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Home > Resource Conservation > Fuel > Buying A Vehicle  

Resource Conservation: Fuel: Buying A Vehicle

We love our cars. But we would like to ask the questions. What are we buying our vehicles for? Is it to get us from point A to point B or is there something else? Do we need our cars to be an extension of ourselves, a home away from home or something practical and reliable?



At Greencompletely.com we merely ask that you look at the reality of why you buy your vehicle. If you are a logger, plumber, farmer, construction worker (and a few other profession) you will need that big pick-up 4X4 for a lot of what you do. We do not dispute that.
     This discussion is for the millions of people who buy their vehicles to cover less than 5% of their driving. The people who "need" a 4x4 in an area that may snow. The people who "need" to tow a boat 3 or 4 weekends out of the year. The soccer mom (dad) that needs to take 2 or 3 kids to the big game in a 10 passenger van. 
     Let answer the real question, "What do I really need?"
First, a few facts. It is estimated that in 2010 11.5 million cars and pickup trucks were sold in the United States. Of that, 1.6 million of them were pickup trucks (small and full size) which is down from a peak in 2005 of 3.2 million. We will say that small car to big car weights range from 2,000 to 3,200 lbs (curb weight) and pickup trucks (not the biggest) ranges from 3,500 to 6,500 lbs.(curb weight). In 2007 there were 254 million passenger vehicles, of that there were about 100 million other (SUV, Pickup, Minivans). That is almost 1 vehicle for every man, woman and child in the United States.

The Set Up:

We decided to go to a car company's web site and do some price comparisons. You can probably do the same thing to make your own comparison.
     We went to the Ford web site and priced out 3 vehicles. A focus, a fusion +hybrid, and a F-250 truck with the 4x4 and towing and a few other features. On all of them, we put a few of the options for the cars on to the price. There is also tax and other charges that come with the purchase. The options may affect things like: fuel efficiency, insurance costs, maintenance costs and so on so be advised, some of the mileage estimates in this analysis may be off a bit.
Our total estimates for the total cost at the dealer (sales tax, warranties and so on) are as follows:
  • Focus: $23,000 (24/35 mpg)
  • Fusion +hybrid: $35,000 (41/36 mpg)
  • F250: $45,000 (15/21 mpg)
(mpg's are approximate, check web sites or dealer before you calculate).
All figures taken for 2010 models.


We will make certain assumptions for this discussion:
  1. That you can afford the monthly payments, insurance, tabs, maintenance on the most expensive of the three cars.
  2. That you will make a down payment of $5,000 and finance the rest at 5% for 5 years.
  1. Approximately 12,000 miles a year will be driven (1,000 miles a month).
  2. Tax rebate received for hybrid of $1,000. Some may be $0 and some may be more than $1000, The 2010 Fusion happens to be $850. Look here for that info.
  3. No financing charge.


We discuss the lifetime of disposal for the three vehicles compared here.

