Prius 10-year Review and Hybrid Challenge

September 12th, 2020 by Potato

I got my Prius just over 10 years ago. I meant to do a look back and review closer to the milestone, but you know, covid and stuff. Let’s just say that ten and a half years is still a good time for a look-back!

TLDR: I love the car, and my next car (whenever that may be) will definitely be another hybrid.

So yes, I love the car. It’s practical, but fun to drive. I still enjoy how smooth it is to drive — no gears, with the eCVT it just takes off the line at full power (or at least, as much as you choose to give it) right away, and sustains that without all the jerking around finding gears and going through different RPM ranges. Then when coasting or at a stoplight, the engine will just turn off! It handles well (surprisingly well for a car focused on economy), and with a good set of winter tires it’s very sure-footed in the winter. I like to think the linear throttle helps there in finding just the right amount of acceleration needed for the conditions, though the weight distribution (the batteries low and in the back) likely helps too.

The hatchback design is so versatile, too. The Prius is also like a Tardis — it’s bigger on the inside. It was so frustrating not even having the option of putting my bike in the car (even with both wheels off!) when I was borrowing my dad’s car, even though it’s a bigger car on the outside! But on other cars so much of that space is taken up by an over-sized engine, that it’s deceptive how much space the passengers and cargo have in the Prius.

Fuel Economy, The Hybrid Premium, and Real Life

A hybrid generally costs a little more than an equivalent gasoline-only car, but also generally consumes less gas. There have been lots and lots and lots of discussions on how to account for those differences, and figure out when you’ll break even on the extra initial investment. So many assumptions go into it — how much will gas cost, how much will you drive, how long will you keep the car? When I bought the Prius, it was approx. $6k more than its closest comparison, the Matrix, but there was a $2k government rebate. I figured that based on my driving and gas costs at the time I would make that difference back up in something like 6 years. The important point is that “break-even” periods can distract from overall savings, because if I kept the car for another 6 years beyond that, I’d save another $4k. A total cost of ownership that’s more than $4k lower over the life of the car with reasonable assumptions? That was a no-brainer.

I don’t know why I kept at it for so long, but I’ve tracked every tank of gas I’ve put in it to see how it actually performed. My lifetime average fuel economy is 5.7 L/100 km. Now I did expect to consume more than the official ratings — nearly everyone does — but that’s a bit of a bigger delta than I had initially banked on (my spreadsheet estimated my real-world fuel consumption would be 5 L/100 km).

Turns out life didn’t go quite the way I expected. I was living in London when I bought it, and driving a fair bit, racking up several thousand kilometers with road trips in the summer on top of regular driving through the year, which was a mix of city and highway.

Then I moved to Toronto, and found I barely drove at all, and when I did it was almost entirely short trips. I haven’t driven to the Maritimes since Blueberry was born, and have hardly even gone up North. I don’t have weekend trips to the city any more — I live here! Most of my driving became short trips to daycare, the subway parking lot, or the grocery store, which is horrible for fuel economy in any car, which is even worse when most of it is in the winter. To underscore the seasonality of my new driving habits, I just replaced the original 3-season tires, whereas I’m nearly done with my second set of winter tires. Of course, that means that I still saved a lot of gas in the hybrid (a gas car also gets horrible mileage on short winter trips).

I’ve driven less than 85,000 km in 10 years — about half of what I was expecting to do by now. My best tank was 3.5 L/100 km, driving around Northern Ontario in a very mild few days in the summer. My worst tank was 8.5 L/100 km, in February where all of my trips were very short (so lots of gas wasted on heat). So the range of fuel consumption was actually rather small — now that I’m used to regularly getting 4-6 L/100 km, 8.5 seems like such a huge miss. But in my Accord I would regularly get up into the teens, and 8.5 L/100 km would have been notably low consumption!

When I originally did the math to decide on getting a hybrid, I had figured on a much gentler driving cycle, and many more kilometers driven each year, with gas prices continuing to climb higher. However, despite moving cities and having a kid and the associated changes to my driving patterns, my hybrid premium was still paid for by gas savings — it just took longer. Instead of 5-6 years to break even, it took almost 10 years. But the 10-year-old hybrid Prius is still worth about $2.1k more than the comparable Matrix (according to a quick search on Autotrader), and I’ll continue to save gas on it for however long I keep driving it.

So, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, financially it was worth it to get a hybrid. And, it saved more than just dollars: it reduced my gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And, it was super cool and neat to drive, in a way that even after 10 years I haven’t had much hedonic adaptation to.

The Hybrid Challenge

Which leads me to my Hybrid Challenge: dear readers, I challenge you to choose a hybrid whenever it is time for you to next get a vehicle. They are as close to zero-compromise as possible now. They may cost a tiny bit more, but in almost all cases you’ll save enough on gas to make that up, even if you don’t have a grueling city commute. And even if you don’t keep your cars that long, they’ll very likely retain that value when you sell them. With the Matrix gone, it’s hard to pick a comparison car for the Prius, but in Toyota’s lineup the hybrid Rav4 is only ~$2k more and the Corolla hybrid is only ~$3k more, which are pretty low bars to make financial sense — so the environment benefits essentially come free!

There’s a hybrid option for virtually every class of car out there, or will be very soon: small cars from the Corolla, Prius C, Civic, through mid-sized cars like the Prius, Ioniq, Camry, Fusion, Sonata, Insight, Accord, Clarity; SUVs like the Escape and Rav-4; and even bigger options like the Pacifica, Highlander, and soon the Venza, Sienna, and Explorer, too. Yes, not every model from every manufacturer, but there is a competitive hybrid option in pretty much every category that you can go and take a look at.

All-electrics may take a little longer yet before they’re mainstream, and they may not suit everyone… but hybrids now have decades of real-world experience showing that they’re if anything more reliable, as well as more economical in the long run.

Reliability

Speaking of reliability, while the hybrid components haven’t had any issues, a 10-year old car has racked up a few maintenance items over the years. Early on there was an inconvenience with the plastic shielding used under the car to make it more aerodynamic. It was repaired under warranty.

The regenerative braking has really saved on brake pads, but a little too much. I still needed a brake job ($2k, plus a EFI service and transmission fluid change on that bill) because my rotors were rusting without enough usage to keep wearing them down! Now I have a look every now and then, and if I see rust starting to form I’ll do a few hard stops to wear it off. I had a tire valve crack, leading to a flat, and had to get that fixed ($30). I had a mouse decide to make a home in the air intake, which caused nearly $1700 in damage.

There were a few suspension-type repairs, all within the past two years: a rear wheel bearing $1500, a lower control arm and exhaust heat shield, $1250, and a drive shaft boot replacement, $1000. Plus I had to replace the rear washer fluid pump at roughly $300.

There’s one deferred maintenance item, which is that many 3rd gen Prius owners have found that carbon deposits can build up inside the EGR system over time, so it needs to be cleaned every so often, with one suggestion to do so at ~80-100k miles [~125k-150k km] (I have penciled in to do it at ~110-120k km). The PriusChat folks generally recommend to DIY that one.

All-in-all, not too bad or unexpected for a 10-year-old car, but it’s only a bit less than my Accord had cost me by the time it was 10, and I had expected a bit better of a Prius. Hopefully the next few years will be trouble-free to make me rave about that aspect, too!

Despite the repairs, other than the flat tire the car has never left me stranded or even afraid I might be stranded. The powerful motor-generator and high-voltage battery start it right up every time in the winter, even on the coldest mornings.

Looks, Tint, Paint, and Seats

I was a touch apprehensive about how well fabric seats would hold up long-term, especially as my dad had been a big proponent of leather seats for years, and was pushing me to upgrade when I got the car. But these have been amazing. I know I haven’t put many miles on it, but all the short trips has meant a lot of ins-and-outs on the seats, and they still look great. I did scotchguard them (a few times). They’ve been puked on once, and cleaned up without a spot.

I was worried about the paint being delicate, especially after some bad luck early on with scratches. If you look close you can see that the clearcoat is now completely swirlied from automatic car washes, but the paint has otherwise held up well — I was mostly just unlucky that my first few scratches came so early in the car’s life. There’s no peeling or fading though, despite some Civics of the same vintage looking a little worse for wear.

