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Not From Toronto
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January 27, 2003

Vehicular Mathematics and Ponderings

Some day I'm going to go through the Not From Toronto archives and count the number of times I negatively comment on the SUV I drive. The number has been rising steadily, and will increase again before this article is finished. Long-time readers are likely well aware of my feelings toward my truck, and will be glad to know that I have done some thinking and number crunching recently, and have determined that the pathetic mileage the beast in our driveway delivers will actually help me get out of it quicker.

I had somewhat of an epiphany this past week while filling the truck up (yet again) with gas. With prices hovering in the low-to-mid 70-cent range, a typical fill can easily run me $50. For some reason, it only now occurred to me that I fill the truck just about every week, sometimes more. If I assume that I fill up once a week - call it four times a month - that's $200 in gasoline in one month. Holy exploding dinosaurs, Batman! That's a lot of dough! In five months I spend as much on gas as the recumbent bicycle I want costs brand new. Ouch.

At first, I was stunned, and even appalled. Luckily, my brain isn't defeated so easily, and I started thinking some more. What happens if I manage to get into a vehicle that is more fuel-efficient? (Not very hard, let me tell you.) The potential savings from less gasoline purchases could be put towards a higher monthly vehicle payment - perhaps enough to get me into a lease on a new vehicle? Oooh! Now there was a tantalizing thought. I desperately had to crunch some numbers.

First, I required a baseline. I know what the monthly payment on the SUV is, so now all I need to do is nail down the cost of gasoline on a monthly basis to get a total monthly dollar amount. (I could have included insurance costs as well, but the difference from vehicle to vehicle is probably negligible in this case, and would also save me a lot of time and effort. I'm curious but lazy - so sue me.) In this regard, the NRCan EnerGuide website was extremely helpful. It has vehicle data back to 1995 for all makes and models, and even provides a handy calculator to determine how much money you're spending on gas and how much carbon dioxide emissions your vehicle is producing on an annual basis, based on how far you drive in a year and the ratio of city to highway driving.

I drive quite a lot each year - about 30000 km, way above the 19000 km average - and quite a bit of that in the city. Thereby, I put my baseline (to compare all vehicles with) at 30000 km annually and a 60/40 city/highway split. To my absolute horror, EnerGuide reports that my truck guzzles down an astonishing 15.6L/100km in city driving. Even in highway driving it still slurps down 11.6L/100km. For those of you who are metrically challenged, the conversion I use is that L/100km times miles per gallon equals 284. That translates the cryptic metric mileage figures to 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway. I nearly shat myself.

Plugging those distressing figures into the Energuide calculator, I learned that I'm churning out close to 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, and paying nearly $3000 in fuel annually. That translates to an embarrassing $250 a month - a car payment unto itself. After getting over the queasy feeling of knowing the actual mileage our truck delivers, I realized that on one level, this is actually a good thing. This is the one time in my life where living with a petroleum-chugging brute will actually work in my favour: any vehicle with an even average fuel economy rating will be enough to provide a substantial monthly savings in fuel costs, and thereby allow me to afford to get a newer, better vehicle that is more efficient to boot. Cool.

My current favourite to replace our octane hog is the new, popular, and downright snazzy Toyota Matrix. Although it won't have the cargo capacity that our SUV does, it's a surprisingly roomy vehicle, and will be able to swallow our family just fine. Even better, it is listed at the top of its class (midsize vehicles) in the 2003 Vehicle EnerGuide for fuel efficiency. Believe it or not, it gets almost exactly double the mileage than what I'm able to wring out of our truck right now. So, a rather easy calculation tells me that if I move into a Matrix, I'll have an extra $125 every month to spend on it if need be. That handily puts the already reasonably priced Matrix well into reach.

As gleeful as I was at having performed such advanced mathematics, it really only gave me a broad overview of the opportunities presenting themselves to me. Getting a more fuel-efficient vehicle would provide fuel cost savings. Getting a new vehicle could incur larger vehicle payments. It would be a magical stroke of coincidence if one equaled the other, so I wondered which vehicles could actually provide a net savings - vehicle and fuel costs together - and which could only provide better efficiency, but at a higher cost? In true egghead fashion, I whipped up a spreadsheet to tell me. Having decided on the feature set that any vehicle I'd want needed (auto - for the wife - air, and CD) I started poking around the websites of auto manufacturers to see what kind of a lease price I could get for their vehicles. For the sake of true open-mindedness, I chose both new and used vehicles, and an oddball assortment of vehicle types. What I found was pretty amazing.

