The Hows & Whys of Our Car Purchase: A 2009 Toyota Prius

If you had told us a year ago when we started our research that we would wind up settling on a new car for our car purchase, I would have laughed at you. We’ve been strongly committed to buying a late model used car for a long time, since we viewed it as the best “bang for the buck” option, especially since we intended to drive our newly purchased car until it literally began falling apart – a state that our 1999 Mercury Sable was in.

When we started our process for buying a new car, we focused on a small handful of factors:

We wanted a late model used car with a reasonable number of miles on it. We didn’t want to buy a car with a lot of miles on it because we believed we would be back where we started in just a few years. We were looking mostly for late model used cars with less than 60,000 miles on them.

A compact car doesn’t work. I’m six and a half feet tall. Our 1999 Mercury Sable is about the smallest car I can sit in comfortably. Smaller models simply do not work for me – I cannot sit in them because my knees are literally pressed into the dashboard.

Fuel efficiency and reliability were our primary factors. We’ve never been interested in bells and whistles. We don’t need a six-disc CD player or in-dash GPS. We have no interest in leather seats and so on. The basic package is enough for us.

We actually calculated the fuel efficiency of each car by calculating how much we would have to spend on gas over the lifetime of the car – up to 150,000 miles, which is our estimate for how far we would drive it. We figured 15,000 miles per year, with the cost of gas being $3 per gallon on average.

Fuel efficiency is particularly important for us because this car will be used for my wife’s commute. Roominess for long trips isn’t nearly as important here – we’ll mostly use it for commuting, local errands, and some weekend trips.

Thus, we started our search looking at 2004, 2005, and 2006 sedans. I visited the library several times along the way and we looked at quite a few cars. We eventually settled on a handful of models that we were interested in – the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry led the pack, with a few other models we were considering. (The Prius wasn’t even on the radar at this point.)

What we began to notice is that, in the models we were looking at, the new cars weren’t a lot higher than the used versions we were looking at. We would see a used 2005 Camry with 50,000 miles on it at 60-65% the price of a new Camry, for example, and our per-mile calculations would show us that we would get the same value-per-mile out of the new car if we drove it to 150,000 miles, plus with the new car, we would get two or three years of initial low-trouble driving out of the car (the first 50,000 miles).

The prices were mostly the result of the economy in late 2008. Reliable used cars were holding their value well, but new cars, even on models that sold well, were seeing great prices.

Thus, we began to include new cars in our search. This was cemented at a large Toyota dealership in mid-February, when one salesman quoted us a price on a used ’09 Camry (with a few features we didn’t want) that was only $1,000 less than a new ’09 Camry.

Another factor: the stimulus package. Here’s the scoop, per cnn:

Under the Auto Ownership Tax Assistance Amendment, car buyers will be able to deduct sales and excise taxes on the purchase price of a car up to $49,500. As originally proposed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., interest payments would have been deductible as well.

The taxes paid on a new car plus car loan interest (note: the car loan interest provision was removed in a revision of the bill) are tax deductible. This saves us a few hundred dollars (at least) for buying new instead of buying used.

Yet another factor that nudged us towards new is the warranty offered on a new car. To put it simply, with auto insurance and a warranty, our only expenses on the car over the first several years are maintenance and deductibles (if anything happens). Although many used models have some degree of warranty available, most are very short term or are severely limited in some regard.

As our 1999 Mercury Sable began to exhibit more and more problems (failing struts, a transmission that would take five or so seconds to shift from first to second gear, our search began to grow more urgent. We received the 2009 car issue of Consumer Reports in the mail and my wife and I pored over it carefully.

We focused on the entry-level family sedan section and eliminated them based on a handful of factors: it had to have at least average safety, it had to have fuel efficiency above 22 miles per gallon, and it had to have a good reliability history. These factors quickly eliminated quite a few models, leaving us with just four new models that we agreed to consider along with the used models we were considering: the Toyota Prius, the Toyota Camry, the Nissan Sentra, and the Honda Accord.

Here is where the Prius began to really stand out for us. We did fuel efficiency calculations for these models assuming that we would drive them to the 150,000 mile mark with the same cost-per-gallon assumption we used above. According to that calculation ($3 per gallon), the Prius would cost us $9,782 in gas over the lifetime of the car (at 46 MPG), while the Camry (for example) would cost us $18,750 in gas over the lifetime of the car (at 24 MPG). A $9,000 savings on fuel (at the assumed $3 per gallon rate, of course) versus an average fuel-efficiency car was a huge factor for us in our calculations. To put it in another perspective, we anticipate putting roughly 15,000 miles per year on the car. Versus the Camry (which I’m using as an “average” sedan here for comparison), the Prius would save us $900 a year in fuel.

We spent a month comparing prices on used cars available at local dealerships as well as the new cars we had identified and, to put it quite simply, we could not find anything that really competed with the “bang for the buck” value of the Prius. Most of the used models we examined were priced close enough to the new models – even after negotiating – that we eventually came to the realization that the Prius was the right purchase for us.

Our down payment decision We had enough in cash to pay for the car in one shot, but two factors kept us from doing that. First, it would partially deplete our emergency fund, putting our family in a somewhat more risky spot. Second, we will have to replace our other vehicle (currently a Ford F-150 with somewhere around 140,000 miles on it) in the next year or two, so depleting our entire car savings might not be wise. Add into that the fact that our credit is stellar (we got a 4% rate on our car loan), we’re nearly breaking even by keeping the cash ourselves and holding it in a savings account plus we have the security of having a big emergency fund. We chose to put $5,000 down on the car to avoid any liability and insurance costs if we were to be underwater on the car at any point. The rest remains in our savings, minimizing our risk against other life emergencies.

(Edit: after reading many comments about whether or not we could afford the car, I wanted to note that we had enough in car savings to pay for the entire car in cash. We chose not to because we have a second vehicle that will need replacing in the next year or two and that may require major repairs in the near future (we consider that to be an emergency, hence the mention of “emergency” savings above – if our truck had failed right after buying the car, our emergency fund would have gotten hammered). At the same time, we were earning 3% in savings & CDs with the cash compared to the 4% loan – that didn’t offer enough incentive to lose the huge cushion in our savings.)

Thus, after all of this, we bought a 2009 Toyota Prius. After driving it for a weekend trip (and putting about 400 miles on it), the car is achieving almost exactly 42 miles per gallon (even with my wife lead-footing a bit on the interstate).

Here are four things we learned during the process.

Know what you actually want. Because this is a car we’ll use for commuting, our biggest factors were reliability and fuel efficiency. We did not want any extras, either – the base package is what we wanted. Thus, as we shopped, we were often comparing the base package for the new models versus a motley crew of packages for the used models, meaning the prices were often closer than they would be if we were demanding some certain “extras” as a minimum requirement. This changed our buying process significantly.

Before you even start shopping, spend some time figuring out exactly what you want. Spend some time considering the features you consider important – and focus on those factors. If a feature isn’t important to you, don’t pay for it.

Don’t restrict your horizons without a reason. Our original predisposition against new cars was mostly due to the prevailing notion that new cars simply aren’t a good buy. Yet, in those market conditions, we ran the numbers carefully and found that our overall cost of ownership with a new Prius over the period we intended to own it was lower than virtually all of the used models we could find.

Total cost of ownership per mile is a surprising (and useful) number. Most of our calculations centered around the total cost of owning the car up to 150,000 miles, then we figured out the cost-per-mile for the car. So, for example, if we have a used car we evaluate that has 70,000 miles on it, we figure out how much the cost of fuel and maintenance and insurance will be up to 150,000 miles, add that to the cost, then divide that by 80,000 miles (the amount we’ll actually use it). For the Prius, we figured up the cost of gas and maintenance and insurance through 150,000 miles, added that to the price, then divided by 150,000. In short, we looked for the best bang for the buck, not the lowest monthly payment, and the best deal turned out to be the new Prius.

Don’t go shopping in one day. Take your time. Visit lots of dealerships. Even if you know what you want, negotiate a bit with that dealer, but don’t sign on the dotted line immediately. Let them know that you’re visiting lots of dealers. I don’t claim to be a good negotiator, but I do know that visiting lots of dealerships, talking openly about the things we’re considering from other dealerships, and leaving dealerships after expressing some interest in a car on the lot only helped us over the long haul.

If you’re making a careful purchase, research and dealer visits will likely be part of the equation anyway, so play it to your advantage. This can easily save you thousands on the initial price.

Good luck!