An acquaintance of mine (I’ll call her “Sue”) recently complained about the shortage of money in her household, noting that she’d bought a new crossover sport-utility vehicle (SUV) in hopes of saving money on gas. It’s the first time in years she’s had a car payment. She’d previously been driving a full-size pickup truck that she is now trying to sell; it was already paid for. I don’t know Sue well enough to ask whether she “did the math” on how long it will take to recoup the cost of the new SUV when comparing its fuel mileage to that of the truck.
Before you buy a new or used vehicle, I encourage you to do some research to determine the projected fuel cost associated with the vehicle you plan to acquire.
Fueleconomy.gov is a good place to start. It’s a website operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, and it allows you to compare the projected fuel mileage of new and used vehicles side by side. You can also search by make and see a list of the best and worst vehicles for fuel mileage. The website’s power search tool allows you to set specific search criteria, such as market class (family sedan, minivan, etc.), model year, transmission type and manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Fuel mileage estimates are based on figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are available for vehicles dating back to 1984.
Let’s say Sue had been driving an eight-cylinder 2008 Nissan Titan with four-wheel drive and purchased a four-cylinder 2012 Mitsubishi Outlander with four-wheel drive. Let’s also assume she drives 18,000 miles a year, with 40 percent of those miles in city traffic. With gas at $3.55 a gallon, Fueleconomy.gov estimates she’d spend $4,550 a year on gas to drive the Titan and $2,550 a year to drive the Outlander. That’s a fuel savings of $2,000 a year.
A new 2012 Outlander with four-wheel drive costs around $25,000; Sue’s Titan was already paid for. So, it could take more than 12 years for her fuel savings to pay for her new vehicle. Granted, the Titan is older and may require repairs sooner, but her new vehicle will likely require repairs before it reaches the 12-year mark. While it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact “break-even” point, it appears Sue may not have made the wisest choice for her cash-strapped household.
But there’s more to fuel mileage than these calculations. When you hear all those commercials on TV touting the fuel mileage of new vehicles, listen for the phrase “EPA-estimated.” The projected fuel mileage calculations are just that—estimates. Don’t expect to get EPA-estimated fuel mileage when driving your car. The EPA tests cars in a laboratory (not in real-world traffic) to determine expected fuel mileage. A professional driver tests each car on a dynamometer. Fueleconomy.gov notes your mileage will vary due to differences in driving behavior and conditions, fuel variations and the vehicle’s age and condition.
During a car-shopping excursion in 2012, my husband and I seriously considered buying a hybrid. I wanted to know what mileage drivers in the “real world” were experiencing with these vehicles. Since they have a significantly higher price tag that traditionally powered models, it’s hard to justify the extra cost of hybrids without the promised fuel savings. I turned to automotive website Edmunds.com for answers. The website includes forums where vehicle owners report their real-world mileage for various types of vehicles (check out this Hyundai Sonata Hybrid section for an example). After further research, we decided the “break-even point” was too far away on a hybrid to justify its extra cost.
So before you set out to replace your vehicle in hopes of saving big bucks on fuel, do some research and calculations. Take advantage of the customization features of Fueleconomy.gov to compare fuel mileage of cars based on the number of miles you drive per year, your percentage of city driving and expected fuel prices in your area. Then, search the Edmunds forums to look for patterns in actual fuel mileage being reported by real-world drivers. You may find keeping your “gas hog” will actually save you money in the long run.