Ugh, I need a new car. Advice for photo safaris please

Soon I will need to retire my car and replace it with something else. I’m not a car person so I would love some advice. My current car has fairly low clearance, so driving on dirt roads has always been stressful. I avoid 4WD kind of roads, but do like to wander around the Eastern Sierra on dirt roads, like the drive up to the top of Lundy Canyon, the drive around Dunderburg Meadow, or the drive to the end of the road at Father Crowley lookout on the approach to Death Valley. Occasionally I drive to the Southwest and do some exploring, again not on “4WD required” kind of roads. I see that lots of photographers drive Subarus with AWD. It’s my uneducated impression that the more important thing for my kind of exploring is high clearance and strong tires (ie, more ply than normal). Is AWD really useful for timid exploring on back roads? Bumpy roads with rocks and potholes, but not impassible in a regular car if one drives slowly. I don’t drive enough through the Sierra in the winter to warrant extra money and decreased mileage from an AWD vehicle. Another caveat, our garage has a narrow opening so I need a car on the narrow half of the width spectrum. Lastly, I’ve been driving a hybrid and would love my replacement car to have decent mpg, at least high 20s and preferably in the thirties or more. Any advice for me? In summary: a reliable car with decent mileage, higher than average clearance, low-medium in width, and +/- AWD. A used car is preferred, wouldn’t rule out new.

I think the Subaru would be a great choice. The AWD comes in handy if you hit some deep sand, not uncommon or mud, etc. It is not something you often need, but you need it, it is great to have. The Subaru is quite highly rated by Consumer Report, too.

We went through the long process of a car search this fall, our needs similar to yours with the added need to tow a boat now and then weighing in at around 2,000#. It narrowed down to a Subaru and Toyota RAV4 based on specs and reputation. Friends own examples of both and we’ve ridden in them lots and were allowed to borrow and drive each for a weekend. Nice way to “car shop.”

We settled on the RAV4 Adventure model for it’s ability to lock into full 4WD for slick roads and tough conditions rather than just being AWD. It also had a higher tow rating at 3500#. Most important for us and long drives, the seats were much more comfortable. I’m 6’4" and it fits me well, yet my wife at 5’7" felt it was a great fit for her too. Interesting enough, though the front seats are roomy, the rear seats actually have more leg room. It’s standard with waterproof mats under all 4 seats as well as in the rear cargo area.

Long and short, we loved the Subaru. But for our needs we loved the RAV4 Adventure model even more. We’ve owned both in the past and had great service with very few repairs beyond standard maintenance, so it was a draw for us.

EDIT- Just read Dennis’ report and I’ll add that the RAV4 has a full-size spare and we got 31mpg at an average speed of 70mph driving 14 hours north to Raleigh.

Hi Tony. I think almost any of the “small” SUVs, such as the Subaru, the Toyota RAV 4 and the Honda CR-V would work well for you. Some of them even have hybrid versions available and all get mileage in the 30+ range. We have the CR-V and like it a lot, but we looked at both of the others I mentioned pretty seriously. David Schoen has a Ford plug-in hybrid with the same characteristics, but it has a lower clearance and is outfitted with the new-fangled low profile tires. He actually popped one hitting a curb a couple of weeks ago, so I’d watch out for any vehicle that has that style of tire/wheel. His vehicle also came without any spare tire-just a compressor with some built in fix-a-flat foam. If he’d been out in the boonies when that tire popped, it could have gotten much more expensive.

Hi Tony,
I went thru this process late last year. I looked at everything. The most important spec for me was high clearance (dirt road and snow), AWD, stick, good gas mileage (26-29), lots of storage space, fuel efficiency and a few hi-tech bells and whistles. I did not care about towing or external storage. I did not care about a lot of passenger space as I drive solo on my photo adventure.

I ended up purchasing the 2018 Subaru Crosstek SUV. The 2018 model year was redesigned with better fuel economy, improved ride comfort, and reduced cabin noise compared with the previous generations.

It is not a zippy sportster but can hold its own on the highway.

I spent four weeks in Vermont, and drove 80% on the backgrounds. Having that high ground clearance sure provides a lot of piece of mind and it also got me into a lot of places that I could not go before.

We’ve got a Subaru Crosstrek (my wife’s 4th Subie…she loves them) and a Jeep Cherokee (I love Jeeps), both 2017 vintages. Subarus are pretty bullet-proof and have great reliability. Since I haul more stuff around, need a bit more off-road capability and need 4,000lb towing capacity, I drive the Jeep. Both are very capable vehicles, and comfortable for long drives. When I’m not towing a trailer, my Jeep with the V6 gets almost the same gas mileage as the 4 cylinder Subaru.
There’s an old saying that if you buy a Jeep, you’ll become a mechanic, but I’ve found that newer Jeeps require less maintenance and are more reliable than their predecessors. If you want one of the most reliable cars on the road, the Subaru is a wise choice.

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Here is another vote for a AWD SUV. We have a Subaru Outback and love it. Full time AWD is great. Decent ground clearance with paddle shifters to control the gear you are in when you need it. Good comfort and with the “Eyesight” option has the modern basic electronic driver assist features. I am tall enough that a camera and long lens on the back seat, or with the seat folded down is easy to reach to shoot out a window when I need to. Price early to mid 30’s.

Thanks for all the comments. Having looked at the specs for a number of cars I have discovered my options are quite limited. We currently drive a Prius which barely fits in our old garage and is 69 inches wide. 70 inches is the absolute maximum that would fit. There is very limited street parking in my neighborhood so I need something that will fit in the garage. There aren’t many cars out there narrower than 70 inches! A Subaru outback is 72.4 inches.

It looks like the Honda HR-v might work, Tony. It’s listed as 69.8 wide, but that would really be pushing your width limit.

Suby Crosstrek just named 4th best by CR. Only suby on the list.

This is a cool suby hack to get rid of annoying after startup seat belt alarm. With the key in the ignition, turn to engage but do not start. Then unlock seat belt buckle 20 times in 30 secs. Turn key to off. It works on my 2018 Xtrek.

My passenger front seat is MoosePeterson’s MP1-V2. I keep my Nikon D5/180-400 and a D850/26-35 in it. I agree that the suby is great blind for birding.

I m glad my garage is wider than 70 inches :slight_smile: