Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Best Car?

What is the best car?  That is a nearly impossible question to answer!

A reader writes, asking what I think is the "best car" to buy.   This is almost an impossible question to answer, on a number of grounds:

1.  What is the "best car" for your situation may depend on your situation.  If you need a truck for business, a small sedan won't work.   If you have a family of six, a small sedan or coupe is the wrong choice.  Bear in mind though, what you think are your needs are often your wants.   A lot of people today buy pickup trucks and rarely, if ever, haul anything with them.   Monster trucks and SUVs are bought as penis enlargers to sooth the psychological needs of their owners, not real needs.

2.  We don't know until a car goes to the junkyard whether it was any good or not.   Consumer Reports likes to do their "Best" list every year - including ridiculous things like 'Best luxury car" which is an oxymoron - again, wants over needs.   But their list is flawed as what is "best" this year (the Tesla, for example) is panned as "unacceptable" the next (again, the Tesla).   But Consumer Reports aside (as it is worthless), you really can't tell much about the long-term reliability of a car until you junk it.   Sitting on the showroom floor, you can't tell much about it.

3.  What does "best" mean anyway?   Again, from my perspective, it is the longevity and reliability of a car - the car as appliance that provides long service and low cost.   Many others have different opinions - they want "best" in terms of acceleration, handling, appearance, or convenience of cupholders.  We choose cars on criteria that we would never apply (or rarely apply) to other appliances in our lives.  Well, maybe that isn't entirely true, as the refrigerator and washing machine people have found it possible to double and even triple the prices of these appliances by offering "status" models.   And some folks will spend four or fives times as much for a heating plant as necessary, just to have bragging rights.
From the first perspective,  I think that from the title of this blog, we can just eliminate, entirely, every luxury or sports car ever made.   A "luxury" car these days is often just a regular car gussied up with different trim and interiors to make it look different.  This is particularly true for American and Japanese luxury cars, which fill out their lineups with clones of their lessor brands.

Not only that, "Luxury" cars are sold on one thing and one thing only - status.   People buy them to show off their apparent wealth and sophistication.  Status-seeking is the antithesis of wealth, as money spend on appearances serves no purpose other than to stroke the ego.  Every dollar spent on status is a dollar less you have to invest in real things.

In addition, luxury and sports car brands can be fantastically expensive to service.   Often they require esoteric repairs and maintenance, and parts are not cheap and few are qualified to do the labor.   Even things like an oil change can be pricey.   On my BMWs, a simple eight-quart oil change required oddball Castrol (5w-30 or 10w-60 - good luck finding that at Wal-Mart!) plus an imported filter.   The cost of materials alone could exceed $100.   My Nissan truck requires only a $39 oil change at the quicky-lube place, $59 if I want to go with synthetic.

Similarly, the Nissan is shod with tires that cost $149 to replace, while the BMW required $350 tires.   The added delta in costs doesn't really equate to increased longevity of the tires or better performance, other than in extreme cornering.   As an added bonus, taking exotic cars outside the confines of big-cities (where there are dealerships and repair depots) becomes a nerve-wracking experience.   So luxury cars and sports cars and exotics are just out of the running from the get-go.  And this includes all German cars.  Sadly.  And of course, no high-test burning cars!

Another part of this first consideration is trucks, SUVs, and all-wheel drive.  Again, people posit that they "need" a huge SUV to haul the kids around or that Dad "needs" a truck for work, even though all he does is drive to work and then use a company truck.  The cleanliness of most pickup truck beds attests to the actual use by their owners - as oversized sedans or wagons.

Even for people who are self-employed carpenters, plumbers, or other tradesmen, the pickup is often a style choice, not a practical choice.   For many workmen, the van is a better choice as it can hold all of your tools, materials, and supplies, in a secure manner.   A pickup truck, oddly enough, holds very little cargo.    We bought a mini-pickup to tow our camper, and found that while it hauled more stuff than the SUV it replaced, it needed a bed cap and a cargo tray to really be able to fit anything in a useful manner.

Pickup trucks excel in towing and hauling heavy loads.   If you have a trailer to tow, they might be the ticket.   But most folks don't have trailers, and buy them as "luxury trucks" with leather interiors and sunroofs and use them as cars.   It is very odd.

