Coffee heat rising

Prius Batteries: Yikes!

A couple on the choir drives a Prius around town. They live on the west side—in Sun City West, which is quite a ways to the west—and so to get to the activities they enjoy in their retirement, they have to do a substantial amount of driving.

Yesterday evening at choir they reported that the Prius’s batteries died, to the tune of thirty-three hundred dollars! Yes. That’s $3,300 for new Prius batteries. The batteries were warranteed for five years, and our friends have had the car a few months longer than that.

Wow! That about made up my mind about the Prius. I don’t think these are wealthy folks—before they retired, she was a teacher and he a minister. From things she’s said, I gather they live frugally.

I sure couldn’t afford $3,300 to replace a car’s batteries, and I’ll bet it’s a stretch for them, too. At least they have two Social Security checks coming in…but they also have to buy food, clothing, and meds for two.

We’re told that, other than the batteries, the Prius is cheaper to maintain than a conventional gasoline-operated vehicle. Let’s think that through.

If it gets 40 mpg, it achieves approximately twice the mileage my Sienna does. I’m now paying about $110 a month for gas, or $1,320 a year. Because a Prius is a hybrid with a gasoline engine as well as the electrical component, the cost of routine maintenance is about the same. Some insurers will give Prius owners a little discount; others charge more—so we could call that a draw, too.

So, all told, if the mileage is twice as good as a fairly clunky gasoline-only vehicle, one would pay about $660/year for a modest amount of driving (I average about 10,000 miles a year).

Meanwhile, since few of us have $3,300 sitting around the house waiting to be spent on a new battery pack, the average frugalist suffering from a chronic aversion to debt would want to self-escrow enough to cover the cost when, after about five years, it comes up. How much would that come to? Well, $3,300 ÷ 5 years = $660 a year.

Yes. Exactly the gas savings engendered by owning a hybrid vehicle.

In other words, every penny the car saves you in gasoline will have to be set aside to pay for new batteries! Unless, of course, you buy into the idea that you should get a new car about every three years. Calculating that cost is more than my feeble brain can contemplate.

Image: 2004-2008 Toyota Prius. IFCAR. Public domain.

This post was featured in the April 27, 2011 Festival of Frugality at Consumer Boomer.

Want to buy that car? Don’t test-drive it!

Our friend Cary Lockwood, the automotive guru and local radio show personality, was chatting over the phone the other day when I happened to mention that I might soon be in the market for a new (or less old) car. He made a startling—and IMHO startlingly brilliant—suggestion: once you’ve narrowed choices down to two or three cars that you could be serious about buying, don’t test-drive them. Instead, rent them.

He pointed out that, in the first place, a ten-minute spin around the block and up the freeway is no way to determine whether the car fits your needs or to become familiar with its handling characteristics. And second, it’s hard to evaluate a vehicle with a salesman hanging over your shoulder pitching the thing. The test drive is one of several tools car sellers use to pressure you into buying. Even when you know this, most people easily succumb to the emotional appeal of a shiny new vehicle.

Cary observes that today’s vehicles are built to run, relatively trouble-free, for ten years or more, if you take care of them. The smart frugalist figures that the longer you can drive a car, the less it costs over the long run. I, for one, plan to drive a car for ten years or until it falls apart, whichever comes last. Because it’s a big investment and you’ll have to live with it for a long time, doesn’t it make sense to invest a few extra dollars and some time to be sure you’re making the right decision?

Rental costs for a Prius run around $40 a day—maybe less with a coupon or corporate account. The New York Times calls hybrid rental prices “excessive,” but it’s hard to assess the truth of this. Car rental companies play coy about pricing; I haven’t found one that will quote a price unless you sign up to reserve a vehicle. A survey of various sites suggests rental rates in general run  from around $38 to $150 a day. Forty or fifty bucks for an entire day of test-driving time looks reasonable when you intend to hang onto a vehicle for upwards of a decade.

