Saturday, February 5, 2011

Showdown: Toyota Camry vs. Chevrolet Malibu

The tagline still rings clear in my head, circa 2008, “Chevrolet Malibu: The car you can’t ignore.” Perhaps a more appropriate slogan would have been “Hopeless Camry wannabe since 1997!” The first generation Malibu was such a blatant Camry rip-off – complete with ‘international’ amber rear turn signals –Toyota should have sued for plagiarism. That Malibu taught GM that a appliance-like personality is more than skin deep. Or maybe it didn’t. The second generation, while more original and substantially improved, remained a rental lot has-been in a segment full of more appealing options. Chevy, along with a handful of auto rags afraid of losing advertising sponsorship, insist that with the current Malibu, the stalwart CamCords have met their match. We’ll just see about that.

Competition is so fierce in the mid-size sedan segment that most competitors have morphed into virtual clones of each other. Indeed, on paper you’d be hard pressed to tell there was any difference at all between the Malibu and the Camry. Both make exactly 169 horsepower, coming from a 2.4-liter motor in the Chevy and a 2.5-liter in the Camry. Both are rated for exactly 22 MPG in the city, with the Camry achieving 32 on the highway and Malibu rated for 33. Both have a six-speed automatic transmission – standard on the Chevy, technically optional on the Toyota (though you’re more likely to find a llama sitting in a Toyota showroom than a manual-transmission Camry). Every exterior dimension measures up with fewer than two inches difference between the two cars, save wheelbase where the Malibu is, surprisingly, a full three inches longer.

The real difference is in the drive, where more subjective measurements come into play. Having said that, taking everything into account, these are very, very similar cars.

I will be the first to admit that, apart from the taillights that don’t line up (tsk, tsk… shouldn’t quality control have caught that?), the Malibu is the better looking of the two. It’s bold, chiseled, and largely cohesive. The car manages to look much more expensive than it is, and it carries an almost sophisticated presence that most mid-size sedans lack. In comparison, the Camry comes off as more of a rounded-off box. It’s not a bad looking car, just bland an unassuming. Neither sedan is going to turn heads in traffic or fool the neighbors into thinking you’ve won the lottery, but both are respectable, tasteful designs that should age well.

Interior designs echo the exteriors in terms of styling – once again, the Camry breaks no new ground while the Malibu looks more Marriott than Econolodge. Okay, maybe a Days Inn. Materials quality and assembly is similar in both cars – decent, but built to a price. Most of the Toyota’s plastics feel hard and hollow while the Malibu’s feel rubbery and Tupperware-like, neither is particularly inviting but I can’t decide which is more offensive. The Camry’s interior design is almost too conventional, bordering on utilitarian. The Malibu’s sweeping dashboard and two-tone color scheme (the 'test car' was unfortunately ordered with the rather stark black-on-black combo) is decidedly more modern and upscale, if a bit busy and less user-friendly. Despite having the design creativity of a cement wall, I actually prefer the interior of the Toyota for its greater functionality. The HVAC controls are huge, the radio display is large and easy to see, and there are far fewer buttons and controls than in the Malibu. Simple, functional, straightforward. Someone who’s never set foot in a Camry could figure everything out within 15 seconds, while you almost have to whip out the owner’s manual to change the radio volume in the Malibu.

The Camry has been the benchmark for comfort and quietness for virtually as long as it has existed. Ride quality is undoubtedly the smoothest you’re going to find among any mid-size car available, better even than a handful of low-end luxury cars. Ride motions are slow and gentle - not quite floaty, but undeniably soft. Road bumps rarely amount to more than minor jostles in the cabin and even direct pothole strikes are cushioned enough as to never feel jarring. The Malibu, while certainly not uncomfortable, is noticeably harsher. There is an extra sharpness to the ride motions and imperfections register more directly to the cabin. The Chevy’s ride smoothes out somewhat on the freeway, where it almost matches the Camry for cruising composure. Both cars are very quiet – they’re the quietest two models in the class, in fact – the Malibu helped by its laminated side glass, a feature found on more expensive cars. Despite its regular, non-laminated glass, the Camry takes the edge in the category, if only slightly.

Both sedans have very light steering, almost ridiculously so at certain speeds. The Camry’s is hydraulic while the Malibu’s is electronic, meaning a more natural, linear feel in the former. Both are very numb and feel largely artificial with little to no feedback. The Camry’s brakes feel spongy and highly overboosted, the Malibu’s are substantially nicer, with a firmer feel and better modulation. The suspension in the Chevy is completely free of the nosedive that afflicts the Toyota in quicker stops, a definite plus.

Perhaps what surprises me the most is about the Malibu is how buttoned down it feels in corners, clearly a result of the firmer suspension. While the Camry pitches and rolls at even a hint of aggressive driving, the Chevy stays planted and confident. Body roll is surprisingly restrained for such a large car, and tire grip is impressive over corners with broken surfaces where the Camry would jump and jitter. Both cars have too much mass and are too front-heavy to even approach ‘sports sedan’ - not to mention the overboosted steering - but the Malibu does a far better job of faking it than the Camry, which doesn’t even try.

I never thought I’d see the day when GM made a nicer four-cylinder engine than Toyota, but lo and behold, here you have it. Power delivery and smoothness is about as good as it gets with both cars (by 4-cyl standards), but oh, what a difference in the aural perception department. The Camry’s engine seems almost wheezy and gritty compared to the lusty, subdued roar of the Malibu. Despite having identical power figures, the Chevy feels a bit more sprightly than the Camry in city driving, thanks to a transmission that knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Shifts are smooth and swift - it’s hard to tie the gearbox up no matter what you do with your right foot.

Ah, but what about the details? It’s all about those thoughtful touches that make a good car a great car. Toyota has long excelled at this, GM historically has faltered, often times miserably. Slam the driver’s door of the Chevy and you’ll hear a loud, hollow sound, while the Camry yields a soft, secure “clump”. The turn signal stalks are particularly notable; the Camry’s is perfect – just the right resistance, no excess play, fluid movement. The Malibu’s turn signal feels like it’s going to break off every time you touch it. On the highest setting, the roar from the Malibu’s HVAC fan is earsplitting, while the Camry fan hums along smoothly. And of course, there’s the trademark felt-lined coin tray waiting for you in the Camry’s dashboard. Small things, perhaps, yet things that contribute a lot to one’s overall perception of the car. The Camry is the clear winner here, feeling like the more refined, well-crafted car of the two.

I was almost afraid to drive the Malibu. After reading so many glowing reviews from its initial release, I was afraid it would be better than the Camry and I would regret my decision. I don’t. Not because the Malibu is a bad car. Both are excellent sedans that are in fact more similar than they are different. Rather, I don’t regret it because the Camry simply suits my personal preference. The Malibu is a bit sportier and more stylish, yet rough around the edges. The Camry is so massaged into soft, gentle refinement that there's little room for the "edge" that characterizes the Chevy. Perhaps even that is an exaggeration, as these cars are so close in most categories that it doesn't make a drastic difference which you choose. It basically comes down to one's specific priorities and personal preference, as either sedan will get the job done, and get it done well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rental Road Test: Chevrolet Cobalt

A pleasant surprise. I actually wouldn’t mind owning one of these for the daily commute, especially given how cheap it would be. Back when they still made these (production ended in June), you could get a new one for around 13K-14K after rebates and CPO examples with 30,000 miles can be had for 10K or less.

For the money, this is a surprisingly competent car. I expected it to be terrible, like the Cavalier was, but after driving it for a bit I’d hesitate to can’t even call it “bad”. Certainly not class leading, like the Civic, but not awful by any measure.

Build quality and fit and finish is very poor, much worse than any competitor, and the car doesn’t give the impression that it would be very robust in the long run. Otherwise, the Cobalt is a thoroughly average compact commuter car in nearly every respect.