SUVs I have addressed before.  They have little room inside and suck gas.  And no, you don't "need" all wheel drive unless you live in the outback.   Even in snow country, a decent set of snow tires will pull a front-wheel drive car to places an SUV with all-season radials won't go.  Jeeps bear special mention in that they are staggeringly expensive, crudely appointed, have no cargo space, and are noisy as all hell.   Few ever go off road - you are just punishing yourself buying a Jeep, and doing it for appearances, not for practical reasons.

Again, we are talking about saving money here, not how to have bling on a budget.

For the purposes of our evaluation, we will assume the "needs" of the consumer are that of a family of four, who uses the car to commute to work, go to the grocery store, take the kids to after-school activities, and occasionally drive on a family vacation.   In other words, what 99% of Americans actually do with their cars.   No, not many are racing on the weekends, attending black-tie receptions at the country club, or going on rugged off-road 4x4 adventures - but to read the ad copy the manufacturers put out, you would think otherwise.   And they do this, because they make a ton of money selling sports cars, status cars, and rugged SUVs and trucks.

In fact, they often lose money on ordinary sedans, which sell for cheap because they are unwanted and un-loved.   This is where the real bargains are.   So this narrows our "best" down to the ubiquitous four-door sedan, what used to be the staple of every automobile manufacturer (well, that and the station wagon, but those are dead today).

The second and third criteria are related.   Again, the real costs involved in owning and operating a car are tied to its longevity, depreciation, and repair costs.   Other variable costs depend on things like gas mileage and maintenance.   Again, our four-door target sedan is going to beat every other category in terms of fuel costs (miles per gallon, 87 octane fuel), regular maintenance (oil changes, tires), and even categories like insurance premiums - cheaper cars are cheaper to insure.

Again, trying to determine the value of a car by looking at a new one is kind of pointless.  You can watch old episodes of Motorweek on Youtube these days.  I remember watching it in Virginia back in the 1980's and 1990's and thinking it was a good program.  Today, I watch it and laugh.

"Testing" cars back in the day apparently comprised running your hands over the headlights and yanking on the windshield wipers.

When I watch the show today, I am embarrassed to think I thought it was anything worthwhile.   The "testers" are shown in the background of this shot "evaluating" minivans by touching the surfaces, yanking on the windshield wipers and aggressively adjusting the seats - as if these things can tell you how long the transmission will last.

Even the "scientific" testing (using stopwatches no less!) is pretty lame.  Stopping distances and turning circles are sort of useful information, but again, not much in telling you the long-term-value of the vehicle in question.

Now lest you think I am taking a piss on Motorweek, the problem they have as "testers" is that they really can't tell you much more than how the car operates and whether they thought the ashtray was in a good position.   Most cars operate in a satisfactory manner and location of the ashtray is a subjective opinion of the user.

What really counts is whether you can go 100,000 miles without some expensive out-of-warranty repair.   And for many cars, this is a real concern.    Weird esoteric engine problems and failing transmissions are two things that can take even a high-end luxury car and send it to the wreckers long before its time.   And often, this is reflected in low-resale values on some cars.

As I noted in another posting, figuring this stuff out is hard to do.   One fellow bravely tried to index auto auction records with "fatal" auction codes ("needs major engine or transmission work") and came up with a list - a list with a lot of Fords on it, sadly.

So how do we determine long-term reliability when we can't determine long-term reliability?   I think there are two indicia we can use, although both are problematic.   First, choose a conventional design that has a lot of miles under its belt.   A car that had been made for a number of years (not the first year of its generation) and has no esoteric features.   Second, you have to go on the reputation of the marque, which can get tricky.

Thus, for example, our target four-door sedan is a pretty widely made car, hardly experimental in nature or features.   Find one with as few esoteric things as possible - no turbochargers or Continuously Variable Transmissions .   No, you don't "need" a V-6 engine to power a family sedan - a normally aspirated four-banger will do the job just fine, be easier to service, and cost less to run.   And a conventional automatic is probably the best bet - no CVTs or dry-clutch transmissions are needed.   A manual transmission is an interesting option, but today they don't get better mileage than an automatic, and in terms of reliability, it is a wash.   Automatics tend to be easier on the drivetrain and engine, and thus have an edge in longevity.  And while clutches last a long longer today than in the past, replacing a clutch has become an expensive nightmare in recent years - running into the thousands of dollars (I replaced the clutch in my '65 Mustang for $35 back in the day...).

