Today’s question comes from a long-time reader who has achieved that most improbable of feats: becoming a homeowner in California. There’s just one little problem: there’s a 36-mile round-trip commute involved, much of it in gridlock conditions.
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That Route 17 commute is one of the most dangerous in America. Officially. So I would not want to spend a couple hours on it every day in a car that doesn't offer substantial occupant protection. For a nimble, extremely economical commuter I could recommend my '92 Civic VX which (at 245,000 miles clocked) yields me 38 mpg around town, and 50 mpg on an open highway. It runs circles around my '59 Porsche 356. But it's very wispy, the doors oh so thin, and road noise high (zero acoustic insulation.) The single airbag - will it even still work? No, not a good commuter for a family man. I'd stay in that LR3, and leave the Prius home for the missus.
As a former longtime commuter from our place in Santa Cruz over the hill to Silicon Valley, I recommend that you focus on your mental health rather than your financial. Daily over 17 has broken lesser men; the key is to turn a negative into a positive. You get to drive twice a day over a high speed winding mountain road. In my case that meant offloading my practical paid off sedan for a used Boxster S and joining a gym on the Valley side so I could hit 17 every day before 6am for a full speed assault, hopefully without use of the brakes. Luckily for me I worked long hours so usually didn’t head back until at least 7 when a second hot wheels style run could typically be accomplished. The speed limits on 17 are agreeably (and probably absurdly) high so the CHP isn’t a problem as long as you can keep your car right side up. And it never got old.
Pro tip: there are a number of websites showing the speed of traffic on 17 and there’s Twitter. Always check before heading over. Getting stuck can be long and brutal and there’s no need considering the amazing backroad alternatives. My favorite was Woodside Road then south on Hwy 1. You won’t get home any sooner but you won’t mind a bit.
I tend to agree with the "if it is paid for, keep it" option. However ... I live in Puget Sound and used to work remotely for a company in Scotts Valley. I had to fly down to San Jose a couple times a month for a couple years. I drove whatever the rental car company gave me on each trip, so I have driven all sorts of vehicles over Hwy 17. When traffic isn't moving, a LR3 seems like an OK choice. But, when traffic is not at a standstill, it seems like a LR3 on 17 would be no fun in the turns.
People have often asked me the same question, phrased as "what's a good car?" In response I ask two questions: "does the car you have now run, and is it paid for?" If the answer to both questions is yes, I tell them "that's a good car." There is no point at which fixing your existing car will cost more than the payments on a new one; the only real reason to ever get rid of your old car is if the parts become unavailable. And speaking as a California Bay Area native, in California a 36 mile round trip commute is more like a quick jaunt to the store; most people drive at least twice that far to get to work and it's fairly common for people to drive 100 miles or more round trip. Another thing you have to take into account is that at rush hour much of that mileage is going to be done at an average speed of 10 - 15 mph; instead of concentrating on the highway mpg you need to look at how much fuel the car uses when idling. On the other hand, for those who aren't familiar with that infamous stretch of highway 17 in question it's one of those "they said it couldn't be built" roads that winds over a coastal mountain range and was originally built to allow vacationing San Jose residents to drive their Model T's to Santa Cruz. Four wheel drive would definitely come in handy as in winter the road gets a lot of rain and occasional snow storms. And one thing you didn't take in to account is that in the event of a collision there is simply no substitute for brute mass. In the event of a collision he would be a lot safer in the Range Rover, or better yet a Dodge dual cab long bed pick-up.
I would point out that even one day a week commuting in the Prius makes Jack's economic argument to keep the LR3 even better. It's less soul sucking to drive a car like that once in a while than feel stuck driving it every day.
I'm a car guy with 10 cars. People know it and have asked me similar questions. For example should I buy a new subaru since it gets good gas mileage and replace my V-10 dodge truck that I drive every day (that's not me, that is what someone asked me). I told them to do the numbers, and that they had to be kidding me. It would take 20+ years to save enough on gas to pay for the subaru, and by then the subaru would be dead.
Totally agree with Jack.
I tested the theory by buying a $2000 99 Subaru Legacy about 5 years ago. Saved $200ish on gas every month... but was over 2k in repairs that first year (but I didn't have to fix the AC...). So I spent between 1-2k more than if I had just run the gas guzzler I already had.
His advice holds true even where I live, where cars rot out from salt and you can't just baby the along forever easily ---unless you have discipline and keep it oiled every spring underneath and wash it underneath when you can during the winter (those odd high temp days). If I lived in California/Arizona or such my vehicles would live forever --maybe not with original engines and such, but forever!