Downsizing the Family Auto

BlogHer Original Post

In 2002, we traded my husband's Ford Escort for a Ford Explorer. Then we had a Ford Explorer and a Geo Prizm. In 2006, the 1994 Geo Prizm got t-boned on a busy street, and we "replaced" the 100,000-mile Ford Explorer with a 2005 Ford Explorer.

The 1998 Ford Explorer is still kicking at 140,000 miles three years later. Oops.

Last week, we traded the 2005 Ford Explorer for a Toyota Corolla. I think we actually traded up. The 2005 Explorer had leather seats, a moon roof, power everything, and a third row. The Corolla has cloth seats, no moon roof, and considerably less space. But it does have something very important: a smaller carbon footprint.

It seems we're not the only family to downsize the family car. Julia Bauer of the Grand Rapids Press reports:

Midsize SUV sales nationwide were down 24 percent for the first five months of this year compared to 2007. The decline for May was an especially steep 38 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

Should you do what we did? It depends. We were lucky -- we weren't yet upside down and ended up getting what we owed on our SUV. Consumer Reports has an excellent series on whether or not it makes sense to downsize. Here's a sampling from their blog:

  • Don’t rush into downsizing without considering all the owner costs of your current vehicle, including depreciation and finance charges.
  • Understand your goals with downsizing (environmental concern, fuel savings, cost savings), and be sure your strategy will meet these goals.
  • Realize that the biggest rewards come with the greatest sacrifices, such as transitioning from a large SUV to a small car. At the same time, make sure the new model will satisfy your financial and lifestyle goals for years to come. If you have a family, remember, kids grow and need more space.
  • In northern regions, consider using your SUV as a winter-only vehicle, especially if it enables you to buy an efficient, front-wheel drive car, rather than an all-wheel drive model. Be sure to adjust your insurance accordingly.
  • Conversely, if, for some reason, you really want/need a large SUV, this could be a great time to purchase a relatively new, low-mileage example. Both new and used SUVs (especially the monstrous ones) are sitting on dealer's lots—you can practically get one for a song.

Some families have taken it a step farther by going back to just one car:

The second car was fourteen years old and was just the extra car. Since we are at home so much, it rarely got used. In eighteen months, we drove it less than a thousand miles. As little things went wrong with it, we just let them go. (Nothing dangerous, just little extras and cosmetic things.) However, when it reached a certain point that there were enough things wrong with it that we had to decide what to do (like the key got stuck in the trunk lock so there was no way to lock the car), we chose to donate it to a ministry that fixes up old cars to sell them. So now we are a one car family. We don’t plan on purchasing a second car unless something in our life circumstances changes significantly.

Some have tried to make a go of just biking, but you know what? That's really hard. From Rachel:

I am so frustrated at this point. I don’t mind riding my bike, but it is hard to pull the bike trailer on a day with good weather. Since Summer lasts a really long time in Houston, to the point where we’re still wearing shorts while others are getting snow, I feel stuck. While my community has good bike trails, they do not connect the “old” and “new” parts of town. This community was built for the car, plain and simple. It doesn’t make things such as going to the store or to a restaurant easy if you’re on bike. As I said, I’d be happy to try public transportation, but it doesn’t exist!

What are you doing?

Want more commentary? Check out my colleague Shannon's post on ditching the second car.

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