When considering which car to buy in the United States in 2020, in terms of ease of repair, maintain and service, one of the first questions you should ask is how easy is it to source spare parts.
Your next question should be “what is the most predictable catastrophic mechanical failure that a vehicle could potentially experience?” and “what is the estimated repair time (in terms of labor cost)?” So, my concerns are about finding an experienced mechanic to complete a repair and source the spare parts quickly and reasonably inexpensively.
I also look at variables for those enthusiastic folk who like to repair their own cars and get under the hood and tinker, even though this something I avoid because of how computerised modern vehicles are and you need a sophisticated shop to effectively reboot your car. Personally, I would never do it. I would change a tire and windscreen fluid, change a battery. That’s about it.
I would never attempt even changing an oil filter or oil – it’s just too messy. I have done that stuff as a kid. But to be perfectly honest, I could pay someone $120 to do a basic service which includes all that stuff and I am not lying under a car on a big skateboard with engine oil dripping on my face.
You can get your oil and a new oil filter changed, preferably between 7,500 to 10,000 miles, as part of a routine service. That, in itself, will save you a whole bunch of money down the track.
The scariest mechanical thing I have done in terms of car maintenance was adding power steering fluid to an old manual Toyota Corolla in the 1990s – as the wheel completely stopped turning. I kid you not. I knew the car was on its last legs. I got some power steering fluid and it was easy to fill it up, no more difficult than adding water to your radiator. The car continued to leak oil and I had to do this every few miles or so. It worked for a while until the car eventually died.
How many dealerships?
Returning to my analysis, I also factored in the number of dealerships throughout the USA for each model named, a variable which influences parts and availability as well as the actual volume of that year model vehicle sold in the United States.
Keep it simple
I focus on petrol/diesel-fuelled vehicles in the interests of simplicity. My choice of vehicles is limited to Japanese and/or the USA manufactured cars also, for the same reasons.
I have limited my analysis to vehicles in the low to medium price range and compact sedans to sub-compacts. Discussion of high-end vehicles and/or the electric/hybrid vehicles exceeds the parameters of what I want to talk about today. While European cars can be awesome to own and drive, sourcing parts in the US for these vehicles can be costly and time-consuming.
In the United States, even some Japanese car manufacturers like Suzuki, Subaru, and Mazda, have factories in the United States, who are manufacturing for the local US market, like the Subaru Cross Trek (made in the USA).
Whereas in other countries, like Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia and Europe, the corresponding model, the Subaru XV is manufactured in Japan and imported to the relevant jurisdiction who then adds on taxes and stamp duties inflating the costs significantly.
Another issue that guided my decision was looking at vehicles that are going to being discontinued in 2021 onwards and from that list (found in this Forbes article), I excluded all of those vehicles named, some of which were smaller Chevy models and some high-end vehicles. Disappointedly, the wonderful reliable little Toyota Yaris was included.
The reason being that parts availability would diminish a bit for discontinued and particularly specialized models where the parts can’t be used over a range of different models. Although I would imagine that many of them, even very specialized, parts for the Chevy market would be interchangeable for many of the different makes and models in the same size range.
If you’re looking at buying a vehicle and keeping it for, say a decade, and this is a position I really endorse, well buy a car that’s not going to be discontinued the year after you purchase it. If you maintain a car really well, there’s no reason a solid model vehicle can’t be still viable 10 years after you’ve purchased it.
I’m passionate about this, because for various reasons over the years, I have had to sell late-model cars after only having them a year or so, and I know I could have had those cars last for a decade and be well maintained and safe and cheap to run.
Unfortunately, one of my very favorite cars, the Suzuki Swift or Suzuki in general, is no longer going to be sold in the United States. Very disappointing, as it is a great car to run and to maintain.
Okay Nuts and Bolts Now – Best 5 Cars
For each vehicle chosen, I have focused on the base model in the interests of simplicity and consistency.
