BUYING A CAR IN 2017
(WITHOUT HAVING HEADACHES IN 2018)
Performance is a relative term, also. A cheap motorcycle can out accelerate a car costing $100 grand. Therefore, the question is: What do you want? Unless you buy a Dodge Ram 2500 with a diesel engine, you can probably keep up with traffic when driving most of today’s vehicles. However, acceleration is but one of many aspects of performance, and it is probably one of the least important even though most people are absolutely intoxicated with getting “the big engine”. What is humorous is that many of the smallest economy cars with the smallest engines can out accelerate many of the biggest SUVs with the biggest engines. Worse, even among the small cars, getting “the big engine” does not guarantee faster acceleration. When Toyota first put their V6 engine in the Camry, it was slower than the 4 cyl version. The 2002 4 cyl Honda Accord is faster, quieter, smoother, and gets better gas mileage than the 2002 6 cyl Mercury Cougar, a smaller, “performance” car with a bigger engine (which is probably one reason why the Cougar is no longer built).
While on the subject of engines, there are some things that you may need to know about today’s engines. There was a time when you had to buy a V8 to get a smooth, quiet engine. That time is gone. There are some archaic and noisy engines that remain in the market place, but several manufacturers produce 4 cylinder engines that are as smooth and quiet as yesterday’s V8s. And some are near as powerful. The technology of engines is advancing at a rate that is unheard of in the industry. The new models are significantly smoother, quieter, more fuel efficient, lower polluting, and more powerful than even last years models. Before you decide that you need the larger engine, you should try a test drive with the smaller engine. You just might find that the 4 cyl Accord or Camry can out accelerate a 5.3 litre V8 Suburban, use half the gas that the Suburban uses, be far easier to maneuver than the Suburban, and you can neither hear nor feel the Accord or Camry 4 cyl engine while cruising on the highway.
This website endeavors to be non-technical in nature, but horsepower ratings are being advertized far more now, so it may be to your advantage to understand what it means. The term "power" in horsepower is somewhat of a misnomer since horsepower is not a force. Horsepower is a unit of work. An engine's rated horsepower is a rating of it's capability to accomplish a job. The force that pushes you back into the seat when you hit the accelerator pedal is called torque. Torque is defined non-technically as the force that the engine exerts to spin the vehicle's tires. The horsepower rating is found by a mathematical formula of measured torque and the engine speed (rpm) where that torque is measured. That formula is:
HORSEPOWER = TORQUE X 5230
ENGINE SPEED IN RPM
What this means to you is that just because a vehicle has lots of horsepower, it may still not be able to work hard. The Honda S2000 and Mazda RX8 are small sports cars with around 250 horsepower, but their engines are not capable of towing trailers because they do not put out much torque, so the horsepower is not reached until the engine is turning at very high speeds. However, as sports cars, their light engines have the ability to turn at high speeds where a very large, heavy engine, which puts out lots of trailer towing torque at low engine speeds (like the engine in a semi truck), cannot turn very fast without coughing up its pistons. Torque is the force that accelerates a vehicle and torque is the force that drags a boat trailer up a ramp. 300 lb ft of torque at 2000 rpm will accelerate a particular vehicle at the same rate as 300 lb ft of torque at 4000 rpm, although the horsepower rating at the 2000 rpm speed will be half the horsepower rating at the 4000 rpm speed.
One last thing you should know is that just because an engine has a barrel full of power, it does not mean that the vehicle is fast. The acceleration of a vehicle has a lot to do with the weight of the vehicle, and sometimes, a vehicle's weight is not proportional to it's size. Some midsize SUVs can weigh nearly 1000 lb more than some midsize cars and almost the same as some full size pickup trucks.
Something you may find curious about the different size cars is that in the small compact cars with 4 cyl engines (Corolla, Sentra, Mazda3, Focus, Cobalt, Neon, New Beetle, Ion, etc), the 4 cyl engine will be far more easily heard (as in, more noisy) than in the mid size 4 cyl cars (Camry, Accord, Mazda6, Altima, Passat, etc), probably due to better sound insulation, higher gearing, and better engine mounting in the mid size vehicles.
