That new car or truck you’ve been eyeballing for the last month or so has a price tag above and beyond the sticker in the window, and we’re not talking about taxes, licenses and fees.
We are talking about fuel consumption and routine maintenance like oil changes, tuneups, and new tires. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) now has a handy online vehicle cost calculator allowing car, truck and SUV owners to make those comparisons to determine which is the most eco-friendly car in their price range. That is, vehicles whose environmental footprint is smaller, lighter and healthier (in terms of particulate emissions) than those of their counterparts.
You can not only compare two new vehicles, you can also compare a new vehicle and an older vehicle, or even two older vehicles – if, for example, you’re trying to decide whether you should drive the Subaru or the Volvo to work.
The comparisons are always enlightening. For example, who didn’t suspect that the full-sized Honda Accord (4 cylinder, 2.4 liter, 5-speed) isn’t all that thrifty, compared to a similarly sized Volkswagen Jetta? But did you know that you are killing the planet when you drive a Kia Rondo station wagon, whose best fuel efficiency is on the highway and only reaches 27 miles per gallon – the lowest in its class except for the Honda mentioned above?
The calculator is also handy if you’re trying to decide whether to trade your old, but still quite serviceable, vehicle in for a newer and presumably more fuel-efficient vehicle, and these results can also surprise.
For instance, comparing a 1996 Saturn station wagon with a brand new Subaru Outback wagon shows that the Saturn – a gem when it was first manufactured – remains at the top of its class in fuel efficiency even today, costing $0.04 per mile less to drive and delivering almost 1,000 pounds less per year of CO2 (carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most implicated in global warming) than the Subaru.
The calculator also offers potential car buyers a graph option for each feature measured – annual fuel (or electricity) use, annual fuel/electricity cost, annual operating cost, cost per mile, and annual emissions. That is, you can see your emission’s savings in color as a linear representation.
The graph shows cumulative costs over 15 years, covering not only registration and license but fuel, maintenance, insurance costs and loan repayment.
Unfortunately, the calculator fudges a little – always choosing the vehicle purchase price published on the DOE’s internal website, fueleconomy.gov – but users can manually change this value. Some other cost assumptions are built-in; for example, the one that assumes vehicle buyers finance 90 percent of the vehicle’s price and pay the balance over five years at 6 percent interest.
Additionally, users cannot change the cost of insurance, which is averaged over five classes of vehicles (a small sedan, a medium sedan, a large sedan, a 4x4 SUV, and a minivan), so those who fall into a high-risk insurable category should realize that costs will be proportionately higher.
Values that potential buyers can calibrate also include miles driven per weekday and per year, as well as how many of those miles are highway miles – an important calculation, since vehicle fuel economy always improves during highway driving (with the notable exception of the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the Smartfortwo conversion, and the Chevrolet Volt – all of which are electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids).
A final option allows users to create their own custom vehicle when measuring costs. For example, one could calculate the cost in year five of a luxury van conversion, or a conversion for a handicapped driver.
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