It depends.

Our work place is in a high cost-of-living area (San Diego), and nobody lives within 12 miles of the office (mostly due to the high cost of housing).  Mass transit is available but coverage is extremely sparse- there are no direct bus routes and the bus has extensive gaps in coverage (up to 60 min between bus routes, even during rush hour).  As a result, most of us drive a solo car in to the office.  Some of us bike or go multi-modal (car + train/lightrail + bicycle) a few times per week, but in the end we all spend a lot on fuel getting us to and from work.

I have plenty of time on my trips to and from work to contemplate the cost of commuting.  On one of my recent commutes I heard a radio ad claiming, “If your car gets 20 mpg, buy a new Lemona and the gas savings will make your car payment for you!”.   I also went to the local San Diego Auto Show recently to sit in a couple of the new model cars.   Note that the Monroney (window) sticker shown above (upper right hand corner) implies the MPG will save you big bucks over 5 years.

The gains in MPG technology I saw at the auto show were both impressive and diverse.  In addition to the well-known Hybrids and Turbo-Diesels, there are NGVs (natural gas vehicles), Plug-In Hybrids, and Electric-Only.  I did not spend too much time looking at the all-electric cars, as ‘range anxiety’ is a deal breaker for me (80 mile round trip commute).

Back to the car dealer ads.  Let’s say I trade in my 23 MPG Littoral Assault Vehicle (dual purpose commuter and fun vehicle) for something that gets 40 MPG.  How much car payment (or trade-in differential) could I afford?  Or, to look at it another way, if my family bought an additional car exclusively for my commute, how much car/car payment could we afford simply based on the fuel savings?

Well, at the current $3.75 per gallon and a standard 36-month loan, the answer is a $99/month car payment, or a $2800 car/car trade-in differential (Legend on the right is Fuel Price per gallon).

Even with my long daily commutes, a new or newer car getting 40 MPG will not pay for itself… yet.   Guess I’ll have to wait for the re-boot of the 1st-generation Honda Insight!

In the meantime, I’ll keep tracking my  fuel consumption using Fuelly and use my 5% cash back on gas w/no fee credit card (no compensation from the link).  I’ll also continue to look for a carpool buddy and “ease my driving style”, as advised in the infamous TopGear Prius vs BMW M3 MPG Challenge.

 Feel free to plug your own trip distance and MPG assumptions in to the MPG Spreadsheet.

As an aside, why have the Natural Gas cars not caught on yet?  18-Wheel Trucks are already converting to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) engines because CNG is dirt cheap here in the states- an equivalent of just over $2/gallon (It’s like 1998 again)!    There is also minimal engineering difference between a CNG engine and a conventional engine.    That said, the only CNG offering I found at the auto show was the converted Honda Civic, with a cruising range of only 190 miles and a fuel tank that dominates a normally spacious trunk (what’s leftover will barely hold a set of golf clubs).  Note that in the above spreadsheet, I would use 65 MPG as an equivalent in evaluating an CNG Civic- it gets about 32 MPG at half the fuel price.
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