It was time (for many financial reasons) for me to get an economical car. My truck has served me faithfully for 3 years now, and I needed something with decent mileage for a reasonable price. However, this begs many questions:
New vs Used? Economy vs Cost? Form vs Function? I set out over the last couple months to figure these out (for me) before making a decision… What follows is an in-depth summary of all my inner toils. (Compiled some time ago…)
WHY: My driving habits are about to increase. It’s no secret that I’m a single Dad, with kids on the weekends. However, the agreement which has their mother driving 2/3 of the way will end soon, along with alimony. After which, we will each drive the children ALL the way once each weekend. At nearly a hundred miles (three weekends a month) this will increase my fuel expenditure significantly. I set out to DOUBLE my mileage and reduce my monthly fuel budget by $100 per month. The side benefit would be the ability to visit my family 400 miles away at a much more reasonable expense.
MPG: At a respectable 18 mpg highway, my truck does okay. This means I’m looking at cars with 36+ mpg highway. I used the EPA numbers for this figure, which can sometimes be conservative. (Unless you have a lead foot.)
FEATURES: Aside from mileage, it had to have 4 doors, room in the back seat for kids and (in a pinch) adults. I wanted bluetooth for my phone, and mp3 input for music. Everything else was fairly negotiable. Though I wanted it to look good and be fun to drive, I was open to compromise. I found manual transmissions to give me the latter, whilst saving cost too.
COST: I’ll be a bit vague here, but the ‘executive summary’ is that I computed the total cost of a vehicle to include interest over the entire term. Used vehicles had a higher rate, on a shorter term. New vehicles were the opposite. I found thousands of dollars separating the two. In short (for my current payment) I could afford a much smaller purchase on a used vehicle, compared with a new one. I had considered saving up and buying one out-right, but that would take many years to accomplish, and cost ~$12,600 in wasted fuel consumption in that time!
New vs Used: I built a spreadsheet (like many proper geeks) to quantify the value of possible vehicles. I compared 11 new & used (lowish-mile) models that were on the market, from ‘04-‘05 Honda Civics to brand-new offerings from every manufacturer. While many cars are very useful beyond 10 years, their value plummets while their maintenance costs climb. I narrowed the search to vehicles of 2004 and newer.
I started off defining the ‘life’ of each car as 20 years. If it was used, it only got credit for the remaining years. Now I played with this a bit, as I may not keep a vehicle quite that long. The spreadsheet averaged the cost of the vehicle over that many years, added in annual fuel consumption, and gave me a comparable per-year cost. This was the best I could come up with at the time, and satisfied my conscience. The vehicles with the lowest average cost per year (that got 36 mpg+ highway) were all brand-new! Only one used model competes, and it was rated at 29 mpg highway, an estimated $700 per year fuel difference.
While not all models made sense, I finally entertained the idea of buying a new vehicle. One cannot consider doing so, without worrying about depreciation. I had been told (and my research confirmed) that buying new makes sense, so long as you keep the vehicle longer than about 5 years. On some models, it was less/more. In the used market, value is based largely on the condition of the vehicle. If I take care of it, and keep it long enough, the depreciation is not an issue.
WHICH CAR? The lowest cost models (in order, according to my spreadsheet) were: Toyota Yaris, Ford Focus, Dodge Dart, & the Hyundai Elantra. Yes, many more were considered, all using MSRP pricing on fairly conservatively equipped models. Service was an issue for me, as I live 90 minutes from the nearest traffic signal, so dealers weren’t located very close. We have one Chevy dealer in the County, and the ‘Cruze’ didn’t make the cut.
If I went with Ford or Dodge, the dealer would be on the way to/from my children. Any other brand would be significantly further, in an opposing direction. I performed my due diligence, however, and drove to one of these cities, and tried on some of those models. However, if your 8 year old says the back seat is too small for them, it’s not likely to improve by the time they’re 18! This narrowed MY choice to the Ford Focus, or the Dodge Dart. After a copious amount of research, I test drove both.
2013 Dodge Dart: I drove the turbo-charged ‘Aero’ model. The 6-speed manual was unfamiliar for me, but it was a pleasure to drive. This wasn’t terribly realistic, as I wasn’t going to spend the money on the turbo-charged ANYthing, nor get all the bells and whistles it was equipped with. The fuel economy was fantastic, and I loved the customizable LCD display. However, the back seat had NO cup holders. I have kids. Unless we never consumed liquids in this vehicle, this was going to be a major problem. The financial incentives were lacking, as these are popular models. In short, a great car, but for me, with kids, I had my reservations.
2013 Ford Focus: Again, I drove a model slightly above my price range. It had the leather seats, sun roof, etc. but I made sure it had the same engine, manual transmission, and electronics of a model I would purchase. While quick to accelerate, it didn’t have the same torque of the turbo-charged Dart (nor should it). Still, I found it comfortable and fun to drive. The back seat had cup holders, room for the kids, plus the addition of a 12v power plug. After finding an appropriate model, I was able to get $3,000 in financial incentives, and financed the vehicle with no money down. – In retrospect, this made it the most cost-effective vehicle in my spreadsheet!
EXTRAS: I came prepared to turn down offers for gap insurance, extended warranties, and the like, but there was a couple of things I didn’t expect. First was the roadside assistance. One selling point of the Hyundai models was that (though the dealer was far away) they included roadside assistance in their warranty. Turns out, so does Ford! While this is something I get on my auto insurance, it would have made it easier knowing this before.
Secondly, they offered these protection packages which (amongst other qualities) will make the interior or exterior materials hydrophobic. While they had several demonstrations to show customers what this meant, I simply had a geek-gasm. For those not yet enlightened, see this youtube video. Granted, it’s not THAT good, but I did elect to have it done. It comes with a warranty & touch-up kit!
I am now the owner of a 2013 Ford Focus. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up article sometime, after I’ve gotten some miles out of it…
Thanks for reading!
I shouldn’t have to, but here’s my disclaimer. This post is my opinion and experience on researching the best value and selection FOR ME, at this time. Readers should not simply follow my choice, but do their OWN research, with their OWN needs, to best select the right vehicle for themselves. There, don’t blame me for anything