Car Shopping —
The Good, The Cute,
and the Ugly

Lloyd Lee

Mini Cooper, front viewMini Cooper,
front view

The faithful old buggy is getting a little unfaithful. You look longingly at cars that have shiny paint while the tires on your car are likely to outlast the engine. Face it; you need to go shopping, but SHOPPING FOR A CAR HAS REALLY CHANGED! You can shop on the Internet, use a buying service or check out the local automall superstore. Wherever you go, you have a bewildering choice: large versus small; cars versus trucks; SUVs versus hybrids; Detroit versus Korea. Korea versus Japan. Japan versus Germany. You are living the international golden age of automobiles. How can you make a smart shopping decision? Here’s how. First, forget about domestic versus foreign. Nothing is made where you would think. Mercedes are made in Alabama. Subarus are made in Indiana. Fords are made in Mexico. Mitsubishis are made in Australia!! They are all sold here, just like those glossy apples from New Zealand. Trust me, it is darned hard to "Buy American" these days. Give it up. Look for value and a good fit with your needs. Lets start with things we can detect easily, like the price. A lot of new cars have sticker prices that exceed what most people paid for a house twenty-five years ago. This fact leads many of us to look for bargains from friends, on eBay or in the classifieds. But if you have the urge to buy a NEW car, decide first the total amount you can, or want to, pay, and stick with your budget. Then go to an auto loan site (Yahoo Auto has one, but there are dozens of good ones) to calculate the monthly payments for the price you are willing to pay. It is a lot easier to do this in advance than to have a salesman pressure more money from you in some cubicle. The loan site will also offer to calculate lease payments, if you want. Auto leasing is a whole ‘nother world. My advice this month is: buy a new vehicle for those who want to keep things simple. And finally, research and get the dealer invoices for the cars that interest you from the Internet at sites like or; but remember that the numbers on the invoices do not reflect the true cost to the dealer because they often receive advertising rebates and other cost cutting incentives. Take heed: you are always at a disadvantage when dealing with a dealer so always hang tough and no matter where you are during the negotiations be prepared to walk. Dealers and their sales staff are not your friends. Lets look at some of my prime choices! These recommended cars all sip not guzzle gas. They will protect you with good handling and modern safety devices. They also tend to stay on the road rather than in the shop. I don't do SUVs or other trucks, so here is the scoop on a group of cars that are really GOOD, really CUTE or really UGLY. They are all terrific choices, and they cost between $9,500 and $23,000.

The GOOD Ones Flash! With all due respect to Mercedes and Audi, in my opinion Toyota and Honda won the evolutionary struggle. Dollar for dollar, between them they make the four "best" cars on the market. Toyota’s Corolla and Camry evenly match Honda’s Civic and Accord. Different, but all so good that it is scary. They are terrific, but not cheap. They all inhabit the upper ranges of their market slots. The smooth and powerful 4 cylinder models are a good money saving bet. For 2002 Toyota debuted taller, edgier styling, with an upswept look, for its two stars. This translated into more space inside and more opportunity for luxury all around. The Corolla is about the same size as (but much nicer than) the original Camry. This year's Camry V-6 makes the Lexus line almost superfluous. It is super quiet and precise on the road without being fussy. Toyota's problem is that the cars are so good that too many "sensible" folks want to buy them. This is bad demographics. "Sensible" translates into "older." I see lots of stodgy 47-year-old salesmen types driving new Corollas, because these cars have made them forget about Buicks. The edgy styling is failing to attract the hedonistic 22 year olds.