The Cavalier was noisy, rough, uncomfortable, and just decidedly crude feeling overall. In comparison, the Cobalt is actually quite pleasant. Around town, road noise is insulated slightly better than a Civic, but not as well as a Corolla. Wind noise on the freeway is more prevalent than in most new cars, but in the city the cabin stays reasonably civilized, and in any situation the Cobalt is quieter than most of the budget-priced offerings you’ll find a class below (I’m looking at you, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Aveo).

Ride quality is similarly middle-of-the road among compacts. Both a Civic and Corolla are noticeably more refined, but the Cobalt is not so far behind as to be intolerable. The soft suspension cushions small imperfections reasonably well, and the chassis is surprisingly rigid, especially given how much GM has struggled with this in the past. Still, expansion joints and frost heaves filter through with a more pronounced impact than you would find in the Honda or Toyota. Larger bumps, such as a poorly maintained railroad crossing or a non-flush manhole cover, can upset the suspension and bring out undue harshness. Overall, the Cobalt is comfortable enough, but not quite as stable and composed as a Civic.

A few compacts, like the Civic and Golf, are engineered to a more precise standard and have a sharper feel in the handling department. Most take the Toyota-style appliance route of low-effort controls inputs and an easy-to-drive demeanor. The Cobalt falls directly into the latter category, feeling much like a Corolla behind the wheel. The steering is light and somewhat slow, and the brakes are highly assisted with a slightly mushy pedal feel. Handling is strictly pedestrian – not great, not terrible, body motions are kept in check but the car doesn’t even pretend to be sporty. The Cobalt was designed for stress-free commuting, and it gets the job done with little fuss.

No doubt due to a significantly larger engine than its competitors, the Cobalt is among the quicker compacts. Acceleration is almost on par with a 4-cylinder mid-size sedan, with 0-60 times closer to 9 seconds rather than the 10-second compact norm. More impressively, engine noise and refinement is several notches higher than GM’s past attempts at small cars. It’s not quite Honda-smooth, but neither is it Grand-Am-grittty. Smooth transmissions have always been one of General Motors’ few strong points and the Cobalt does not disappoint there, despite having a very outdated four-speeds. A fifth and sixth gear would be helpful on the freeway where the Cobalt cruises at a high 2500 RMP, but otherwise the lack of speeds is not glaringly obvious.

Typical of General Motors, space efficiency is not a strong suit. Despite being one of the largest compacts in exterior dimensions, the interior is significantly less roomy than most competitors. The backseat is downright cramped, and the front seats feel somewhat confined due to overly thick door panels (another GM trademark) and a low roof. On the bright side, the cowl and beltline are both reasonably low and visibility is downright good by today’s standards, even though this is only due to the car’s dated styling. The driving position takes some getting used to; the interior is a time warp to the days before telescoping steering wheels, so the pedals are either too close or the wheel too far away.

I came away impressed with the Cobalt. Not impressed with the car objectively, but impressed with the car given my expectations. Every time I evaluated a new quality – ride, noise, handling, solidity, space, overall refinement - the thought that went through my mind was “it’s almost as good as a Civic, but not quite”. The Cobalt is a sound car, competing with better ones. It’s qualities are only 2/3 of the Civic, and it will probably only last 2/3 as long, but it is also 2/3 the price. Not everyone wants to pay a hefty premium for refinement, and if you just want a reasonably comfortable and pleasant commuter car to buy on the cheap and run for a few years, the Cobalt is not a bad choice.

That is, if they still made them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Test Drive Terror: The Unstoppable DeVille

Test drives can be disappointing. Almost as often, they’re impressive. Once in a while, they’re downright fun. But sometimes, just sometimes, a test drive is a terrifying adventure.

Looking for a half-decent car below $2000 is not a particularly easy task. It can be done, but it takes some diligent searching. Having decided to pick up a cheap spare beater to drive for a few months and then flip, I set out on a search. On the list of possibilities – a dark green 1996 Cadillac Sedan DeVille listed for $1900.