First, it is possible for me to get into a new vehicle and save money - big money, at that. As I write, Hyundai has some phenomenal lease rates available, which puts just about any vehicle they make into reach, with total cost savings every month. Although Hyundai got a bad reputation in the 1980s with their Pony for being pretty much biodegradable, the Accent my wife had a couple years back really changed my mind about them. I'd have no trouble getting a Hyundai. Other vehicles I chose - including my much-beloved Matrix - could provide an overall monthly cost savings over our SUV, substantial to modest. However, not all vehicles are able to do that.

Some new vehicles are just too expensive, and don't provide enough fuel savings to offset the difference. This could change drastically if one were to shop around for various lease rates, of course. For the purposes of this exercise I just took whatever lease rate was presented to me at the manufacturer's website. Of course, the rate varied from an all-time low of under 3% all the way up to just under 8%. This difference alone can make a $90 difference in your monthly lease rate. If I could find a bank or other lending (or leasing) institution that could give me better rates than what the automakers are giving, even more savings (or more vehicle) could be had. This is especially true for the Matrix, which is currently showing a 7.95% lease rate - kinda high. Drop that down to even 6% and I could knock off a significant amount on the lease payment. (Were I to hold my nose and drive a domestic product I could likely get a huge rebate and 0% financing, but I don't see that happening.)

Used vehicles were the big surprise. I'm a fan of buying used, simply because of the huge devaluation that new vehicles go through in their first year. Why should I pay a 30% premium just for the pleasure of driving the first 20000km? Naturally, I selected a few used vehicles that I would enjoy living with and included them into my spreadsheet. What I discovered is that used vehicles have one huge disadvantage - generally, you can't lease them. What this means is that I've had to assume a 36-month financing period (depending on the age of the vehicle, this is usually as much time as some banks will let you get away with) for used vehicles. Of course, when you're comparing this against a 48-month lease, the payments are going to be much higher. Even comparing the same new vehicle's finance payments versus its lease payments, a difference of $100 or more is not uncommon I find - and that's a 60 month financing term. Crank that down to 36 months, and suddenly you're making BMW-sized payments on your Toyota. Sadly, it looks like I won't be looking at used vehicles this time around. Strange, isn't it, that it's become cheaper to get (lease) a new vehicle than it is to get (buy) a used one? Curiouser and curiouser.

So, what did I learn? I learned that once I'm financially stable enough to please a financial institution of some sort, I'm turfing the oil-slurping beast with something new and efficient. I also learned that anybody budgeting for a vehicle needs to include fuel costs into their budget, especially if they're thinking about getting a light truck. The EnerGuide will be quite helpful in this respect. I also realized how few options there are for fuel-efficient vehicles that can carry a decent number of people. Although I'm no fan of the minivan, I recognize that there will likely be a time in my life where the ability to carry more than four people (child, teen, or adult) comfortably will be necessary. Unfortunately, only minivans truly have this capability, but the entire segment lacks any outstanding fuel-economizing leader. Yes, the EnerGuide lists the Chevy Venture (and its mechanical cousins, the Montana and Silhouette) as the leaders in minivan fuel economy, but I consider "good" fuel economy to start around 30 mpg, or about 8 L/100km. That might be a lot to ask from a minivan, but with hybrid technology now proven and on the market, I see no reason why a minivan can't or shouldn't at least try. You listening, Big Three?

All in all, this was a fun exercise. Alas, the near-future prospect of a new, efficient vehicle is going to be offset by the immediate guilt and knowledge of how much dinosaur juice I have to feed my vehicle on a weekly basis. In the end, however, managing to somehow afford to pay for its voracious appetite has simply proven my pecuniary ability to get something better. It's an ugly means to a much better end, and I won't be able celebrate until somebody else is holding the keys.



One Year And Still Complaining

To create the Not From Toronto Archives, I had to paw through each and every Not From Toronto article ever published. In doing so, I discovered that this week (specifically January 31st) will mark one full year of Not From Toronto being a weekly part of I honestly never thought that I had so much to complain about.


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