It’s the triumphant return of Ask Jack, the question-and-answer series that has proven to be significantly less popular than Ask Bark. Today’s question comes from several commenters on the Malibu LTZ Review, and it can be summed up like this:
If you’re only driving 500 miles or so during the weekend, why would you rent a car instead of taking your Accord/911/Boxster/Neon/Tahoe/Fiesta/motorcycles/bicycles/Uber/Southwest/Car2G?
I’m glad you asked. Really, I am. ‘Cause otherwise, today’s column would have been a long snd slightly sorrowful re-telling of a time I accidentally let my S5 roll downhill into a concrete parking block because I had both of my hands between some young mother’s legs in the passenger seat and my foot slipped off the brake when I leaned all the way over towards her.
It’s probably safe to say that I’ve driven at least 30,000 miles in each of the past seven or eight years. From 2010 to 2012, my work-day commute alone was 90 miles a day. This past week I’ve driven just over 3,300 miles and that, sad to say, is not entirely out of character for me.
No surprise, therefore, that I’ve thought long and hard about what it actually costs to drive a car. I’ve given special and particular thought to what it costs to drive my Accord. Here’s my back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Depreciation: From the purchase cost of $29,500 to the estimated value of $5,000 with 150,000 miles: 16 cents a mile.
Servicing: $100 every 6,000 miles, $500 every 30,000 miles, $1,000 for 90,000 miles, up to 150,000 miles: Approximately five cents a mile.
Break-fix: Based on what I’ve read and conversations with other Honda owners, I’m estimating $5,000 in unscheduled maintenance over the course of 150,000 miles. Three cents a mile.
Tires, brake pads: It eats $1,000 worth of tires every 45,000 miles, minimum, and $500 of brake pads. Four cents a mile.
I don’t calculate fuel because the Accord uses fuel at the rate of most four-cylinder rental cars so it all evens out. Put it all together and it adds up to about 30 cents a mile. (I’m using “about” a lot because I’m not approaching this with any significant digits’ worth of precision.) It follows, therefore, that any time I can rent a car for what amounts to 30 cents a mile, it’s worth doing. Take the 500-mile Pittsburgh trip: if I can get a car for under $150, it’s worth doing. Since my cost to rent that Malibu was $52.71, it was definitely justified on that basis alone.
But wait, there’s more. In the above calculations, I’m neglecting a few things. The first thing is that Mile 1 and Mile 149,999 on the Accord are not actually of equal value. Mile 1 on the Accord is stress-free and it’s chock-full of aromatic plastics and new-car enjoyment. Mile 149,999 is done in an old car that could break down without warning and stick me with a bill for anything from an accessory drive belt to a new engine block. Therefore, I want to delay the arrival of that final mile as long as possible, and preferably until I’m completely done with my prole-ass 60-month payment plan. (Sorry, TTAC, I only buy motorcycles and Porsches with cash. Dave Ramsey would have some harsh words for me.)
There’s also the element of risk. If I back my rental car into something … well, that’s why I have a platinum Amex, because they cover it. If I back my Accord into something, I’m either making an insurance claim or writing a check. Probably both. Traveling to the Detroit Auto Show, with a guarantee of rocks, salt, mud, sub-freezing startups, and long idling? I’ll spring for the rental, thanks. Taking a long road trip to New York and letting the valets of a half-dozen hotels have their way with the car? Enterprise it is.
Naturally, there are some drawbacks, both real and perceived, to this strategy. Using a rental for a trip means making sure that everything from your sunglasses to your phone charger makes it into the rental and back out at the end of said trip. There’s a minor but not insignificant additional risk that comes when you operate an unfamiliar car in challenging conditions, while fatigued, or at night. In my experience, cops tend to pay closer attention to rental cars — and so do carjackers, if you’re in certain places.
Last but not least, there’s the fact that I simply like my stick-shift, six-cylinder, leather-lined, modest-subwoofer-equipped Accord Coupe considerably more than the average Malibu or Altima or Focus. The difference in satisfaction between driving something that chirps in third and doesn’t bear any visible interior signs of tobacco or spilled food is not something that I can easily or entirely discount. It’s my car. I like driving my own car. That’s why I bought that car.
The way I justify it to myself is that I save the best miles for the Accord: the evenings with my son, trips to the Hocking Hills, dinners out with friends. I also save the worst miles for my Accord: morning commutes where I just want to zone out and listen to the stereo and not worry about whether I have the power to zip up to the next open spot in traffic or whether my rental du jour was delivered with enough tread depth to handle a surprise Ohio thunderstorm.
So there you have it. I rent cars for trips because it’s cheaper than driving my own car, it saves expensive wear on my car, and it allows me to save my car’s best miles for the times that truly matter to me. Of course, some or maybe all of those excuses could also be used to justify having a mistress in addition to a wife. Which brings me right back to that story about rubbing the Audi’s nose on a parking block — and I’ll save that for the next installation of Ask Jack, in which we answer the question, “What’s more dangerous: dating the wife of a combat-trained Marine sniper or dating the wife of a psychotic six foot four, 280-pound firefighter?”