Time to shop for a car again

I shredded a tire on my 2000 Dodge Neon this morning. That’s one way to keep me from getting to church on Sunday. What makes things much worse is that I won’t have the car past the end of June, so my last few miles on that car are expensive ones.Since I’d just thrown a bunch of money away, I figured I’d spend some time looking at Americans’ favorite money sink: cars. I was slightly happy to find out that it’s almost impossible to get a gas/electric hybrid in St. Louis. That probably means they’re not bringing enough of them here, but it’s good to see that the ones that are coming in are selling.

But I want an upgrade from my Neon in terms of reliability, fuel economy, and price. My Neon’s been decent, but I want something that’s an improvement in all three. With financing the way it is today, almost anything lowers my monthly payments. But now I have the opportunity to slash my second-largest monthly expense and significantly lower my sixth-largest, and I’d much rather spend money on almost anything other than gasoline and a depreciating car. Computers depreciate even faster, but I’ve more than made back the money I dumped into computers over the years.

The Volkswagen Jetta is priced well and holds value extremely well, but its fuel economy is rated at 23/29 MPG city/highway, and I consistently get between 27 and 32 in my Neon, depending on how much city driving I do.

The Nissan Sentra is priced similarly and gives upgraded fuel economy (28/36) but Nissans don’t hold value as well as a Volkswagen, Toyota or Honda. The only reason I looked, in all honesty, is because the local VW dealer also sells Nissans.

As I scanned the three rows of Honda Civics at the Honda dealer across the street from the VW dealer, I spotted something I really liked. In a jungle of cars rated 29/38, I spotted a lone car rated 35/40. It’s a Honda Civic HX. It’s a mid-range Civic, and it offers the same transmission they use in the Civic Hybrid, which gives it a slight edge over the other Civics for fuel economy. (The Hybrid is rated at 48/47.) I did the math, and a Civic Hybrid getting 10 MPG more will save me about $600 over the course of the next five years, but it’ll cost me $7,000 more. The $2,000-a-year tax deduction on hybrid vehicles is going away, so it’ll only save me $560 in taxes once. If I kept the car for 10 years and got a $2,000 tax deduction every year, the Hybrid would be more economical than the HX. Barely.

A little research at www.fueleconomy.gov shows that particular Civic is the most fuel-efficient conventional gasoline-powered car with an automatic transmission on the market in the United States. The only cars that beat it are hybrids or diesels.

I know where to get a Toyota Prius (52/45 MPG), but it’s not priced much better than the Civic Hybrid. It still won’t pay for itself over a Civic HX without help from the government. I also don’t like its styling all that much. I can live with it, but I actually like the way most of the other cars on my short list look. (The Nissan Sentra I can take or leave, but I like it better than the Prius.) The Toyota Echo has the second-highest fuel economy among conventional gasoline cars, but I really don’t like the Echo’s looks.

A few test drives will undoubtedly change my order of preference, but for now I’m definitely leaning towards the Civic HX.

It doesn’t hurt that the Civic HX’s tires are a lot cheaper and easier to find than tires for my Neon, either.

14 thoughts on “Time to shop for a car again

  • May 4, 2003 at 11:32 pm
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    Dave –

    Go Honda. I love my ’02 Civic. Everything
    just works, like you expect, and like it
    oughta should. No surprises. PLUS, Service is
    outstanding, at least from my dealer in
    Berkely. YMMV. That’s a BIG plus for me – at
    72, I’m dead without wheels. Thus far, it is
    absolutely reliable – again, a MUST HAVE for
    me.

    Regards,

    JHR

    [JHR@WarlockLtd.com]

  • May 5, 2003 at 8:10 am
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    Look at the diesel version of the Jetta — the “TDI”. TDIs get over 40mpg — more if you don’t mind driving a standard. And this isn’t the old school diesel with the black smoke. For more info check out Fred’s TDI Page.

    Just so you know, I put down a deposit on a Golf TDI (standard) and am just finishing up some paper work before I pick it up.

    At least go for a test drive, they drive quite nicely. Of couse, in many parts of the States it’s hard finiding gas stations that sell diesel. I have no idea why this would be the case but it is.

    P.S. Could you add a “preview comment” button?

  • May 5, 2003 at 8:33 am
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    Looking at used cars can drastically decrease your cost. If you liked the feel/size of your Neon, take a look at older Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas. Their maintenance costs are minimal, excellent mileage, and initial cost is much less. Consider that if you buy a used Honda for $2000 to $4000, that’s a generally around $10,000 less than a new car.

    To find a good used Honda/Toyota, mileage generally isn’t as important as maintenance history. I generally do a blow-by test and that screens cars well. For it, take off the oil filler cap on the valve cover while the engine is running. Placing your hand over the hole, you should feel little or no air blowing out. If it feels like a lot or oil is blowing out, skip that car. If it passes that test and has no obvious leaks or driving problems, it’s probably okay. That rule has worked for me for four Hondas over the past twenty years.