It looked very good – shiny paint, no rust, no dents, clean white leather interior. Turned the key and the Northstar V8 came to life, quietly. Seemed pleasant enough.

I took the car around a bit, and apart from a clunky suspension and weak, worn-out brakes, it was acceptable for how I’d expect a 90s DeVille to drive. Before I went back to the dealer, I decided to stop and give a walk around, maybe pop the hood, give it a look over. I pulled into an empty parking lot a few blocks down from the dealership, and shifted it into park. Suddenly, I heard a slightly loud noise coming from under the hood. It sounded like some sort of accessory motor, maybe for the rear air suspension, so I got out and popped the hood. Couldn’t figure out what it was. Got back in, shifted into reverse, and immediately the car jolted and started moving backwards at a frightening pace. I had to really stand on the brakes to get it to slow down. I continued backing out the space, shifted into drive to pull away, and once again, felt a hard, jerking jolt and the car started to fly forward. It was quite clear what was going on – the motor was stuck at part throttle rather than idle. Since the target demographic of this model was primarily octogenarians, there was no tachometer, and the V8 was so naturally quiet I couldn’t even tell it was revving high.

I looked down at the gas pedal, and it wasn’t stuck. Since the car had been sitting on the lot for weeks if not a month, I was afraid to turn it off and restart the engine, because the battery might be too drained to handle it. Somehow, I had to get this thing back to the lot. I would just have to be very careful and keep my foot on the brake.

Oh, but that wasn’t all that was wrong with this damn thing. There was a plethora of electrical issues, and among them, neither of turn signals were functioning. Not a big deal… just wait for room and take extra care when changing lanes, right? Only problem – the dealership was located on a high volume one-way street, and I was test driving it during rush hour on a Friday.

Needless to say, traffic was crawling along, bumper to bumper. The street had three lanes, and the dealership was on the opposite side than the parking lot I had stopped the car in. Not only did I have to get out into the street, I had to get all the way to the other side. I nudged the nose of the Cadillac out, and the drivers in the two closest lanes made a small hole in the traffic flow to let me in. Seizing the opportunity, I quickly pulled into the middle lane. As I crawled along in the sea of cars, I flipped the signal up to the right, so someone would make a space to let me in the far lane. Oh! That’s right, it doesn’t work. But the dealership was right there! Past the lot I went, stuck in the wrong lane. No problem… just have to get in the left lane, make a turn at the next intersection, and circle the block again. Damn! That signal doesn’t work either. So there I was, stuck in the middle lane of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, completely neutered of any navigating abilities. Keep in mind, all this is happening while I’m standing on the brakes to keep the car under control.

What fun. I could be stuck here for miles, crawling along at the mercy of the traffic flow, and if I let off the brakes at any moment the free-revving engine might propel the thing into the back of the next car in line. NO! I was not going to put up with this. Closer and closer I came to next intersection. If I didn’t turn left here and circle the block, it would be at least another mile before I had the chance. I had to get out of here and back to the dealership before this car killed me, it was now or never. I was now in the intersection, almost through it. I had to make the turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight break in traffic to my left. It might even be big even to fit the car through. Maybe. It was my only chance. Suddenly, as if possessed by the fear of being in this situation for any longer than I had to, I floored the gas and yanked the steering wheel sharply to left. The body flopped onto its side and tires squealed in protest as the brute Cadillac squirted sideways. A symphony of angry horns erupted around me, one of them no doubt that beige Malibu in that nearly took out my left tailfin.

Phew, I made it. Hmmm… it looks like I may kill myself before the car has the chance to. Ah well, people do crazy things when they’re scared. Around the block I went, and somehow navigated into the dealership lot without any further incident. Quickly, I parked it and turned the engine off. It was all over.

“How’d you like it?”, asks the salesman as I walk in to return the keys.

“Let’s just say, I’m no longer interested.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

Road Test: 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle

At last, a drive in a Bug that isn’t a rolling piece of Scheiße.

