Monday, April 03, 2006

$7,834 per year

AAA has found it's costing the average person an average of $7,834 annually to drive their car.

My car costs me about $3,300 per year, about 42% of the average. My commute is just about 35,000 miles per year, which 2.3 times farther than the 15,000 miles used by AAA. So, my per-mile cost is under a fifth of the average. Is there something wrong with my math? You decide.

Well, for one, there has never been a new car in my driveway. Purchase price is a significant fraction of the cost of operating a car. Some people buy a new car every five years, and make car payments the whole time. No payments for me. After five years, these cars have little resale value, perhaps 10% on the dollar. They still often have five years or more of service left in them, just without new car smell. If new car smell is what you want, you can buy it in spray can form cheaply.

My cars get reasonably good gas mileage. They aren't hybrids - these are used cars, after all. The old car was getting 37 Miles Per Gallon (MPG), and the new one is getting 42 MPG. What cars are these? Well, in both cases, the EPA rating is 32 MPG on the highway. My trick is to drive a little slower. How much? Drive 65 MPH rather than 70 MPH. For the new car, this saves me $500 every year, in gas alone. As a bonus, speeding tickets aren't issued for people driving slightly under the limit.

Used cars are cheaper to insure. There is no need to insure a car against theft if no one wants it, and your $500 deductible exceeds the retail value of the vehicle. Getting a car with air bags, and anti-lock breaks can reduce your liability insurance as well. Why? It's safer. Buying a safer car is a feature. Using your insurance carrier to help you buy a safe car is a good idea. Crumple zones work - just look at the insurance rates. Insurance rates, unlike statistics, don't lie.

While some car manufacturers have been saying that their new automatic transmissions are just as efficient as manual transmissions, no evidence of this has crossed my path. Efficiency means more power to the ground for a given engine, and more miles per unit fuel. Both are good. Further, there is ample evidence that manual transmissions last longer than automatic transmissions. So, it is no surprise that my last three vehicles have five speed manuals.

While some car manufacturers say that their new engines are 20% more efficient than older versions, the evidence is still that 4 cylinder engines are always more efficient than 6 or 8 cylinder engines. Smaller is more efficient. That's because cruising down the highway requires less than twenty horsepower (HP), and a 100 HP peak engine delivers twenty HP more efficiently than a 300 HP peak engine.

Many of the 4 bangers have more than enough power to get you where you need to go. For example, 135 HP is more than enough to tow a boat when the car has a 5 speed manual transmission, and the driver drives conservatively. My 1988 Mazda achieved 27 MPG towing a 1700 lb boat at 55 MPH over two tanks of gas on a trip. So it is that i'm not impressed with vehicles that get less than 27 MPG with less capability. The advantage of trailers is that you don't pay for the capability when you aren't using them. This same car routinely achieves 40 MPG on highway trips.

Perhaps none of this is for you. The really cheap way to live with old cars is to know how diagnose them. This isn't easy. It takes education, observation, and more education. Doing work yourself on cars can save two thirds of the costs, sometimes much more. For example, an engine overhaul might take 20 hours, and a $150 head kit (gaskets and such). The primary cost is time. If you count your time as zero (it's a hobby), then a $1,000 job costs $150. The hidden cost is that your garage is tied up with broken vehicles rather than with keeping your car frost free through Winter and dry in the Spring. I've paid for my garage already.

At some point, the car is just too worn out to be worth further effort. When is that? Certainly, it was long ago for my 18 year old 290,000 mile Mazda. Or is it? The cost to get it on the road again may be a few hundred dollars. That's perhaps one monthly car payment for my neighbors, and much less than getting a new one. The question is will the money buy enough time? The value of the vehicle to me is much higher than it is to anyone else. I know what's wrong with it, and what it can be depended on to perform.

Yet, at some point, there is no longer value in fixing the vehicle, even for me. What then? Donate the carcass to charity? The tax incentives are small, since the book value of the car is small. There is always dismantling it, part by part, and selling the parts on EBay.

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