Hog Mountain, Ga.
Job: Audio visual consultant
Commute: About 75 miles a day, plus road trips
What he wants: A car that gets 30 mpg city and can last forever
Lee Hutchins is a loyal man.
He's been driving the same 1995 325i BMW for nearly 17 years, putting nearly 250,000 miles on the car. He loves it, but thinks its time to retire these wheels and find a new set that he can drive and drive and drive.
Hutchins is from Hog Mountain, Ga., northeast of Atlanta. He commutes about 75 miles a day to his job as an audio visual consultant. He designs AV systems for schools, churches and other groups, so sometimes his job takes him on the road into neighboring states.
But he's got some demanding requirements for his new car: Besides finding a quality vehicle with staying power, he wants his new car to get a minimum of 30 mpg in city driving. City driving is usually the lower of the two mpg ratings – it's easier to get higher fuel economy figures on the highway when cars are usually cruising along at a set speed.
Hutchins is comfortable around cars – as a kid, he helped his dad restore a 1928 Model A Ford. Given the quality of today's cars and the fact that he's handy, it won't be a problem to find a car that could last nearly forever.
His budget is $20,000 to $25,000, which means we probably won't be able to find him a brand-new luxury car. But that's not a worry. Today's new cars come with so many new features, they'll feel just as luxurious as his 1995 BMW.
We don't have to worry about getting him an all-purpose vehicle. This car is just for commuting. At home, he drives a pickup truck on weekends, and his wife drives a newer Ford Escape that they take out on date nights.
It might be hard to get Hutchins to fall in love with something new. When asked what car he would buy if he won the lottery, he said he had actually been thinking about that very question just a few days ago. "I had the crazy thought that I might take my current car and make it new," he said.
Possible no-brainer: 2011 or 2012 Lexus CT 200h
Used car listings prices: We found one listed in Macon, Ga., for $25,500
MPG: 43 city/40 highway
Why it's a good choice for Hutchins: Hutchins said he'd be willing to try out a slightly used car, one that has less than 30,000 miles on it. The 2013 version of the Lexus CT 200h starts at $32,000, and it appears you can get one for around $25,000 if you shop around. And it might actually be the one car that hits on all of our picky shopper's needs, without asking for compromise.
Critics have never really been in love with hybrid cars, the ones that use battery power for slow speeds and idling, and kick in a gas engine for the more hefty work. But the 200h is a hybrid hatchback that many critics actually like. It is fairly fun to drive, sitting low to the ground and hugging curves, and offers more luxury features than its sister car, the Toyota Prius.
Toyota, which owns Lexus, has mastered the hybrid system. In the 200h, you can forget you're driving a hybrid. The transition between gas and hybrid mode is that seamless.
Another solid option: 2012 or 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI
Sticker price: $26,225
MPG: 31 city/43 highway
Why it's a good choice: If you still think of thick plumes of black smoke coming from the back of a belching bus whenever someone says the word "diesel," let's bring you into the 21st century. Today's diesels are clean and efficient, and extremely fun to drive.
While diesel cars are popular in Europe, they haven't quite caught on in the U.S. But that's OK, because Volkswagen offers several models equipped with diesel engines and they are all worth taking a look at.
The Passat is a comfortable mid-sized sedan. It's interior is a little on the plain side, but it's so much fun to drive, Hutchins may not care. It gets great fuel economy – the EPA has it listed at 31 mpg city, but drivers have reported they can get way more than that in regular city driving and up to nearly 50 mpg on the highway.
Plus, the Passat TDI is also offered with manual transmission, which is something Hutchins said he'd love to have in his next car. The 2013 model is slightly out of Hutchin's budget of $25,000, but with year-end sales he might be able to get a good deal.
And diesel engines are known to last forever with good maintenance, so this seems like a safe choice.
Wildcard option: 2013 Ford C-Max hybrid
Sticker price: $25,995
MPG: 47 city/47 highway
Why it's a good choice: Normally we don't recommend cars in their first year of life as good buying choices. The old wive's (or old husband's) tale that first-model-year cars come with a host of kinks and quirks is actually true: Consumer Reports and J.D. Power often list first-year models low because of consumer complaints.
But we have high hopes for the C-Max, and it's not exactly a brand-new car. It's new to the U.S., but has been on sale in Europe for a couple of years. It's built off the Fusion platform, a model that is fun to drive and also gets good fuel economy, so it seems like it could be a win.
The C-Max hybrid will go head-to-head with the Toyota Prius, and frankly, we like the C-Max better. It's more fun to drive. The transition from battery mode to gas mode is smoother, and the C-Max doesn't hesitate when you ask it to accelerate. Sometimes it feels like the Prius needs to think about it for a second before agreeing to go faster.
Of course, driving more aggressively will burn more fuel. But for the kind of driving Hutchins does, commuting around Georgia sometimes in heavy traffic, the car should give him pretty good fuel economy figures.
The C-Max comes with an optional upgrade to the MyFordTouch system, which is very cool when it works. But when it doesn't work, it can be a gigantic pain, forcing drivers to go back to the dealership sometimes to get a reboot. Ford says it fixed many of those problems with an upgrade to the entire MyFordTouch system back in March, and the ones we've tested do seem to work better and faster. But we're on the fence about whether or not it's worth it to pay the additional $3,000 for the system.
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Since Hutchins was so intent on getting 30 mpg for his car yet wanted to stay on budget, it took a little time to find the right choices. I considered putting the Chevy Volt on his list, given many dealers are offering $200 leases for 2 years, but I know Hutchins wants to make his next car last. And he's not fond of General Motors, since the company took the bailout. But I have a feeling he could really fall in love with the Volt, if he ever took it for a test drive.
I also considered the Honda CR-Z, a small car that fit the budgetary and mileage requirements, and would probably run for at least 300,00 miles. But it's too bare bones inside to make the transition out of a BMW feel comfortable. Also on the list was a used Audi A3 diesel, but I couldn't find one in Hutchins price range. That's probably the car that would make him happiest, but he'd have to find one with about 50,000 miles on it to fit his budget.
Since we chatted with Hutchins about this column, he's been shopping around. He tried to negotiate on an Audi A3, but couldn't get the price down into his range. So he's still shopping. Have any thoughts on our suggestions, or any of your own to add?
If you'd like some help narrowing down your car shopping list, email Sharon Carty at firstname.lastname@example.org.