I still absolutely adore the ceramic tint I got. It hasn’t bubbled or separated at all over 10 years, and it really does help cut down the heat when it’s in the sun. I highly recommend ceramic tint to anyone who asks (and many who don’t), and will definitely get it again on my next car (though that may be complicated if my next car comes with factory tint).

I heard on a review someone say that Toyota really put a lot of care and effort into everything that you can’t see, and cheaped out on what you can see and touch in the cabin. I actually found that the cloth seats worked really well (my last car had a leather interior and it actually held up less well), but there is a lot of hard plastic in the interior that looks well, economy. But I do have to say that the plastic on the dash has a very neat texturing effect to it that really reduces glare, so I’d disagree with the statement that it lacks care and effort — it may look cheap, but it actually works quite well. There are a few minor scratches on the glove box though from passengers (and their bags).

The Prius looks pretty unique (though over the years more cars have taken on the aerodynamic profile). It’s really grown on me though. One thing that was really weird and unique was the instrument cluster: this high-centre display, with nothing behind the steering wheel! I very quickly saw how awesome it was though: the speed is in the corner of my vision all the time, and I barely have to move my eyes to check the displays. I really wish other models had picked it up, it really is neat. Of course, some newer models (including the new Prius Prime) are developing heads-up displays, which are even cooler. As I was driving my dad’s car, or driving my mom’s van, or thinking about future cars (see below), one minor thing was getting used to looking soooo far down for my speed. An added benefit is that I can position the steering wheel purely for where it feels comfortable, rather than some compromise position of comfortable enough while still being able to see the instrument cluster past it.

Prius high centre instrument cluster

Heating and Cooling

The air conditioning is electric powered (so it can still run when the engine is off) and is great at getting cold fast. Combined with the ceramic tint, it’s really nice in the summer and a huge improvement over the old Accord (which got hotter and took longer to blow cold air). To be fair though, most modern cars have much faster air conditioning units than a ’97 Honda. However, heat comes from waste heat that the engine generates, and being so efficient there isn’t much of that. So it can be sloooow to heat up in the winter. I don’t mind much — I’m wearing a jacket anyway when I’m going out to the car, though it can mean it takes a bit to defog the windshield if that’s needed. Wayfare is not a fan though, which is why I got an aftermarket seat heater for the passenger seat. Built-in seat heaters and even steering wheel heaters seem to be more common on cars these days, and if you’re shopping for a new hybrid, you may want to opt for them if they don’t come standard.

Comparison to Mercedes C43 and the Big Choice

As my dad got too sick to drive, I would sometimes drive his car — either because I rushed up from work on the subway to take him to the hospital, and had no other choice to then get myself home, or because he wanted me to drive his fancy car so someone would get to enjoy it. He also wanted me to have it after his death… and it was briefly a tough choice whether I should take it and sell the 10-year-old Prius, or vice versa. The C43 is faster and “sportier” than the Prius. It costs more, and has a leather interior. But other than that… I have to say it’s inferior in every way.

It’s larger on the outside, but wastes all that space on the engine, so it has less usable interior space, and what space it has is vastly less versatile (the seats don’t even fold down! It’s impossible to fit a bike in it). The UI is infuriatingly terrible — there are buttons at the ready to change the response of the shocks or how aggressively it changes gears or how loud the exhaust is (it’s not clear to me why anyone over the age of 19 would ever need to change those things, let alone often enough that those would be the most accessible buttons), but changing the radio station was some stupid process involving a touchpad and taking your eyes off the road. It has a great backup camera, even constructing a bird’s-eye-view of the car… but it only turns the camera on if the radio is on (why are these things linked, rather than coming on any time you shift into R?).

I had both cars sitting in my driveway for quite a while, and I could drive either one. So for the first two weeks or so I picked the C43 almost every time. Partly for novelty’s sake, and because going fast and going VrooomVROOOMvrooomvrooom is supposed to be a thing we want, and it’s supposed to be luxurious… But after the first two weeks of driving the C43, I chose the Prius every time I had to go somewhere. They both get the same people and the same stuff to the same destinations, and the time it takes in both cases is limited by traffic and speed limits, but one was calm and smooth while the other makes things not be smooth. In addition to the experience of driving, there’s the factor of the absurd amount of gas the Mercedes burns.