Maintenance Disposal:
This is a comparison of the maintenance disposal of the three vehicles during their lifetime. We will assume that the average vehicle has a useful life of 200,000 miles and 17 years. We will further assume oil changes at least every 5,000 miles, 4 sets of tires; 30, 60, 90, 120 and 150 thousand mile tune ups. Another assumption is the spare parts used weights about 1/10 of the vehicle. We will further assume that the vehicle has replaced all of its fluids (not motor oil) at least twice (power steering, break, rear axle, AC refrigerant, radiator, and so on) and 4 batteries.
         oil change: We are assuming about 40 oil changes. Some vehicles use 4 quarts and some use up to 6 quarts. We will assume the pickup will use 1.5 gallons of oil more than the car each year. For the 100 million pick ups on the road that means an extra 150 million gallons of used oil. If all of that oil went to recyclers there would still be a loss. One gallon of used oil at the recyclers makes 2.5 quarts of sellable oil. This means about 1.5 quarts of each gallon of used oil is waste.  That means the extra 150 million gallons of used oil can become 94 million gallons of re-refined oil. So it is a loss of 56 million gallons of oil extra each year. 
     Tire Change:
The average car scrap tire is about 22 lbs and pick up truck is about 35 lbs. That is an average difference of about 13 lbs. So for one single tire change you are generating 54 lbs more scrap for a pick up than for a regular car.  For the life of the vehicle that is 216 lbs more of scrap in tires for pickups than cars. Do they get recycled? Nationally, about 10% goes directly into the landfill. That means about 90% doesn't go into the landfill. More than half goes into fuel (burnt) for power plants and cement kilns. Some goes into retreads and other single uses. A portion of the diverted tires does make its way to the land fill in the form of waste. Therefore, the total amount of tires going into the land fill is about 17%.
     Other fluids:  Bigger engines (and vehicles) need a little more fluids than smaller ones. All the systems are bigger and require more fluid (break, axle, radiator, air conditioning). In the life of a bigger vehicle these fluids may be a few hundred more pounds than in a smaller vehicle. We are not going to analyze each fluid difference. Some will get recycled and some will not. Even if there is 100% diversion from land fill there will not be 100% recovery of the fluids. 
     Batteries: The typical battery in a typical care is a Lead Acid battery. The acid being sulfuric acid. Smaller engines may have smaller requirements for cold crank amps, depth of charge and so on. Lead acid batteries contain toxic substances (like Lead and acid). The bigger the battery the more toxic substances need to be dealt with. Yes, there are battery recycling programs (99.2% diverted from landfill) out there but there is still waste from these programs.
     End of life Disposal:  What does throwing a car "away" mean? Usually this process starts at a junkyard (about 95% of all cars). The process starts with removing all the fluids and disposing of them according to EPA guidelines. Next, spare parts may be removed. When the car is stripped of usable parts it gets crushed and the metal is removed from the remaining plastic, rubber and other materials. This "other material" is sent to the landfill (about 25% of crushed car). Using these numbers the average crushed car will be about 2,000 lbs and the average crushed pickup will be about 4,000 lbs. This means the pick up will generate 500 lbs more land fill waste than the car. Of course, the more material you move around the junk yard and other processes, the more fuel and wear and tear you have on the machines moving the stuff around. 

     When it is all said and done we are talking about an extra 2,500 to 3,000 lbs. of waste generated for a pickup over a small car. This is not counting the waste from fuel. We want to point out, again, we recognize there are real professions where you need a 4x4 pickup with towing and other options. We do not have figures on this but assuming that 20% of the 3.2 million pickups sold in 2005 were "frivolous" purchases (that a smaller car would have been OK). This is 640,000 pick up trucks. At the end of their life it would generate approximately 1 million extra tons of waste that our system would have to process. That is 1 million tons above what that amount of cars would generate just for that model year.


This table shows cost estimates for owning any of the three vehicles. The data is for a 5 year period of ownership.
Estimates For 5 Years
  Car 1 Car 2 Car 3
Model Focus Fusion +hybrid F250
Original cost $23,000 $34,000 $45,000
Down payment $5,000 $5,000 $5,000
Total financed $18,000 $29,000 $40,000
Interest 5.00% 5.00% 5.00%
Monthly payment $340.00 $550.00 $755.00
Tot payment over 5 yr $20,717.07 $33,362.55 $46,041.66
Total interest paid $2,378.39 $3,814.06 $5,289.75
Tabs + taxes* $400.00 $450.00 $800.00
Maintenance* $2,675 $3,500 $3,400
Insurance* $9,300.00 $9,400.00 $12,900.00
City estimate (mpg) 24 41 15
Highway estimate (mpg) 35 36 21
% drive in city 90.0% 90.0% 90.0%
Price of gallon of gas $3.00 $3.00 $3.00
Miles per month 1000 1000 1000
Total gas expense $7,264.29 $4,451.22 $11,657.14
Total gallons of gas used 2421.42857 1483.74 3885.71
Total cost for 5 years $45,017.67 $55,615.28 $79,046.90
Average cost per year $9,003.53 $11,123.06 $15,809.38
Average cost per month $750.29 $926.92 $1,317.45
Trade in at 5 years* $14,500.0 $21,000.0 $30,600.0
Total spent $30,517.67 $34,615.28 $48,446.90

