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.