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Car shopping is depressing

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So J and I decided a while back that it would indeed be nice to have a second car. I doubt our overall mileage driven will change much if we have two cars, but there are those days when we have to tie ourselves in knots as two working people with two kids and one car.

Last fall, we test drove a Volvo V70 and were pretty smitten with it. As Europhilic types, it suits us, and while I’m generally not a terribly yuppified person, I have to admit that it would be nice to have a car that actually provides a bit of luxury. We’ve driven Japanese four-bangers as long as we’ve been together, and before that I had an 82 Rabbit, a 76 Dodge D-100 with three on the tree, a 66 Dodge Dart, and a 68 Corvair. Needless to say, I think road noise, engine noise, and wind leaks are pretty standard features. Taking a test spin in a car like the V70 is like giving food to a starving person. I want it.

Except that I don’t. Why? Even in its most economical form, it gets 16/24 mileage. That’s terrible, and unnecessary. It’s not just that gas is nearing $4 a gallon that makes me want better mileage. I want better mileage because fuel consumption is inherently bad, and I try, as a general rule, to live by the googlian credo of doing no evil. Really, I’d be supremely happy if fuel went beyond $5 a gallon. I would not enjoy filling my car in that scenario (although, having lived in Europe and fueled cars there, I know what it feels like), but I would love to watch the pressure it would put on our ridiculous car market. Vehicles like the Hummer would disappear from the road, and suddenly we’d be flooded with economical alternatives. It would also make urban sprawl seem like a lot less fun than it currently is. J and I drive a total of about 12,000 miles annually between us. Fuel prices simply are not a significant part of our budget compared to our mortgage or child care.

A couple of nights ago, I trolled the European sites of various carmakers to see what they offer in Europe and what the mileage figures are. It’s a challenge to convert the liters/100km consumption into MPG, but what I learned is that as consumers, we Americans are getting what we deserve. We value horsepower over efficiency, and pretend that it’s normal that all cars can hit 60 under ten seconds, even if they’re as big as a house. Take one example: the Volkswagen Passat wagon. In the US, it’s sold in four gas-powered configurations, with the best mileage one can get 21/29, with a turbocharged (=shortlived) gas engine. In Europe, it has various diesel options, as well as smaller, but still pretty peppy gas versions. One diesel version gets nearly 45 mpg on the highway. The only vehicle that gets that mileage in the US is the silly Prius. Neat car, but for four people with luggage, it’s a joke. In Europe, I can drive a large wagon and get better mileage than anything on the road here.

Even carmakers such as Opel, which is an arm of GM, offer a wide range of vehicles that get stellar mileage and have space. I rented an Opel a couple of years ago that vaguely resembled the Honda Element (minus to idiotic suicide rear door on the Honda). I drove it on the open road at about 100 mph and it rolled along like it was on rails, and it had plenty of pep. The motor? A 1.7 liter diesel TDI. I know Harleys with bigger engines, but this car did just fine thanks to some crafty engineering and good gearing. It’s an inexpensive car, too, but we’ll never see it in the US.

Currently, there are literally no choices if you want size and mileage. Volkswagen is ostensibly going to start selling Jetta wagons with diesels later this year that get 56 mpg. It’s not as big as we’d like–really, is it too much to ask to be able to carry four passengers and enough baggage for a two-week road trip without resorting to a roof carrier–but we’d probably consider it unless it’s got some sort of warts. People bag on diesel based on the belching abominations that were on US roads back in the 1980s, but those were primitive vehicles compared to the new clean diesels. As a friend of mine in Germany put it a couple of years ago, the gas engine is a mature technology that’s really got little room left for refinement, while diesel technology is still to some degree in its infancy. In a couple of decades, we’ll all drive them.


Written by Dale

April 13, 2008 at 12:04 am

Posted in life, shopping

Tagged with , , ,

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