Quick Note On Savings:

Well, first it looks like it is more expensive to own a hybrid full size car than a compact internal combustion car (the Focus compared to Fusion + hybrid). It is roughly $2,000 a year more. However you will burn about 1,000 gallons less gasoline than the focus in the 5 years. As time goes on and technology advances, our guess is that the difference in costs between these cars will reverse or at least, newer car configurations will be better.
     The main thing to point out here is both are less per year than the F250, about $5,000 for the Fusion and about $7,000 for the Focus each year. You will save, burning 1,500 or 2,400 gallons of fuel depending on which car you choose for those two models for the 5 years. To give you an idea how much you are saving in fuel at 7 lb per gallon, that is 5 tons for 1,500 gallons and 8.5 tons for 2,400 gallons.
Notice: We have not mentioned potential savings for electric vehicles or electric vehicle conversions. At this time we want to cover vehicles that are widely available. We recognize that there are many benefits to owning electric vehicles but for a vast majority of the country these types of vehicles are not on the radar. Click here to read some of the research we have done on electric vehicles.

Spreadsheets and alternatives:

Look here for the spread sheet we used to make some of the calculations in this section. Bear in mind that we did not clean this sheet up much.

     As stated in the section above, you will have $5,000 to $7,000 more in your pocket every year you own a smaller car. What are some of your alternatives to fulfilling your "needs"?
     Borrow: You might have a friend or neighbor that has a truck or minivan and want to move a couch or a few extra people. Your friend might let you borrow the vehicle. Even if you borrow the vehicle 3 or 4 times in a year paying $100 a time, that is only $300 or $400 a year. You have saved $4,700 to $6,700 for the year.

     Rent: There are many car rental agencies out there. They all have different availabilities, different rates and different policies. just about all will have pick up trucks, SUV's and minivans available when you want them. If you are moving big amounts of stuff you can rent moving vans from several companies. Even if you rent a 4x4 for a month during snowy weather you still may not spend more than $2,500. This is still a savings. If you buy a bulky item from a store paying a delivery charge would still be saving.
     Towing your boat for the weekend is a little harder. However, many of the car renting places and the moving companies do rent their trucks with towing capabilities. Of the car renting, Enterprise seems to have some of the better deals and any of the moving companies. You, however may be faced with moving your boat (atv's) around with a vehicle that has a company logo on it.
Remember, they want to rent to you. Do not be afraid to look around for specials or to sign up as a member. Some of these places have a real problem with towing, so you might look at Enterprise or U-Haul first for those needs. Many places have discounts for AARP, AAA, corporate accounts, government and other types of groups. Do not be shy, ask for them. Consumer Reports has also recommended the services of comparison sites. Some of these are:
     Buy: It is a hassle! But, you can buy what you need for the time you need it and then sell it. If you hold onto the vehicle it will defeat the purpose and be very expensive. The sales tax alone (depending on your state) can kill whatever savings you will have for the 3 or 4 months you need the vehicle. Some people even buy a cheap pick up and leave it on their property. That might be OK, they still have to pay the tabs every year, get it tuned up and oil changes.

The Commute:

     One of the biggest reasons you buy your car is to commute to work. More than 95% of the people that share the road with you during your morning and afternoon commute have 1 person in the vehicle. That is all the cars, trucks, SUV's, minivans, and semi's.  Occasionally a bus will pass you in the car pool lane.
     You may want to car pool but if none of the other employees has your schedule or lives next to you. You are stuck, right? Well maybe not.

