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When you've only got $7,000 to spend, does that mean you have to choose between style and reliability?

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Dear Tom and Ray:



We are looking to purchase a used car for around $7,000. Are we doomed to choose the utterly styleless but ultra-reliable 2000 Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla? We have two boys, 4 and 6, and are concerned about safety. We loved the safety ratings of the 2000 Jetta and Passat but hated the horrendous maintenance reviews they received on the Web. Of course, we are also interested in a car that gets the best mileage possible, as we drive from South Florida to Boston at least once a year. Please help us! -- Lenore and Rick

P.S.: Rick waited on you guys at a restaurant a couple of years ago. How about a better tip this time? Thanks!

RAY: Oh, sorry, guys. My brother must have left the tip that night. He recently stopped carrying a wallet, and now just carries his cash in a pair of vise grips.

TOM: With all your needs and your price limit, guys, I'm afraid you DO have to choose between style and reliability. I mean, my wife got both when she married me, but that's really unusual.

RAY: Yeah, she got style and reliability. Early-horror-movie style and British-sports-car reliability. Actually, the Civic and Corolla are good choices, but since you list safety as a top concern, and you travel all the way up and down the East Coast every year, I'm going to suggest you go one step larger, and find a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry.

TOM: They'll give you the same reliability as the smaller cars, but their increased size and weight will give you more protection in case of an accident -- not to mention more comfort on those long highway trips.

RAY: Your mileage will be slightly reduced, compared with the Civic and Corolla. But if you buy a four-cylinder Accord or Camry (which is what we'd recommend), your mileage will still be quite good -- for instance, a 1999 Accord is rated at 25 city and 31 highway. And a similar Camry is rated at 23/32.

TOM: If you want to, you can also look at a Nissan Altima or Mazda 6 (or 626), which also fit your criteria.

RAY: The four-cylinder versions of all of those cars are great. They have all the power you need. And the slightly lower mileage compared with a compact car is worth it, in your case, for the increase in safety and comfort.

TOM: And that extra room in the back seat will come in handy. As the boys get older, there will be more room to separate them when they start actually drawing blood on 95 North.
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