And it does burn a lot of gas. It has some kind of engine stop technology to marginally cut down on gas usage, but that only actually worked enough to let me know that it wasn’t completely broken. At almost every stop sign or red light, the engine continued to rumble and burn gas like an unrefined savage. Like a goose that walks across the road when it has the power of flight that it simply chooses not to use. And it does rumble, not just idle — like when I was 12 and riding my bike and pretending it was a sports car. VROOMvrumvrumvrumVROOM vrumvrumvrum. It makes the girls carsick when they’re passengers. After a few weeks of driving it (city driving), the C43 clocked in at 19 L/100 km of premium gas, compared to the Prius sipping on a hair under 6 L/100 km on the same trips (over 3X the carbon emissions, and 4X the cost at the pump). [My brother took it on a golf trip, which was weekend highway and rural road cruising, so about the best case scenario for fuel economy, and it still burned 10 L/100 km, so merely double consumption, but still premium gas at that].

Then after my dad passed away I had to choose which car to keep, and it was briefly a tough choice. A nearly new car that I didn’t like as much, but was a “luxury” car, or a hybrid that had cross the 10-year-old mark. The weighing and indecision stopped as soon as I realized that it’s not like the one I didn’t pick would just disappear, I’d be selling it. If the Prius was valued at more than the C43 it might have been a harder decision, but the inefficient market seriously over-valued the Mercedes — even used, even in the midst of a pandemic with prices of luxury cars way below where they were a year ago, I could get the price of a new Prius from the C43. Add in the fact that the C43 was so much more to operate (from using 3X as much gas, and premium gas at that, to the higher costs to insure and maintain it) and the choice became clear.

The things that the Mercedes does well are the things that you rapidly acclimatize to and stop noticing. Sure, the first few times it’s all “vroom vroom, oh, look at all the nifty little LEDs they’ve put all over”. But once the novelty wears off (which took about two weeks for me) you just want the car to get you places safely and comfortably. Instead, I found I was more frustrated by traffic knowing that the car could accelerate faster and the other road users were just holding me back. Having the engine sit there and rumble at a red light, or race up and down through the gears if traffic was stop-and-go made driving less enjoyable. And I know I stereotype sports car drivers as assholes, but now I think it’s only partly because assholes choose those kind of cars — I felt like the car was turning me into an asshole when I drove it. The things it does poorly (like the UX, lack of interior space and versatility, burning a stupid amount of gas, and making you feel every bump in the road) are things that you would be less likely to get acclimatized to. Thinking about what makes people happy and hedonic treadmills, I had to conclude that this kind of car would not make me happy in the long run, even if it seems more fun in a short-run head-to-head test versus a hybrid.

Summary

Things haven’t turned out the way I had planned in terms of how and how much I drive, but I’m still very happy with my Prius purchase. I had a few more non-hybrid-related repairs than I was hoping for, but not totally unexpected for a 10-year-old car. It’s a very smooth, calming ride, and I still appreciate that. The looks have really grown on me over the years, and I’ve really come to love the high speedometer and instrument cluster, and wish other models would hurry up and steal that design.

Hybrids have come a long way and have really proven themselves, and even when things don’t go as planned they can end up saving money and carbon emissions, so now I challenge all of my readers to choose a hybrid option for whatever their next vehicle might be.

Future Plans

I should have already seen how the world can make a mockery of our plans, but here we are anyway, with a plans section. When I first got the Prius, I had planned to keep it for about 15 years or so — buying new but keeping it forever. As my dad neared the end of his life, he talked about getting me a new car, or giving me his car (which I could then use as a trade-in if I wanted something more versatile and green), and that he’d even give me some money on top because a Mercedes is a much, much higher total cost of ownership experience. Then covid hit and the value of that trade-in tanked along with the portfolio that would have funded such a gift, so a new car is not in the cards for me. Yet another whip-saw in plans and expectations this year. I’ll continue to drive the Prius until the wheels fall off as originally planned.

