Why We Have a Luxury Car
Fun and Adventures with a Honda Fit
The idea of the American love affair with the car may be more myth than history, one can hope. However, we aren’t immune; we:
- own a car, despite our hippy-ish values
- have one “small”: car, don’t spend much on it, and mainly use it for leisure.
Having a reasonable sized car and not driving excessively helps us feel
smug good about our selves, and also keeps our transportation costs low. In comparison, the average American family spends about five times what we do on transportation, and we spend only one-ninth what a typical high income family does to move themselves around. That’s kind of striking and might help explain why transportation costs are the second largest overall expense for the “average” family. It’s our view that every dollar not burned out an exhaust pipe is one extra dollar that could be spent on great food, good fun, extraneous vacations, or a step closer to early retirement.
I don’t think our transportation needs are that different from most people. We’re not hermits living in the woods, nor situated in some type of car free urban paradise. We live in
poorly planned desirable low density single family housing, have jobs to get to, and dogs and a baby to tote around. Having a child and a small car is the opposite of popular advice:
For supposedly sound, if saccharine, reasons:
Having been in a lot of different types and sizes of cars, I’m still not sure if I can tell any difference in how comfortable they are to get in and out of. Nor did I realize this should be a major concern for new parents. Perhaps we are lucky in having become parents relatively young enough that the ravages of age related joint pain and limited mobility haven’t struck, or perhaps people are over stating the difficulty in order to justify their desire for a larger vehicle…
So how do we manage? Amazingly well and relatively cheaply thanks to the wonders of modern automotive engineering and economics. We’ve got an affordable, luxurious, spacious, efficient and surprisingly versatile small economy car, full of everything the future promised, a Honda Fit in this case.
Large and Luxurious
The Honda Fit is categorized as a subcompact, and some people apparently go so far as to compare it to a “microcar“, but by any real standards, it’s pretty big: two and a half thousand pounds of metal and plastic, thirteen and a half feet long; the thing is at least twice as long as me, and more than a hundred times heavier…
It might only be considered small because so many other vehicles on the road are even more humongous, and keep getting bigger: It’s not only people who are getting fatter, so are their cars. The Fit might be considered a small car, but in some dimensions it’s roughly equal in size to a Camry or Accord from the 80s (currently the two best selling cars in the US), while delivering more power with better fuel efficiency thanks to improved engine technology.
When you combine size-inflation with the unending pace of technological advances, increasingly efficient manufacturing & supply chains, and more stringent safety regulations, it means that in some respects an “entry level” car today compares surprisingly well to mid-size and luxury cars from just one or two decades ago. Picking my favorite example again, the Fit is the cheapest Honda you can buy in North America, and yet if you were to buy a new 2015 model, it comes standard with airbags, air conditioning, a fancy rear-view camera and a touch screen audio system (I said luxury, not necessary…) with an engine that puts out 130 horsepower while getting 30-40 mpg. As a reference, a compact car from the 80s had no air conditioning, was probably the modern equivalent of a driving death trap (but hell of a fun to drive) and got half the power out of the same sized engine (but possibly better fuel efficiency, the downside of all this fancy stuff is increased weight).
The upshot of this is we can get a new (well 2009 model and was new to us, our last name isn’t Rockefeller), luxurious car with modern engineering, safety, convenience and power for a fraction of the cost in relative buying power for what it would have cost to have an inferior car one or two decades ago. A modern economy car turns out to be pretty damn luxurious.
Basically people think they will be driving this:
So they buy this instead:
When they could be driving this:
One might argue that a large car or truck is necessary to move around all your stuff in addition to people. This is a bit of a red herring in two respects: First, it might be more worthwhile to examine why you have so much stuff in the first place, and why it needs to be moved around from place to place so frequently. Secondly, even in this regard, the Honda Fit has served us well, moving around pieces of furniture ranging from sofas to hutches, and random finds such as 200 free bricks.
The advanced engineering that I go on about doesn’t just include useless and boring stuff like being able to play MP3s from our phone directly, or having side impact air bags, it also means that the rear seats have been designed to fold totally flat when not in use, giving us over fifty cubic feet of cargo space, that’s a large number for a “small car”. Here are just some of the ways we’ve taken advantage of that:
There have been a few cases where folding the seats hasn’t been sufficient, or we’ve needed to ferry additional people as well as stuff: for example a cross country road trip where we want extra space and maybe a mini-fridge inside (a cold ice-tea is a nice luxury when you are crossing the dessert), or take a weekend beach get away with four adults, one child, two dogs, and everyone’s luggage.
For these cases, a roof rack and cargo box go on top of the car when needed, and are removed for normal driving. It cost less than $500 (and some luck and patience) on Craigslist to equip the car for serious cargo carrying. That seems like a slightly better deal than buying a ridiculously large car, at twice the price or more, for the occasional road trip or furniture hauling expedition. Plus, when done, the roof rack and storage pod go away, and the extra gas consumption is removed. There are a lot of ways to make a small car into a large one.
Real Secret to Transportation Savings
Everything I’ve said above is nice, and luxurious, but still an unneeded luxury. But hey, we are getting old, like to indulge in luxuries, and like to think we’re well on the way to meeting our financial goals and early retirement. The Fit works out to be the right car for us. We could probably have been more economical by buying an even cheaper car, and saved us some headache (it turns out that it is surprisingly hard to buy a used Honda Fit, people like them and don’t give them up easily). The real secret to keeping our transportation costs low though is simple: just don’t drive much. If we were to do silly things like each commute 30 miles in opposite directions, all the fuel savings technology in the world wouldn’t be helping us.
So it’s nice to have the car around for when we want to engage in some totally unnecessary but usually fun leisure pursuits in the lap of luxury, or to move around pieces of heavy equipment without breaking our backs, but for most errands and just doing something mundane like getting to the office, there’s a better solution: