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 Big 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 workhorse 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.
Big Cars vs Small Cars: Which Is Best for the Planet?
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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Sadly, too many Americans are ego-driven. While there are GOOD reasons to own a larger vehicle, beside those you already mentioned, is that a larger person (6 feet +) and disabled individuals, the rest of the population would do well by following your advice!
abandoned cubicle says
Great points, SJB! There certainly are good reasons to own “big” that include accessibility. Too bad that more often than not, you see brand new monster trucks rolling down the street with average sized drivers and no intent to haul anything but a massive ego.
Full Time Finance says
I think your missing a very reasonable reason to own a larger vehicle. If you have a larger family they simply don’t fit into a small car. I currently have a Mazda 3, and my 2 kids car seats just barely fit. If my family goes anywhere together its a real challenge. Most of my family members have bought big haulking vehicles as a result, including one grandparent. I have a vehicle that’s just large enough to fit my family, but if I had 3 kids I’d need something much larger.
abandoned cubicle says
Well, I was pretty clear about the utility of “hauling” which includes kids. Smart money says you’re hauling a larger family in a used mini-van, rather than a decked out Tahoe.
Full Time Finance says
What’s the fundamental difference between a used minivan and a used SUV? Personally well be buying an SUV if we upscale our family. Not because of something silly like looks however. Simply put we prefer manual shift cars. Minivans don’t have stick. I guess what I’m saying is be careful when making assumptions on others why.
abandoned cubicle says
No assumptions here – just be mindful of the utility and impacts your choices have on your wallet and on your community.
Brilliant reply abandoned…well said…
Gentleman of Leisure says
I’m a member of the small car crowd, when my Ranger was totaled, I replaced it with a Ford Focus. Then I added a hitch, and a trailer, and suddenly I had plenty of room for bikes, and camping gear. I’ve also used it to haul appliances for my rentals. The best part is that I can leave it at the house when its not needed, I don’t have to drive it everywhere like my old truck.
abandoned cubicle says
Crazy how that works, isn’t it?? We own a small hatchback that could haul a new refrigerator if we needed it to. For our rentals, it’s likewise just as easy to throw a table saw in the back along with all sorts of tools and materials. You don’t need the big rig.
Ken Ashe says
Good points, but you missed one big benefit to owning an SUV. Snow!
I live in the North East, and having a 4 wheel drive vehicle in the Winter is great for me and family. We also own a small car, but it’s nice to have a large car for stormy winter days.
abandoned cubicle says
Can’t go wrong with snow tires though – four wheel drive won’t stop any vehicle from sliding into a lamp pole.
Steve from Arkansas says
The right vehicle is very individual. If somebody wants to drive a Hummer because they just want to I would never judge them. If it makes you feel good to drive a go kart then have at it. You can’t begin to guess the entire carbon footprint someone creates just by looking at their vehicle. Not to mention who made any of us the environmental police when they are making perfectly legal choices?
abandoned cubicle says
Agree. You just don’t want to kick yourself later, when you feel trapped by a poor financial decision.
Since when has America become SO selfish? We weren’t like this always- this “me first” entitled attitude has ruined our great nation. not immigrants, not china, ourselves. America, when united, looking out for each other, being kind and generous with each other, has always been at its greatest, that shining city. but when its like, “well i’m a responsible adult earning (money), i pay my bills, the rest of the money is mine to do with what i want” — what a poor and un-Christian attitude. i find that attitude MOST prevalent in the so-called Bible belt states! Very sad indeed when we trade compassion, humility and sharing for “Me first”, greed and selfishness. Great post by the way!
Thanks, Andrew. Appreciate your thoughts. I tend to agree with you by and large, but I’d suggest that the attitude you refer to is very prevalent outside of the Bible Belt as well. Not necessarily I think what Steve was intending to convey, but I could be interpreting his comments wrong myself.
I thought my not judging others for what kind of car they drove was guite Biblical. I also never said I drove a big car. I just don’t think America has ever been about imposing our own particular values on our neighbors as long as they did not infringe on our rights. We are about a free marketplace of ideas where we persuade others to see a more enlightened view. Anyway apologies for coming across as someone is selfish. I often am but I didn’t recognize it this time.
Hey Steve. Great point. (see, I’m an equal opportunity butt kiss!) 😉
You’re right about imposing. Though we often like to pick and choose what gets imposed upon us (taxes – no way, but yes to paying for military. conscription – no way, but yes to college deferments. regulations? no way, but please government save us from wall street banks and greedy corporations.) I could go on, but what’s the point?
You’re not selfish, and I do appreciate your opinions and views. I admit though, that I get fired up when I see a shiny and clean F-150 with zero payload blowing through Saudi oil while I consider a future for my kids where Coastal America is submerged by melted ice caps.
4. Good Reason: “I have a trailer to pull, man!”
ANSWER RENT a Truck for $20 a day plus mileage! Then return the 4 wheeled planet pulling monster to the owner. and the IV tube of the gas pump it needs. 🙂
Quality post here.
Smart tip, Scott! I love the visual image of the IV tube – a fitting analogy.
Oh, boy I’m on a commenting roll here. Can’t seem to stop this smile on my face that stems from the fact that there seems to be another family in the Twin Cities who thinks just as we do.
Can’t seem to figure out what climate change deniers have as a “motive” for people believing in the said change, apart from the intrinsic destructive nature of the change.
We were out on a trip last week. Had a compact car booked. When we reached the car rental office at midnight after our plane landed, the only vehicle they had was a truck. A big ass GMC Canyon! I was mortified. Must have shown in my eyes. The guy looked at me and rather patronizing said, “It’s a free upgrade”. I told him, “Give me anything but a truck!” We had plans on driving around 500 miles in the vehicle. That was literally the last vehicle on their lot. Needless to say, I didn’t have a great 4 days driving around.