Hammer Time: You Deserve a Break Today

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Evening time. Time for conversations, drinks, jokes and . . . spreadsheets? Apparently so. I’ve caught this nasty computerized bug lately. The symptoms are harder to shake than swine flu and almost as appealing. It’s figuring out my ‘cost to own’ for a variety of cars. The goal: get my cost down to 10 cents a mile. Three hours and too much wine later, I wondered. “Can it really happen in this world of $3 gas?” With purchase price, insurance, gas, opportunity cost, maintenance, repairs, and government fees aplenty, not to mention a junker selling price with inflation to boot, I wasn’t quite sure. In fact my head was spinning. The final answer?

Yes, possible. If your name is Chuck Goolsbee. This lucky and ingenious IT guy (and TTAC contributor) has access to a gas that’s cheaper than gas. It’s artery refined, cheaply acquired biodiesel. Decades endorsed yet continually on the fringe: Grease.

Some states require that consumers get some type of licensing to refine it. And, yes, your local McDonald’s or Chopstix owner may scoff at your offer to free him of his oily waste since, considering that you’re about the twenty-seventh person to ask him. But that’s part of the fun! Beating the system, bribing strangers, and leaving the taxman in the dust. Chuck’s fuel costs are around 3 to 4 cents a mile these days thanks to his engineering penury. Quite impressive. That’s thousands of dollars better than even my Insight over the long-run.

But what if you’re not the fringe? Most folks are mechanically declined and could care less about their cars as anything less than commuter fodder. Forget about 40 acres and a biodiesel spewing mule for these drivers. They want a Toyota and a radio. They have three options: hybrids, gas sippers or reliable clunkers.

Hybrids are the ‘dead horse’ of automotive frugality. The right wing nutjobs think these things are pseudo-environmental basket cases of smug righteousness. The left wing see them as an exact opposite of a modern day neo-conservative. Smart, frugal, reliable and low maintenance. The truth is that it’s several technologies rolled into one broad label. And it’s not political. Just another choice in the marketplace.

Non-enthusiasts could care less about the wizardry, so I’ll just get to the bottom line. They cost more to buy and, unless gas shoots to the $4 mark throughout the 2010s, they will usually cost more to own than a conventional gas sipper.

On the other side of the engineering scale is the depreciated econocar. Most of them are simple. Many are under-engineered or built to a price tag. For $2000 you may be able to find a 2000-ish Cavalier that can indeed hit north of 30 mpg for a long time or even an Escort with about 120k on the odometer. Parts are cheap. Oil changes can be had as a $10 Pep Boys special. Plus if you go for one with small 13″ wheels you can . . . wait. These all come in 14’s. However, you can also find plenty of 1990s Proteges, Mirages, Tercels, Sentras, and Civics that come with the skinny wheels.

What’s the best? In a perfect world, I would say a 1995 Honda Civic VX owned by an eccentric uncle who rarely drove it. In the modern world I would opt for any model that has been conservatively driven and well-maintained. I find plenty of older folks with Saturns in Florida. I hate them. But a person in search of a Corolla may find it a perfect fit. All things being equal, with Toyonda price premiums, my choice would be a 5-speed Protege with the 1.5-liter engine. But if I had to tolerate 250 commutes in any of these tin boxes, I’d probably move to the city and walk or buy a diesel. I enjoy the fringe.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Brettc Brettc on Jul 10, 2009

    I have a 2003 Jetta TDI that I bought new when I was commuting 110 miles per day. Back in 2003, diesel was cheap, so the car didn't cost much to run. I filled it up about once a week back then. Now, I live 4 miles from my job, but still have the Jetta. Lately I have been driving enough miles per pay period to pay for a full tank of diesel every 2 weeks. However, I only fill up once a month now even with the work mileage. So in my opinion, the way to have a cheap cost per mile is to drive an efficient car, and get paid mileage at your job. Works out pretty well. :)

  • Rodster205 Rodster205 on Jul 13, 2009

    How about 40,000 miles in two years for a total cost of $1,400, not including tags, gas, or oil changes? At an average 32mpg? I purchased a filthy 2002 Saturn SL2 w/manual tranny w/138k miles two years ago from a co-worker for $400. I've replaced 4 tires($350), the seats ($70 @DIY yard), water pump ($35), clutch & slave cyl ($350), engine mount ($40), brake pads ($40), radiator ($100), and a few other odds and ends, and done it all myself. It has power everything, sunroof, cruise, etc. I have the original window sticker and it was rated at 27/38 mpg. Even now with 180K miles showing it returns 30 city/35 hwy mpg with the A/C on and driving it fairly spirited. It burns a quart of oil every 1000 miles but doesn't smoke or leak, Saturns are known for that though. I bought it so cheap because the owner was going to trade it on a Fit and that's what the Honda dealer offered for it. Most people would have avoided this car because it was filthy and was going to need work done that would be expensive if done in a shop. Because I'm a self-taught shade tree mechanic and willing to invest some elbow grease I was comfortable taking a chance on what has turned out to be a great little car with lots of miles left in it and has not left me stranded once. It cleaned up very well although it took many hours to do it. I could probably sell it right now for $2,000, but will probably drive it until it dies and then get a junkyard engine, rebuild it myself, and drive it more. There are bargains like these out there to be had if you are willing to take a chance on them and have learned the basics of auto maintenance.

  • Lorenzo 1 million barrels is 42 million gallons. The country uses 368 million gallons a DAY. The reserve was set aside after Hurricane Sandy caused a gasoline shortage for emergency vehicles. The hurricane season starts on June 1 and is predicted to be active. Nice going.
  • Chuck Norton Toolguy- I have. It's hard on the knees...
  • EBFlex Welp the corpse is at it again. They think they can buy votes by selling off from the SPR. The best thing they could do to get votes is close the border and start deporting people. That would guarantee them a win in November. As of right now though, they are not doing that and Trump is rising in the polls every day.
  • Jalop1991 What is this "dealer" thing Ford speaks of?
  • Picard234 So this release amounts to 2.7 hours of gasoline consumption in the US. You won't even see a penny. The administration is draining the reserves for political optics, nothing more.