The car I currently drive has seen better days. It’s a 1994 with over 180,000 miles on it. It’s on its second engine, second transmission, and second paint job. Currently the second engine is still running fairly well, but the clutch is going out and the paint’s clear coat is peeling off at an increasingly rapid rate. Did I mention the driver’s side window no longer works and that the only way you can unlock the car is by using the key in passenger side door? I fear that all of this may begin to reflect poorly on my “car guy” status. However my wife and I have decided that it is best to simply keep this car on “hospice care” until we are able to replace it after I graduate in May. That means it is still getting oil changes and such, but no major (costly) repairs unless something else breaks. Even some of the repairs I’ve have had to make have been done with used parts I had on hand. Thankfully, with the weather getting warmer I will soon be able to switch back to biking for most of my trips around town. This is fortunate, since I think the steering rack may soon be added to the list of parts that are almost worn out.
As we contemplate what car to buy when it is time to replace this one, we are facing many of the same factors as other car-buyers in the US. Gas prices are high and are only predicted to go higher. The economy is heading downwards and that means there is less money to go around in general. I also worry about the continued detrimental impact on the environment of burning so much gasoline and the amounts of hazardous chemicals that go into making the batteries of all these new-fangled hybrids.
Since this will be our first “big” car purchase, we have already begun contemplating some of the options that will be available to us.
Option 1: Used VW Golf (or Jetta) TDI
We really like the small diesel-engined Volkswagens, such as the Golf and the Jetta. We have known some people who have had such cars and they report regularly getting between 40 and 50 miles per gallon. There is a local fueling station that carries soy bio-diesel, which would further help with environmental impact issues. However, these are very popular cars right now and they are quite difficult to find in the used market with low miles and reasonable prices. In addition, VW has yet to release a diesel version of the new Rabbit, which replaced the Golf a couple years ago. And so, while this remains an option, our chances of finding one of these in our price range in good condition with low miles are very slim.
Option 2: 2008 smart fortwo passion coupe
Though the smart fortwo is a rather unorthodox little car, we are both open to creative solutions to our car needs. We have actually gone so far as to visit the smart dealership in Indianapolis to test drive one of these. (You can read about our visit at my wife Becky’s blog.) I’m impressed by the engineering that has gone into making this tiny little 2-seat micro car. It has boatloads of technology such as brake-assist, traction control, stability control, etc. It is even relatively fun to drive!
The fortwo is not without its shortcomings however. I was less than impressed by the sometimes-sluggish gear changes from the “automated” manual transmission. In addition, its EPA mileage ratings aren’t really that impressive (33/40) considering all the sacrifices you make for such a small car. The first owners of the new-to-the-US 2008 fortwo have just begun taking delivery of their new cars, and so I am anxious to see what sort of mileage they experience in the real world. I am also a bit put off by the fact that they only come with a 2 year warranty and I fear that parts for them could be rather expensive. Another potential downside of the smart is that they are currently in very high demand. There is currently a long waiting list and it could potentially be a while before we would be able to get one.
Don’t get me wrong, I really like the smart and all that it stands for. It’s truly all the car that most folks would need for the chores of daily commuting and running around town. I also really like that they are concerned with environmental issues surrounding the entire production process. However I am interested not only in the environmental aspects of getting a more economical car, but also the financial aspects. The smart fortwo, with the options we would want, retails for about $15,000. There are quite a few cars in that same price range that get 75-80% of the gas mileage the smart gets, but have amenities such as cruise control and a back seat.
Option #3: 2008 Nissan Versa Hatchback SL
Since I’m not feeling very confident that we’ll be able to find a Golf or Jetta TDI, and I’m having second thoughts about the smart, I’ve started doing some research on other cars in the same price range. I still want something small and very fuel efficient, but also able to go on weekend road trips when we might want to leave our larger car at home. My research has recently led me to look more seriously at the Nissan Versa hatchback. For about the same money as the fortwo, the Versa SL with a 6-speed manual transmission is rated for 26/31 miles per gallon. Not too shabby for a small wagon with a back seat and a usable trunk. If you opt for the CVT instead of the manual the mileage rating rises to 27/33. Part of the draw of this car is the 6 speed though, so the CVT would have to be really good in order for me to forgo the manual.
I’m drawn to the Versa because it doesn’t come across as your typical, stripped-down econobox. In other markets, where it has been sold for several years as the “Tiida,” it is actually marketed as an entry-level luxury car with options such as navigation and leather seats! With all this in mind, the nagging questions that I keep coming back to are long-term cost of ownership and practicality.
I imagine that whichever car we choose it will be driven approximately 20,000 miles a year or less. After doing a little research and some math, the Versa looks like it would probably cost about 20% more annually for fuel. At a pessimistic $4 a gallon that translates to about $500 a year. At $3.50 a gallon it becomes a $400 difference annually. Real-life numbers would inevitably more complex than this little exercise however. Getting a slightly larger car like the Versa would mean that we could use it for longer trips, thereby saving money by not taking our larger car which only gets about 28mpg on the highway. It’s not a huge difference, but every bit counts. Once you start to account for driving a somewhat more efficient vehicle more often rather than a much more efficient vehicle less often, it is difficult to discern what vehicle would make for the best overall “fleet economy” for us.
So how wise of a purchase would a smart be, all things considered? For now the answer seems unclear. There are many factors that will play into our decision that are still a bit murky. How high will gas prices go? What kind of mileage will drivers really experience in the new smart? How difficult will it be to get one? Would we be comfortable taking it on day trips to Indianapolis or Dayton on the busy interstate? Only time will tell. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section. Stay tuned over the next few months, because I have a feeling this could be a bumpy ride.