Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Little Blue and Big Blue

I don’t especially like cars. They’re too big and too fast and too dangerous and too polluting and too isolating and too seductively comfortable and especially too ubiquitous. For everyday commuting and most errands I’ll stick to my trusty bicycle.

Still, I have to admit that cars are useful. I bought my first one in 1991 when I moved to a small town in Iowa, because I knew I would occasionally need a way to escape. And I still have that car: a 1989 Toyota Tercel hatchback, now known affectionately as Little Blue. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve grown attached to it.

My parents helped me pick out Little Blue from the classified ads: automatic transmission, 17,460 miles, $6000. A nice practical car for a young single visiting assistant professor, and an easy car to drive and maneuver and park, for someone who didn’t have much experience behind the wheel.

Oh, the places I went in Little Blue. During my two years in Iowa there were monthly supply runs to Iowa City, occasional trips to St. Louis to see the folks, a canoe outing with five students who all had to squeeze in for the return drive after the other car broke down, a big camping vacation to southern Utah after school was out in 1992, and a spring break (1993) hiking trip to Arkansas (anywhere warmer than Iowa!) when, on the way home near Joplin, Missouri, the differential somehow ran dry and ground itself into smithereens.

After the move to Utah there were road trips all around the West, mostly to hike and camp in the mountains. I made some of these trips alone, but more often brought a friend or two. Little Blue still reminds me of companions from long ago, including the greatly missed friend who put that big dent near the left front wheel.

Little Blue has accumulated several bumper stickers over the years: Radio Free Utah, Save Our Canyons, Kill Your Television, Down the Hatch (24 years is too long!), Transit First, Obama ’08, FOrward, and =.  But the rear bumper faces the noon sun from Little Blue’s parking space, so the stickers that haven’t completely disintegrated are well on their way.

Since we bought a Prius at the end of 2004, Little Blue hasn’t gotten much use. I no longer feel very safe in such a small car without airbags, and of course the Prius gets much better fuel economy. (Its nickname is the Patriot Car, since you don’t have to attack Iraq to get enough gasoline to run it.) So Little Blue’s odometer has only gradually crept beyond 100,000, even as the passage of time has taken a toll on more and more of its parts. Still, we do occasionally need a second car around town, and the Patriot Car is pretty lousy on snow and on Utah’s unpaved back roads.

So I’ve just taken the plunge and bought a replacement for Little Blue: a 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek, known for the time being as Big Blue. It dwarfs Little Blue, even though by today’s standards it’s not especially big. But it’s about the most modest (and most efficient) vehicle you can buy that has high clearance, which I want for those trips into the backcountry. It also has all-wheel drive, so we’ll use it in town when the roads are icy.

I have extremely mixed feelings about buying a new car. It was a stupid decision financially, especially since I don’t plan to drive it more than 5000 miles a year. It would have been far cheaper to fix up Little Blue, or to buy a used Subaru or perhaps a Ford Escape hybrid or some other small SUV. But the Crosstrek, which came out only a year ago, is closer to what I really want than any of those older models, in terms of capability and fuel economy. And I’m not enthusiastic about spending the time to shop for and maintain a used car. At this point in my life, my money is worth less than my time.

It’s fun and informative to compare some of the specifications of Little Blue, the Patriot Car, and Big Blue. Here for each is the curb weight, engine power (including the hybrid drive for the Prius), and city/highway fuel economy under the current EPA rating system:
1989 Tercel: 2085 lbs, 78 hp, 24/29 mpg
2005 Prius: 2921 lbs, 110 hp, 48/45 mpg
2014 Crosstrek: 3175 lbs, 148 hp, 25/33 mpg
Although the power/weight ratio is about the same for the two Toyotas, the Prius accelerates much faster—presumably because of its better transmission (CVT vs. three-speed automatic). In practice, both Little Blue and the Patriot Car have consistently beaten their EPA mpg ratings on the highway, but fallen short of them in the city. Probably the same will hold true for Big Blue, but we’ll see.

I have more to say about power and fuel economy, but that will have to wait for a future blog.