The Real Cost of Driving
By Lawrence Henry
Published 5/12/2006 12:07:48 AM

So gas prices zoom up to, and sometimes past, $3.00 a gallon, and here I am driving a 1992 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. I do mostly short-leg poke-around suburban driving, and the car gets about 15 mpg. (It gets 23-25 mpg on the highway.) You might imagine I'd be shopping for an economy car to cut my weekly bill at the gas pump. Au contraire, mon frere. I am exactly where I thought I would be when I bought the car two years ago, even anticipating expensive gasoline.

Saving money.

As well, driving a car that I love. Wonderful comfy leather seats, a fabulous stereo system, luxurious wood trim, lots of backseat room for my rambunctious boys and my big fool dog, wonderful heating and a/c, a trunk that holds three golf bags on a semi-permanent basis throughout the summer with room left over for groceries, a 4.9 liter V-8 engine, a solid comfortable ride -- all for a purchase price of $4,300. Front wheel drive makes the big sedan surprisingly nimble and handles the heavy local snow just fine. No need for collision insurance, and when -- not if -- somebody clips me in a grocery store parking lot, I just shrug and drive away.

The most expensive part of driving is buying the car, I reasoned when I bought the Caddie. Get a good car for a low price with fairly low mileage, and all other costs would be accommodated in that low initial outlay. I've owned the car two years now. Let's see how the numbers have worked out. More important, let's work out the total cost of driving so as to make an accurate comparison with a modern economy car -- a new Toyota Prius.
FOR THE SAKE OF COMPARISON, I have included purchase price, non-ordinary maintenance (all cars require oil changes), and gasoline. I could, in good conscience, have cut out one of my major series of repairs, the three grand or more to replace my car's steering rack. That all started when I cratered the front end in one of our local cavernous springtime potholes. Any car could have an accident, I might argue. But I'm being generous. I'll include that in the total for the Caddie.

Similarly, I'll assume that nothing breaks on the Prius.

Let's start with gasoline and assume that it has cost $3.00 a gallon for the past two years. I have driven 20,000 miles. Assuming a 15 mpg rate for all that driving (worst case), I have spent $4,000 on gas. We'll be generous and give the Prius 45 mpg, which also makes the comparison easy. For gas, the Prius costs one-third of $4,000, or $1333.

According to Automotive.com, a new Prius costs $21,725, plus any of dozens of various "packages" costing up to $6,890. Drop a "package" number in the middle, at $3,500, and you get a purchase price of $25,225. Ah, but then comes the dealer premium. Priuses and other hybrids are hot-selling cars these days. According to Consumer Reports, dealers charge anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 just for the privilege of buying the darn thing. So call it $27,225.

The Caddie, to repeat, cost me $4,300 with 80,000 miles on it. Let's add $500 to that for the new tires I had to buy right away. $4,800.

NOW FOR MAINTENANCE. OLD CARS NEED FIXING. Can't get away from that. From my records, here's what I've spent, in reverse order date order:

10/05 Tires 322.50

9/05 Diagnosis 47.35

8/05 Steering rack, coolant pipe 2819.57

5/05 Struts 636.66

4/05 Alignment 81.63

4/05 New tire, repair 107.50

11/04 Idle speed control motor, water pump 463.90

11/03 Door handle 275.52

8/05 Battery 193.07

7/04 Catalytic converter 362.46

7/04 Tire rotation 75.00

TOTAL $5,385.16

Total cost for two years of driving the Cadillac, $4,300 + $500 + $4,000 + $5,385.16, or $14,185. Cost per mile, 70 cents. Total cost for two years of the Prius, $27,225 + $1,333, or $28,558. Cost per mile, $1.42.

THAT COMPARISON HOLDS TRUE AS WELL for other kinds of cars than tenderly cared for old Cadillacs, if that doesn't happen to be your taste. Consumer Affairs tested six popular hybrids against their all-gas counterparts to find out how long it would take to recover the hybrid price premium. The magazine's comparison found that

...None of the six hybrids tested recovered its price premium in the first five years and 75,000 miles of ownership. In fact, the extra ownership costs over five years for those vehicles ranged from $3,700 to $13,300.

After factoring in federal tax credits and fuel savings that are based on gas prices rising to $3 and then to $4 a gallon, CR's calculations show that the most cost-effective hybrids, the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius, still cost $3,700 and $5,250 more than their all-gas peers (the Civic EX sedan and Corolla LE sedan, respectively) after five years.

There's good news and bad news for consumers in comparisons like this. The good news, we can now see how to drive cheaper. The bad news, regulators won't like these numbers. Look for legislation in the not-too-distant future to "get old gas guzzlers off the road."

Me, I figure to drive the Sedan de Ville another two or three years, then buy the Cadillac just then coming into the $4,000 range, the wonderful mid-nineties Eldorado. I hope I don't have to hurry.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

Ellie