Unicorn Hunting: Comfy wagon/SUV with great mileage

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Greetings! I'm shopping for a car that may not exist. My requirements list isn't long, but it's hard to find them on the same car.
1) Absurdly comfortable front seats. I'm 6'2" and get back pain
whenever I drive any of my current cars for more than 30-60 minutes. I "only" weigh 190, but have long legs for someone by height.
2) Good winter traction. We live in rural New England and have a 400- foot sloped gravel driveway. 4WD isn't a requirement (our FWD Passat is adequate for example), but better ground clearance would be great (our current cars frequently scrape on the dirt roads around here -- including one recent event that broke TWO catalytic converters).
3) Great gas mileage. As you can tell from the fact that one of our cars runs on waste vegetable oil (see below), we care a lot about reducing emissions. This is actually more important, to us, than fuel savings. That is, we don't mind paying $5,000 extra for a car that will save us only $3,000 in gas costs over the life of the vehicle.
3a) Manual transmission. I have never owned an automatic and I don't like them. They have worse mileage and I don't enjoy them as much (I also like how manuals force me to pay attention to my driving -- neither my wife nor I have ever had an accident in over 30 combined years driving 5-speeds).
I've heard that the Prius has surprisingly good leg-room, but all our driving is rural -- so a hybrid doesn't seem like the right technology. I also hate automatics.
I have a friend with a 5-cylinder Volvo wagon -- she says she gets 35 MPG highway. I haven't tried driving it, but perhaps this is the best combo of the above choices.
I'm also looking at SUV options (Ford? Honda?), because I notice my back hurts a lot less in vehicles (like our pickup truck) with an 'upright' seating position.
I sat in my stepmother's Subara Forester for a few minutes and I'm pretty sure the front seat is too cramped. Same with the few minutes I spent in a Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
For reference, these are our current/recent cars, and what we liked and didn't like:
a) 1987 Nissan Sentra (2-door). My first car, but I soon realized that driving it was like jabbing an ice pick in my lower back. My father-in- law was a mechanic so we ripped out the front seat and drilled some more holes in the seat frame so that it could go farther back (to the point that no one could fit in the back seat). This was a great solution, but not one that makes sense for me any more.
b) 1996 VW Golf. Another great car. Suprisingly comfortable front seats.
c) 1999 Nissan Frontier Pickup Truck. Great reliable pickup truck, but somewhat cramped seating, and not a good all-around vehicle for a 3- person family.
d) 1999 VW Jetta Diesel, with a "GreaseCar" kit to run on waste vegetable oil. Starting to show it's age -- less reliable than the Japanese cars I've owned. Horrible winter traction, and less comfortable than the Golf.
e) 2000 VW Passat 6-cylinder. The weight helps gives this car much better snow traction than the Jetta, but it's mileage is poor, and the front seat is the LEAST comfortable of any car I've ever owned. Alas, I didn't notice this in the 20-minute test drive.
I would love feedback from other people like me, who've had trouble finding a comfortable car. I really wish the dealers would let me test- drive a car for a day (or a week) so I could truly assess whether the car was suitable for long drives.
Thanks in advance for any help!
Clay
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Clay wrote:

This reference lists every vehicle made for 2008 MY: http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/FEG2008.pdf
And http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/FEG2007.pdf for the 2007 MY.
They group vehicles by type and list the engine, transmission, and mileage.
You can do a comprehensive search and narrow your search easily.
I drove a Saturn Vue (available with 2WD and 4-cyl) and liked it. The Ford Escape and Tribute might meet your needs. I would also look at the Hyundai, Suzuki, MiniCooper, Fonda Fit, Ford Edge, Pontiac Vibe. As far as what is comfortable for you, sorry, but I have a different back than you.
You might or might not be surprised how big the Fit and Mini Cooper are.
Jeff
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The Prius would do very well in the economy department and (depending on how you and the seats fit together) it would probably handle your height. The ground clearance and traction requirements are deal breakers, though. All Prius models have relatively little ground clearance - around five inches - and too much vulnerable stuff under the car. The hatchback models have a tactic of shutting down power to the wheels once slippage starts and is only overridden (partially, at that) with full throttle. The hybrid system doesn't have an actual automatic transmission so much as a power delivery system. I am also partial to manual trannies and occasionally really frustrated with automatics but I really like the way the hybrid power train works. Still - no way where you drive.
The Ford Escape Hybrid may overcome the ground clearance problem, but I've heard bad things (maybe outdated) about the usable traction. That's something somebody with direct experience would know be able to tell you about.
Mike
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Hmmm. performance and reliability are not on your list of desired traits? Lots of leg room tends to come with larger vehicles, which tend to be less fuel efficient and environmentally friendly than a smaller vehicle.
Look at the Scion xB, which has a surprising amount of interior room, good fuel economy, FWD, and available manual transmission. Check out the Ford Escape, Toyota Rav4, Honda CRV & Element, and new Highlander.
--