1. Toyota Corolla 2020 LE Model – Automatic
The Corolla, first made by Toyota in 1966 and ranked the best-selling car globally in 1974, is a perennial favorite. They are reliable, cheap to run, and easy to fix. I have driven my share of Corollas – manual and auto – and replaced power steering fluid in a 1980s model – quite easily. The ubiquity of the Corolla makes them very appealing. There are millions of them and spare parts relatively easy to find. The original Corollas were rear-wheel drive and the later models are usually front-wheel drive and the model I discuss below is front-wheel drive.
The 2020 Toyota Corolla is available in five variations. Pricing for the 2020 Toyota Corolla base model – which is the LE is around $20,050. I chose the SE because I like the 2.0-liter engine with 169 horsepower and 6600 revs per minute and particularly the variable CVT automatic transmission. You can also drive the SE as a six-speed manual if you like.
If you buy the 2020 model you also get the ToyotaCareTM maintenance plan which takes care of your service needs for the first 2 years or 25,000 miles, whichever occurs first. They also throw in 24-hour roadside assistance for the first 2 years, regardless of your mileage.
Now year 3 of your 2020 Toyota – your ongoing costs are likely to be the engine and oil filter change (every 6,000 miles regardless of how hard you hammer your car). You should also rotate your tires around the same time. Recommended tires for this model cost around $280 for a set – Goodyear Assurance Triple Tread. Other service requirements include your multi-point inspection and so on. You should be able to complete all of this for around $500 to $600 a year depending upon your location and state taxes and so on.
The number of dealerships in the USA: Dealers in 49 states. A network of 1,200 Toyota dealers with the greatest number in California.
As always, it would be useful to find data on how many of this model sold in 2020. I was unable to find accurate stats but it’s a good, solid car.
2. Nissan Altima
The 2021 Nissan Altima has a base model which is 4WD which is really appealing. The base price is $24,300 and there are a bunch of really cool features.
Now data on the Altima suggests that repair costs are around $483 per annum. There is also a lot of stuff you can do yourself such as distributor cap replacement and so on. But you have to pay a professional to replace your timing mechanism. Now assuming you don’t drive this car into the ground, at around 100,000 miles you would need to think about replacing your timing chain – this is a big expense at the top end around $1,200.
I chose Nissan Altima because these vehicles will go and go, forever, theoretically, particularly, if you look after it, getting it regularly serviced and oil-changed every 10,000 miles, then they can last up to 200,000 miles, particularly a manual transmission. This is what the historical data suggests for the older models of this car.
That said, an automatic transmission that is serviced every 3-6 months, and the car isn’t driven into the ground should also comfortably last a similar period of time. As always, a manual transmission has less to go wrong with it. But not everyone wants to drive a stick – myself included.
This sedan has 16-inch wheels and I suggest that you choose good quality tires and do regular servicing. My personal preference for this model is Bridgestone Turanza or Potenza or alternatively, Continental.
This is another front-wheel drive with a continuously variable transmission which is an awesome feature. Now, I would imagine you have to do your first two years of servicing with Nissan, but after that, you find a good, reliable mechanic and you will be fine with this car. The older models of the Altima have a super reliable reputation for reliability and ease of service.
The Altima has a timing chain (no belt) and the timing chain doesn’t need to be replaced at regular intervals. But after about four years you budget about $1,200 for a timing chain replacement and you are pretty much done and dusted. Timing chain replacement is a big job requiring about 6 hours of labor which is how you arrive at the $1,200 figure.
The number of dealerships in the USA: approximately 1,082 Nissan dealerships in the USA; 211 Infiniti dealers in the United States, including 187 independent Nissan dealerships, 38 Infiniti retailers, and 45 Nissan Commercial Vehicle dealers in Canada. (Source: Wikipedia).
3. Subaru Outback
The 2020 Subaru Outback is a mid-size SUV or soft-roader which blends station-wagon with sporty functionality.