Cary suggests that you take plenty of time to test the air-conditioning, the seating capacity and comfort, the gasoline mileage, and the car’s handling characteristics. You might even consider renting it for a three-day weekend, giving time to drive it under different conditions and maybe take it on the open road for a day trip. Here are a few things to check out:

How quickly and effectively does the air-conditioning cool the car?
If you have kids, does the interior accommodate your car seats? Don’t guess: install the car seats and observe how they fit and how difficult it is to get the car seat and the child in and out of the vehicle.
Does the trunk or storage area hold a week’s worth of groceries? How about your golf clubs or skis?
Can all the drivers in your family see the speedometer and other dials clearly when the driver’s seat is adjusted to fit them?
Get in and out of the drivers’ and the passengers’ seats several times. How easy (or difficult) is it to get in and out of the vehicle?
How responsive is the steering?
How well does the vehicle take curves?
Does the car accelerate fast enough to enter a freeway safely?
With the car moving at the legal speed limit, brake hard. Observe the time it takes to bring the car to a halt and the car’s performance during braking.
Make a U-turn. How large is the vehicle’s turning radius?
Find a bumpy stretch of road. How’s the comfort factor on a rough surface?
If you decide to drive the car out of town, how does the comfort in the driver’s and the passengers’ seats hold up over the long haul?
What, really, is the gasoline mileage?

While many of these tests can be done during a standard car dealer’s test drive, several require time and the absence of a pesky salesman. Renting the model you’d like to buy is a smart way to go.

Car upkeep!

Gawdlmighty! The 90,000-mile service on my aging Toyota Sienna is gunna cost $1,200!

It’s enough to make a strong woman faint. Well, luckily I knew about this and set the money aside. But that doesn’t make me any happier about having to sink 12 C-notes into a nine-year-old vehicle.

For the money, Chuck the Mechanic Par Excellence proposes to do the regular 90,000-mile service, change the timing belt, and replace the water pump, it being an opportune moment to do that—while the front end of the motor is off, anyway. I happen to know, too, that he’ll lubricate the squeaking steering wheel, probably for not much, and that he’ll check the brake pads, rotate the tires, and change all the hoses.

Suspecting that Chuck’s estimate was a little high, I called a couple of Toyota dealers. One proposed to charge me $350 for the basic 90,000 service; another wanted $300 for the same thing, claiming it was a “special” markdown from the usual price of $360. Uh huh. Then it’s another $300 for the water pump plus another $300 for three seals that may or may not need to be changed plus $65 for “outside belts.” Plus $335 for the timing belt. If I’m not mistaken, that would be $1,300 to $1,350, depending on which stalwart Toyota dealer one chooses to do business with.

Makes Chuck’s fee look like a bargain. And I know he’s not going to cheat me. Past experience suggests that is not always a given with automobile dealerships.

{sigh} So I made an appointment for a week from Friday.

Well, it’s a heckuva lot cheaper than buying a new car. Normally, I’d trade in a vehicle at ten years. But now that I’m about to be canned, with no hope (or desire…) of getting another job, this car is going to have to run until it falls apart. Chuck thinks it will easily get 150,000 miles, which should carry it another six years. And it could, in theory, run to 180,000 miles, or another nine years. Barring an accident, of course.

A crash that results in the insurance company totaling it (which right now would probably be a fender-bender) will leave me up the creek, since I do not and will not ever have enough cash to buy another car. Nor will I ever again have enough cash flow to make car payments. Every penny in savings, including the $18,000 I had set aside for the next vehicle, now will have to be rolled into the funds intended to support me in my dotage. If I can get this car to run ten more years, it will be the last car I’ll ever own.

Really, in ten years I’ll only be 74, and so I may still be competent to drive. What’s $18,000 now will likely be $36,000 then…hmmm…  With no steady job, I’d have to set aside $3,600 a year to collect enough extra money to buy a car in 2019. {snark!} Now there’s a realistic goal!

😆  😆  😆  😆  😆  😆  😆  😆  😆  😆

Oh well. Thirty-six hundred bucks would buy 180 twenty-dollar cab rides. That’s a trip to the grocery store about every two days.

Too bad we don’t have decent public transportation here. Thirty-six hundred bucks—just one  year of car savings—would buy 2,057 all-day bus or train tickets. That would be unlimited rides every single day for 5 years and 7 months! Alas, in these parts a single trip to the grocery store and home on the buses would consume a whole day. I could fill the entire remainder of my life with waiting at bus stops and then waiting for buses to get where I want to go.

Image: 2007-2009 Toyota Sienna, public domain

Buying a car? Watch out for rips

Speaking of the GM bankruptcy,  as individual dealerships crash and burn, some of them are taking customers with them. CBS MarketWatch reports that car dealers are failing to pay off loans on traded-in cars and often are not sending in payments for registration and taxes. This is usually not done with criminal intent but happens because the dealer’s creditors freeze its funds as its cash flow stops. Understandable, but it doesn’t change the fact that consumers are left holding the bag.