According to owner, and, judging by the way it looked/drove, this is probably the closest thing to a brand new 1971 Super Beetle available in the entire state at this point, if not the entire country. Bone stock in every way, right down the non-retractable seatbelts. My expectations were very high.

Which is why I was so disappointed. I had always assumed that my late mother’s 72 Bug (which, by the way, I have seen driving around every so often with its new owner) was so crappy feeling because it was old, worn out, and hadn’t been taken care of. Well, it turns out they felt like that when they were new, too. The closest thing I can liken it to is a 1940s farm tractor, which, if you think about it, is what the Type 1 really is. A Chevrolet Aveo is a Mercedes S-Class in comparison, and, amazingly, that is not even the slightest bit of an exaggeration.

It seems almost useless to make objective measurements in comparison to anything even vaguely modern, as the levels of unrefinement are so wildly off the charts. What bothered me the most was that, at any given time, it sounded and felt like the thrashy little engine was sitting right next to you. In the past, I’ve made snarky comments in my reviews of modern economy cars about how it seemed like there was no insulation anywhere on the body at all. With the Bug, there literally isn’t any insulation on the body at all. In all but steady cruising in 3rd or 4th gear, it is difficult to hold a conversation with the passenger sitting right next to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you if there was any road or wind noise, the damn engine was so ear-splittingly loud.

On the other hand, it did ride better than I expect, thanks to generously sized tires and a softly sprung suspension. The steering wasn’t half bad either, and despite being manual the effort was almost equivalent to an overboosted power unit you would find an old Lincoln. I can only assume this is due to there being almost zero weight over the front wheels, with both the engine and driveline being placed out back. The brakes… yikes. Manual, no-antilocks, coming to a stop was an event every time.

As a whole, driving just a couple blocks took an intense amount of effort. Rather than the car being an entire unit that effortlessly worked in harmony, each part of the driving experience – steering, brakes, clutch, throttle, shifter – had to be closely monitored and kept in check at all times. This is in contrast to most modern cars, where two of those variables are removed altogether and the other three are largely taken care of by the car itself, with only slight inputs from the driver. It really is a whole different world.

I can’t see how a car like this would make a plausible daily driver. If it took that much effort (and fear), to a go a mile or two, I can’t imagine what it must be like for thousands. At least it helped renew my appreciation for the technology we have now. I think I’ll leave this one to someone else, and admire it on the road and in parking lots rather than in my own driveway.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Memory Lane: The Big Brown Cadillac

When I was around four or five years old, my best friend Sonya’s grandma owned a brown 1980s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I can still picture it there, sitting in her parents’ driveway when she would come to visit every month or two. This was in the mid-90s, and back then, every old person in Michigan – and I mean every old person - drove a big, rectangular, excessively ornamented 1980s Detroit land barge. Nowadays we call them pimpmobiles, but to my young eyes, it was the ultimate grandma car. So huge, so square, so formal and old fashioned from the chrome tailfins to the proud, shiny hood ornament. No one under the age of 70 could possibly have one. Certainly not either of my frugal, Toyota Corolla-driving parents, not a chance.

One day, Sonya and I were playing hide-and-seek outside her house. I needed a place to hide, and fast. Her grandma happened to be visiting at the time… see where this is going? It was right there, sitting in the driveway, like the Titanic next to the green Ford Escort that Sonya’s dad owned at the time. I quickly swung open the heavy driver’s door and stealthily climbed inside. It slammed behind me, and there I lay, sprawled across the leather bench seat, body pressed flat against the upholstery as to be completely hidden from sight. In retrospect, fooling around in an adult’s car without their knowledge or permission was probably not to most polite thing to do, but I was too young to realize it at the time. Or maybe I was just an inconsiderate brat. Yeah, that's probably it.

I laid there for quite a while, feeling so proud of my clever hiding spot. But no one came. You see, that is the fundamental flaw with the hide-and-seek. It is a lose-lose proposition. If you are found, your hiding spot was mediocre. If you’re not found after a sufficient amount of time, your hiding spot was excellent, and you want to show it off. But no one will ever know about it, because they never found you.