The base model is solid and includes a 182 horsepower engine and the good old Subaru 3.6 liter boxer engine. The continuously variable transmission is the big winner here. Because it is a fashionable choice in the American SUV market, there is a plentiful availability of spare parts, long term.
I also love the ground clearance of 8.7 inches. I have owned and driven three late-model Subarus: the Liberty Sedan, the Forrester, and the XV. I love Subarus. The continuously variable transmission is undeniably a winner. They are a bit more expensive but I think you get good value for money.
That said, buying a new one of these, no doubt you have to follow the warranty instructions and get your vehicle serviced with Subaru for the first two years – depending on your purchase contract. This could get a bit costly. This is what I found. But after your warranty period expires, you can get your Subaru serviced at any place that has the parts and the competence.
And, never skimp on tires. I normally choose a tire replacement with what is on the vehicle originally.
No of Subaru dealerships in the USA: 625. Like Australia, there is a slight scarcity here and that is because these cars are at the more expensive price range. But I think what you pay in the price you get back in value and reliability.
4. Honda Civic CRV Crossover – SUV
Even though the Honda SIT sales are being discontinued in the USA, I would seriously look at the Honda CRV as a solid and reliable vehicle. Now available in a Hybrid variation, the Honda CRV is a solid performing vehicle. I cannot explain adequately why I am drawn to this car, suffice to say, that I have driven the 1980s version (the old-clapped version) and even that was pretty good.
I like the Honda Civic for a number of reasons. Like the Toyota, Corolla, the model has been around for decades. It has a history of reliability. The base model is the LX and I personally would choose the five-door hatchback. The base model is a 2-liter engine which is more than enough for most people.
Look after this car and it will look after you, for years to come. It is a solid reliable sedan. Nothing too flash. It doesn’t promise that. But it delivers. And you get the horsepower you are seeking.
I was unable to find specific data on the amount of actual Honda dealerships in the United States other than data showing that in 2018, Honda was employing in excess of 31,000 associates in the United States with a payroll of $2.5 billion. This suggested to me that getting Honda parts and service in the US was probably not too difficult.
Honda dealerships in the USA: Unknown but probably similar to Subaru or higher.
5. 2020 Jeep Wrangler
Okay, so the Jeep Wrangler (manufactured by Chrysler) is not my favorite. But they are good solid vehicles and pretty easy to fix in a pinch with an abundance of parts and servicing specialists available in all 50 states, pretty much.
The Wrangler has pretty awesome ground clearance and some pretty impressive statistics in relation to performance at high altitudes as well – see 2007 stats on Wrangler in Chilean volcano (Wikipedia) up to 21,000 feet above sea level. Now, this may seem irrelevant, but if you are driving this car across America you may appreciate this accidental feature.
Also the Wrangler is known for having axles with great durability, strength and articulation.
I personally drove a Jeep Patriot from Belize (Central America) through Mexico, along the Yucatan Peninsula, across some pretty challenging roads. When we got to California, our axle was wrecked, or sort of. I took that Jeep to Costco and got some new tires and it was as right as rain. That said, the Costco guy phoned me and said, that your car is kind of wrecked. It actually wasn’t. So there you go.
These are tough vehicles and I just like the look of them.
Also, the solid axle makes it so much easier to raise with aftermarket suspension systems – so you can install your new tires, but, my recommendation, get a specialist to do this.
There are tons of Jeep parts in the USA so it shouldn’t cost you a bomb. The short wheelbase and narrow frames (so much neater than their SUV counterparts) making it easier for them to negotiate those hazardous driving conditions.
I personally love the Jeep. Love the look of it and the feel of the continuously variable automatic transmission. These are one of the few American-made cars I would totally endorse.
Number of Jeep Dealerships in US: 2,400.
When looking over American manufactured cars, I cannot express the same degree of confidence with the Chevrolet equivalent.
Chevies are fine, but they don’t last. They are just like Holden in Australia and the Ford. Cheap and cheerful. But not durable.