In Need of Auto Advice

My household has been on a declining curve of auto use. Last year when the kids headed off to school (we had four drivers and two cars at that point) we dropped down to being a single car family.

Last week our declining curve took a nose-dive as the remaining car, an ’89 Honda Accord, blew its engine.

While I’m trying to convince my better half that it’s time to go car-free and just do the Flexcar thing, I’m not winning the debate :-)

So the question is, if we’re going to buy a vehicle, what are the most financially efficient and greenest options?

Obviously we could go buy a new Prius, but I’m not very interested in that large a capital investment. What can we get that is both friendly for the planet and friendly on our bank account?

General requirements:

– Major use is daily commuting by my partner across town. She prefers something that gets her a little higher off the ground, giving her better visibility (her favorite car ever was a minivan when we were in the soccer mom phase).

– Occasional use for regional trips [i.e., the run down to Wilsonville to Frys :-)].

– Other less frequent needs can be met via Flexcar.

Interested in opinions and advice. Thanks!

21 responses to “In Need of Auto Advice”

  1. My family’s old reliable (other than my ol’ reliables, TriMet and C-TRAN :)) is a 2000 Hyundai Elantra w/ a manual transmission that’s used for the same purposes (commuting and regional trips), bought new back in 2000. For the last few years, it’s also been running newspaper delivery routes, has taken several beatings by my younger brother (don’t know exactly what happened, and I don’t want to), and it still keeps going, just as well as new (with regular maintenance). My mother’s been extremely pleased with it, and has gone as far as saying that she’d buy a new one if she had to.
    (BTW, comes up with better MPG estimates for the model in all three years I checked – ’00, ’07, and ’08, than the ’89 Accord – I’d say its not the best in the world, but, as we all know, there’s definitely much worse. And, no, I don’t want to know what the MPG is with the weight of two routes worth of newspapers in back – any vehicle weighted down in that situation would probably make me cry!)

  2. Before you do anything else, get a recent book called “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car.” It’s a cheap, quick read, and it builds your confidence immeasurably. Great book. If you live in Portland, OWNING a car is not necessary to have the use of a car at any moment, and once you are freed of the burden of ownership, the decision about travel mode is freed up considerably.

    Go without owning a car and you may actually find driving fun when it’s a real choice again (rather than an attempt to salvage something from your huge sunk cost).

  3. Try a used Toyota Echo (I think flexcar uses them so take one for a spin). They get extremely good Gas miles (manual 42 MPG) and are cheap. They look small, but drive big; you sit up surprisingly high.

  4. have her take a look at a 2007 or earlier (not the current model) scion xb… you sit high and the interior has the roominess of a minivan. however, it gets 33/30 mpg and is super cheap to begin with.

    its rated as one of the cheapest cars or THE cheapest car when you look at total cost of ownership.

    plus its shaped like a box. so yea, its her minivan. but efficient. with a toyota engine that should get her 200k or more.

  5. Before you do anything else, get a recent book called “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car.”

    Read it, reviewed it here, I’m sold.

    My partner isn’t :-(

  6. If you’re thinking about a new car, I bought the 2007 4-door Yaris sedan w/ some add-ons (side impact air bags, electric locks, etc) for $17,500 last year. Great little car, sits pretty high, and I have honestly gotten the 39 mpg EPA estimate on trips to the coast and to Bellingham.

  7. I always loved my old ’86 Honda Civic. It got 40+ mpg, was high off the ground, and had plenty of space for stuff.

    On a side note, I recently decided that after not having my license for 6 years (said ’86 Civic broke down, I moved a few states, and never bothered renewing my license) to get my license again, so I could use FlexCar from time to time (it was to do with Ikea coming to Portland…)

    Anyhow, it turns out, although I’m plenty old, I can’t get a FlexCar membership because you need to have had your license for 5 years consecutive prior to membership. Tre Lame!

  8. My main advice would to be to compare crash test ratings among the small cars you are looking at… there is a wide variation out there, wider than you might expect for the minor differences in vehicle weight, fuel economy, etc.

    I would also recommend checking out some used Diesel models, something you can run on locally-produced BioDiesel. Of course, such cars are in higher demand right now for that very reason, so the price may be higher than other comparable used cars.

    Of course, I’m still a big Prius booster, so if you want a tour/test drive without having to deal with that car dealer atmosphere, let me know.

    Also, Hertz and other rental car companies have recently introduced “green” fleet options with a variety of high-MPG cars (some dubious car choices, but still, a good effort)… you can rent a car you’re interested in for a full weekend, which won’t cost much and will tell you way more than a dealer test-drive about whether you’ll really like the car.

    – Bob R.

  9. What is wrong with another 89 Honda Accord? It was good enough last week, it should be good enough next week too, and they are about $1500 on craigslist. You’ll end up paying more than that just to drive a new car off the lot.

  10. I realize your asking for advice on what car to get and that you have tried to convince your partner that it can work without a car, but….
    Perhaps you could convince your partner to give it a try for just a bit. As you know summer months are the perfect time to go car-free. Set a time period where you will see what it is like to go car-free: I would suggest three months because most people adjust to any “adverse” changes in their lives withing 3-6 months.
    The nice thing about the timing is that you don’t have to deal with selling a car, doing a trial run and then buying another if it doesn’t work out. If you try out car-free for a bit right now it is low risk because all you are doing is just delaying the decision and “doing research”. By waiting a bit you can research the impact of car-free on your life and at the same time look into the best options for the type of car you would buy if that is route you go.

  11. Get a new significant other. Ok, just kidding.

    Obviously we could go buy a new Prius, but I’m not very interested in that large a capital investment. What can we get that is both friendly for the planet and friendly on our bank account?

