Fuel for Thought

The Search for My First Car
by Sarah Loftus -- March 11th, 2014

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the breeze feels like freedom as I cruise down Morreene Road on my way to campus- these are the times when I’m overwhelmingly grateful for being able to bike to campus year-round here in Durham. A bicycle allows independence from public transit schedules, has numerous environmental benefits over driving, and (unless you count what I pay for the Calories in my groceries) the fuel it burns is totally free. Duke offers incentives for bicycle commuters, too.

The parking’s free and the spots don’t matter.

However, as I move to Beaufort this May I will be needing a car for the occasional trips to Durham and back, and for food shopping in a town with no public transportation system. Which means I need to buy my first car.

My Needs and Wants

For years I thought my first car would be a used hybrid. But can I put my money where my thoughts are? Does it make sense both environmentally and economically?

I won’t be driving more than 7,000 miles per year, probably split between highways and suburban streets. Hybrid cars conserve gas best under stop-and-go conditions by stopping the engine from idling, but my travels probably won’t be under these conditions most of the time. If I assume an average fuel efficiency of 40 mpg for a hybrid and 25 mpg for a gasoline-only car, a gas cost of $3.50 per gallon, an annual mileage of 7000, and an extra $5000 cost for a hybrid, it would take me almost 14 years to make up the extra cost in gas savings.

That’s a simplified estimate and does not include other savings, such as break pads lasting longer in a hybrid because of regenerative braking, but nonetheless it shows that a hybrid probably does not make economic sense for my driving situation. You can also use the DOE’s Hybrid calculator to estimate a payback period based on your driving habits and a particular hybrid model.

That said, there is still an environmental benefit in terms of reduced emissions, though reports about the negative environmental consequences of hybrid car batteries are also something I took into consideration. However, battery recycling is improving as demand increases, and companies are also planning initiatives such as reusing the batteries as storage units for solar or wind power. Additionally, a used hybrid will most likely have a better warranty than another used car because all hybrid batteries have an 8 year/100,000 mile warranty, which would still be in effect for the cars I’d be looking at.

The Search Begins

So far I have been on a whirlwind adventure (read: staring at a laptop screen for hours and hours) researching car reviews, tips on searching for used cars, and increasing my general knowledge about the buying process. It was good bonding time for edmunds.com and I.

Let’s say I still want a hybrid even if it will cost more in the long run. The Prius is the best-selling hybrid, meaning there will be more used options, and it has one of the best fuel efficiencies. Otherwise, based on what I’ve read I’d look at sedans like the Honda Civic or Accord, MAZDA3, or Hyundai Elantra.

The next step is to find out what is actually available. I consulted Edmund’s extensive used car inventory, Raleigh’s CarMax inventory, DukeList, and Craigslist. Alas, I found no Priuses (fun fact: the plural is really Prii) that met both my budget and the good condition I was looking for, but I did find an overwhelming number of used Honda Civics on the market.

There are many car dealerships in the area which helps with options, and means that there are a fair amount of 2010-2011 certified pre-owned vehicles available. Although certified cars cost more, the added comfort of a well-inspected car with an additional warranty is appealing to me- which is why I’ll be taking a trip to a Honda dealership in Raleigh in the near future. I also found some goods deals from private parties I’ve contacted, and although this would require more work with getting the car inspected, the savings may be worth it.

My next steps are test driving, insurance, and some visits to the DMV. The hybrid looks like it won’t work out this time, but I’ll still be able to bike to the Marine Lab on days without torrential downpours once I’m in Beaufort. Down the road, I hope to live somewhere where biking and public transportation are the norm, but a hybrid is still on my list for the next time I need to search for a car.

2 Comments

  1. Munir
    Mar 11, 2014

    Hi Sarah,
    You’ve been giving a lot of thought in buying a car! Very happy to read you.
    Usually in May, graduating students sell their cars at much cheaper price than what one would expect otherwise; and also, graduating students with families are very reliable.
    But in this case, you”ll have to wait a bit, and do some talking with your seniors and other people.
    Anyhow, I wish you good luck!

  2. Nicole Stanley
    Apr 8, 2014

    Good luck finding an owner that will let you take their car to your mechanic and taking off the wheels and putting it on the lift and good luck finding a car that will pass all those tests.Definitely a car buying takes hard work, time and dedication.Just make sure it runs smooth and has no rust or body damage and that you find it for the right price and you’re set.

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