    Bryan
    bwelch42@yahoo.com

  • May 5, 2003 at 8:41 am
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    Looking at used cars can drastically decrease your cost. If you liked the feel/size of your Neon, take a look at older Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas. Their maintenance costs are minimal, excellent mileage, and initial cost is much less. Consider that if you buy a used Honda for $2000 to $4000, that’s a generally around $10,000 less than a new car.

    To find a good used Honda/Toyota, mileage generally isn’t as important as maintenance history. I generally do a blow-by test and that screens cars well. For it, take off the oil filler cap on the valve cover while the engine is running. Placing your hand over the hole, you should feel little or no air blowing out. If it feels like a lot or oil is blowing out, skip that car. If it passes that test and has no obvious leaks or driving problems, it’s probably okay. That rule has worked for me for four Hondas over the past twenty years.

  • May 5, 2003 at 9:05 am
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    I’m with David on this one. I’m not sure what the social stigma/practicalities of diesel are over there… but over here if you’re particularly bothered about fuel economy you go for diesel, ’cause you get more miles to the gallon.

    Another thing sprining up over here is LPG, but that’s only attractive because of a government subsidy halving the price of the fuel.

  • May 5, 2003 at 9:13 am
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    The one drawback to the new hybrids is the fact that the bank of batteries is in your trunk (thus reducing your storage space) and that the batteries are only covered for 80,000 miles, the average lifespan you’ll probably get out of them. And right now, if one goes out, they all need to be replaced. Depending on how many batteries a car has and the cost per battery, it can cost around $20,000 to replace them all. More than the original cost of the car. Unfortunately, until some of the kinks get worked out, the hybrids are just as disposable as the current cars on the market today, if not more so.

  • May 5, 2003 at 12:33 pm
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    Preview comments is a good idea. I can’t remember if that’s implemented in the new version of this software. I stalled on upgrading to the new version because of problems I don’t remember. I’ll try to get to it, but lately it’s hard to find time just to write every day, let alone implement new features.

    It’s possible to find diesel fuel in St. Louis, but it’s much harder than gasoline. I’d say half the stations I frequent offer diesel. The joke about diesel cars is you’ll get great gas mileage while you drive around looking for a place to buy fuel.

    Pricing is also wildly inconsistent. I’ve seen it for less than gasoline, and I’ve also seen it $0.50/gallon higher. Gas prices fluctuate by nickels and dimes instead of quarters.

    So from a practicality standpoint, I’m more comfortable with gasoline.

    I have thought about going used, but cursory glances at the local lots haven’t turned up much. Whatever I get, I want to keep it 5 years minimum, and I’d prefer 10. Right now I can get 1.9% on a new Civic; it’s hard to get under 5% on a used car. I need to get way south of $10,000 for that to make sense. I’ll give it a look though.

  • May 5, 2003 at 2:00 pm
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    I’d check out the Mazda RX-8, if I were you. Car and Driver rated it above other sedans of it’s class.

    Plus, rotary engines are actually more efficient (power/mass ratio) though you need to ‘wind them up’ to get to the torque.

    Rotary engines got a bad name in the 70s due to fuel efficiency. That’s changed. Take a look at the new RX8.

  • May 5, 2003 at 4:58 pm
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    I finally got rid of my 2000 Neon, as well. It was quite possibly the worst car I’ve ever owned. The tires were *incredibly* expensive because no one carried them.

    Yeah, it got great fuel economy. That’s probably how I put 38,000 miles on it in one year without breaking the bank.

    I’m in a 1997 Ford Ranger XLT SuperCab right now. I’m working on getting its fuel economy up. My target is 70 MPG. Think I can pull it off?

  • May 5, 2003 at 4:59 pm
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    Forgot to mention I’m posting this from our evaluation kit of Windows Server 2003. So far, I’m not impressed.

  • May 5, 2003 at 11:40 pm
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    And am I missing something? Why won’t you have the car past the end of June?

  • May 6, 2003 at 10:25 am
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    Because that’s when the world ends, silly. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • May 6, 2003 at 9:42 pm
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    If the world ends at the end of June, a lot of my problems will be solved.

    A bunch of Henny Penny…. oops. Did someone else copyright that? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • May 6, 2003 at 11:44 pm
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    On Diesel:

    Here in Trinidad and Tobago, diesel is seen as a bit of a social stigma – BUT – it makes so much sense. The engines down here aren’t as quiet as they are in the U.S., for the most part, but for mileage… no problem.

    No problem with low end torque, either, but don’t expect to beat Mustang 5.0s off the line. On the flip side, the engine really doesn’t care how much you have in the vehicle.

    Maintenance is easier too. Spark Plugs wet? Not a problem in a diesel. ๐Ÿ™‚

    One thing that has been done locally is the mixing of kerosine in with the diesel. My father, a former instructor of mechanics at Apex (New York, NY), runs his vehicle on 66% kerosine and 33% diesel, which actually has kept his truck running clean – no black smoke – and with no maintenance other than oil changes.

    Of course, kerosine pumps are easy to find down here. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’d go with a diesel, if you could. Good engines. Low cost, low maintenance, lots of low end torque. Fuel economy is great, especially if you look at $$/mile instead of miles/gallon.

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