    The Prius is just overpriced feel good. Just buy any ULEV and you’re not producing enough waste anymore to affect anything.

    ULEVs include, any of the new super smalls (Yaris, Scion, etc) and also includes Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla, and others of that nature.

    Toyota is by far the cleanest running motors around right now, along with the idea you are supporting one of the most technologically forward thinking companies out there.

    In addition you will most likely be supporting American workers.

    Then of course if you really wanted an efficient vehicle you’d purchase a nice Yamaha, Suzuki, or even (drumroll) Harley Davidson for those SOV trips. Ya can’t beat 50-70 miles per gallon.

    If none of those things work for you, see option one at the top of this comment. ;)

    Have fun being tortured by the car buying process. :p

  12. Chris,
    Get a diesel. I bought a vintage Mercedes about six months ago on Craigslist for under $1,500 and haven’t been in a gas station since. It burns waste vegetable oil obtained from a few local restaurants.

  13. I appreciate all the advice. I’m intrigued by the bio-diesel option, on the theory that it’s not adding any fossilized CO2 to the atmosphere.

    What are the best candidates for vehicles (new or preferably used) for bio-diesel?

    [I did try to convince my partner that a 50cc moped could get her to work, but she’s not buying it.]

  14. “the run down to Wilsonville to Frys”

    When I need something at Frys I go down to the IT department at work, and ask when they are going to Frys, and they say something like “today or tomorrow, what do you need?” and I usually either give them a list and some money, but sometimes they are too busy to make the trip so they give me their list and the IT dept credit card. In either case, the trip is made in a Flexcar, (which is billed directly to my employer because as they say: “worrying about $0.41 a mile reimbursements for every person is too much paperwork. We’d rather just get one bill at the end of the month.”)

    But my point is, someone you know is probably going to Frys sooner than you think, and you just need to ask around…

  15. Used Scion xB. Super cheap, great driver, best mpg of any box (van, suv, crossover). Toyota reliability and resale. Very good sight lines all around and upright seating position. Easy to park but plenty of space for bikes, luggage, kids. Safe. Manual transmission doesn’t significantly add to MPG but may be slightly cheaper to buy.
    — OR —
    if you dont like the style of the xb get a used stripper honda civic hatch. They have been quietly getting 40 – 45 mpg for years now without much attention.

    Unfortunately due to the laws of aerodynamics, upright tall seating position is hard to find in really efficient cars.

    — AND —

    Please don’t buy a brand new anything. Recycle, buy used. It is one of the best and cheapest ways to be green rather than encouraging more wasteful consumption.

  16. Honda Fit is another good choice. Best rated small-car in the US. And Honda has the best environmental and safety records in the world for a car company.

  17. Best candidates for biodiesel:

    Volkswagen Jetta/Golf, 98-03. Nearly 50 MPG on the highway. Reasonably clean emissions, available stick shift.

    Mercedes E-Class, 96-99. The 96 & 97 are slow, but cheap. 98 and 99 have a turbo, not slow. 35 MPG highway, built like a tank, just make sure its been in for recalls. Automatic only, though.

  18. Chris,
    I’ve been looking at the 1980’s VW Rabbit diesel convertibles. Convertibles of that age can only go up in value if they are in reasonably good condition. I need to find out if repairs are expensive, but as a rule of thumb the older the car the cheaper it is to fix, until you get to rare and obsolete parts; Like a 1950’s Hudson Hornet!

    Anybody know the true fuel economy on these?

  19. I’d like to second Bob’s recommendation. I recently switched to a used diesel vehicle as my own vehicle, and I don’t look back. Benefits include:

    * The vehicle is actually not only just holding its value, but appreciating
    * I’m performing most of my own maintenance, which is teaching me a *lot* about how vehicles work, saving me a pretty big chunk of change, and endowing me with a much better tool set than I used to have
    * Running on biodiesel removes me from the fossil fuel cycle, mostly. Diesel vehicles get better fuel efficiency than comparable-sized gasoline vehicles with comparable performance; that being said, I’m getting slightly worse highway mileage than I used to. However… it’s a moot point, since those old highway miles came at the expense of American blood in Iraq, while the new biodiesel miles come at the profit of American farmers across the country.
    * The biodiesel vehicle is actually more luxurious, and just as safe, as the much-newer vehicle that it replaced. Though I don’t drive often, when I do I feel more relaxed, have a more positive outlook, and therefore am much more courteous to other road users.

    Of course, the trick is to find the right vehicle for you. Going from two cars down to just one car is a huge step. The trick is not necessarily to remove car ownership from your life completely; it’s just to drive only when necessary, and use all the other modes (walking, biking, transit, etc.) as much as possible. After all, an SUV in the garage is using less fuel than a Prius on the highway!


  20. The newer Mercedes & VW diesels get better gas mileage than the older ones, but they also cost significantly more. And remember, once you’re running biodiesel, it’s a pure economics calculation as to additional cost of vehicle vs. time to recup. fuel savings anyways. 25 mpg vs 35 mpg on biodiesel is still a 0% contribution to the fossil fuel/blood oil economy.

    Used w123 Mercedes (1979-1986) diesel run between $1500 and about $7500 (for a mint condition 300td turbo wagon); used w124 Mercedes (1987-1995) diesel can set you back up to $12,000 but are worth the extra investment. The newer Mercedes are exactly that, a newer Mercedes, so they will cost you a bit more…

    I’m intrigued by the idea of a diesel convertible anything. I didn’t realize that diesel convertible rabbits made it into the US! That’s an interesting option…

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