So, my smug satisfaction having turned to frustration with Sonya’s sub-par seeking ability, I decided to climb out of the super-sized chamber of unapologetic luxury. As a sat up to open the door, I got a quick glimpse of the dashboard out of my peripheral vision. Whoa! Hold on a minute! The interior of this car was almost as wild as the exterior! It was all so foreign to me, having been born and bred on Japanese econoboxes. I distinctly remember being absolutely entranced by the horizontal strip speedometer. It was completely flat; straight across the dashboard! And the digits were all so thin and stylized, or, to quote it more in line with my four-year-old vocabulary; “fancy looking”. How I desperately longed to see it in action. But wait… it stopped at 85 miles per hour. What happened if you went above 85? Did the car explode? Oh, the mysteries of youth. So many questions, no answers.

Sonya never did find me that day. As the years went by, the Cadillac graced the driveway less and less frequently until, eventually, grandma passed away and I never saw it again. Oh well, it was back to mom’s silver Corolla. *Sigh*. Why couldn’t my parents be old and have a cool car with shiny tailfins and a fancy looking speedometer that spread straight across the dash?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Road Test: 2011 Honda CR-Z

I forgot to get out my camera at the dealership, so I do not have any photos to share here. Hopefully I will manage to get some later and revise this. For now, stock photos must suffice.

On paper, I love the idea of this car. And the styling (sans grille) is certainly very sharp. But it just doesn’t feel complete.

The driving experience can be likened to a weird cross between a Prius and a Civic. Much of it is very Honda-esque; the steering and brakes, for instance, could have come straight out of my dad’s Civic LX that I drove to the dealership. Which is to say; quick, firm, relatively responsive. The suspension is considerably harsher than in the Civic, but this translates into much less lean in turns and a more buttoned-down feel overall.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t get that “sporty” feeling behind the wheel. Much of this is a due to a very un-Honda-like attribute – an extremely high front cowl and closed-in cockpit, both of which have the unfortunate effect of making the car seem much larger than it is. This is a tiny car - much smaller than a Civic – but it did not feel like it. No matter how well sorted the suspension and steering, a car will never seem nimble if it does not “feel” small from the driver’s seat.

The powertrain is equally disappointing. No, it is not quite as slow as many reviews would have you believe, but what bothered me most was the CVT transmission. Now, this is the first car I have ever driven with a CVT, so perhaps I’m just not used to it. It is certainly something that you have to experience yourself, so I will refrain from describing what exactly I dislike about it. Actually, I can’t really put it in words, nor am I sure what it is I don’t like about it. All I really know is that I just don’t like it.

Transitions from gas to electric are much smoother than in the previous generation Prius, a car that sends a long and pronounced shake through the entire body with its engine on/off mode. Having not experienced a Gen3 Prius yet, I cannot compare it to the CR-Z. Though not quite as slow as many reviewers would have you believe, almost any other car will outrun the CR-Z in a drag race, including the base Civic. Typical of Honda, this engine revs very high (nearly 7000 RPM), and you are certainly audibly aware of it under WOT, something you will be doing often given the 0-60 time north of 10 seconds.

It goes without saying that there is an abundance of road, tire, and suspension noise present; after all, this is a Honda. Having said that, it is not as objectionable as you would think. Oddly, the sporty mission of the car almost makes it seem a required part of the package. More connection to the road, I guess? Who knows. Bottom line; if you want quiet, there will always be Corollas.

Overall, I couldn’t decide whether this car wants to be fun and sporty or practical and efficient. It’s too compromised for the former, not quite appliance-like enough for the latter.

Comparisons always bring out the best and worst of a particular model. In the CR-Z's case, slipping back into the Civic LX after the test drive did not provide a favorable comparison. Visibility! Ride quality! A genuine gasoline engine and a transmission that actually shifts gears! Hallelujah!