Ray O
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I'll second Ray's suggestion - I am 6' even and have an 08 Highlander Limited _do not have the seat near the rearmost it will go - the steering column telescopes and wheel tilts
I just sold a house, the agent used part of the commission to by an xB - he is 65 and says its plenty roomy (I've not been in it to see)
Ron in Ca
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You cannot go just by height alone, it is how you are proportioned (torso length, leg length, arm length, etc.). I have not tried an '08 Highlander, but the prior model was simply horrible. My Father was interested in buying one. He was only 5'8" and found the seating position unsuitable. After spending 10 minutes trying to adjust the seat and wheel he gave up and went elsewhere. The '08 may be much better. I know my SOs '07 RAV4 has enough room for me to find a comfortable position (6'2" and heavy). My Son is only 6', but we have completely different requirements for seating. He has shorter legs and a longer torso than I do. If I get in a car after he has driven it, I have to move the seat way back, raise it (if it has a height adjustment) and tilt it forward. I hate getting into a car after he has driven it because the seat will be in a very uncomfortable position for me.

I like the looks of the new xB. I think it looks much cleaner than the prior model. However it is also bigger and not as fuel efficient. I thought Scions were supposed to appeal to the "younger" crowd. However, I don't think I've ever seen an xB being driven by anyone younger than 50. It seems to me that it should appeal to the same people as the Honda Element, but from what I have seen, the Element attracts a much younger group.
Ed
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I had looked up its EPA rating, too. Is it really not as fuel efficient or are we just all confused by the new EPA ratings?

Funnily enough, the two guys I know with Elements are not young (40's, 50's). I think the practical boxes just appeal to mature guys who have given up on attracting chicks with the Corvette (or already caught the one they want) and now just want a practical vehicle to haul themselves and their crap around.
--
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I should have typed 6'5" for the xB buyer.
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Why does rural driving rule out a hybrid?
As for the transmission....if you're truly interested in using less fuel and reducing emissions, you should take a close look at the Prius. True, you can't shift it yourself--but if you look very closely at the technology, you'll be amazed at what Toyota has done. It doesn't have a conventional transmission, or even a conventional belt-driven CVT, at all. The geniuses at Toyota figured out how to do a hybrid drivetrain, and determined how the power should be managed, and the result is amazing.
Like it or not, the Toyota method is the wave of the future for passenger cars.
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Alas, much as we love our Prius for its consistent 50 MPG, it has the LEAST comfortable and least adjustable seats of any car I've ever ridden in since the elementary school bus.
Sorry it doesn't exist, but what you need (and I'd buy one too) is a 40 MPG Volvo V70 Hybrid.
--
-RL


"Elmo P. Shagnasty" < snipped-for-privacy@nastydesigns.com> wrote in message
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Hybrids are for wimps. I hate getting stuck behind those putt putt priuse
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snipped-for-privacy@backpacker.com wrote:

It's not the tool, it's the operator.
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Elmo P. Shagnasty wrote:

I, too, take it nice and gently. I like to save gas and not wear out my equipment. The only difference is that I am not rushing to stop at the next red light, rather, I sail through it when it is green.
Jeff
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I would suggest looking a Toyota RAV4. You probably will want the higher trim level. The base model seats are mediocre at best, but the car has decent leg room. There is a 4 cylinder manual transmission model available. My SO has the 4 cylinder automatic version and it has adequate power and she gets decent gas mileage (mid to high 20's in mixed driving). I am 6'3" and much heavier than you. I found the front seats tolerable, but not great. I think the higher trim level seats are better. The Ford Escape is another potential choice. My Sister has an older Escape (2001). It has been nearly flawless. Her Escape has the better interior and the seats are much better than the base seats in the RAV4, but her V6 Escape doesn't get nearly as good gas mileage as the 4 cylinder RAV4. Ford does sell a 4 cylinder manual Escape, but I've never driven one of those. They also offer a hybrid Escape, but it is not a manual.
Ed

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There's only one choice for you- try a Subaru Outback. My 04 got 29 mpg fully loaded driving cross country and the AWD will handle anything you would attempt in a stock vehicle and be 100% reliable for a long time. Try it. The 4 cyl is plenty powerful and a manual is available.