I had started to research other options though. Getting a new Prius was the first choice — I loved this one so much, after all! And though the 4th generation Prius is even more efficient, there were some minor things I didn’t like: the 3rd gen has a really nifty under-floor cargo area, where I can keep all the things I have to be over-prepared, like a battery booster pack (which has been used multiple times to help other drivers out), a change of clothes for my kid, paper towels, a spare phone charger, etc., leaving the main cargo area uncluttered. The 4th gen consolidates all that trunk space, which I didn’t like as I’d have to either choose to stop over-preparing, or go back to having my trunk as cluttered as it used to be with my old Accord. I also didn’t like Toyota’s styling choices — the Prius isn’t chosen just for its looks, of course, but the new design just seems less friendly to me, with too many weird creases. Plus the Prius V was shelved, which was the model that I was most likely to pick next.

So I looked at some bigger vehicles, though I still have a bit of SUV aversion. The Rav-4 hybrid is nifty, but you have to go exceptionally high up in the options packages to get the super-cool heads-up display (which would save me from having to re-learn how to look down an additional 5″ to check my speed). Moreover, I didn’t like how the redesign made the front look like a squared-off, pedestrian-killing truck. The Ford Escape hybrid looks a little friendlier up front, though its heads-up display was a separate piece of glass, like something Chuck Yeager would have used instead of projecting right on the windshield (and though it was also a top-tier option, on a Ford that’s about the same price as a lower-package Rav-4). I looked at the preview of the hybrid Sienna, but there isn’t much information out on it yet.

I don’t drive enough for a plug-in hybrid to be an economic no-brainer, but I do like the idea of one and cutting fossil fuel usage even more. And they’re really good solutions for most people — all the practicality of a gas car, with the efficiency of an electric for short trips and commuting. With a battery small enough to be charged from a regular outlet, saving the need to install a special charger (or have a garage for one). So I’ll be closely watching what the next generation Prius Prime will look like (I expect late 2022 or early 2023?), as well as the Escape and Rav-4 PHEVs that came out this year (though as of writing are not yet widely available). If in a few years somehow I find myself with the money for a new car, and then a few thousand more beyond that to upgrade needlessly, I think I will be going the PHEV route.

Cooling Cars

July 9th, 2018 by Potato

In today’s Globe, Andre Picard points out that technologies to help prevent/reduce deaths of small children and animals in cars already exist.

He doesn’t mention technologies to cool cars though, which I think are also important, perhaps moreso than alarms.

The first, and most important to bring up, is heat-rejecting ceramic tint. It’s inexpensive, can be applied to any car after-market — even your existing car, right now — and helps with just the general summertime comfort in addition to slowing the rate at which your car turns from comfortable to uncomfortable to deadly oven. I got mine done 8 years ago, it cost $284 at the time, and can’t recommend it highly enough — there is such a huge difference in the amount of heat coming through the side/back windows vs. the untinted front window, and the car is so much cooler than other peoples’ cars (esp. untinted rental cars that we have for a week here or there on vacation). If you’re in Toronto and need a recommendation, I had FormulaOne Pinnacle tint installed by Auto-Links in Scarborough, but there should be a tint place in pretty much every city that will install a heat-rejecting ceramic film for you (note that most tint, like the one you may have had installed at the factory or by a dealer on your new car, is a metallic or dyed film that helps a bit in the sun, but is not as good at reducing heat).

I should mention that while I love it, it’s not a panacea: the car will still get hot, just not as hot as fast. You’ll still need to not leave a living thing in the car, so you’ll need good practices/habits and maybe even an alarm or reminder to help with that. Still, the difference between having an hour and several hours before something horrible happens could make all the difference.

The second is more built-in to the car, and not an option I went for myself, but I’m surprised it hasn’t become as popular as keyless entry and backup cameras did: a solar roof to provide the power to keep the fans running when it’s hot and sunny.

Winter Tires and Bang-for-Your-Buck

December 17th, 2016 by Potato

When it comes to safety and your vehicle, seatbelts are likely the obvious winner in bang-for-your-buck. They’re cheap and save a whole bunch of lives. Yet when I was a kid, I knew adults who wouldn’t wear their seatbelts and just “wouldn’t drive like idiots.”

