Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cars, cars, cars

We went to the Portland Auto Show last Friday, actually shopping for a new car instead of just gawking the way we've done in the past.  The needs of the cafe are putting a toll on our Volvo station wagon, a 2001 V70 T5.  Semi-monthly trips to Costco to pick up cases of soda, soy milk, tuna and whatever else is required put a heavy burden on the suspension and brakes, and all the in-town, stop-and-go traffic is wearing out the engine.

With gas prices the way they are, our knee-jerk reaction to look for a "green" oriented vehicle has become more of a driving force, so to speak.  Unfortunately, most vehicles that are extremely fuel efficient from a "miles per gallon" perspective, such as the Toyota Prius, lack significantly in load carrying capacity.  What we really need is a small SUV, with emphasis on the "utility" and not so much (if any) on the "sport."  There's a wide range of options in this class of vehicle, and almost every one of them is rated at 15-17 m.p.g. in the city, a scant increase over the 14-15 m.p.g. that our Volvo's on-board computer shows we're getting currently.

There are a few SUVs that are green-oriented, including the Jeep Liberty Diesel.  We like the idea of a diesel, since there's a biodiesel filling station just blocks from our house.  But the Liberty Diesel only gets around 19 m.p.g. in the city, and Jeep is so unhappy with the overall performance of the engine that they're going to stop using it.  Many auto manufacturers, from Honda to Land Rover, are saying that they'll have diesel SUVs available in the U.S. "real soon now," but they always seem to be about eighteen months away from showroom floors.  These vehicles are expected to perform in the 22-24 m.p.g. range for city driving, and over 30 m.p.g. on the freeway, both excellent numbers considering the class of vehicle.

With diesel out, we looked to the scant few available hybrid SUVs.  The Ford Escape Hybrid, with its upscale Mercury counterpart, is getting rave reviews for its ability to get 30 m.p.g. in city driving.  The cargo area is a little smaller than we were looking for, but reasonable.  We could never make a full shopping run to Costco with anyone else along, but that rarely happens anyway, so it's a manageable issue.  Beyond the cargo capacity, though, the quality of the interior put us off.  For a vehicle priced around $30,000, the interior had a distinctly cheap plastic feeling one would expect from a low-budget Hyundai or Kia (mind you, I realize that both those manufacturers make higher-end vehicles that are nicely appointed).  After many years of driving Volvos, we're used to a little more refinement in an interior.  We're willing to let luxury go in favor of better fuel economy, but the interior of the Mercury Mariner Hybrid seemed like it was about as sturdy as an egg shell.

The next stop sent us looking at the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, currently ranked highest in "ooh-ahh" factor when discussing such things.  Rated at 27 m.p.g. in the city, it drinks a bit more than the Escape, but is quite a bit larger and has much better appointments than its domestic cousin.  The Highlander has a third row of seating, with a seven passenger capacity, and is fully decked out with fun options like an electric lift on the tailgate (nice when your arms are loaded).  Unfortunately, the price reflects all the finery.  At $45,000, the Highlander Hybrid is about 50% more expensive than the Escape Hybrid.  Our Volvo wagon was around $44,000 new, but we didn't buy it new and paid less than half the sticker price for a four-year-old car.

We were a bit in despair as we prepared to leave, not wanting to pay what seemed like an exorbitant price for the Highlander, yet not wanting to put up with the cheap-feeling interior of the Mercury.  We were caught in the middle.

On the way out, I spotted the Saturn display, which I'd previously missed.  Before going to the show, I'd done quite a bit of research into the vehicles I was interested in, and had more or less written off the Saturn Vue Hybrid because it's not a "true hybrid," as it uses what amounts to an oversized alternator and battery to help the engine along at appropriate times.  But in the final analysis, it's rated at 25 m.p.g. in the city (32 on the highway), and is priced starting just under $25,000.  We could almost buy two for the price of a fully-outfitted Highlander, and the fuel economy is comparable, considering the Highlander's highway rating of around 23 m.p.g.

The interior of the Vue is not exactly luxurious, but the plastic trim feels sturdy enough and not like it will fall apart on first contact with a solid object.  There's plenty of cargo area, even with the rear seat backs up, and the suspension is nice and firm (we load tested it with over 500 pounds of people sitting in the cargo area and over 300 in the front passenger seat).  The seats are comfortable enough, particularly with the upscale leather option (fully loaded with all available options, the Vue Hybrid is priced just over $27,000).  We're looking forward to taking one for a test drive.

One would think that, particularly given the Northwest attitude toward all things environmental, car dealers would stock up on hybrid vehicles before showing them off at a local car show.  But finding a hybrid SUV to take for a test drive is a serious challenge, and finding one to purchase is even more difficult.  The Saturn dealers keep telling us it will be the end of February before anything but a showroom model is available.  That, to me, seems like an odd way to sell a car.  Luckily, we have the option of waiting.  The Volvo isn't exactly falling apart, it's just been a little abused.

The other car-oriented thing we've been doing lately is shopping for a small delivery vehicle for what we hope becomes a significantly expanded catering business at the cafe.  We think we've decided on the Miles ZX40.  After Oregon tax breaks for businesses buying an electric car, the net cost would be about $15,000.  That's a lot of money for something to zip around downtown delivering sandwiches, but the fuel savings over time (the cost per mile to drive the ZX40 is in pennies) combined with the customer goodwill for being a green-minded company creates quite an offset for the initial purchase price.  And, compared to the other all-electric vehicles available, I actually fit behind the wheel comfortably (I could barely get into our out of the Zap three wheeler).

I'll post an update as our quest to find new transportation continues.  By the way, the '65 Jeep Gladiator pickup project I've been working on is slow going.  We're stalled out on getting the new(er) steering column in.  I went and bought a welder yesterday so we could fabricate a couple of brackets.  I would have rented one, but over the years I've found several instances where I needed a welder for this-or-that, and decided that now was the time to just buy one.  My friend Jared, who's been doing a lot of the work on the Gladiator lately, is on the hook to get me started with welding skills, but from what I hear, practice is the only thing that will make you any good at it.  My sister is a certified welder, and once had a job building microbrewery tanks.  She and I figured out long ago, though, that we can't learn things from one another, as we're both stubborn and impatient.  Better for me to learn from someone who isn't a member of the family.