By on June 27, 2017

Fourth-generation Volkswagen Golf, Image: Volkswagen

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?

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44 Comments on “Ask Jack: Dropping Five Grand on a Game of Golf?...”


  • avatar
    notapreppie

    I bet that Golf TDI will run forever*!

    * Forever being defined as “until it stops running” rather than the still theoretical 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10^31) year half-life of a proton.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      @notapreppie: “theoretical 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10^31) year half-life of a proton.”

      Wow, if a Lotus will last even half as long as the cars from it’s parent company, then I’m in!

  • avatar

    You may be able to run the golf for around 200 a month, or less if you wrench your self. I would have to check the spreadsheets but i think my Mk 3 cost me less then 150/ month 10 years ago.
    It is hard to make the 2 car argument completely on an economic basis.

    • 0 avatar
      DearS

      I will have to disagree. Although I factor in depreciation.

      Insurance: $50
      Gas: $100
      Repairs: $50
      Taxes+Plates+Emessions: $20
      So $220 not counting the cost of the car, which would probably add another $100 per month if he keeps it 50 months.

      • 0 avatar

        Gas was included in Jacks figuring. If you take out gas it works.
        But it does require wrenching.
        I used to have a Dakota as a third car.
        Paid 6500
        1200 in additional insurance (adding a 3rd car with liability only was $25 a month) for 4 years
        2400 in repairs and maintenance
        600 in property tax over 4 years
        200 in emissions and plates for 4 years here in CT
        Sold for $3500
        Monthly cost (less gas ) $154.16

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      I’m a pretty handy guy and keep my E36 M3 on the road with no dealer involvement. From a replacement of the entire cooling system, to brake rotors and pads, to various sensors, to basic maintenance.

      But it’s a part-time car that is stored in the winter. So if I don’t finish the job and have to order parts, oh well. It can wait till next weekend. As we speak I have a roof rack balanced on the top that I have no idea on how to put on, but will figure out

      For my daily driver? 2015 Accord Sport. Why? Because I don’t have time to work on a car when I need to get to work, and I’m certainly not going to work on it in the dead of January.

      Wrenching yourself as an option for very few people on a daily driver, especially a German car than is going to break frequently and at unpredictable times.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    IF you want an automatic, you need to go for a 2004-2006 as the pre DSG autos are not very reliable. Actually, if this is just your commuter car and nobody else is driving it, I’d suggest learn to drive manual as you’ll gain some noticeable fuel economy. Especially with the TDI.

    The fun to drive factor would be very similar between these cars. The performance factor would favour the Si, but that isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison with a Golf TDI. If you really want the performance, buy the TDI, spend $200 on a chip tune and get about 40HP and 70ft/LB more fun, plus better fuel economy.

    But I’m not biased or anything.

  • avatar
    kvndoom

    Dare I say it… 2010-2011 Kia soul. Reliable, hatchback, cheap to buy, cheap to own. No you won’t get 50MPG, but you won’t get bankrupt from repairs.

    Do a search… I found some really great examples around $6000 with 80k miles or less, but I’m sure deals can be made.

    • 0 avatar
      VW4motion

      Agreed there are some great prices on used Soul’s . But he’d have to be seen driving a Kia Soul. Crash tests are not that great on older Soul as well. Thought it was it in the Mazda5 safety category. To find something safe, reliable, and around $5000 is very hard to find. TDI golf is probably one of his best choices.

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      No, absolutely not. Since we’re talking about something that’s purely a commuter car, and OP doesn’t seem to be concerned about sitting upright, all the Soul brings to the table is bad aerodynamics, and a struggle to break 30mpg unless you drive like a geriatric who forgot the speed limits aren’t 55 anymore. I’d be more likely to give you the Forte, but even then, cheap ones still feel cheap and nasty, and aged Kias aren’t immune to issues.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      They are awful to drive. I’ve rented both generations. The 1st gen had bricks for a suspension, and the 2nd gen had steering so bad I returned it the same day.