     Let us take a look at a simple 3 lane road for your commute. Let us assume a 5 mile stretch of road with an equal mix of pickups, small cars and mid sized cars. If the small cars were in lane 1, the mid sized cars are in lane 2 and the pick ups are in lane 3, going at 60 mph. We get a lane configuration like in the table below (assuming a 2 car length following distance):

Lane 1 Lane 2 Lane 3
Car Car 1 Car 2 Car 3
Actual length (ft) 14.5 16 19
Length of 2 cars (ft) 29 32 38
Total car space 43.5 48 57
Car per mile 121.4 110.0 92.6

     This means we could fit about 30 cars more per mile of the small cars than the pickups. That means we can have a 32% increase in the number of commuters without building more lanes. In a 5 mile stretch that is 150 cars more in lane 1 vs. lane 3. Even if you buy the cars available today, your commute could potentially have less traffic jams because you can fit more smaller cars on the road. Fitting more cars means more of the traffic goes through faster.
Just For Fun We Calculated:

Just for fun we redid the calculations if all of the cars on the commute were replaces with S.M.art (Swatch Mercedes art) cars. Here are the specks: length - 106 in, width - 61 in and height - 61 in. weight 1,900 lb. In the above calculation we had 324 cars taking up 1 mile of highway (1 lane Focus, 1 lane Fusion and 1 lane F250). Doing the same calculation with a 2 car length following distance the three lanes would contain 587 cars, which is 81% more cars. If S.M.art cars where the only cars on this road, lane width could be reduced. With some paint we could turn the 3 lanes into 4 lanes making it possible to have 782 cars per mile driving on this road. This is an increase of 140% more cars without changing the amount of real estate the road takes up.

"I Feel Safer":

" I feel safer in a 4x4 SUV or Pickup". We tried to find hard statistics on this. We turned to reports on highway fatalities. Most of the reports said that there was little or no correlation between highway fatalities and a vehicle type. There were more correlations between factors of space surrounding the passengers of a vehicle. These items include, wheel base, center of gravity, vehicle height and so on. Many Pickups and SUVs do have a lot of "crash space" around the passengers, therefore, it would be safer. The disturbing part of the report is that if a smaller car hits a larger vehicle the smaller car would sustain more damage (and injuries) than hitting a car of the same size. So, you might be safer in that big pickup but the people around you are not (because of your presents). "There is nothing like the safety I feel driving in the snow with my 4x4 pickup (SUV). " This may also feel true and, in general, it is. A 4X4 or AWD provides better traction than 4X2. Since Pickups and SUV's are more massive than a compact car this provides even better handling on the road. However, the concern is your speed in these conditions. Most crashes in snow and ice are because of speed. A 4x4 SUV can drive faster than a compact car on snow and ice, but how much faster?
     Whatever the conditions, caution is always the better side to err on. Slow down!

Glossary Of Terms:

GVW:  Gross Vehicle Weight.

Curb Weight: The weight of an automotive vehicle including fuel, coolant, and lubricants but excluding occupants and cargo.

4x4: A two axle vehicle that applies power to both axles when driving.
Hybrid: As it applies to automobiles, a vehicle that has two engines, 1 gas and 1 electric that propel the vehicle. 
SUV: Sport Utility Vehicle.

AWD: All Wheel Drive. A vehicle that applies power to each wheel separately when driving.


*Maintenance, insurance and depreciation estimates from:

Estimates on Pick up and car sales from:
taken 8/1/11, These are 2010 figures.

Fatality risks to drivers for different wheel bases, gvw, and other factors
http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/teepa/pdf/lbnl-3143e.pdf, taken 8/1/11.

Average small vehicle weight from: http://wardsautoworld.com/ar/auto_curbing_curb_weight/ taken 8/1/11.

http://www.nhtsa.gov/cars/rules/regrev/evaluate/809662.html more fatality statistics, taken 8/1/11. This is by NHTSA for DOT.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_vehicles_in_the_United_States Total passenger vehicles. Taken 8/1/11

http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/usedoil/Rerefined/Questions.htm rerefining used oil. Taken 8/1/11, also look at http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/usedoil/Rerefined/Facts.htm, also taken 8/1/11.

http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/swfa/tires/  , Waste Tires, Washington State DOE, Taken 8/2/11

http://www.brighthub.com/environment/green-living/articles/29213.aspx, "Howe to recycle cars", Taken 8/2/11.