Finding Economical, Earth-Friendly Family Vehicles

If you’ve read my Earth Day resolution post, you know that I’m trying to lose two hundred and fifty pounds.  The Toyota Four Runner that we’ve been graciously allowed to borrow for the last seven years needs to be sold and we want to replace it with a more earth-friendly vehicle. 

Our challenge is to find a safe, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle for between six and eight thousand dollars.  We’d like to have something that we can pile miles on for trips around town so that we keep our other car, a newer Toyota Camry, stowed away in the garage for most of the year.  Unfortunately we don’t all fit in the very NmG electric car pictured to the right. 

Originally we were thinking of buying a van or a crossover vehicle for the cargo space.  My mom helped us solve this dilemma by inspiring us to add a trailer hitch to one of our cars for around one hundred dollars.  We can rent a trailer for cheap whenever we need the space, but save loads of money on gas by driving a more compact vehicle. 

Here are some tips I’ve discovered so far in my search:

Narrow down your make and model: We began our search by thinking about the type of car we wanted to purchase.  Since Hondas and Toyotas offer the most reliable and fuel efficient options, we have narrowed our options down to either a Corolla or a Civic.  We’d love a Matrix or a Vibe but they’re a bit out of our price range.

Carefully check gas mileage for each year: In the beginning I wanted an older car with very low miles so that we can drive it forever, but I’ve found that each model year has different gas mileage.  For example, a 1992 Toyota Corolla gets just 23 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway, while a 2001 model gets 27 mpg in town and 36 on the freeway.  That’s a tremendous difference! The best site for checking gas mileage of every vehicle around is here

Consider Safety: The other option to consider is that older models often don’t have the safety features of the more recent years.  We’re looking for a compact car from the late nineties or newer that’s safe enough to carry our precious toddler cargo.  This is a great site for checking crash test ratings.

Buy from a private party: We’d never find what we’re looking for at a car dealership for the amount of money we’d like to spend, but we will find it when buying directly from another car owner.  Private party price on Kelley Blue Book is often several thousand less than retail.  Plus we have the added benefit of being able to personally speak with the owner and find out more about the history of the car. 

Look in a variety of places: Honestly, this tends to make me a bit obsessive-compulsive, but it’s good to check Craigslist regularly just to compare and see what’s out there.  I’ve also looked the newspaper and some small, free publications here in town.

Use Carfax: For a nominal twenty-something dollars we can check the full accident and ownership history of a car and find out if there have been any odometer rollbacks.  

Get it checked out by a mechanic: One owner assured us that the car had been thoroughly cared for its whole life.  Our mechanic disagreed when he discovered the original spark plugs hadn’t been replaced after 72,000 miles of use.  Whew!  We’re glad we were able to dodge a potential lemon. 

Go with your gut: If I feel desperate to get the car, I know I’m not making a wise decision.  We have found that with our first car purchase as a couple we both had a great instinct about the vehicle that we ended up buying.  That’s the feeling that we’re looking for this second time.

I’ll keep you posted on our car buying escapades but mainly I’m interested in your tips.  If you’ve discovered a safe, inexpensive and fuel-efficient vehicle that I haven’t thought of yet, I’d love to hear about it! 




  1. I’d like a hybrid car but I don’t think they are cheap. Toyota Prius for example. DH isn’t so keen because he thinks it’s a bit gutless. He wants something we can take on rough roads…

  2. I have a 2002 saturn sl2, its small, but the gas mileage is great. I bought mine in 2004 @ $6995. Now it has over 143k miles and she still purrs. As soon as I bought it, I switched over to synthetic oil.
    I’ve heard from others who had theirs last 300k, I’ve seen where people walked away from a head on collision with this car.
    I love my plastic car.

  3. I find it odd that a “green choice” is to buy a car so you can “pile on the miles.” I know its not easy to haul kids around on the bus while doing errands and such. But, the idea of buying a car that will allow you to drive around as much as you want seems like effort in the wrong direction. I applaud you for wanting a car with better gas mileage . . . but how about getting that *and* trying to not drive as much. I just think it is important not to get wrapped up in buying something for the sake of being “green” which allows you to not change behavior. I’m not trying to be holier than thou . . . If I am home with my 18 month old child and we need to go somewhere that is not within walking distance, I usually drive. I rarely take the bus alone with my toddler. However, if my husband and I are both home and we want to go somewhere, we prefer taking the bus over driving whenever possible.

  4. Thanks for the comment Monice! I would LOVE to be a one car, or no car family for that matter, but haven’t yet figured out how that can happen with both my husband and I working nearly full time. My husband bikes to work but has to drive our son to daycare. My work commute by bus or bike would take nearly an hour each way–which would further limit the time I have with my son. By car it takes just over twenty minutes. As for the “piling on the miles” part, I agree that it sounds rather irresponsible. Our goal is just to use the fuel efficient vehicle for years and years, rather than trying to buy another one soon. So we’ll be piling on the miles over decades, not in the short run. If you’d like to read more about traveling with just one car, see Rebecca’s recent post entitled “Green on the Go: Living Car-Free with a Baby.” Rebecca’s been car-free for years and is an expert on public transport!

  5. Hey Monice, your comment came in at the perfect time–I just posted about taking a baby on the bus today (June 17th). Also, don’t forget that Joy broke her arm biking around town to run errands–a sacrifice for the planet!

  6. “I just think it is important not to get wrapped up in buying something for the sake of being “green” which allows you to not change behavior.”

    That is an important point Monice. I always cringe when I see the tiny spray bottles of green cleansers you can buy. But another important thing to remember is that all of our choices are just “greener”. Nothing we do is going to have zero environmental impact. Even walking – you’re going to have to replace those shoes more often, right? And every time you breathe out, you are putting more CO2 into the air! When families are faced with this dilemma, it’s always looking for the greener choice that you can manage at this point in time. We are all trying to evolve towards being more green, but that sort of dramatic change in daily routine, routines that have been established over a lifetime, are not going to change overnight.

    If you’ve never played this game – it is very humbling:

  7. I recently came accross your site and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my very first comment. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this website very frequently.

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