      I like the Civic idea. The Fit can also be fun.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        In addition to the poor suspension tuning, the strut longevity leaves much to be desired. I did a PPI on a ’10 Soul with only 38k miles locally. Super clean car with a single elderly owner, the front struts were already getting noisy and I let the buyer know as such. Even then, they are indeed cheap to buy, cheap to run, and have proven to be quite reliable on the whole (powertrain/drivetrain wise).

  • avatar

    Rock legends and aughts Pop princesses agree…walk away.

    James Gang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUNI9pf8Q8g

    Kelly Clarkson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3553TFmkb4A

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    My best answer: ask for Work from Home.

    My automotive answer: late model Prius under 100K miles.

    cargurus.com/Cars/l-Used-2006-Toyota-Prius-c5252

    Sooner or later the VAG catches up with you in the old-old Golf, gas or TDI.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    Looking for a fun to drive reliable commuter that’s good on gas and can be purchased for $5k or less?

    Sounds like somebody needs an NA/NB Miata.

  • avatar
    brettc

    Don’t buy an old TDI unless you have a lot of time and/or money (see Jack’s article – https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/02/no-fixed-abode-gotta-rich-cheap-car/)

    For a TDI in that age range, you’ll be dealing with a potential timing belt job ($1000 or so), brakes, worn out suspension bushings, badly worn/disintegrating interior bits, etc. Then there’s the fun of doing an ALH intake cleaning so plan at least a half-day for that. In summary, don’t do it!

    • 0 avatar
      TCragg

      Listen to my brother! Here’s a guy who endured years of em-kay-eye-vee ownership; a Golf, two Jettas, manual and auto. At least the pre-2004 engines don’t need fancy oil. Any ol’ sludge in a 5-gallon pail will do.

      • 0 avatar
        brettc

        Yep, the 200k mile used Golf was a mistake. I should have just bought a 2011 wagon new and skipped the Golf. But we learn from our experiences so I’m edumacating others that think buying a used TDI is a smart idea. (it’s not).

        You still need to use synthetic CH rated oil unless you want to cook your turbo. No crazy 505 or 507 oil is required though, so that’s something.

        • 0 avatar
          TCragg

          Try finding Dexos 2 oil at your average auto parts joint. Now there’s some exotic oil for ya. GM is right up with VW in forcing owners to either buy their oil from the dealer, or resort to online shopping for an alternative. There are no spur-of-the-moment Sunday oil changes on a diesel Cruze, Colorado, or Canyon.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    You want to save money, get a Gen 1 Insight. Can be had for well under 5k and are very reliable. Enjoy an air conditioned 70 gas MPG with Honda reliability. They barley use tires or brakes and require only 3 quarts of oil for a change. It is possibly the cheapest way to go from point A to point B, giving me more free cash flow for racing and travel.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “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.”

    Or why there are ww4m ads on the site even though no one is foolish enough to post one even as a scam.

    Back to the subject at hand – Is GM doing cheap leases on Cruze diesels? If they’re not it wouldn’t surprise me if they soon were. You could get the diesel experience minus holding the bag on maintenance.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “Note that I made some pretty wacky assumptions.”

    I think you’re extremely pessimistic on the Ranger’s fuel economy. I have a 4×4 Sport supercab with the boat anchor 4.0 which is pretty much the heaviest Ranger they made here, and I get a consistent 18-20 mpg.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Agreed.

      I think real-world Ranger economy is closer to 20 and the Golf would be closer to 40, making it *twice* as efficient instead of *three times* as efficient.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I am struggling to see how purchasing a VAG product from the early 00’s with 150k or more is being considered as a way to save money. Especially when the comparison is to a Ford Ranger, which from my experience are anvil reliable, easy and cheap to fix with plentiful parts strewn around the country in pick n pull yards. Plus, the Ranger (mazda b4000) I had with MT and 4×4 got a reasonable 18 mpg or so.

    If the goal is boulevard cruiser that is comfortable in traffic, cheap and reasonably reliable and gets great MPG the OP should be looking for an estate sale Olds 98, Buick Century type of ride with a 3800 in it. Load up on window regulators and you are good to go.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    It’s been my observation that it’s pretty difficult to save money by buying something. Now, if it’s worn out and needs to be replaced anyway, get the high efficiency one.