In the end, the only real hope I see for this car in terms of success is in its styling. Though it does most everything competently, it does not function as a legitimately sporty car nor does it function as a true Hybrid. Lower the cowl, offer a more powerful all-gas powertrain (the Civic motor would work nicely), and most of its shortcoming would be rectified. Otherwise, the sharp silhouette is the only way this car will likely gain any sales. A car selling solely due to its styling? Certainly not unheard of… how else did Ford sell so many of those god-awful Explorers back in the 90s?

Friday, September 10, 2010

New cars are cheap! : Part One

So, I decided to sit down and crunch the numbers on how much a new car really costs over time. The results were astounding and completely unexpected. I had always thought of new cars – even cheap new cars like Hondas - as a luxury… something you had to pay much more for than a used car, the “uneconomical choice”. But it’s looking like, when done right, it can actually be very affordable.

To come up with these numbers, I started with the price of the new car. Then, I went on and searched listings for one, two, three, etc –year-old cars and recorded the average prices out of thousands of national real-world used car listings (the site does this for you at the bottom of the page so it’s just a matter of typing in the year, make, model, and trim and copying the result). To find the overall “cost per year” at any given point in time, you simply subtract the corresponding value of the car from the original price and divide it by years of ownership. For example, if you buy a $20,000 car and it is worth $14,000 three years later, you divide 6000 (the difference in value) by 3 (the amount of years you’ve owned it) and find that you have spent a mere $2000 per year to own that car.

The chart above is for my Camry. The original transaction price was $21,900 (in retrospect I could have gotten a much better deal… but I digress), the other figures all come from the average Autotrader values (4-cylinder LE models only). First year depreciation is steepest, after that it levels off at a slower rate. The sharp 5-year-mark dropoff is no doubt due to that being the older generation (2006 model), from there onwards it declines rather steadily.

Granted, there are a lot of disclaimers here. For one, these result only apply if you pay in cash, since financing will not only cost more over time but also bind you to the car for a predetermined amount of years… I think 60 months is the typical term now, depressing as that is. I have yet to finance any car so I don’t really know.

Second, this can only really work if you choose a car that’s affordable in the first place (i.e. well under $25k) AND has stellar resale value, which these days pretty much limits your choices exclusively to Toyotas and Hondas. Again, fine by me, I decided quite a bit ago that those are the only the way to go for various other reasons.

Of course, maintenance and upkeep are not taken into account here either, but up until year five these costs should be minimal. My Camry actually has completely free maintenance for the first two years, courtesy of Toyota. Even if maintenance wasn’t free, assuming you have oil changes every 5,000 miles and that you drive no more than 10-12K per year, the cost will be under $100 per year. Hardly worth taking into account. By year four or five, you may have to start to factor in brakes, tires, and major services such as the 30K and 50K scheduled maintenance intervals (which will run in the hundreds), at which point it will be somewhat more expensive. Until year five any mechanical repairs will be covered under warranty, after that, they have the possibility to show up. Given that the cars in question, though, are Toyotas and Hondas, they should be able to easily make 100,000 miles (about 8 or 9 years) without any mechanical issues. Actually, some American and Korean cars are even able to that these days, but they still won’t be worth as much when it comes time to sell.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Well, the perfect amount of time to own a new car looks to be five years. At this point, the depreciation curve has leveled off, but additional costs in maintenance and repairs haven’t reared their ugly heads yet. By keeping it more than five years, you are risking repairs out of warranty that could add significantly to the overall cost of owning the car. Even so, plenty of people do this, and it is not unlikely that you will reach 10 years without too many out-of-pocket costs. To be safe, I’d pick five years since the “cost per year” (sans maintenance/repairs) is only a bit higher than in year 8 or 9, and there’s a lot less risk since it will be under warranty. Plus, that way, your car will never descend out of “late-model” territory, which is certainly a nice benefit.

For around $2000 per year you can buy a brand new car every five years. Sounds too good to be, true, doesn’t it? Just remember to choose a CamCord, pay in cash, don’t drive more than 12,000 miles per year, and it keep it for at least 5 years.