Thinking about fuel economy

The lease on my car is up in a few months, and so I’m currently thinking about what sort of car I should get. Last time, I wanted the brand-new Hyundai Sonata hybrid, but the North American launch kept on getting delayed and delayed until I could no longer wait, and went with another Honda Accord (I’m on my fourth, but the first one was totaled in an accident after less than six months). I could get another one, but I really ought to look around at what else is after. I’m old enough that I could get a “mid-life crisis car” even though I haven’t had a mid-life crisis, but I always feel a bit bad when I have to fill up, so maybe I should go for a more fuel-efficient car instead. I certainly don’t need a car as big as the Accord I have now — I’m only one person, and the only things in the back seat most of the time are a snow brush and a bottle of wiper fluid. In the abstract, I’d love an EV, but given the length of my commute and the places I want to drive, that’s really not a practical option. (A plug-in hybrid might be, because it’s sometimes possible to plug in at work, but I don’t know how long that will last if it becomes a popular option. I don’t have deeded parking at home so plugging in at home is out of the question.)

One of the things I thought was worth looking at was the annual cost of fuel. It’s important to remember that this does not account for all of the other ongoing expenses, like insurance, which vary widely between cars, but it’s also one way of figuring out whether getting a hybrid, turbo-4, or diesel is “worth it” (at least on the basis of fuel costs alone). Particularly with diesels, it’s important to remember that diesel is the most expensive road fuel regularly available, 39 cents per gallon more expensive than regular unleaded at the current statewide average prices here in Massachusetts. I also live and work in places with higher-than-average prices, and of course the price of fuel (and electricity!) fluctuates significantly through the year.

My normal practice is to get a 36-month, 45,000-mile closed-end lease. This keeps the payment affordable and gives me an easy out; car companies sometimes guarantee a higher than expected residual value as a way to subsidize leases, which means that the buyout price on a car lease can be more than the car’s market value at the end of the lease. To make the table below, I assumed 15,000 miles per year, which is pretty close to what I actually do (16,000 might be more accurate — we’ll see how I did when I turn the current car in this December). I also assumed that my driving would be evenly split between highway and city driving, which is a reasonable guess. (My round-trip commute is 28 miles “highway” and 32 miles city, but some of that “highway” driving is awfully “city”-like. Most of my non-commuting mileage is on the highway, though.)

The table below shows the results. Some of the spec sheets are pretty confusing about which fuel type applies to which model/trim, and in a few cases the 2014 models aren’t actually available yet, so I used the 2013 figures (assuming that they will be out by December — never mind how well that worked last time). The fourth column shows the expected savings (or additional cost) relative to getting the latest generation of the same Accord as I have now.

Fuel costs for various cars
Make/model Fuel $/year Savings (cost)
per mo.
Nissan 370Z Touring w/Sport pkg. 93 $2654 $(49.97)
VW CC R-Line 93 $2264 $(17.46)
Acura TSX Special Edition/AT 91 $2187 $(11.05)
Nissan Altima 3.5SL RUNL $2073 $(1.55)
Honda Accord EX-L V6 RUNL $2054 N/A
VW Passat SEL Premium 1.8T RUNL $1896 $13.20
Mercedes-Benz CLA250 93 $1886 $14.03
VW Passat TDI SEL Premium ULSD $1726 $27.36
Acura ILX Hybrid (2013) 91 $1462 $49.36
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (2013) RUNL $1408 $53.86
Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE 2.5L RUNL $1368 $57.28
VW Jetta Hybrid SEL Premium 93 $1300 $62.86
Ford C-MAX Hybrid SEL RUNL $1259 $66.28
Honda Civic Hybrid (2013) RUNL $1212 $70.19
Ford Fusion Hybrid Titanium RUNL $1134 $76.70
Honda Accord hybrid RUNL $1126 $77.33

You can think of the right-hand column as “how much more (less) should I be willing to pay per month just on the basis of improved (worse) fuel economy?” Of course, it doesn’t actually work like that — a 370Z costs more, not less, than even the fanciest Accord. But if you’re comparing a hybrid versus a comparable diesel versus a comparable conventional gasoline engine, it can help answer the question of whether the “hybrid premium” is worth it or not. (Of course, the price of gas also matters — if I were paying Suffern/San Francisco/Baker prices for gas, the more efficient cars would look significantly better.)

These are all cars that I’ve thought a bit about, but haven’t actually test-driven or even tried to get into any of them yet. (I did eliminate some nameplates not shown here on the basis of either practicality or feature availability.) I’ll post updates as the process goes forward. (By the way, isn’t it absolutely shocking that the browser people still haven’t managed to implement proper alignment for currency values in table columns even 14 years after HTML 4.01?)

Source for gas prices: Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, “Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Prices for October 1, 2013“, who apparently get it from AAA. Since they don’t provide a permalink, the prices I used (all per gallon) were: RUNL, $3.556; 91, $3.752; 93, $3.884; ULSD, $3.946.

UPDATE: It appears that I totally forgot about Mazda. If I find anything I like in their line, I’ll update this post with the mileage.

UPDATE 2 (2013-10-12): I discovered an arithmetic error in my calculation of the costs for the Accord V6, and have updated the table. The monthly numbers may be off by a cent or two due to double rounding.

UPDATE 3 (2013-12-19): Added Accord hybrid (50 city, 45 highway) to the table. I have not updated the assumed gas prices even though they are down about 20 cents per gallon over the past three weeks.

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