Toyota Camry, front side viewToyota Camry, front side view
Toyota Camry, rear side view Toyota Camry, rear side view
Toyota Camry, side view Toyota Camry, side view
Toyota Carolla, front side view Toyota Carolla, front side view
Toyota Carolla, rear side view Toyota Carolla, rear side view
Honda Accord, side view Honda Accord, side view
Honda Accord, rear side Honda Accord, rear side
Honda Accord, side view Honda Accord, side view
Honda Civic, yellow sport 2002 Honda Civic, yellow sport 2002
Honda Civic and Accord, rear Honda Civic and Accord, rear
Honda Civic, front Honda Civic, front

Demographics have not been a problem for Honda. Starting about 10 years ago, the Civic started attracting "boy racer" look aftermarket bolt-on accessories with big exhausts, aero-look skirts and fenders, and clear plastic taillights. This is all evidence that Honda is winning the hearts and minds of the kids. Both the Civic and the Accord also seem to have an edge in the fun to drive arena. Honda re-engineered the Civic in 2002, and this year it is the Accord's turn. There are more electronics, safety and comfort features. The new styling is sleek, but not weird. The engines, both 4 and 6 cylinders, have more power and emit far less pollution than Detroit was telling you was possible. TO SEE MORE PICTURES (INTERIOR ALSO) CLICK HERE. This is a heck of a car, but maybe you need something really different, like....

The CUTE One
Mini Cooper, front view Mini Cooper, front view
Mini Cooper, interior door panel Mini Cooper, interior door panel
Mini Cooper, front side top view Mini Cooper, front side top view
Mini Cooper, rear side view Mini Cooper, rear side view
Mini Cooper, full side view Mini Cooper, full side view

If your friends are taking you for granted, if you really hate those hulking urban assault vehicles your neighbors park in front of your house, or if your repressed sense of whimsy has just broken out of prison, then find a Mini dealer and put your name on the list. Wait six months, pay about $17,000 out the door, and then start smiling every time you see your new car. If you really want to save and have the patience, wait for a year or two and I’ll bet the dealers will deal and you can chose your color and drive off as soon as you sign on the dotted line. The Mini Cooper is a car with a past, a sense of humor and a lot of smarts. It is the shortest car sold in the U.S., but it is 2 feet longer than the original Mini Austin/Cooper that sold in the millions for British Motor Cars in the 1960s and 1970s. This version is made by the same earnest folks who build BMWs, so it has an incongruous brawny feeling. Unlike the original, it has real bumpers, a heater that works, and all sorts of airbags to keep you secure. Like the original, it will hold four real humans, make other cars look silly in the corners, and park in shopping cart sized spots. You can even order it in dark blue with a Union Jack on the top. If you happen to have an extra four grand in your purse, you can get the 6 speed, supercharged, 163 horsepower Mini Cooper S and really live out those street racer fantasies.

The UGLY One
There are cars that are dull and reliable like washing machines while others are works of art and then a few are just plain ugly, but they too have some redeeming quality that makes them loveable. Enter the Echo.
Toyota Echo, side view Toyota Echo, side view
Toyota Echo, front Toyota Echo, front
Toyota Echo, dashboard Toyota Echo, dashboard

In addition to its standard line of smooth, stylish yet conservative vehicles, Toyota's Japanese design team came up with a tall, ungainly tiny car that seats four in relative comfort. The Toyota Echo has so many unharmonious lines that, after a while, you become proud of its dreadful looks, especially as you steam by one gas station after another in that seductive "relative comfort." The Echo will give you over 42 miles per gallon on the highway and move from zero to sixty in under 9 seconds (with a five speed transmission). These are serious numbers for a car that costs between $9,400 and $10,800. It comes in both two or four doors, but no wagon. If you lust for a new car and your wallet is thin, the Echo, is for you — just as long as you can stand the aesthetic stress.

If what you want is reliable, safe transportation, there is no point in spending extra money on a car that makes an artistic statement. You will gain satisfaction every time your car starts flawlessly and delivers you home without a worry.

Also another ugly one: The Prius
Toyota Prius, side view Toyota Prius, side view
Toyota Prius, rear view Toyota Prius, rear view

Presently Toyota is offering an economical lease or a great deal when buying; plus there are significant tax savings when purchasing or leasing this ecological/efficient car of the future.