How to Factor Gas Costs Into Car Purchases


With gas prices settling in well above the $3.50-a-gallon level that Bill Ford has cited as the tipping point for American drivers, more and more people are trying smaller cars on for size, or at least trading in their sedan, SUV or minivan for a more fuel-sipping counterpart.

No surprise, there are more and more resources available online to help you find the auto that will suit your needs while saving you a chunk of change at the pump.

For example, Kelley Blue Book, that longtime resource for information on buying and selling cars, recently launched KBB Green, which is not perfect, but still a good starting point for information on eco-friendly developments in the auto industry.

The Web site offers forums here you can discuss the pros and cons of hybrids, and news articles about green technology advances and new fuel-efficient cars that are hitting the market. It also has a couple of tools that are handy, but could be handier.

One tool lets you compare the fuel efficiency of your car with one that you're thinking of buying, which seems perfect for today's gas-conscious consumers. But it lets you compare your car only to those from a list of vehicles that the KBB staff has selected for their fuel efficiency.

So, I couldn't compare the Ford (F) Focus I sold earlier this year to the Toyota (TM) Matrix that replaced it to see whether I'm saving as much in gas and emissions as I think I am.

Also, it's just assumed you'll be financing the car and paying it off over time, which is more expensive than buying it outright, and changes the critical calculation: How long before my gas savings outpaces what I lay out to buy a new car.

Another calculator lets you type in your weekly mileage, the cost of gas near you and the make of your car to find out how your monthly petrol tab compares with that of ten particularly fuel-efficient cars.

It's a tool that has limited use, but its bar graph and little car icons drive home how monstrously extravagant it is to drive something like a GMC (GM) Yukon truck. If you drive 300 miles a week in it, and pay $4.25 at the pump, you pay $395 a month in gas, versus $251 for a Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid or $221 for a Toyota Highlander hybrid -- or, to really go in the other direction, just under $149 for a Mini Cooper.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy puts out lists of the 10 overall best and 10 worst autos, as well as a list of best-in-class. There is some crossover with KBB's list. The Prius, of course, is on both, as are the Honda (HMC) Civic, the Nissan (NSANY) Altima, Smart car and Mini Cooper.

These lists make for good quick hits, if you want to narrow your search to the most fuel-efficient cars overall or in a particular category.

But the Department of Energy provides a wider view of the auto market, listing mileage, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution score and annual fuel costs for most cars on the market. And, it lets you search by class or car maker within a given model year (from 2000 through 2009).

While each of these round-ups is good for general comparison purposes, most rely on the mileage stats that the manufacturers generate, usually under the most ideal conditions.

Consumer Reports does its own road testing of popular cars, and its real-world mileage is usually a little less rosy than the auto makers' numbers. For example, Consumer Reports says the Prius gets 34 miles per gallon in the city and 47 on the highway, where the DOE reports 48 and 45, respectively. Though, by any measure, the Prius' efficiency is nothing to sneeze at.

A hard-core environmentalist or super-savvy saver would recommend skipping the new car and just parking your existing one in the garage while you hop a bike and take mass transit or carpool -- and more people are doing that.

But if you can't get by without four wheels and are in the market for something that's more cost-efficient to run, you've got plenty of help these days in finding it.


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