If you can't have an Outback, then what?

Sorry for YACT (Yet Another Car Thread), but the archives weren’t doing if for me.

I’ve had my heart set on a Suburu Legacy Wagon or Outback for a while now, but new ones are out of my range, used ones are far and few between and maint. cost horror stories have made me reconsider.

Right now I drive a '92 Old Cutlass Sierra, but it’s big, handles terribly, gets lousy gas milage and is, well, an Olds Cutlass Sierra. It’s only redeeming quality is the set of giant 56 inch bars I have clamped to the top.

If you couldn’t have a Legacy Wagon/Outback, what would you chose? Think on a used car budget. I like the idea of having 4wd and have always been a huge Audi fan, but the Avants (wagons) are hard to come by and are expensive as well. 4wd really isn’t a deal breaker though.

I like the small station wagon form factor, but anything that can comfortably haul a pair of kayaks or a 16 foot tandem canoe with will fit the bill. I don’t want anything I have to hike the boats up onto either; I have no desire to own an SUV or van.

Besides Audis, I’ve always liked VWs and think a TDI Jetta wagon would be perfect, but the reliability problems VW’s had in recent years makes me leery.

So what’s left? What is an affordable, reliable reasonably sized (bigger than a Focus but smaller than a Taurus) wagon? What’s the best non Suburu small(ish) wagon one can get without breaking the bank?



I think the Matrix is a pretty sweet vehicle. Something approaching 50mpg, but a good bit of interior space.

I drive a '91 olds cutlass ciera, and it is fantastic! I hope to run it forever.


– Last Updated: Jun-19-06 1:05 AM EST –

Aren't the Matrix and Potiac Vibe the same car? Any reason not to go with the Pontiac if price was the deal breaker? What's the bar spread and max width you can put on one of these?

EDITED TO ADD: Thule does not have a rack combo available for non factory rack Vibe/Matrix and only has a kayak solution for the factory rack.


VW TDI Wagon
VW’s have suffered a reliability problem for the past several years. In fact, ever since the US began receiving VW’s manufactured in Mexico. The TDI Wagons are still manufactured in Germany. I have 43K on an 04 without any, zero, problems.

Happy Paddling,



– Last Updated: Jun-19-06 7:00 AM EST –

I've got a 94 850 wagon and it makes a good carrier. They're not maintenance free, but take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. Lots of Volvo wagons around in the used market. The 850 (V70) is front wheel or all wheel drive. The other wagons are rear wheel.

P.S. Look for one with the factory 'euro rails'. Thule makes a bar and tower that clamps to it.

Vibes really Toyotas
Toyota makes them, but less hard to get and less expensive than the one with Matrix on the side.

We are on our third and, because of Ford’s foolishness in discontinuing it, last Sable wagon whihc is a perfect kayak car. Room for good length between the bars and low to load, also a comfortable ride. I don’t know about their reliability or anything, I think it’s gotten better than at first, but the current Focus wagons look pretty nicely sized. If you want to go smaller, Mazda is still being smart enough to put all their cars out as a wagon as well as a sedan.

Cheap motorcycle for commuting, and big honking SUV for hauling the yacks, dogs, camper and gear. You can get SUVs really cheep now…

Saturn LW (the larger Saturn Wagon)
with the four cylinder. Good bar spread, reliable, comfortable and the doors don’t dent!

I think these can be had fairly reasonable second hand, I know I didn’t get all that much for mine when I sold it. (I liked it fine, had other reasons for selling).

Honda CR-V or Camry
The older CR-Vs are very reliable (as are most Hondas), and more affordable than the newer generation on the used car market. I have a new one, and it’s not bad at all as an all arounder, aside from a somewhat high roofline. I also have an Outback, and while we like it, I’m a little concerned about its reliability-already some sensor issues, etc.

For that matter, even the Civic hatchbacks are super reliable, nice driving cars. I’ve owned the Si’s before, and they are frugal on gas and offer lots of bang for the buck in driving terms. Throw some dedicated snows on them (Blizzaks, etc.), and they go pretty much anywhere.

Camry’s are ultra reliable also and very comfortable. If you can find a wagon, bonus for extra carrying capacity. I owned the 4 cyl. for a while, and although I really yearned for the V-6, it did everything well. Very ‘vanilla’ though. A friend of mine who owned one summed it up. She said of her Camry: “It’s like when you go out on a date with someone and there’s no spark. He’s very nice, he’s very pleasant, but…” Laughed at that one, as I always felt that way about that car.

