No longer among the carless
May 10, 2007

Somewhat ironically, a story was just posted on TreeHugger entitled '10 Reasons to Ditch the Car'. Why is this ironic? Because Jessi and I just bought a car after six months or so of car-free living. When I moved here from California, I brought my car with me. But it didn't take long for me to decide that I'd be better off without it. Both the apartment we were in before and now our condo are only blocks away from a T stop, we live within easy walking distance of all the necessities, and I haven't really felt compelled to spend all the money involved in getting a Massachusetts license, registering a car in Massachusetts, insuring a car in Massachusetts, paying for gas, and paying for parking. And for those few times when we needed to get somewhere the T couldn't take us, Zipcar has done a fantastic job of meeting our needs. But now, with Jessi's new job, our needs our changing and we're getting a car. Being me, I put quite a bit of thought and research into choosing the appropriate car. Really, there's only one important factor when it comes to choosing a car, and that is cost. Cost of purchase, cost of insurance, cost of fuel, cost of maintenance, and, of course, environmental cost. Happily enough, there's one easy way to minimize the purchase, insurance, and environmental costs involved in buying a car: buy used. Used cars obviously sell for less and are cheaper to insure (we're not talking about a collector's car here), what's less obvious is that they're also the more environmentally friendly route. For the most part, new cars don't get any better mileage than older ones did. In some cases they're even worse. Additionally, when you buy used you're not incurring the added environmental damages of the manufacturing process. Money-wise, with a used car you're not committing yourself to any sort of financing plan, and it will depreciate in value much more slowly, so you can always just put it on Craigslist and sell it again without throwing away most of the money you spent on it. So we're getting a used car. The issue of minimizing cost of fuel and maintenance is a little trickier. There are two ways to minimize fuel costs: get a more efficient car, or get a car that uses cheaper fuel. There aren't that many choices for fuels, it's pretty much gasoline or diesel. For a select few ethanol might be an option and I suppose compressed natural gas might work for some people as well, but in general that's it. Despite the bad rap that it seems to have, diesel is actually a very good choice. Diesel vehicles pretty much always get better mileage than their gasoline counterparts, and even an older diesel will get as good or better mileage than pretty much anything on the road today (other than hybrids, obviously). Some modern diesels get even better mileage than hybrids, though they aren't currently available in the US, and won't be until we start selling low sulfur diesel at the pumps (which should start later this year, I believe). Plus, diesel isn't particularly expensive (Usually $2.99 around here, while 87 octane gasoline is about $2.85. Although one place I saw right by our condo was actually selling diesel for less than gasoline.), and diesel prices are a little more stable than gas prices. Diesel really appears to be the way to go, especially in hopeful anticipation of the introduction of the modern diesel cars that the rest of the world already enjoy. As for maintenance, you either have to get a car that's cheap to repair (such as a Civic or something), or a car that won't have to be repaired very often. One good thing to note when dealing with reliability in cars is that all cars, even new ones, have the potential to be lemons and require a ton of repairs. In fact, new ones are probably more likely to have problems, because the old cars that are still around today are the ones that were well made and not prone to problems. Over the years, the cars that aren't so reliable are just going to get weeded out, so that the only used cars available to be bought are likely to be pretty sturdy. Of course this only applies to cars above a certain age as the weeding out process can take some time, and new cars will have warranties and lemon laws to protect you. So this one's a bit of a toss up. It really depends on your situation. But considering the low price of a used car, if you get one and it craps out on you, you can get another and still have paid less than on a new car. So, with all that in mind I picked a car with a low purchase price, good mileage, great dependability, and a touch of class: a 1983 Mercedes Benz 300sd turbo diesel. It was cheap (another car in the same price range was a '92 Accord), it gets 25-30 mpg, it's probably one of the most reliable cars ever made, and it's also an absolutely beautiful piece of machinery. It looks like it must have cost a fortune, and in 1983 it did at around $40,000. Adjusted for inflation, that's over $80,000 in 2007 dollars. It's currently still sitting in the driveway of the guy who sold it to us, because he was kind enough to let us leave it there while we're in Wales next week, but as soon as we've picked it up on the 21st and brought it home, you can be sure I'll be out there with my new camera. So there will be picture of it available soon.
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