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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Citizen Dave: The greenest choice might be to keep driving the clunker (unless it's not)
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I'm planning on buying a new car. In the year 2027.

My 1997 Honda Accord wagon has 145,000 miles on it, and I'm going for 300,000. At the rate Dianne and I drive -- about 10,000 miles a year -- that would put our next new car purchase at about December 2027. Maybe it'll be a Christmas gift for ourselves.

By the way, 300K is nothing. It earns you only "silver" on Honda Mile Makers, the company's official club for longevity. Still, this makes me eligible for both a coffee mug and a t-shirt and, God knows, I need more of each. Who doesn't?

I love the Accord wagon. Its color is "Heather Mist," which sounds vaguely like a New Orleans stripper, but that is the only sexy thing about this car. It's got a hatch door in the back and the back seats fold down. It can carry bikes, skis, ladders, groceries (from both Costco and Whole Foods), brush -- you name it. And it just runs and runs without complaint. When it needs service. I take it to the Honda service center on Grand Canyon Drive, where everybody is friendly and I have never once felt ripped off in any way.

My car is at mid-life and (like Dianne and I) is still going pretty strong. This may make you ask why I'm even thinking about replacing it some day, even if that is fifteen years from now. Well, I needed to deal with a little auto mortality awareness this last week.

See, that wonderful hatch door kept falling on our heads. The hydraulic struts that kept the door up had worn out, so I needed to replace them at $300. ($127 for the left strut and $173 for the right one. No, I don't get it either.)

Then, as if that wasn't tragic enough, as I was waiting for my car to come out of surgery, David, my friendly Honda maintenance guy, came over to me in the waiting area and sat down next to me. He might as well have held my hand, though I'm grateful that he didn't. He explained in tones of sincere concern that they had found more trouble. It involved ball bearings and oil drip pans and about $600 more of my money.

Someday. The treatment didn't need to happen right away. The Accord and I could go home and think about what we wanted to do.

Well, I don't really have to think about it. Between the hatch struts and the ball bearings and the drip pan, we'll pump another $1,000 or so into this 15-year-old car and it'll still be the right thing to do from the standpoint of the family budget. A thousand bucks is what, maybe two months of new car payments? I haven't had a car payment since Mike Sherman coached the Green Bay Packers, and I have no intention of having either Sherman or car payments return to my life.

So, there's no question that the simple economics are that if I need to put around a thousand bucks into this car every three years or so, which is about what it has been, that's a whole lot cheaper than buying a new one, or even a new used vehicle.

But, you might ask, wouldn't I be doing better by the environment by turning in the old Accord for, say, a new hybrid? Now, that's a more complicated question and I'm not sure the answer is clear.

See, there's the issue of embodied energy to consider. Embodied energy is recognizing, in sort of an environmental life cycle accounting sense, all the energy that went into making the '97 Accord. It's realizing that if I traded it in with its ball joints problem and drip pan issues, it would probably end up crushed into a cube and dumped in a junkyard or landfill somewhere. All that invested energy essentially gone to waste and just taking up space.

What's worse, I'd be stimulating the production of a whole new car with all the new embodied energy that would go into that one. (I'd also, of course, be stimulating some jobs that go with producing it, but frankly, an economy that is so dependent upon the sales of some nine million cars a year is not one that's all that fundamentally healthy to start with. And, then there's the issue of what other parts of the economy I might be helping out by spending that $500 a month on something else or saving it. But all that's another post.)

So, I'm driving a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon, versus a new Prius, which gets exactly double, 50 miles to a gallon of gas. Over the course of a year, if we drive 10,000 miles, we'll be using around 400 gallons of gas versus 200 or so with the new Prius. We'd contribute 8,827 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The new Prius would produce only 3,884 pounds. You can determine figures for your own make and model at the TerraPass carbon footprint calculator.

We'd also save about $700 a year in gas if prices average around $3.50, but that's less than two months car payments. So saving on gas costs doesn't nearly justify the expense of the new car from a budgetary standpoint.

On the surface, it looks like the Prius is the greener choice. But now let's consider embodied energy. The problem is, for all my online searching on this topic, I can't find a simple answer to this question: What's better for the environment, keeping my clunker clunking along or buying a new more fuel efficient car? For a long, interesting and annoying lesson in liberal angst, check out the discussion here. It's like a scene from Portlandia, but there's also a lot of good food for thought, even if it's high in politically correctesol (which is the bad kind of cholesterol).

I can't tell you with absolute certainty that keeping the already sunk energy costs for my 1997 Accord on the road outweighs the benefits of driving a brand new Prius that gets twice the mileage. My sense is that it probably does, but I can't give you the numbers to back that up. Maybe you've found some information that proves me right or wrong. I'd love to see it.

What is absolutely certain is that I am very much over-thinking this issue.

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