16ft Tandem Canoe
I carry my 16ft foot tandem canoe on top of my 2001 Honda Civic sedan, on a set of Thule crossbars. I don’t see why with the proper accessories, you couln’t get two yaks up there instead. And the roofline is nice and low. I’m sure you could find used civics out there.

Subaru Forester
I have owned many Subarus (Outbacks/Legacys) over the past 25 years, and have never had the problems that some report. I just purchased a 2003 Forester, and find the car to be far more comfortable than the Outback. It has plenty of room, the roof is a reasonable height for placing a kayak on the top…a great car all around.



– Last Updated: Jun-19-06 9:43 AM EST –

At least take it out for a test drive. I bought a Forester only because the Honda dealer was such a jerk! You can't beat the useable space inside the Element. And best of all, you can wash out the inside with a hose.

My wife and I still wish we had bought the Element rather than the Forester.

My Mexican-made Jetta TDI has been the best car I’ve ever owned, now at 59k miles and bought new.

Owning a TDI is kind of a hands-on experience, or a costly one. Basic maintenance is easy to do yourself but very expensive to have the dealer do it. Don’t trust oil changes to the 10 minute place either, you need a special oil but it’s good for 10k miles. Go to TDIclub.com, you’ll learn a lot and probably find people in your area that may be able to help you.

don’t buy a Taurus
Maybe I just had bad luck, and I’ve had a lot of that, but buying a used Taurus was the first and worst financial decision I ever made other than dropping out of college with just one BA and one Masters degree.

My Colt Vista Wagon died on the highway near Flint and I ended up with a very attractive used Ford Taurus wagon which I kept less than two years. The Taurus drove nice, handled beautifully. I was used to cars which were just nicely broken in at ninety thousand miles and expected the same from Ford. Not the case at all. That Ford was a big piece of good looking junk, it needed $600.00 or more of work every other month. I traded it for a used VW Jetta four door.

Go for the VW Jetta Wagon, expect some problems, but by my experience WV has better customer care than Ford.

Except for the Ford, the only brands I’ve driven have been Dodge/Plymouth or VW. However neither of them get the gas milage that My 1980 VW Rabbit did. My Golf got maybe 29 MPG on a good day, my van might get 24 MPG on a good day. Next time I am going looking for a car that gets good milage. The new VW’s are not fuel efficient.

However I long for a Jetta Wagon as VW’s are fun to drive! Maybe they will figure out the fuel economy thing again before I’m ready to buy another vehicle.

If you get a Dodge or Plymouth Van - be sure you are tall enough to put your kayaks on it and don’t get Yakima Stackers unless you are very tall and limber.

Good luck looking and hope you find the best deal for yourself at this time.

Second the Volvo
I’d go for the Volvo, I have a 94’ 940 wagon and it has gutters which make for any bar spread I want along the length of the roof. Great car.

I love my (wife’s actually) Element
But it’s quite tall for loading on the top and the bar mounting options arent great. We don’t use it for kayak transport (I use my Nissan Frontier P/U) so that’s not a problem for us.

The inside CANNOT be just hosed out (even though the idiot salemen will tell you it can) but a good wet moping is fine. There are A/C vents and nooks and crannies in the floor that you would not want to get full of dirty water.

1999-2004 xterra
japenese quality, and a good kayak carrier.

Taurus Experience
I didn’t mention it because it tends to come up, but the Taurus/Sable cars are generally 120,000 mile cars tops. So getting into a used one can be a poor deal based on the mileage. I’ve heard that certain runs of them were praticularly problematical - we’ve had better luck that that and have always avoided anything other than the steel-head Vulcan 6 cylinder engine as well. Though the 12 valve engines are reputed to be decent.

Subarus last a lot longer properly maintained, as do Toyotas. And cost twice whatt he Fords do because of that. It’s a balancing act.

I was caught or I’d have never bought
My Vista had almost 200 thousand on it, the clutch went out on the highway hours from home. It seemed cheaper at the time to just buy that damn Ford.

I was wrong, really wrong and I should have hoped a bus home.

The Taurus had 89,000 miles on it and finally one day I realized it once again needed something expensive done to it, I’d owned it a little over a year and it did not have one hundred thousand on it yet. It was late on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas - I thought I would just peak at the VW’s on the used car lot on the way home. Never thought I’d own another VW as they cost $$$$ but I was never so glad to get rid of a car as I was that Taurus. I never thought I’d trade a car in for less than I owed on it either.

I’ve learned to never say never, among other unpleasant things.

Toyota Pickup With Camper Shell
If you don’t need to carry more than one passenger a little Toyota is great. I have 190,000 on mine with no major repairs.

And you can sleep in it on Friday night so you don’t have to set up camp late in the dark