When I was a cheap grad student driving an older car, I also said something similar as a rationale for not getting winter tires. I didn’t want to buy dedicated rims for a car that might only live another three or four years. I didn’t drive to work so I could always plan my driving to avoid the worst winter storms, and I mostly drove on the highway which was excellently plowed. Well, of course none of that was really true: there were always the storms that came in by surprise (or because I didn’t always check the forecast), or the times when it was important to brave the weather, or the times when most of the route I wanted to drive had been plowed and salted, but part of it was slushy or icy. And even driving carefully there would be a time or two when instead of stopping at the line as I meant to, I’d stop in the crosswalk. Or I’d slip and spin the wheels trying to get started. Never with anyone there, thankfully, but visceral reminders that you can’t cheat winter.

Finally, my tires needed to be replaced. And at the time a new kind of tire was on the market, an “all weather” tire (vs “all season”) called the Nokian WR. They’re good enough in winter conditions to earn the mountain+snowflake mark of winter tires, but the rubber stays hard enough in the heat that you can drive them all year long, so no need for a second set of rims and twice yearly change-overs. They were such a huge improvement over all seasons in winter driving.

So huge that I didn’t need fancy equipment like tape measures and controlled conditions to see the difference. It was like night and day in the ability to drive, and I was never going back to trying to muddle through winter with all-seasons (or “three seasons” as called by car buffs).

Now, they are a bit more expensive, but for the amount of safety edge they give you, it’s really cheap. And important – I definitely recommend them to everyone. After all, “Tires are the sole point of contact to the road. Do not underestimate their importance.” And I used the words “night and day” above – go and find people who have put winter tires on their car and see how many express the increase in traction that way. Yes, it’s anecdotal data, but try to find the number who say “meh, I’m not sure winter tires were worth it.” I could find a few such opinions online, but in person everyone I knew who had got winter tires was satisfied with the value for them and would not go back. The only people who weren’t sure winter tires were worth it were people who hadn’t tried them.

I idly speculated on Twitter that winter tires were possibly the second-best bang-for-your-buck when it came to safety, after seatbelts. Determining how much added safety you get is a bit of a tough metric to come up with, but we can bracket in the cost side fairly easily.

For my Nokian WRs, they cost about $200 more, all-in, than the set of three-season tires I would have purchased instead. There was no hassle about changing them over, storage, etc. So if we assume that a car would need about three sets of tires in its lifetime, that’s about $600 total.

For dedicated winter tires on my Prius, I paid about $850 for the first set, which included steel rims. Then, I had to either pay $20-30 each season for a change-over, or $100 for a jack and jack stands to do it myself (plus the hassle of actually doing it myself). However, the cost of the tires is offset a bit because while the winter tires are on the car, the three-seasons are not getting worn down. So the added cost of winter tires for a 15-year car lifespan would be about $850 for the first set, $650 for the next two sets, $600 for 30 change-overs, less $800 for saving a bit over one round of three-season replacements. $1950 all told over the lifetime of the car.

Safety margin added? Huge. Tremendous. Just enormous. See this video (H/T Preet) for a demonstration of just how much extra traction winter tires provide (and don’t forget that even on clear, dry roads, the cold temperatures alone increase the stopping distance of three-season tires).

What would some other bits of gear people often pine over for their cars for safety reasons?

How about all-wheel-drive, which many people say they need for winter driving? Well, on a Rav4 adding AWD will run you $2,265 on the sticker price, and it will decrease your fuel economy by about 0.5 L/100 km. The total lifetime cost could be over $3,500. Safety margin added? Really not much. As much as people swear by AWD, it really does not add much on safety. If you can’t “get up and go” on two wheels, it’s maybe a sign you shouldn’t be driving, rather than that you need help from the rear wheels. Plus every car has all-wheel-stop (i.e., brakes on all four corners), so AWD sometimes provides a false sense of confidence when you get going, which is shattered when you try to stop. I’d take a FWD car with winter tires over an AWD SUV with three-season tires.

