • We liked the interior more but the exterior less
  • Andy said it “felt less substantial” while driving (I’m not sure what this means, but apparently it’s a negative)
  • Current deals less appealing
  • The verdict: Trailing behind the Rav4, but a good price could sway us

(In unrelated news: We mentioned to the dealer that it’s too bad both the CRV and the Rav4 have gotten bigger in recent years, because the newer versions are both really just more car than we need or want. He looked at us with shock and confusion; apparently no one else has ever complained about a car being too big. Oh, America.)

The big draw of Honda and Toyota are that they’re known quantities in a lot of different parts of the world. In fact, both seem to even have dealerships in Cotonou. However, upon learning that neither company honors warranties overseas, we began to question whether we really needed to restrict ourselves to these two companies.

We scoured a used car dealership nearby for other options, and turned up two, both Jeeps. We’ll probably head to a Jeep dealership tomorrow to test drive them.

Jeep Liberty

  • Retails from about 25k
  • We like the looks of it much better than the CRV or Rav4
  • Good promotions right now
  • Possibly less reliable
  • Possibly worse resale value
  • May be difficult/impossible to service in Cotonou should anything go wrong
  • The verdict: We need to do more research

Jeep Patriot

  • Retails from about 17k
  • Good promotions right now
  • Again, we like the look of it much more than the Rav4 or CRV
  • Did I mention it retails from about 17k and there are good promotions?
  • The verdict: We need to learn more about this one too

Before today we were fairly sure we would buy new, but this no-warranty thing is making us second-guess that also. (If we go used, we would definitely want something only a few years old and with 20,000 miles or fewer so we can be reasonably certain it will hold up alright for 2-3 years.)

Any thoughts about the new/used debate, or about any of these makes?

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13 Responses to car shopping

  1. Elaine says:

    The Honda Element is the best car ever. You can haul anything, even sleep in it, no carpeting to get nasty and it even has a dog package:

  2. David L. says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that if you need to take out a loan, make sure the loaner is cool with you taking the car to Africa.

  3. Rk says:

    Careful with the used cars – some countries have age limits on imports. We just got a Kia sportage, which is like the CRV / rav4 but cheaper. It also has slighly higher clearance. We’re happy so far!

  4. Laura says:

    I used to have a Liberty and loved it, the back seat is a little small but I really liked the way it drove and the newer models have some great features. We just bought a used Lexus a few weeks ago for about 24k, the big SUV and we love it, great 4 wheel drive options, tons of features and tons of space!

  5. Alex says:

    After a little more research…

    All the Jeep options get horrible ratings for reliability, which is really the most important thing for us, so they’re probably out. Darn.

    SUVs with good all-around ratings we’re now considering: Honda Element, Nissan XTerra and Hyundai Tucson.

  6. I love my Subaru Forester! Haha. I know someone who has an FJ Cruiser and loves it (bought it used) and someone who just bought a Subaru Forester to take to Africa.
    With the loans – SDFCU was amazing and they will obviously let you take the car overseas. Just a thought.

    Glad to have inspired you! Andy- I was going to try to wait out having a car until right before I left too, but after almost 7 months I couldn’t take it anymore. Haha. Its totally freeing. 🙂

  7. Daniela says:

    We have the Honda Element and are very happy with it. At first I wasn’t crazy about it’s look – it’s just boxy but it has grown on me. We definitely like the fact that it doesn’t have carpet because we have a little one and when she was an infant she used to throw all kinds of stuff on the floor (including some sticky, gooey things), which is not a problem with the Element – you can just sweep it clean or hose it down, if you have to. I am sure you, as dog owners, will like that. We also love how roomy it is and how the back seats fold out flat and then up the sides leaving the back empty for hauling all kinds of stuff. We’ve hauled so much with it, we fondly call it the Elephant.

    The only thing we don’t like about it is that it’s a 4 seater, which becomes an issue when we have visitors. With the three of us, we can only accommodate one more person in the car. I understand that they couldn’t put in more seats and get them to fold out/up the way they do but it’s still not ideal for us. Just something to consider.

  8. Nathan says:

    Have you considered a diesel?

  9. rich kolker says:

    See you in a few weeks. I drive around Cotonou in an old RAV 4 I bought from the IMS with 110K on it. I left my Prius in my mom’s garage in Annapolis (you may see it, depending on where we go to dinner). I’d look for a good used something. You will get some dents and dings in Africa and you should have no problems selling it here when you’re done, if you don’t want to keep it.

    Have you tried ZipCar? I don’t know where they are in Arlington, but it’s a “rent it by the hour” outfit that some people who don’t own cars swear by. It might keep you mobile while you car shop.

    Looking back, I probably would have bought a used small SUV and shipped it. In fact, looking back, I probably would have kept my Saturn Vue and dealt with keeping it in parts by pre-shipping a bunch in HHE.

  10. hannah says:

    I bought a CRV right before I left for post this time around – it’s not here yet, but in the week or two I got to drive it, I loved it. Just my $.02 worth.

  11. Al says:

    I went with a Jeep Liberty after swearing I was going with a Rav 4 for a month. I would definitely go used because the warranty is worthless once you take it overseas. The main things I didn’t like about the Rav 4 was I felt cramped in the interior and I didn’t think the clearance was high enough. Also, I would worry a lot less about resale value than you would normally – in most places you will be able to sell your car for what you paid for it.

    Finally, be sure to look at who your lender is before you buy. USAA is one of the few lenders who will let you take the car abroad. Good luck with the search.

  12. Pingback: Weekly State Dept. Blog Round Up for May 20: Cars in the Foreign Service «

  13. Jan says:

    Hi there,
    This post has been included in the (late) May 20 edition of the Weekly State Department Blog Round Up. Thanks for your submission!

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