    He says he needs AWD, so he wants to keep the Ranger, but does he need a truck as well? If not, sell the Ranger and buy a WRX.

  • avatar
    tommytipover

    I’d get another Accord, put sticky tires on it, and it will be more fun to drive than any oil-burner.

  • avatar
    deanst

    I think you have to take into consideration the fact that not driving the ranger extends its life. If the VW lasts for 5 years and saves $1000 per year in depreciation on the ranger, then the expense of buying the vw is covered by the extended life of the ranger. (Purely theoretical values – your mileage will vary!)

    Alternatively, I guess you could make a lot of assumptions and convert all the related costs (fixed and variable) into a $/ mile rate and see if adding another vehicle saves any money.

    Driving an older, more fuel efficient VW instead of a newer, less fuel efficient Ranger should theoretically be cheaper – before additional insurance and unpredictable repair costs. Having said all that, its a big bet to spend money today on the possibility of saving money in the future. One major repair and your fuel savings for the year will be wiped out.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick 2012

      Agree – cost alone isn’t a good reason to get a second car for high-mileage drivers. The ability to get something not practical and keep it from having space-shuttle odometer readings is.

  • avatar
    DanyloS

    If it’s a possibility (depending on seasonality, traffic, and personal/spouse/family approval) why not supplement the Ranger with a motorcycle.

    If it’s the right bike its a tool and a toy. Theoretically lower insurance and running costs. If you’re in California you have the ability to filter through traffic (aka split lanes). Plus they’re really fun to ride

    • 0 avatar
      mrwiizrd

      Fun? Definitely. Lower insurance? Probably.

      Lower running costs? Not in my experience. Maybe with a grom or a scooter without any riding gear and other peripherals. The cost of tires and regular maintenance alone on just about anything 250cc and above will exceed the running costs of the average econo box.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love commuting on my bikes, but it is not a cost effective method of transportation when all of the costs of ownership are totaled up.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        Quoted for truth.

        I just spent $525 on new tires for my CB1100. The first set lasted 9700 miles and for the last 2000 of those miles they were frankly dangerous in any kind of wet conditions.

        And those costs are for a retro bike on skinny, cheap tires. My ZX-14R is more expensive to keep in tires than a new 911 GT3.

        • 0 avatar
          DeadWeight

          You’re not a real enthusiast nor aficionado of the fastbike until you acquire and DD an EBR 1190RX.

          You can even buy the whole company at a low, low price from Liquid Asset Partners.

          • 0 avatar
            Jack Baruth

            You can get a new one at the moment for $9,995.

            The only reason I haven’t done it is my certainty that I wouldn’t be able to get it serviced.

  • avatar
    DearS

    Tons of great used cars for $5K, or $3K even $2K.

    Accord, Camry, Scion, Corolla, Civic, CRV, Rav4, Fit, Mazda3,6,5, Altima, Focus, A few manual VWs.
    Buicks, etc. Enjoy!

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    I was in a similar situation with a long commute and an inefficient car I didn’t want to let go of or put too many miles on a few years ago, so I asked this site for advice (not that I can figure out how to search this site and link to that story on mobile). I believe the majority of the comments were right, as they may be in your situation– once I priced insurance (as a man in my early thirties with a good driving record, married to a woman with a so-so driving record, in Florida), two cars would have been incredibly expensive. I’m not sure you can come out ahead or come close to breaking even.

    • 0 avatar
      Car Ramrod

      I found it: https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/10/new-used-kiss-yuppie-ass-edition/#more-1194754

      Spoiler alert: I leased a 3rd car, but I waited 2 years to do it because I drive fewer miles now.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    I’m English, and I like Hondas – in part because they’re made in Japan. I’ve driven English-made Hondas, but I certainly wouldn’t spend my own money on one.

  • avatar
    slance66

    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.

  • avatar
    Jeff Zekas

    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.

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