Electronic stability control is another feature that adds a margin of safety in winter driving, helping you to keep steering in the direction you want to go and preventing an uncontrolled skid. This one also has a fairly high addition of safety. However, I can’t even find a set of models to compare to tell you how much extra it costs now because many manufacturers have made it standard equipment — and when I was thinking of ranking features by bang-for-the-buck, this one was one I thought might possibly beat out winter tires.

Conclusion

Winter tires will cost a bit more money than three-season tires. However, they add a huge margin of safety to your winter driving. In terms of the bang-for-your-buck, they’re well worth the money in my opinion, the only thing you can optionally buy for your car that provides that kind of value. Plus you can think of them like insurance: you pay a bit more to get them and hope that you never need those extra few meters of stopping distance – you can still not drive like an idiot, but it’s there if you need it.

Go ahead and ask around, this is one area where there is virtually zero disagreement from experts and those who have tried it. Winter tires are awesome and well worth the price.

With winter-rated all weather tires now available, there really is no excuse to not at least have something winter-rated and better than a typical all-season. Not having storage or the ability to do a change-over is no longer an excuse, and the extra cost is so small that if you can afford to drive in the winter at all, you should be able to afford to drive on something decently safe.

What if you really can’t afford it? Like, driving at all is barely within your grad student budget? This may be bad advice in the end, but if you need to sacrifice something on your car to afford the trade-off for all-weather cars, sacrifice an oil change. Many people change their oil twice per year – dropping one of those should free up the money you need to buy a slightly better set of tires.

Changing My Tires and Pants

November 12th, 2014 by Potato

I just changed my tires over to the winter rubber. It was a gorgeous day for it, but it made me reconsider what I’ve been doing.

It may surprise you to learn this, but not so very long ago I had something called “free time” — as a grad student (and then post-doc) I had a lot of flexibility in when I could show up to work. I didn’t have a daughter so I could do pretty much whatever I wanted to on the weekends. And I didn’t lose nearly 12 hours out of my week, each and every week, to the ever-fucking TTC. Because I didn’t make much at all, giving up some of my free time to save money was a good, good deal.

Back then I paid $20 each spring and summer to get my tires changed over. Well, the last time I went and had someone else do it they seriously scratched a hubcap trying to use a crowbar to take off a tool-less wheel cover, they said they were upping the price to $30 for a change over, and I had to spend nearly three hours to get it done between the drive there and waiting on-site. I said never again: I’d start doing my own tire change-overs. It’s not mechanically complicated, and a good wrench, jack, and jack stands were only a few hundred bucks — I’d make it back in just a few years. Plus it gave me the flexibility to do it on my schedule (like Sunday afternoons), something that suddenly mattered as I had just landed a “regular job.” An added bonus was that I wouldn’t have to remove the car-seat to fit the tires in, which would add an extra half hour or so to the process of going to a shop. Everything pointed to DIY tire change-overs. That Potatomas the in-laws got me a jack and stand kit and I was in business.

So I’ve done my own changeovers for a few years now. Each year I come out aching because I am too old for this ish. But it counts as exercise, so yay I guess. It takes me way longer than I ever expect — the first two times were nearly four hours, and even now that I’m better and faster it still takes at least two. But I can do it more-or-less on my schedule. And having a proper jack and practice came in handy when I got a flat and had to change it in sub-zero weather. The math has kind of balanced out and I have all the tools now, so I just keep going with it.

This fall’s iteration has changed the equation though: I ruined a pair of perfectly nice pants*. Now that’s partly my fault for not thinking ahead: I have not-nice pants and shirts specifically for tasks like that, so not getting changed into the proper attire was sheer idiocy. I keep thinking that my time is much more valuable these days and I should just pay someone, but it still takes about the same amount of time to go somewhere — and this year I was limited more by the never-ending fall drizzle than by weekend availability. And paying someone would entail a lot less effort and sweating — and I could possibly read or write something useful while in a waiting room somewhere.