If you’re buying a car through a dealership, you need to be careful. A few things to consider:

• Don’t buy a car now unless you absolutely must. If the purchase is in any way optional, delay it until the chaos afflicting the industry settles out.

 If you still owe on your present car, sell it privately rather than trading it in. This will allow you to pay off the loan yourself. Also, private sales usually bring a better price than trade-ins.

 Try to get the dealer to let you send payments for the taxes, title, and registration yourself.

 Purchase only the most reliable vehicle brands, such as Honda and Toyota. There’s some question whether state lemon laws will apply after a dealer closes, making purchases of less reliable vehicles even riskier.

 Be aware that when a used car dealer buys new vehicles wholesale, the warranty starts running at the time the dealer buys the car, not at the time you buy it. Thus even though you’re the first owner, you’re still buying a “used” car without the full warranty.

If you’re buying used, consider spending a little extra to go through a private sale. This will at least assure that you can pay the taxes, registration, and title yourself.

What a pain! My Sienna is ten years old. I’d planned to trade it in this year, but with my job ending in December, obviously I can’t do that. I never pay for cars on time, but sure can’t afford to pay in cash now…or any time in the predictable future. As a practical matter, I may never be able to afford another car, certainly not new. My plan now is to drive the gas-guzzler for at least another five years; ten if it’ll last that long.

After that? Well…in five years, the light rail will come right past my neighborhood. Maybe I won’t need a car after this one gives up the ghost.

Copyright © 2009 Funny about Money 

SUV-mania persists

Gas was $3.57 a gallon at Costco yesterday afternoon, when I stopped by on the way home from work to pay our annual dues. Having heard during the morning commute that the average price is now $3.95, that sounded like a bargain, so I decided to top off the tank.

Lines were out to the street at every pump. Fifteen people were stacked up ahead of me, and I may have been the only person there who turned off the ignition while standing. Admittedly, it was a warm day and sitting in the car with no air conditioning was a little uncomfortable-far from unbearable, but not exactly brisk and cool. Most people let their engines idle, burning gas for the ten minutes or so it took to crawl up to a pump.

Directly in front of me was a brand-spanking-new, shiny Toyota Sequoia, dealer’s paper license still in the plate-holder. The thing is the size of a Sherman tank! Its 273-horsepower 4.7-liter V-8 must get all of ten gallons to the mile. Toyota must be giving the things away-surely the only reason anyone would buy such a behemoth would be a price tag somewhere near gratis. When it finally lumbered up to the pump, what should climb out of the passenger’s seat but a vast woman with Mma Ramotswe‘s “traditional build.” She must have weighed over 200 pounds…and her gentleman friend was proportionately well fed. Big car for big folks: the springs on a beast like that should hold up under their weight, anyway.

As I stood in line breathing exhaust fumes, I counted 10 SUVs and pickups and 5 regular passenger cars. Most of the SUVs were late models. None of the sedans were low-mileage vehicles.

Pickup trucks make some sense: they’re designed to carry cargo and most people who own them use them for exactly that. Being trucks, they ride like a truck, and so it’s unlikely that many folks choose to buy them for the around-town family ride. And I can understand how you would hang on to a gas guzzler despite high fuel prices-I sure can’t afford to trade in my 2000 Sienna yet. But to go out and buy a brand-new gigantic SUV that gets 13 to 19 miles a gallon, at a time when gas is headed north of $4.00 a gallon? Clearly, market forces are not discouraging Some People’s Kids from consuming large amounts of gas and pushing the prices up for the rest of us.

Less than a third of a tank cost me what a whole fill-up used to cost, just a few months ago.

IMHO, it’s time for some legislation, and not just in leading-edge California but nationwide. We need to do more than just “encourage” people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles by offering a few lagniappes such as small tax breaks and license plates that let you drive in the HOV lane. We need to make it against the law to sell a passenger vehicle that gets less than 30 miles per gallon. Period. Force manufacturers to take that junk off the market, and force used-car dealers to quit peddling the trade-ins.

And if you can’t fit into a Matrix or a Camry hybrid, folks, maybe it’s time to go on a diet.