What Kind of Car Should I Buy? The Science Behind Purchasing a Vehicle

August 28, 2014
Josh Goldman
Former contributor

As someone who works to make our cars, trucks, and transportation systems cleaner, I get a lot of questions toward what sort of vehicle I think people should buy. My answer is always, it depends.

People weigh a litany of factors in deciding on a vehicle; brand, size, performance, safety, cost, color, fuel economy, etc. Car shoppers weigh these factors differently, making the ultimate equation behind a vehicle purchase unique to each buyer. You may put more emphasis on cost over color, for example, or vice versa if you are really into lime green. But as someone concerned about the environmental impact of our vehicles, I recommend that you weigh fuel economy as the single most important factor in purchasing a vehicle.

I am not saying that you must get the most fuel efficient vehicle on the road today, but am advocating that you consider the fuel economy of a vehicle in the particular class of vehicles that suits your needs. For example, if you need to carry tons of gear on a daily basis, perhaps you are looking at pickup trucks. So, when choosing a pickup, think about the fuel economy of one pickup versus another. Here’s a comparison of the best and worst fuel efficient pickup trucks, for example. Or, if you need a daily driver that will be filled with screaming children and overstuffed grocery bags, think about the fuel economy of different minivans or 5 door sedans.

Remember that Americans spend a lot on fuel. Our report, Where Your Gas Money Goes, found that a typical American driver will spend more than $22,000 on gas over the lifetime of a vehicle purchased in 2011, which could be more than the vehicle cost itself.

Moreover, transportation is the second largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, and your vehicle is one of your largest, if not the largest, source of your personal emissions. Check out how your emissions add up, and see for yourself the impact your vehicle has on your emissions profile, with this tool created by EPA. As for me, the emissions from my house were estimated to be 1,644 lbs of CO2 equivalent per year, whereas the emissions from my car were estimated to be 7,854 lbs a year, over four times the emissions from my pad.

Survey says Americans care about fuel economy

I was pleased (and a bit surprised) to hear of a recent survey conducted by the National Automobile Dealers Association that found that fuel economy was considered the most important factor when deciding on a new purchase by both car and truck buyers. Interestingly, “environmental impact” was ranked near the bottom, just above “brand” and “technology,” meaning that buyers are, generally, more concerned with saving money than emissions. Good thing that our nation’s strong fuel economy standards for light duty vehicles are benefitting both our wallets and environment.

Survey respondents were asked to rank their top preferences as the most important factor considered when buying a new car or light truck.

Survey respondents were asked to rank their top preferences as the most important factor considered when buying a new car or light truck. Source: NADA UCG’s 2014 Car Shopper Survey

So next time you are considering buying a vehicle, think about the impact your vehicle has on our environment and your bank account, and try to weigh fuel economy as a bit more important than, say 13 cup holders. And regardless of whether you own or need a vehicle, everyone can help make our transportation systems cleaner by supporting increased fuel economy standards for heavy duty vehicles, and staying tuned to this blog for more information on fuel economy, electric vehicles, biofuels, and other innovative solutions that will help cut our nation’s projected oil use in half in twenty years.