Getting the equipment for changing my tires was going to lead me on a whole automobile maintenance self-sufficiency quest: next I would start doing my own oil changes, and well… actually, that was about as far as I ever intended to go. The pros can handle the rest. Anyway, ruining pants that were only a few months old has really thrown a wrench into the frugality aspect of DIY car maintenance — that’s like the cost of two changeovers right there. I like knowing that I can do it myself, and that it’s a minor challenge I have met, but it is not a fun pastime that I would do anyway. If I have to add in the cost of ruining clothing to the DIY column, taking the car to a shop looks a lot more appealing for this spring.

* – if you must know, by being fat and attempting to squat. Riiiiiip…

Car Seats

March 5th, 2013 by Potato

We bought the Graco Snugride 35 carseat initially because all the safety research suggests that keeping kids rear-facing longer is safer. Rated up to 35 lbs, we figured that this car seat — though large and heavy — would keep Blueberry rear-facing until she was pretty much two years old. Though it’s large for an infant carrier, I was able to fit it in the Prius and still manage to get my seat to a decent position for driving (it’s about an inch further forward than I had it when I positioned my seat without any such constraints — not the most comfortable position but a workable compromise). Blueberry is very tall for her age (obviously a mix-up at the hospital), and though she still has over 10 lbs to go before hitting the weight limit she’s getting close to the maximum height for her infant seat. Time to move up.

So now we’re off shopping for convertible car seats, the next step up that can be either rear- or forward-facing. With these larger seats, it’s almost impossible to find ones that can fit behind a front seat well enough for me to drive or for Wayfare to comfortably sit. I’ve been checking various forums for tips and reviews and pictures of how they fit, and it seems like the two on our shortlist are the Britax Marathon/Boulevard or the Diono Radian. I’ll spare you my pro/con lists, coin-flipping, and hand-wringing on this decision (though feedback on those seats is welcome in the comments).

What really got me in our search was the oft-stated fact that carseats are improperly installed some huge portion of the time. I heard numbers ranging from 80% to 95% depending on the source, and it got me thinking: where does this bit of conventional wisdom come from? I’ll grant that installing the old-fashioned way with a seatbelt is difficult both in terms of skill and strength required, but I really had no issues with the LATCH install. After all, that’s what LATCH is supposed to help with. Plus, the epidemiology data all says that kids in car seats are safer, so either the install error-rate is over-stated, far more people are managing to get/pay for a professional installation, or seats are safe even if installed incorrectly. I started to wonder just how true this conventional wisdom was, or if perhaps this factiod had been invented by the stores offering a $25 installation service and picked up by the media, so I went off in search of a source.

There are some NHTSA reports that seem to be the origin of these figures. This one, for instance, gives a high error rate for installation, topping 95% for first-time installers, who in this study (or a similar one I just read) were recruited from a university’s volunteer pool (i.e.: first-year psych students giving their very minimum effort for $10 and a course credit).

The most common error is loose installation: a carseat, when properly installed, is supposed to be able to move less than an inch. Now, a carseat that can be wiggled an inch and a half is not meaningfully more dangerous than one that can only be wiggled an inch; likewise, the carrying handle for a removable carseat has a specified position for use in the car for each brand (and it is often different for each model) — though many first-time installers got it wrong, it’s also not usually critical. If they apply a severity score, then “only” about 30% of seats were incorrectly installed in a really bad way. The good news: the error rate drops in half once parents/caregivers who have carseat experience are tested, rather than novices. The bad news: that’s still a nearly 50% error rate. To pick out one more interesting factoid, there was a higher error rate for those who drove cars with leather seats.

I’m surprised that even digging into the data, the “legitimate” error rate still appears to be shockingly double-digits high. That really says that something needs to be done to make carseats easier to install safely. Some kind of standardization is most likely the answer: either continue with LATCH but standardize the connectors, or create a universal base that the manufacturer’s individual seats can clip into. Angle adjusters with a wide range of motion are also likely going to be needed — far too many official installation instructions include the use of towels or pool noodles (sold separately) to prop up one part of the base, which is frankly ridiculous. Many require a great deal of strength to tighten properly, or that the adult put their full weight on the seat to jam it down into position — a ratcheting belt-tightener would be a great feature on many of these seats.

As an aside (and not necessarily a product recommendation) this car seat is a neat one from a human factors point of view, with sensors and a display to help ensure correct installation. The video there is only about a minute long if you want to go have a watch.