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my crown vic gets 30+mpg on the highway with the cruise set at 65, and 22 mpg in town if i keep my foot out of it. if the kids drive it, it gets 12 in town, and 15 onthe highway, cause they like to hit the speed limiter. thats why i don't let them have the keys anymore..
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A Volvo XC90 will be roomy, have good winter traction and get passable milage. A Subaru Outback will be somewhat smaller, get marginally better milage, have a manual gearbox and be passably roomy.
Unfortunately the combination of large roomy vehicle with a manual transmission, all wheel drive that gets very high milage does not exist.

I doubt that you will find a 4WD passenger vehicle. More likely will be AWD.

AWD vehicles typically do not get great milage.

Very few passenger vehicles have manual transmissions. The only one I can think of that couples a manual gearbox and AWD is the Subaru Outback. It was quite comfortable when I drove one and I'm 6'.

If it is an AWD vehicle I doubt that it gets 35mpg. Indeed the standard front wheel drive non-turbo car would likely get 28 to 30 mpg on the highway.
Given that you apparently have back problems that should be the first criteria for you. Develop a list of cars that fit your frame and can accomodate a sore back. Beyond providing a list of cars with roomy front seating tt is literally impossible for someone on the internet to guess which car will fit you properly.
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Good news! You've just described my '82 Chevy Cavalier wagon. If you can find one still running, it will only set you back about $75!

Check. I'm taller than you. It was very comfortable for me. We once had 5 adults in it for a two-hour trip and no one complained (the three in the back were neither fat nor tall, though).

Check. We drove it north from Massachusetts, once, to Maine in a winter Nor'Easter. We did not see any other cars at all on I-95 from Brunswick to Gardiner.

Check. 40+mpg whenever on the highway. I never computed the in-town numbers but they must have been close to or, more likely, over 30.

It was only a 4-speed but still managed very respectable fuel economy. The clutch was still going strong at 80K miles.
However, it was rather underpowered. The carburetted 1.8L engine only developed 68 hp. I was satisfied with it but many people would not tolerate its power-to-weight ratio, which only got worse as you added people. And once the engine started to age, you knew the power was going to fall off some. I'll bet it didn't develop 60hp by the time I sold it (after 10 mostly satisfactory years - it did have its little peculiarities and problems along the way - for $250). It still got great fuel economy, though.
[snip]

You want an updated '82 Cavalier or an updated mid-90's Corolla wagon. Both discontinued. :-( The Accord and Camry wagons are a thing of the past, too.
I now drive an '00 stick Rav4. It mostly meets the "compact wagon" criteria, is very comfy for me to drive and you can cram a surprising amount of crap into it (the rear seats fold up and can even be removed for a little extra room). It's also very short, has a good turning radius and excellent visibility, so it's really easy to park. Ours is FWD and it does well in snow on all-season tires. The only drawback is that at 24/30mpg, it doesn't quite have the fuel economy that I'd like but we don't drive very much, so it matters less. I bought it used, when fuel prices were low, so it wasn't expensive.
If I was going to replace it, I'd look at a newer Rav4 but not later than an '05. The '06's (and '07's and '08's) are significantly bigger and heavier. The EPA numbers look just about the same but, IMHO, weight counts for a lot and I'll bet I wouldn't get the same fuel economy with a new one as with the smaller, older ones. Ed White thinks the new ones are available with a stick (see his note) but I do not believe this is the case. In any event, auto Toyotas do pretty well for fuel economy when compared to the stick versions.
One of the things that affects fuel economy is ground clearance and any of those tall-profile, high-clearance vehicles aren't going to do really well at speed on the highway. My '00 can hit 31mpg if there's no unfavorable wind and I keep right at 60mph but falls off noticeably as I go faster. Auto Ravs might do slightly better on the highway as the autos seem to be geared taller.
You should look at the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix. Friends have a stick Vibe and they routinely get 36mpg on the highway. Not bad. They have lots of room inside. I don't know how they do on snow; you could ask around (buy really good snows, instead of all-seasons). There were AWD versions for a while but that robs fuel and I think they were discontinued. I think the Vibe is better looking than the Matrix but tastes differ. I considered a Vibe a few years ago but decided to save the up-front money and get the used Rav4 for much less.
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Try an SE Camry. Excellent front drivers seat. Great mileage for a larger car. Good handling. I personally like the black upholstery with the chrome accents. Seventeen inch alloy wheels. The car has a lot going for it. Ron
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Mazda 5, Subaru WRX/Legacy/Forester wagons
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