It’s hard to believe, but it has been 10 years since I bought a funny-looking car, the 2003 Prius. It was the first model, a tiny sedan. It looks nothing like the now-iconic 2004 Prius, which was introduced a few months later.
Our pre-iconic, subcompact Prius has 115,000 miles on it and is still a bright, un-dinged metallic green. It has covered that distance at about 43 miles per gallon. During the 10 years, it has needed only one expensive repair. It has been trouble-free year after year, and it has been happy wherever we’ve taken it, from aggressive Dallas traffic to long stretches of remote New Mexico roads. It has been a practical companion to the inevitable SUV that occupies the rest of our garage.
In a few weeks we will give it to our 16-year-old granddaughter. My wife and I hope she will be driving the car until she finishes college. Some of the 2003 Priuses advertised on AutoTrader.com give us hope that the car is good for the distance. As I write this, for instance, one is listed with 178,519 miles. Another has 153,072 miles, and still another has 140,229. So unless she gets into Dean Moriarty-like road trips, the odds are pretty good it will do the job.
What have we learned during the last 10 years? A bunch.
First, the worries many people had about the batteries that enable much of the fuel efficiency of hybrids were unjustified. Ours is still going strong. I’ve also met multiple owners who’ve never replaced the battery and have far more miles on their car than we have on ours. This is important. Early naysayers claimed that every dime saved in fuel would be spent on replacement batteries.
We’ve burned about 2,700 gallons of regular gasoline during those 10 years. A comparable size non-hybrid car would have burned about a thousand gallons more. So our fuel saving was about $3,300 and about 7.8 cents a mile. I also figure the car, which was $20,000 new, has lost about $13,500 in value. That would make depreciation about 12 cents a mile, or $1,350 a year.
Perhaps you can burn less gas and suffer less depreciation, but there are no obvious examples. According to AAA, for instance, the cost of gasoline for a typical small sedan is 14.5 cents a mile. AAA also figures the cost of depreciation at 15.2 cents a mile. The 10-cent lower cost per mile of the Prius implies a 10-year savings of $11,500 — not bad for driving a car that is quieter and smoother (because it has a continuous variable transmission) than most small cars.
I will leave to readers whether a Prius is a good car to “wear.” Driving a Prius can give you a deep sense of automotive inadequacy in the tonier areas of Dallas or Houston. My wife has worried about being crushed by a Ford F-250 while in the Tractor Supply parking lot. We’ve both happily balanced those awkward feelings with the ease of sliding into small parking spots throughout the known universe.
The good news today is that car buyers have a lot of choices if they want to drive a fuel-efficient car. Prius, improved and still iconic, faces a veritable armada of competition. A lot of it is made in the USA. The new Ford C-Max, for instance, is larger and more fun to drive than a Prius, and also less expensive, even if it doesn’t get the claimed 47 mpg. If you want to go lux, the $42,000 Lexus ES300h is a really nice way to get 40 mpg. Then again, a tricked-out Ford Fusion hybrid has the looks to get in the ring against the Lexus.
You can explore and compare all the possibilities of hybrid by visiting http://fueleconomy.gov. While comparing, you’ll probably notice that it’s pretty easy to find a high mpg conventional car. The diesel offerings are growing, too.
What did we buy to replace the 2003 Prius? A new Honda Fit, sport model. It doesn’t get the 40-plus mpg of a hybrid, but at $20,000 it cost about $10,000 less than most hybrids. It’s also fun to drive, has great visibility and very flexible seating and storage. We figure the $10,000 difference will buy a lot of gasoline.
SCOTT BURNS is a principal of Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc. Visit www.assetbuilder.com.
— Universal Uclick