So much for acceleration. How about braking? The state of the art in braking for today’s vehicles is four wheel disc brakes and ABS (AntiLock or AntiSkid Braking System). The disc brakes do not fade like the old drum brakes did. Some vehicles still have disc front brakes and drum rear brakes, but they do not necessarily stop slower. The best performance cars can stop from 60 mph in less than 100 ft. Anything that stops from that speed in over 140 ft should be avoided. The shorter it takes to stop a vehicle, the less critical a crash system becomes because if you hit something, you will be going slower. What difference the speed makes is described by Einstein’s equation, E=MC2, which translates to E=½ MV2, where E is the energy of the vehicle (ie, how hard it would hit something), M is the mass (weight) of the vehicle, and V is its velocity (speed). The severity of the crash is relative to the square of the vehicle's speed, so hitting a wall at 30 mph is about half as severe as hitting that wall at 40 mph. The vehicle that takes 140 feet to stop from 60 mph is still doing about 32 mph at the 100 foot point (where the best performance cars have stopped). Crashes at that speed can be fatal.
While on braking, consider the effects of tires. Some vehicles come with wider tires and bigger wheels. There are advantages and disadvantages to the various setups. A wider tire and bigger wheel does not necessarily mean better traction and shorter stopping distances. The brand and model of tire has a lot to do with it. Also, wider tires, in general, may hydroplane sooner than narrower tires, depending on tread pattern and tire composition. However, one concept remains true: All else being equal, the more rubber is on the road, the better the performance.
Other disadvantages to wider tires and bigger wheels are greater possibility of damage from curbs, a harsher ride causing squeaks and rattles in the vehicle, and greater expense in replacing tires.
Handling can, also, lessen the possibility of crashes. A harsh ride does not necessarily translate into better handling, but a soft, floaty, boulevard ride makes a vehicle difficult to control when you are trying to avoid a crash.
Many of today’s vehicles have an option called traction control, Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), or Electronic Stability Program (ESP). This is not the limited slip differential of yesteryear. It is a computerized system that varies the power and braking to individual wheels to keep the vehicle going where you have pointed the steering wheel. Even though some systems are more advanced than others, whatever system is offered in the vehicle you purchase is highly recommended.
How about crash performance? www.safercar.gov is where you can find the results of the government required crash tests. These tests are conducted directly square to the middle of the vehicle from the front side, and back. The Insurance Institute (www.hwysafety.org) did their own crash tests when they decided that the government’s testing methods did not accurately reflect the “real world”. Their tests are more severe than the government tests, and may or may not better reflect the crash worthiness of vehicles, but they do reflect realistic crash scenarios. For instance, the front crash tests are conducted by offsetting the crash barrier so that the vehicle is not contacted in the center of the front or back, but more to one side or the other from center. This is because the Insurance Institute believes that most crashes do not happen with dead center bumper to bumper contact. And they are right.
2004 Insurance Institute Crash Ratings
Midsize Luxury Cars
Full Size Pickup Trucks
Both of these sets of tests show that the size and weight of the vehicle does not predict how it will perform in a crash, or more specifically, how it will protect you in a crash. Having a lot of weight around you does not indicate survivability. Seems like it would, does it not? As the driver, it is more important that you be able to avoid a crash than how your vehicle performs in a crash. That is not to say that it is more safe to drive a performance car faster. The driver is the weak link in a vehicle, and no matter how safe the vehicle is, the driver will be the major factor in surviving an emergency situation in most cases.
Towing is one of the least understood areas of performance. Each vehicle is rated for how much it will tow and what equipment is required for towing. Engine size is only one factor in determining how much a vehicle will tow. Capacity of the frame, brakes, transmission, and cooling system are critical factors in towing capability. Do not let the boat dealer convince you that his brother in law tows his yacht just fine with a Honda Civic. Do not tow more than the vehicle is rated for by the manufacturer, and if you are going to tow a trailer, be sure that you have all of the equipment installed that the manufacturer requires for your vehicle to tow that particular trailer.
TRAVEL TRAILER SKI BOAT
TRAILER TOWED BY CHEVY 2500HD PICKUP TOWED BY CHEVY 1500 TAHOE
5TH WHEEL TRAVEL TRAILER SKI BOAT TRAILER
TOWED BY CHEVY 2500HD PICKUP TOWED BY CHEVY 1500 TAHOE
Speaking of boats, the vehicle’s tow rating is not all that should be looked at. Boats are trailered at the bottom of what usually turns out to be a slippery, 20 degree ramp. Even if you can get the traction, you still have to put out about 100 to 300% more power than required on a flat surface to bring the loaded trailer up the ramp. In general, rear wheel drive and 4 wheel drive are better at bringing a boat up a ramp. Locking differentials, anti-slip differentials, and dynamic vehicle control systems (might, also, be called electronic stability program systems) add measurably to a vehicle’s ability to get traction on slick ramps.
