You Can Buy a Lot of Gasoline...

By Bill Moore

Posted: 12 May 2011

"You can buy a lot of gas for the price of an electric car," people argue.

That's right, you can, especially if you're talking about the Volt or the Fisker Karma or the Tesla Roadster. But also you can buy a lot of gas for the difference between just about any new car, electric or otherwise, and a good old $999 "beater."

In case you aren't familiar with the term, a "beater" is battered old junker that is either the family's previous car, probably 15 years old or more and has at least 100,000 miles on it. Tens of millions of "beaters" sit on used car lots across America. They are the ones advertised at the "Cheaper Auto Sales" lot as $99 down and $99 a month, sometimes sold by the modern equivalent of a shyster horse trader, independent businessmen who pick them up for a song at the local auto auction because the big dealership don't want them. They clean them up, do some minor repairs, and try to sell them for more than they're worth.

They aren't pretty anymore. Their styling is no longer in fashion. The paint is faded, rust pits the fender wells. The interior smells of mildew. But they work… most of the time... and best of all, they're cheap.

So, the question is: Why don't we buy beaters when it comes time for another car? Think about how much gasoline you'll be able to buy with the savings?

Take our last car: a 1995 Honda Accord LX. It had just over 100,000 miles on it. We'd owned it and maintained it for nearly 15 years. I think we paid around $17,000 new at the time. In 2009, we decided to buy a salvaged 2009 Prius from Steve Woodruff at Auto Be, the one that, with the help of Kim Adelman at Plug In Conversions Corporation, we converted into a plug-in. We sold the Accord for $3,000 to a family who needed a better car. It was still in excellent shape and probably had another 100,000 miles on it, if you overlooked a few of its flaws.

Should we have kept it and run it until it simply wouldn't go any longer? If we had, we'd still have that $15,500 in our savings account, and think of all the gasoline we could have bought for that amount of money.

But that wasn't the point, was it? Cars are more than just machines to move our bodies and goods from A to B, aren't they? They are, whether right or wrong, an outward expression of who we believe we are and/or who we want others to think we are. At the same time, they have to reliably and affordably fulfill their key mission, run us about quickly, safely, reliably and -- hopefully -- efficiently. And our Honda did that acceptably, getting 30 mpg on the highway, though considerably less in the city. As my wife's work car, the Accord faithfully did the 11 mile round-trip every weekday, but at the cost of a fill-up every two weeks. By my calculation that's around 15-20 mpg. Frankly, not all that impressive, especially since our plug-in Prius conversation easily gets 3-to-4 times that number. Still, was it worth the price of a new (in our case salvaged) car?

My point here is that I think the argument that "you can buy a lot of gas for the price of an electric car" is specious. Sure, most of us comparison shop, trying to cut the best deal when we buy a replacement (not necessarily new) vehicle. We can certainly come up with lots of reasons to justify it: the repairs are getting to be more than the monthly loan/lease payment, being one of my personal favorites; or it'll be nice to have a car that's under warranty and that I can trust. Still, my point is, unless your car -- like the one I helped by daughter buy when she was working her way through college -- simply wasn't worth repairing and we ended up literally selling it for scrap -- just "gives" up the ghost and goes to that great salvage yard in the sky, it will always be cheaper to own than a new one, electric or not. A new 2011 Honda Accord LX lists starting at just over $21,000, a difference of $18,000 over what we sold our 95' model for. That's a lot of gasoline, even at $4 a gallon: 4,500 gallons, to be exact. That's enough to drive another 135,000 miles at 30 mpg.

So, before you ask me are electric cars -- and by that I include any car with electric assist: hybrids, plug-ins, battery only -- worth their price, ask yourself first is any new(er) car worth the difference between the one siting outside your home and the one out there on some dealers lot? Chances are you can buy an awful lot of gasoline for the difference.

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