Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What A Gas

In February, i was paying about $2.10 per gallon of gas, and now it's over $2.75, and that makes me pissed (it's a 30% hike in two months). Yet, i just entered the recent entries into my gas program, and discovered that my most recent three tanks of gas delivered over 43 miles per gallon (18 km/liter). What's my secret?

Start with an efficient car. My 2000 Saturn SL is a smallish 4 door sedan with a smallish 1.9 liter engine and a 5 speed manual transmission. I got it cheap because it had some damage, and over 140,000 miles (225,000 km), and my friend wanted to get rid of it. I fixed up the bumpers myself, and though they are now mostly attached with bailing wire, this job has survived two accidents already (neither was my fault - in fact, i parked the car out of the way so this sort of thing wouldn't happen). The bumpers held, and the plastic quarter panels bounced back with hardly a scratch.

Then, drive a little slower. Though the speed limit is 70 MPH (112 km/hr) in much of Michigan, it is perfectly legal to drive at 60 mph (100 km/hr). So this car, which has an EPA rating of 32 MPG (13.6 km/liter) highway, normally achieves over 40 MPG (17 km/liter). Going a little slower might be thought to cost me as much as 7 minutes in my daily commute, but with traffic jams, accidents and construction, it turns out to be hard to measure. It just doesn't matter.

Since i drive about 35,000 miles (56,000 km) a year, that would be 1,094 gallons (4,141 liters) of gas per year at 32 MPG (13.6 km/liter). But at 43 MPG (18km/liter) it's only 814 gallons (3,081 liters) - a savings of 281 gallons of gas. At yesterday's $2.799 per gallon, that would be a savings of $786.50. What would you do with an extra tax free $786.50? I'd buy a telescope.


DQK said...

I've been reading Steve's blog for a while, and thought it was about time I gave some hint that *somebody* is actually reading it (other than the NSA or the Illuminati, who read everyone).

I'm on the other end of driving from Steve, putting hardly any miles on my cars. I think we tell the insurance company we put 7-7.5k miles per year between the two vehicles, but it's probably somewhat less than that. My commute is 3.5 miles, and my wife's is 6 miles. That's a "big" increase; until last year, mine was .3 mile and my wife was a stay-at-home mom. We have many shopping choices within 3-4 miles. About the only trip of any substance we make is the occasional 100 mile trip to visit family.

As a result, we have a curious relationship with the price of gas and with mileage efficiency: it doesn't matter all that much to us. I gas up every 3-4 weeks. If I drove a big truck or a Hummer it wouldn't cost all that much more for me in absolute terms. Conversely, if I drove a Prius it wouldn't cost all that much less -- certainly not enough less to warrant the premium cost for such a small vehicle. And therein lies a major problem with most hybrids: anyone who puts in the miles to justify the extra cost (especially if they have to buy new) probably wants more vehicle than most hybrids present.

I need to buy a car this year. Mine works fine, but there's some rust that will likely make it un-inspectable in the fall. We probably won't look at "huge" vehicles, mostly because my wife wouldn't be comfortable driving something "too" big. Neither will we look at manual transmissions, for much the same reason, and the benefits to us in our driving situation aren't worth my pushing for it.

What's important to us is low purchase cost, good reliability (and low maintenance cost), and usefulness for what we want to do with it (mostly short running around, with an occasional 2-3 hour trip to visit family).

Sure, reducing fuel use is important, but for *me* it is more environmentally (and fiscally) sound to get an older vehicle that has plenty of use left for a non-demanding driver like me. Non-aggressive, non-speeding driving, as Steve has talked about, is important regardless, even ignoring the fuel economy benefits.

My preference would be for a mid-size SUV that somebody's getting rid of for cheap because they want something smaller. My wife (whose input is certainly important even though she'd be the secondary driver on the vehicle) would prefer something smaller, but still practical, like the PT Cruiser.

Stephen said...

In the 70's gas crisis, the big boat cars came way down in price on the used market, even for cars that were less than three years old. As gas prices go up, that should happen to some of the less efficient SUVs. Last year, I was seeing great deals on brand new light trucks. I could lease a Dakota for $100/month. I wouldn't do it, because the lease deal had a max of 15,000 miles, and the gas mileage would kill me. Neither of these is an issue for you.

My current car, the high mileage but quite young Saturn, seems to hit another interesting price point. The high mileage (30,000 miles/year) doesn't seem to have hurt it any. While this night not be true if it had an automatic transmission, it seems to be true for the manual transmission. My manual transmission Omni seemed to die of old age - but the engine and transmission were strong to the end. Old age symptoms were chronic electrical problems, small systems failures, and endless body problems. Old age was 11 years.

I hope to put at least 100,000 miles into the Saturn, at which point it may be only eight years old. If the engine dies at 250,000, the body may still be in good shape, and $400 may buy me a replacement engine (installation required) to give it another 150,000 miles. That's pretty cheap if the comfort level is still high.

I haven't tossed my 88' Mazda yet. A piston ring is leaking, and the fuel economy dropped from 37 to 32 MPG. I'm using it as a spare. I'd like to get it back up to 100%, as it really is a bigger, more comfortable car. But at 18 years old, it really is getting long in the tooth, and showing it.

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