I remember when Finn and I bought our first car together nine years ago. We were living in Wausau, Wisconsin at the time, making very little money in our small-town jobs. I was driving a gray Ford Escape (affectionately called the Poms Mobile because my license plate said “ND Poms” from my college days) and Finn drove a blue Cobalt. After one winter in Wisconsin, his little car could not make it anymore and it was time for a new one. We settled on a 2008 Mitsubishi Galant and we walked out of the dealership that day with big grins on our faces.
Finn is going to kill me for sharing these pics (we were babies with a terrible sense of fashion), but they’re just too entertaining not to share. We were so pumped to buy that Mitsubishi and I’ve gotta say it lasted far longer than we ever thought it would.
When we moved home to Chicago in 2013, I ended up selling my Ford Escape because living in the city, we just didn’t need two cars. So then, we were down to our little Mitsubishi. It was a hearty car and never gave us too much trouble. The worst part about it was that we couldn’t fit much of anything into it! Being DIY bloggers, we’re always buying tools and supplies for our projects and we were constantly borrowing my mom’s SUV for hardware store runs (thanks, Jan!).
We’ve been chatting about getting a new car for over a year now, but with the new house expenses, it didn’t make sense to buy a new one over the summer. When we found out we were pregnant in August, we knew the time had finally come…it was time to say “goodbye” to our Mitsubishi Galant and say “hello” to a safe SUV for our growing family.
Our New Car Must-Haves
As I mentioned, our biggest struggle with our old car was the fact that it had very little trunk space. That’s not ideal when you’re buying lumber for DIY projects. We knew an SUV was going to be the car for us. It’s funny because Finn kept asking me what else I wanted in a car and I would say…” Hmmm, it would be nice if it had butt warmers” or “How cool would it be if it had Bluetooth to talk on the phone?” Clearly, I had no idea that most cars these days come with these features. After hearing my demands, Finn realized that just about any new SUV would make me happy.
Here are a few of the other must-haves for our new vehicle…
- Safe and Family-Friendly
- Large Trunk Space
- 2016 or Newer
- 4-wheel Drive (gotta survive those Chicago winters)
- Mid-size SUV (only two rows of seats)
I’ll let Finn take it away from here. He did months of research to find the perfect car for us and he has all of the scoop to share…
Buy vs. Lease
The most critical decision to make when beginning your hunt for the perfect car is whether to lease or to purchase. There are major differences between the two and it is usually pretty easy to figure out what is best for you. If you always like to have the newest features, you don’t drive that much, and you enjoy the flexibility/ease of “renting”, then leasing may be the best option for you.
If you are looking to maximize long-term value and keep your car for years after you pay it off, then purchasing is probably the wiser option. We reviewed both scenarios and for awhile we were tempted to lease, but in the end, we wanted something a little more permanent. One other issue to consider is that Illinois carries an aggressive “Lease Tax”, that most states do not have, and it makes leasing in our state much more costly than other states (always read the fine print!).
New vs. Used
Going with a brand new car or one that has been used is another major choice to make when narrowing your search. Do you want to walk onto the dealership floor and pick your car out like you just won the Grand Prize in Wheel of Fortune or do you want to save some money and hunt for the perfect used car?
While it was quite difficult to walk away from that brand new car smell and those shiny rims when we strolled onto the showroom floors of the dealerships, we had already decided that we were looking for a slightly used 2016-17 SUV with less than 30k miles. It just didn’t make sense to buy a brand new car when we could get a similar model at a much lower price. We felt that buying a slightly used car hit the sweet spot – it would be more affordable than a new one, still under warranty and in good condition. Another thing to keep in mind is that car models are generally quite consistent, year after year, unless they undergo a major redesign. (That usually happens once every three to four years.) So, sometimes the only difference between a 2016 and 2018 model is a minor feature or two.
The SUV Models We Considered
When we first started looking, it felt like there were hundreds of choices and in today’s modern car environment, most of them looked pretty great! As we began to narrow down our price range and read reviews, we began to understand the type of car we wanted and what our most critical requirements were.
We wanted an SUV with a large cargo space and room for our baby girl (and of course butt-warmers for Casey), but we did not know the level of luxury we wanted or the brands we would target. We reviewed a wide range of cars, narrowing them down to our top five, while keeping our minds open the entire time. Trunk space, mid-level luxury, updated technology, and safety became our main requirements for this vehicle.