With regard to reputation, you basically have to go Japanese.   The Koreans are the ones to watch, though, and are the "next" Japanese, in my opinion.   I have a Korean car and it is exceptionally well-screwed together.   But of all the marques in the world, the two with the best reputation for quality are likely Toyota and Honda.   And there is really no discussion about it.   These cars will go further and require less work than American or German makes, hands down.

Again, in the hierarchy of Japanese makes, there is Toyota, Honda, and then everyone else.   Honda is a little more sporty and as one Japanese friend told me, "The Engineer's Car" in Japan.   Nissan is a distant third, sold on price alone, and their use of CVTs in their sedans takes it out of the running.   Mazda, Suzuki, and Mitsubishi are struggling to stay in the market at this point, and have serious quality issues and poor reputations.  Subarus are all-wheel-drive, so that takes them out of the running as well.

The Koreans are worth a look, but in the past, their reputation was less than steller, so looking at used Hyundais and Kias (the same company basically) may be problematic.  The KIA Soul (which I own) is a very nice car, and the first generation models can be had used, for cheap.   The gas mileage is not as good as a sedan, due to the brick-like shape, and luggage room with the seats folded up is tight - too tight for our hypothetical family of four on vacation.

And looking at these two marques, the cars that come to mind are the Camry and Corolla, or the Accord and the Civic, their "full-sized" and "mid-sized" models, which not long ago were considered mid-sized and compact, and not long before that, compact and sub-compact.

But what about their smaller cars, like the Yaris and the Fit?   These penalty-box cars do not have the best reputation for quality, and can be cramped to boot.   And for the price of a new Yaris or Fit, you can be far more comfortable in a used Camry or Accord - for about the same overall cost of ownership.   Micro-cars are generally not a good bargain, even if they have incrementally greater gas mileage. 

Which brings us to the next question, new or used?  Again, from a cost perspective, you can save a ton of money buying a used car.  A new car depreciates like mad the first few years, and all you get in return is the bragging rights you bought a new car.   It becomes a used car the day you take delivery, so get over that.

So looking at all of our criteria, which car do we pick?   Of the four finalists, I will go with the most boring of the lot, a car that is an appliance in every sense of the word - as realiable as an old refrigerator and about as exiting - the previous generation Toyota Corolla:

For about ten grand you can find a used 2013 Toyota Corolla in reasonable shape.   You might fall asleep at the wheel, though!

Edmunds True Market Value®

  • Dealer Trade-in:
  • Private Party:
  • Dealer Retail:

They made a LOT of these cars so they are a known quantity and parts can be cheap.   The drivetrain is pretty basic - four cylinder naturally aspirated with an automatic transmission.   No turbos or CVTs or other things that can go expensively wrong.
This is pretty basic and useful transportation, and as the last year of a previous generation car, should have few production "bugs" in it.   If you can find one with low miles (off-lease) it could be a real bargain.
And since most Americans are obsessed with SUVs and pickup trucks, no one wants any cars anymore, which means off-lease cars languish on dealer lots.   The best bargain, as you can see from the pricing above, would be from a private party - maybe someone who wants to "upgrade" to an SUV.

So there you have it, in my opinion, the "best" car for a family of four, in this day and age, based on reliability and cost.   A Honda might also be a good choice, although slightly more expensive.  And if you feel you need more room, the larger Camry or Accord are nice cars as well.

If someone came to me asking for a recommendation for a reliable car, I would not hesitate to recommend these four cars.   Anything else?   Well, what worked for me as a shade-tree mechanic likely won't work for other folks.   Esoteric cars were fun to have, but they can be a nightmare for someone who doesn't understand cars or knows how to fix them.    An old Fiat was a fun hobby for me, but a series of unexplained and expensive repair bills for its previous owner.  BMWs are great if your idea of a fun weekend is spent under a car.

The rest of the world wants a car to work like an appliance.   And these boring sedans are the best appliances around.