DRAGGING A LOADED BOAT TRAILER UP AN INCLINED .......... WET ......
DRAGGING A LOADED BOAT TRAILER UP AN INCLINED .......... WET ...... BOAT RAMP
During the fuel crunch of the 1970s, gas mileage was a hot topic, but now that fuel prices have more than doubled from their peaks in the fuel crisis, the subject is not quite as important for some reason. The problem here is that most people do not know how much they actually pay for fuel. The reason is the almighty credit card. It has a habit of keeping poor people poor. When you pick out a vehicle to own, try to find out what fuel mileage it will get in your type of driving, and what the fuel cost will be every month. Remember that a big SUV that is driven only 15,000 miles in the city per year, will cost on the order of $220 per month for fuel alone. With that kind of fuel cost, it will be important that the capacity for such a vehicle is really needed on a regular basis.
Gas mileage is a performance area of increasing importance as gas prices climb, or at least, fluctuate wildly. What is important here is to really look at how much you will drive. If you drive very little, the gas mileage of your vehicle becomes less important.
To estimate your anticipated fuel costs per year, take the number of miles per year that you drive, and divide that by the miles per gallon that you will get (on a new car, a good guess for anticipated mileage would be a little less than half way between the in town and highway EPA mileage ratings from www.fueleconomy.gov). Then multiply by the price for a gallon of fuel. That gives you the fuel cost per year. Divide that by twelve (months in a year), and you have a rough guess as to how much fuel will cost per month. The following shows this mathematically:
Miles per gallon you get
Divide by twelve months in a year to get fuel cost per month.
If you drive 5000 miles a year, then fuel (at $2.50 per gallon) for a 16 mpg luxury vehicle will cost you $781 per year and fuel for a 28 mpg economy vehicle will cost you $446 per year. That’s a difference of only $27.92 per month. That’s not much considering the difference in the vehicles. However, if you drive 40,000 miles per year, the difference between those same two vehicles becomes $223 per month, a much more significant factor.
The difference in total fuel bills is, also, dependent on the range of gas mileages that you are comparing. The difference between a 5 mpg vehicle and a 6 mpg vehicle over 10,000 miles (at $2.50 per gallon) is $833, but the difference between a 25 mpg vehicle and a 26 mpg vehicle over that same distance is more like $38.
Sadly, speaking of EPA gas mileage ratings, you will probably find that foreign vehicles get better gas mileages than their EPA ratings, and American vehicles get worse gas mileages than their EPA ratings. Yes, they are supposed to be tested using the same methods, and, no, the author does not know why the disparity.
When you are looking at the gas mileage ratings on the window sticker of that electric or hybrid electric car, also look at how much extra the car costs over the amount of miles that you would drive it. If you intend to drive the vehicle to near the point in the life of the vehicle when the battery pack should be changed, that cost should be considered as well. It can be a significant cost.
If lower pollution is your goal, most electric vehicles are
recharged by fossil fuel burning power plants.
Currently, the best option for lowering pollution levels is to purchase
a ULEV or SULEV rated vehicle, and maintain it correctly. Some of today’s gasoline powered cars put out
emission levels that are so low that when you drive them in a city, they will
actually clean the air. Most of the
vehicles with those ratings are currently offered by BMW, Honda, Nissan, and
If you decide on a hybrid electric vehicle, there are several good options on the market. Here are current examples:
Diesel cars are not the economy favorites either. The extra initial cost, combined with the higher maintenance mainly due to the higher stresses in a diesel engine, tend to cancel out the fuel economy numbers. With the costs being similar over the life of the car, the lower power, the increased emissions, the added engine noise, and the smell become irritating.
The last area of performance is utility, that is, ergonomics (comfort and ease of use) and capability of space and features. The trunk may hold 20 cubic feet, but if it is odd shaped or hard to get to, the total space does not really matter. The seats may be leather, but if they are hard as boards, they are not comfortable. And if they are cheap leather, they will fall apart faster than cloth seats. This area is mostly subjective, and since people are built differently and have different preferences, you are going to have to sit in the vehicles yourself and push the buttons, and see if the seat goes back or forward or up or down far enough.
Bottom line is that specifications in a brochure do not necessarily translate to performance, capability, quality, usefulness, or luxury in a vehicle.