Narrowing Down the Options
- 2018 Mazda CX-5: Initially, this was my top choice when this whole process began. I felt it was the right blend of luxury and performance, plus it had great reviews. Honestly, this is the car we were targeting for a majority of my search. But then, upon a much closer inspection, it felt a little too small for me and was just not the right fit for our family. I really enjoyed the look and feel of the car, but looks can only get you so far in this life…sorry “Zoom Zoom!”.
- 2018 Honda CRV: This was another one of our initial top contenders. This is consistently rated the highest among the family SUVs and I don’t have anything bad to say about it. In the end, Casey was not fully in love with the 2017-18 styles, though. She liked the more recent models with their slimmer look. Since we were looking for a slightly used and more affordable choice, the newer 2019-20 models were not in our plans. It is a terrific car, though, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a reliable and smooth ride for their family.
- 2017 Toyota Highlander: This was the biggest car we looked at, although it actually seemed smaller than the others from the outside. I give credit to Toyota because inside it felt huge! However, we were only looking for a car with two rows of seats and a wide-open trunk. We did not want a smaller cargo area that required seats to be folded down in order to enlarge the cargo area, so the 7-seat Highlander was out.
- 2017 Lexus RX350: This was somewhat out of our budget, but we had to give it a look and see if the perfect situation might arise when taking the test drive and sweet-talking the salesman. Sadly, this didn’t work and it ended up being priced too high for us. Casey’s mom and dad have both had Lexus SUVs for a long time and they are very smooth and luxurious rides. so I was eager to drive one myself. But, in the end, I could not justify paying a higher price tag when so many other SUVs were just as good.
2017 Acura RDX: I find this decision of ours kind of funny because when this whole thing started, about a year ago, I always put the Acura out of my mind. I thought it was too expensive and too big for what we wanted. It just never felt right until we made the conscious choice to go with a 2017 (as opposed to a newer model). Suddenly, the price tags on the Acura RDXs were much more affordable. The test drive won me over because the ride was exceptionally smooth, it had touch screen technology, and it had all the features Casey was looking for.
It was also an easy SUV to handle with its tight turning radius and clear vision all around. This really comes in handy when you have to navigate Chicago streets.
I love the black on black color scheme and the leather seats, plus the advanced technology features really make it feel like a new car even though it is a few years old. The cargo area is exactly what we need and the back row seats even have a quick pull lever that drops them down instantly. We really love this car and I appreciate it so much every time we go to Lowe’s and I don’t have to use physics to get a piece of wood into our small car!
Tips for Financing and Ensuring the Best Offer
- Most people are uncomfortable with “negotiating” or discussing the sticker price of the car with the salesman. A simple way to lower your cost is to negotiate the trade-in value of your current car. The salesman will usually offer some more money for your vehicle, knowing he is close to closing the deal. For example, we were initially offered $500 for our Mitsubishi, but after negotiating a bit, we were able to get $1,200, instead.
- During the financing process, the dealer will offer additional warranties and add-ons. In most cases, these will be available for purchase at anytime, so don’t feel pressured into buying anything extra in the moment, if you are not sure. Feel free to ask if that option or warranty is available for purchase at a future date.
- Review the terms of your agreement, specifically, with regards to the length of the loan. Feel free to ask what the monthly payment will be for a loan of 3 years, 4 years, 5 years or even more.
- Also, it is very important to understand the sales tax rates in your state and know this IS NOT INCLUDED IN THE STICKER PRICE… Illinois is quite high and we ended up paying about 7% of the purchase price in sales tax.
- Finally, trust your gut and know there are a lot of choices for you in today’s market. If it doesn’t feel right, then walk away and live to shop another day. Some places will even let you take the car for a few hours and test drive it without the awkward small-talk and uncomfortable Driver’s Ed feeling of going on a drive with the salesman.
Okay, it’s Casey again. I’ve just gotta say that I’m so pleased with our purchase. Yes, our new car has butt warmers, a sunroof, and Bluetooth and dang, do I feel fancy when I drive! But most importantly, I feel super safe and I feel good knowing that I’ll be driving our baby girl around in our new Acura RDX. I think it was the perfect choice for our growing family and for our DIY hobbies. I’m excited for another nine years with a trusty car…Casey&Finn