Ask Jack: Dropping Five Grand on a Game of Golf?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

It’s called “optimism bias”, and for a while it fell into the realm of what people like to call “settled science.” Supposedly, humans are “hard-wired” to be more optimistic in any given situation than a realistic appraisal of the circumstances would justify.

This is why people buy lottery tickets, which are statistically equivalent to toilet paper. It’s why I continue to ride a BMX bike at skateparks even though I’m far more likely to endure yet another painful injury than I am to perform anything like a respectable stunt. It’s why people respond to “casual encounters — w4m” ads on Craiglist even though forty-nine out of fifty ads are utterly fraudulent attempts to steal anything from your wallet to your personal data to your kidneys.

But wait, there’s more. A new study suggests that optimism bias is more an artifact of bad experiment design than a reflection of actual human predisposition. Who’s right and who is wrong? I’m optimistic that we will eventually know the truth. In the meantime, let’s consider a question that verges on the outrageously hopeful…

Jacob writes:

I currently have a 2008 Honda Accord coupe (my wife’s vehicle) and a 2008 Ford Ranger and, though I like the Ranger (and use the four-wheel drive enough that selling it is not an option), I need something a little more driver friendly and fuel efficient to drive to work. I am currently considering a 2000-2003 Golf TDI manual but would be open to other suggestions. My budget allows for up to $5,000 and, like stated above, fuel efficiency is priority but I also want it to be reliable. So what is your advice? Do I go Golfing or is there a better option?

Let me start by saying that I am always inherently suspicious of multiple-car solutions to a single-car question, and that goes double when the reasons given for that multiple-car strategy are economic or fuel-related. I’ll show you why with some very simple math.

Let’s say we have a commute that racks up 20,000 miles annually, which is well above the national average. Now let’s imagine two cars. There’s a Ford Ranger that gets 15 mpg under those conditions, and a Golf TDI that gets… oh, hell, let’s shoot for the moon and say that it gets 45 mpg. So that’s…

20,000/15 = 1,333 gallons x $3/gal fuel = $4,000 a year in fuel costs if we stick with the Ranger.

Or we can go with the Golf…

20,000/45 = 444 gallons x $3/gal diesel = $1,333 a year.

Note that I made some pretty wacky assumptions. I assumed that gasoline will be $3 a gallon in the near future, which isn’t the case anywhere outside the major metro areas, and I assumed that diesel will cost the same as gasoline, which it does not. If we use current fuel costs, the savings drops from the $2,667 a year above to about $1,950 a year. But we’re going to continue with the idea that you can save a grand total of $222.25 a month on fuel if you pick a Golf TDI over the Ranger.

I don’t think that $222.25 is enough money to cover the monthly expense of purchasing, insuring, and maintaining a second car. The Golfs I found in that price range have between 150,000 and 210,000 miles on them. Even if we assume the engine is a sealed perpetual motion device that will never require service, it’s bolted into a MkIV Golf, which means that there will be costs and they will be substantial.

No matter how I fuss these numbers, I can’t see any way that you really save money by driving a Golf TDI to work. Mathematically, I see it as betting five grand up front on the idea that the fuel savings will rack up faster than the maintenance expenses. That’s a bad bet.

However, Jacob mentions the idea of wanting something more “driver friendly”, so I’m going to latch onto that second part. The fuel savings are a red herring. They don’t make sense. Let’s look at the idea of spending five grand for something that would be more fun and less taxing on the daily commute.

The 2002-2003 Honda Civic Si hatchback is far more amusing to drive than a Golf TDI, is cheaper to run, and will more readily find a buyer when he’s ready to let it go. Four grand should find him a decent one and he can throw a thousand bucks at fixing the problems it will eventually have. The fuel savings won’t be quite as good but the car itself will be much better. And while the purchase of any old hatchback is a fundamentally optimistic act, the odds usually work out better when there is an “H” on the grille. Even if the dammed thing is built in the UK. What made Honda think that people would pay big money for an odd-shaped little hatch assembled across the wrong ocean? Talk about misplaced optimism. Maybe that “settled science” is right after all, huh?

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

More by Jack Baruth

Join the conversation
2 of 44 comments
  • Slance66 Slance66 on Jun 28, 2017

    I too hate the two car solution. So would propose selling the Ranger, taking the $5k and getting a car that does what is needed in all phases. Perhaps a Subaru. Insurance costs would be a benefit as well, and OP might not have an old third car parked on his lawn. There's a reason CUVs are taking over. They are the Swiss Army knife of vehicles. Never the best mpg, or space, or handling, but generally acceptable in every area, with the fewest weaknesses.

  • Jeff Zekas Jeff Zekas on Jul 01, 2017

    Jack: perfect. Same calculations work using a Prius instead of a Diesel Golf. Tho the Toyo doesn't have all the maintenance of VW, the cheapest (at auction) is $7K for low mileage, useable vehicles. By the time you break even, you have gone insane from driving a mediocre, hateful little shitbox.

  • Carson D Honda and Toyota still make the best American cars.
  • Slavuta I just though, with this rate we could make Cinco De Mayo a national holiday as well. Since we have tens of millions of American Mexicans, and probably more than African Americans
  • Wjtinfwb Well, it LOOKS pretty great for 36 years old and 356k miles! I've seen plenty of 2 decade newer trucks that looked like a shrapnel bomb went off inside and and exterior that looked worse. This owner got everything out of that truck it had. Time to let it retire to the farm.
  • Wjtinfwb Stellantis. They've gone from Hero to Zero in 24 months with some really stupid decisions and allowing politicians to influence their business. They also hung onto old products way too long and relied on RAM and Jeep to pull them through. RAM plays in the most competitive market of all, full-size trucks and competition is brutal with Ford and GM keeping their foot to the floor on development and improvement. Chrysler now has one model, a 5 year old van. Dodge made a living off old cars with stupendous power, that's gone with the mothballing of the Hemi. The Hornet is an overpriced joke. Now they have new Durango Pursuit's self-destruction because of a plastic oil cooler that self destructs and dumps oil into the coolant lunching the engine. Grand Cherokee, a staple of Jeep has not been well received and has limited power options due to canning the Hemi. Now they've got to build interest around the Hurricane turbo in-line 6 in trucks, Charger's and Jeeps. If that engine turns out to be problematic its likely lights out in Sterling Heights.
  • Ajla Tim, any chance when you "pop on" you can have someone look into why comments under your authored posts don't allow any formatting, links, or editing?