One of the great things about the environmental movement is that it provides cover for those of us who are, shall we say, prudent about spending money. You can probably guess where I’m going here. Now, when I tell my wife that, no, we don’t really need to turn on the AC even though it’s 78 degrees outside, or when I urge my daughter to spend just a little less time in the shower, or when I cringe at the way we waste food in our home, I am no longer a skinflint or cheapskate. Seizing the moral high ground, I am now the guardian of our family’s carbon footprint.
Unfortunately, there are times when my intention to be “green” and to be frugal come into conflict–which brings us to my new car.
I’m not into cars, to say the least. I have been perfectly happy with my 1994 Volvo 850, bought used, now with a speedometer reading of about 146,000 miles. The last new car I bought was a Toyota Camry back in the mid-1980s. If everyone were like me, Detroit would have gone down the tubes years ago.
But as the costs of repairing the aging Volvo rose, and the dirt in those hard-to-get-to places was, well, hard to get to, I reluctantly decided that the time had come to replace it. But what to buy? I didn’t want to put a lot of time into car shopping, but I wanted to buy a car that I could feel good about owning and driving. I decided to treat myself to a new car, even though I’m pretty sure that it would be preferable from an economic and environmental standpoint to go with another used car.
So I did a little research and quickly narrowed the field to a handful of models—the Honda Civic (hybrid and conventional), the Honda Fit, the Toyota Prius, the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus. I don’t need a lot of car (obviously), which was another reason to let go of the Volvo. I work at home, drive less than 6,000 miles a year, and rarely go farther than the local airports. I’m driving less than ever these days because I recently bought a saddlebag for my bicycle, which I’m now using for the short trips (3 miles each way) to our local coffee shop, bakery, even the supermarket to pick up a few things. (Our kids are grown and my wife has a small Acura sedan we take on the occasional family trip.) So I was looking for a safe, reliable, cheap, environmentally-friendly car.
I signed up for Consumer Reports online, looked over its ratings and crossed the Ford Focus off my list. All things being equal, I would have liked to buy an American car but Consumer Reports says the Focus (a nice looking car, imho) has “handling that is less crisp than before,” is “still noisy,” and the “interior quality is lackluster.” I also gave up on the Toyotas—the Prius because they are ubiquitous and I didn’t want to drive what everyone else seems to be driving (it seems as if all the new cars at Adat Shalom, my synagogue, are Priuses) and the Corolla because, well, there was just nothing about the car that appealed to me. (I don’t claim that this is a rational process.) I also noticed that Toyota also slipped to third, behind Honda and Subaru, last year in Consumer Reports’ annual car reliability survey.
That left the Honda Fit, the Honda Civic and the Civic Hybrid—the car that I really wanted to buy. I test drove all three at a local dealer, liked them all, and then went home to do some math and see whether it made economic sense for me to buy a hybrid.
The numbers surprised me. For purposes of comparison, I looked at the Honda Civix LX 2dr coupe with an MSRP of $16,760 (includes AC, full power accessories, keyless entry, cruise control) and the four-door Hybrid with an MSRP of $22,600 (which includes all of the above features, as best I can tell.) I did a bunch of calculations on my own to see whether it was worth spending $5,840 more for the hybrid engine, and then discovered that Honda is kind enough to put a “savings calculator” on its website. EPA rates the standard Civic at 36 mpg highway/25 mpg city, the Hybrid Civic at 45 mpg highway/40 mpg city. I assumed that I would drive 20 miles a day (which is more than I do) and pay $5 a gallon for gas (which may sound high but I’m looking into the future here).
Honda says my fuel savings would be $1,013 in five years, or $202 a year. That means it would take, oh, about 28.9 years to pay back the extra cost of the hybrid. Yikes! You can quarrel with my calculation—I didn’t take the present-value of money into account, obviously—but not my conclusion.
I couldn’t see spending the extra money for the hybrid. Does this make me less of an environmentalist and more of a cheapskate? I’m afraid it does, but so be it.
I ended up buying the Honda Fit. MSRP is $13,950. EPA mileage is 28 city/ 35 hiway. Consumer Reports gave it a good score and talked about its “impressive interior room and versatility.” Car and Driver put the Fit on its 10 best list. (The Prius and Civic didn’t make it.) Edmunds called the Fit “a triumph of creativity, and proof that desirable cars don’t have to be expensive.”
Besides all that, I really like the way the seats on the car flip up, down and around—it’ll be really easy for me to take my bike places, without messing about with the rack. That cinched the deal.
So why am I sharing this experience with you?
For better or worse, I think my car-buying demonstrates that even “conscious consumers” can’t be counted on to put environmental or social issues at the top of list when buying stuff. I’m ordinarily quite careful about what I buy and from whom, in an effort to support companies that I admire. I wear Timberland boots, sit in a Herman Miller chair, brush my teeth with Tom’s of Maine, run in Nike shorts, drink Starbucks, stay at Marriotts, etc. But my support for better companies and my desire to have a lighter environmental footprint wasn’t enough to get me to spend thousands of dollars more than I need to for a cleaner, greener hybrid car.
Given that I’m more careful about my consumer choices than most Americans, I don’t think we can wait for consumers to drive us closer to a sustainable economy. Companies are likely to lead the way. And (we can hope) governments. What’s needed are companies that offer more good choices (and fewer bad ones), in cars and everything else, and government rules that incent them to do so, with higher CAFÉ standards, greenhouse gas regulation, research to promote alternative fuels and the like.