A few years out of college I had my mind made up that I would buy an SUV. Not that I needed an SUV, as I had smooth-paved roads where I lived, plus I didn’t need any hauling capacity. I just thought SUVs were cool. Let’s explore a little about why small cars are better than big ones.
Back in the mid-90s, gas was pretty cheap, cheaper than today even. If I remember right, a gallon of regular was just under $1.50. Climate change was just starting to become a headline, but it wasn’t front-page. So what’s a young, single professional male to do, but to make a financially-destructive decision and finance a brand new Jeep Cherokee or Ford F-150?
The fanciest car I’ve owned since getting my license is a Subaru Outback. And that’s the car my wife drives. I’ve owned compact cars and kept them for at least 10 years.
My current ride is a Honda Fit subcompact that gets over 35 miles per gallon in city driving and can haul a washing machine without a problem. The insurance, fuel, and repair costs are quite low. The savings from avoiding fancy, costly vehicles go towards purchasing new rental properties and paying off the mortgage.
Driving around anymore you get the sense we’ve been invaded by a legion of pickup trucks that have no future in hauling any cargo other than groceries or widescreen TVs. I have to wonder what goes into the decision-making process of our fellow consumers. Having made my share of bone-headed purchases over the years, I have a few thoughts:
Why Average Joe Buys a Truck (or SUV)
- Bad Reason: “I’m finally making some good money. I want to reward myself with a REAL Tonka truck!” Just be prepared to stay in debt for a while. The payments, fuel, and depreciation on trucks might keep you home when friends are planning trips to Cancun, or later, planning for early retirement.
- Good Reason: “I own a landscaping (or other haul-worthy) business and I need to haul my mowers, trimmers, and rakes to my job sites.” The problem is about 5% or less of the pickups I see on Minnesota roads are hauling anything in the bed, much less anything on the hitch (less than 1% of the time.)
- Bad Reason: “It’s cool.” I guess the commercials make these rigs look bad-a$$, with all the off-road terrain hard-driving in slow motion while Bob Seger sings some old 70s song. But in reality, your pick-up truck is stuck on the freeway with the rest of us in rush hour traffic. In truth, no one besides you cares about your truck. And you’re likely driving alongside, behind, and in front of other pickups, which makes you feel less than special, like the commercial had seduced you to feel. Buyer’s remorse – beware…
- Good Reason: “I have a trailer to pull, man!” I get this. You do need something with the power to haul a boat or big camper around. Just make sure you’ve got no debts and you’re a good steward of the environment. That chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island is about to break off in Antarctica. It’s on.
- Bad Reason: “They’re safer.” No, they’re not. Check your statistics. Trucks and SUVs give a false sense of confidence in bad driving conditions. That’s why you see as many 4-wheel drive vehicles in the ditch as you do sedans and compacts during a blizzard. The keys to road safety are this: Limit driving at night, live close to work, get snow tires (more important than 4-wheel drive), and walk/bike more.
Why Are Big Luxury Cars More Expensive?
Sadly, our marketing-driven society considers a personal vehicle an extension of one’s image. If you’re “making it” you better be driving a Lexus or BMW. This is probably the most obvious example of hedonic adaptation (alongside the next most obvious example: that overstuffed 4,000-square-foot McMansion.)
When you park your Lexus in the driveway, garage, or parking lot, imagine it for what it is: a heavy pile of moving parts and toxic compounds that’s costing you thousands of dollars and several months and years of your life; directly – because you could have walked or biked; and indirectly because the payments have you tied to that cubicle.
My father-in-law recently traded in his convertible Mercedes S Class Coupe for a much more practical Nissan. Why? The tires are much softer on a fancy coupe and need to be replaced twice as often as typical workaday cars. And because it’s a Mercedes, those new tires run well over a grand.
Do you need an oil change? Or a new battery? Maintenance items that typically cost reasonable amounts for, say, a Honda Fit are often double or triple the cost for a luxury car. My father-in-law loved his sweet little ride in retirement, but the bills outweighed the thrills.
And let’s not forget, many luxury performance vehicles REQUIRE high octane fuel at the pump. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Here’s Why Small Cars Are Better
What makes a little car so great? After all, they look ridiculous! Let’s face it: You can’t get a date driving around in a Smart Car. Well, maybe, but dating aside, small cars can do more and offer more than most people think.
In Europe, families of four or more cram into Fiats and haul mini-campers on their multi-week vacations. Small cars are generally cheaper to maintain, fuel, and insure. They hold their value longer.
Beyond pure economics, little bitty cars are easier to park. I love pulling into the ramp at work and getting to slip into what would be an impossible parking space for any other car. That saves me time. And also, because the car is small (and cheap), I worry less about door dings.
Parallel parking? It’s a breeze. Need more room in your garage? Check.
Got a mountain adventure lined up? We rented a Toyota Yaris on a visit to Colorado a few years back. That little car had zero issues getting up and down mountain passes. The rental car company tried to sell us an unnecessary SUV upgrade, but the Yaris did just fine.
It’s a heck of a lot easier to downshift on your way down a mountain pass in a small car than it is in a fifty-ton war wagon SUV. Big cars and trucks will barrel down a mountain road with bat-out-of-hell momentum behind it.
Small Vehicles Are Better for Planet Earth
Ultimately, we need to be smarter about what we drive and how we get from Point A to Point B. Maybe that means limiting how often we fly to far-flung destinations, or simply limiting how often we drive to the mall to buy things we don’t need, things that required spent-fuel to get to the shelf.
I have a hard time believing there’s some hidden agenda behind climate-change science. If pollution isn’t a real danger or threat, then we should just keep on burning up oil and pretending the party won’t end. In reality, climate change is an inconvenient truth, and future generations are going to pay the piper for our indifference.
So on that happy note, reconsider your mode of transport. Make sure your car or truck is practical for what you need so that you can feel good about your choices in later years. Your kids and grandkids will thank you for it.
Please share in the comments below. I especially want to know what’s to love about a pickup truck anyhow?
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