Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Buying a car for commuting?

So here is a fairly common situation: You have a truck or SUV and suddenly find yourself deeply affected by the rise in gas prices… but there is little you can do. You simply may need the utility offered by your truck (you have 4 kids to take to soccer games on weekends, you tow a trailer, you’re on a first-name basis with the staff at the local Home Depot, etc.). You also have to drive to your regular job every day, which is usually done alone or with one carpool partner, but you only have the one vehicle.

You may even have been tempted enough by fuel prices to try to sell or trade-in your truck for something more efficient for your commute. But, you find that nobody is buying large trucks and the value has dropped to the point that you owe much more than it’s worth.

What about keeping your truck for the times you need it and buying something else… a dedicated car just for your commute? After all, you don’t need that big utility all of the time, do you?

I’m not talking about going out and buying a new car, I’m talking about taking advantage of the improved quality and reliability of the automotive fleet over the past decade and buying a used car. I aim to show that you can find a good used for less than the first-year of depreciation on a new Camry.

I decided to take a look online to find some recent sales which fit this criteria: A purchase price of less than $7,000 (approximately one fourth of the average purchase price of a new car), less than 100,000 miles (still a mental barrier for me), model year 2000 or newer (I like driving classic cars, but in this case let’s be pragmatic and look for a car with working air conditioning, a CD player, and modern safety equipment). I’m using eBay Motors here because it’s one of the only places to see what cars have actually sold for as opposed to dealer asking prices. As you can see, appliance cars are out there if you keep an open mind. Some of them are even fun to drive.

Some recent finds:

A 2002 Saturn Vue with 67k miles for $6,300: http://cgi.ebay.com/ebaymotors/Cars-Trucks___02-VUE-4-CLY-GAS-SAVER-5-SPD-BEAUTY-NO-RESERVE_W0QQitemZ290247241823QQddnZCarsQ20Q26Q20TrucksQQddiZ2282QQcmdZViewItem?hash=item290247241823&_trkparms=39%3A1|65%3A13&_trksid=p4506.c0.m245.l1318
Yeah, it’s an SUV, but it foregoes all-wheel drive and a thirsty V6 engine (who needs a lot of speed when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic anyway?). The manual transmission gives you a bit more oomph and it’s certainly large enough for kid hauling duty and occasional stops at the big-box store on the way home from work.

Red and sporty 2002 Saturn SC2 with 50k miles:

Leather, automatic, sunroof, plastic fantastic Saturn sports coupe for $5,100.

Ah, you see a trend here… cars that lack the premium brand names but still offer reliable service are great buys used. You’re looking for an appliance, here, not something to impress your neighbors like a shiny new BMW (or a Honda, for that matter). Frankly, late model cars are almost all good and, in fact, better than even the best cars of 20 years ago. They are reliable, inexpensive to operate, and if maintained properly, if they do break it’s most often something minor like a window motor or radio.

Here are some more thoughts:

Hyundai XG300… never heard of it? Well, most people haven’t. It was Hyundai’s first big car and offered a ton of features. Here’s one loaded with features, less than 75k miles, and it was sold by a dealer for less than $5,800. http://cgi.ebay.com/ebaymotors/Cars-Trucks___Beautiful-in-Black-Great-Cond-full-Warranty-6MO-7500Mi_W0QQitemZ330255279474QQddnZCarsQ20Q26Q20TrucksQQddiZ2282QQcmdZViewItem?hash=item330255279474&_trkparms=39%3A1|65%3A13&_trksid=p4506.c0.m245.l1308

Ford Focus… one of the most popular cars in Europe never really got the respect here in the States that it deserved, despite positive reviews from journalists. Here’s a loaded sedan, complete with leather and low miles for $4,500! Personally, I like the looks of the old Focuses (Foci?), especially the hatchbacks, better than the new model. Yeah, the new integrated iPod stuff is great, but based on my Windows Vista experience I really don’t want anything from Microsoft running my car.


If you like the Focus, for a few thousand more but still under my price cap, is this rare Focus SVT… the factory hot rod sure to make your commute a bit more lively:


Wow, $4,500 for a car with less than 30,000 miles on it. Kia Rio, just tint the windows and think how cheaply you’re driving!


A Passat Wagon with the lively and efficient 1.8T motor with 43k miles for $6,200… Hmmm, stop me now.


My point here is that there are a variety of great fuel-efficient used cars out there that can be had for less than ¼ the price of a new car. You’ll save on depreciation, save on gas, have a much lower insurance bill than you would on a new car (and might even realize a multi-car discount on the SUV you already have). Instead of taking a $6,000 charge to get out of your SUV, keep it and find a used commuter car instead. Happy shopping.