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Archive for Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Keeping gas guzzler outweighs getting fuel-efficient vehicle

January 17, 2006

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Although gasoline prices are below the heart-aching levels they reached last year, nationwide they are still high enough to make many drivers wonder if they should trade their SUVs or larger cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

And what if you owe more on your car than you can get selling it privately or trading it at a dealership?

That's the predicament facing Tom Hungate, who lives in Pullman, Wash. Hungate bought a used 2000 Ford Expedition.

Hungate has tried to sell the Expedition privately, but he can't get enough to pay off his loan. He's in a situation a lot of car owners find themselves in these days. He's upside-down on his loan - meaning he owes more on it than the SUV is worth.

Hungate wanted to know if he should get something more fuel-efficient or keep his gas-gobbler.

When faced with this type of financial dilemma, there are a number of factors you should consider: fuel economy, maintenance costs, interest rates, insurance, reliability, which car will hold it's value better and environmental impact. But in this case, let's just look at the one overriding factor that makes Hungate want to get rid of the Expedition - high fuel costs.

Hungate said the Expedition gets about 14 miles per gallon in the city and 17 miles per gallon on the highway.

With that in mind, I did a little computing to see if he should trade or keep his Expedition.

Hungate estimates he'll pay about $100 a month for fuel at current gasoline prices. So his car expenses for a month (excluding maintenance and insurance) are $470 ($100 in fuel plus a $370 car note).

Hungate is just three years into a six-year car note, so he'll pay that for the next 36 months if he keeps the Expedition. However, Hungate estimates he'll spend about $1,200 a year for fuel for the Expedition.

So let's look at the costs Hungate would incur if he traded in the Expedition for another vehicle.

He's considering a Hyundai Tucson with the four-cylinder engine, a compact SUV with better fuel economy. Hungate figures he would spend about $50 a month on gasoline on the Hyundai, for a yearly savings of $600.

With options, he expects to pay about $22,000 for the Hyundai. However, he may end up financing $24,000, not including tags, taxes and fees. The extra $2,000 represents the negative equity from the Expedition.

His monthly payment on the Hyundai then would be about $547, based on a 48-month loan at 4.5 percent interest. Including gasoline, his new monthly vehicle costs would be $597. So Hungate's real costs would go up $127 a month if he purchased the Hyundai.

I know this example is super simple. In this case, he should not trade in the Expedition for a new Hyundai Tucson just based on fuel savings.

- Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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