Vehicles: Out with the old, in with the hybrid?

Is it better to keep your old car running or get a new one? Should I extend the useful life of something I already own, or in this situation would it be better to trade it for something more efficient? This question puts to the test our zero waste principle of using what you have (Refuse and Reuse). Here I’ll explore whether I should use what I have (my old Volvo) or upgrade to a Prius.

A little background on my transportation history and current situation. 

I used to live in Oklahoma City, and there I was a dedicated bicycle commuter. I had a car, the same one I got when I turned 16. I never drove it–it actually went dead sitting in my driveway because I didn’t even bother to turn it on. When I moved to Tulsa, I could no longer commute on my bike. The roads are too narrow and the traffic is too extreme. There are no bike lanes that will get me where I need to go each day. There is also not a workable public transit option for me. Tulsa has public transportation, and I attempted to start taking the bus but couldn’t figure out a good route. I sold my old car and bought a Fiat to get me to and from work. I wanted a Prius at the time, but didn’t want to spend that much money on a car payment. I opted for the Fiat because of its pretty impressive fuel economy (33 mpg, usually) and affordable price tag. Enter baby-child and the fact that I would then have to drive every day for at least the next 16 years (until we get a more flexible and workable public transit option). The Fiat couldn’t comfortably fit a car seat, and I had to get a bigger car on an extreme budget.

I bought a beater: a 1998 Volvo wagon. I love this car. We couldn’t afford a car payment at the time, and opted instead to pay cash for something that met our needs (albeit, that was old). The wagon had less than 100,000 miles on it and was in good condition. At the time, I was happy to extend the life of the vehicle. It already exists, so let’s use it until it’s no longer useful, right? That’s the traditional approach to all things zero waste. However, I’m starting to re-think that approach in this situation.


Today, I’m thinking about cashing in on the Volvo before any major mechanical work needs to be done (we did spend some money ameliorating some known mechanical issues shortly after we bought it). I have always dreamed of a Prius. Now that I’m a station wagon mom, I dream of a Prius V.


Soon, I will be able to afford an extra car payment and it’s given me the idea that I should upgrade. The question is: should I scratch the itch I have for a new, fuel-efficient ride or rough it in the Volvo as long as it will roll? Help me consider the pros and cons of either option. Obviously, my goal is to arrive at whatever choice that will be the least wasteful (which encompasses a frugality component). However, it’s not a simple calculus because there are many varieties of waste that come into play.

Categories of consideration are (in order of importance): (1) cost, (2) safety, (3) environmental factors, and (4) comfort. Each of these is extremely important to me, mind you. However, cost and safety converge at some point when you’re talking about a 17-year old car. At what point will the Volvo need significant work, and therefore become less safe and more expensive than it currently is, or even than a new car? There will be a point at which I have spent as much money fixing this car as I would have spent on a new car (that is, among other things, better for the environment). Because of this, cost and safety run together, but it’s necessary to categorize them separately.

Disclaimer: I am not one of those people who gets really nerdy about “the markets” and finance-type stuff–I was a Letters major in college. I’m also not very savvy with the car talk. I’m just trying to make a reasoned decision based on the best information available to me (on my sophistication level). If you see a pitfall in my logic, or have any opinions about a better method of weighing these considerations, pipe up!


Old car:

  • Monthly payment: $0
  • Regular Maintenance: I think it’s a rule of thumb that Volvos are more expensive to maintain than other cars, given their foreign parts. I’m not taking this wagon to the dealership to be serviced, since it’s so old, so the cost of oil changes and tire rotations are comparable to other vehicles. Beyond those basic things it gets pricier.
  • Unplanned Maintenance: Potentially thousands, at best hundreds. The risk of unplanned maintenance on a 17-year old vehicle is obviously much higher than a new car. I originally called this category “unforeseen maintenance,” but I decided that was not appropriate because it is foreseen that maintenance will have to be done–I just don’t know when. The risk factor is very high. This subcategory is what makes the old car potentially as expensive as a new car. It is also what makes it potentially less safe than a new car, despite its steel body. This category is where cost and safety converge.
  • Fuel: The fuel tank is 18 gal and I fill up once a week. The average cost is around $40. So, on average, I spend close to $160/month. The internet says the Volvo can get up to 20 mpg city, but I’m not buying that. Another consideration, which may ultimately go to the cost of unforeseen maintenance, is the potential damage caused by using ethanol gas. I get e-free gas whenever I can, since it’s usually more efficient, but it’s not always possible. My wagon is too old to have any built-in mechanisms for tolerating ethanol.
  • Durability: The Volvo is an extremely well-made car. It is made of quality, durable materials. If it continues to get serviced, it will run for a very long time.

New Car:

  • Monthly payment: Let’s say I buy a 2015 Prius V for $25,000 and put $4000 down. My payment will be roughly $450, depending on the interest rate and term.
  • Regular Maintenance: Beyond oil changes and tire rotations, maintenance costs will be cheaper than the Volvo since parts are more affordable.
  • Unplanned Maintenance: I can count on this number being $0 for several years if I buy a new car. The risk is all but eliminated (if it did occur, it would likely be covered under a warranty).
  • Fuel: The Prius V gets 44 mpg, over 2x that of my current vehicle. The easiest way to make this calculation is to just cut in half my fuel costs. Thus, fuel will cost me $80/mo rather than $160 (I’m betting this is a very conservative estimate, and I will save more than this in gas expenses).
  • Durability: In my research, I found articles showing the old, original Priuses held up to the test of time better than their critics projected. The fear about the Prius was that the battery would need to be replaced relatively early in the car’s lifetime, at a cost of $1000-$2500 (still pretty comparable to maintenance on the Volvo). This fear has been debunked. The materials used to make the Prius are obviously less diabolical than the Volvo. The Prius is not all steel, but does contain some. The front and back bumpers are mostly plastic. (I cringe at the thought that any part of a car’s exterior would be made of plastic.) Aluminum makes up a lot of the body.

Looking at the Unplanned Maintenance category, we can compare reliability of the cars. The Volvo is less reliable than a new car because we know its parts will give out sooner, but we don’t know when. Driving the Volvo, I need to have reserved at least a couple thousand dollars of savings to ensure I can cover the cost of said unplanned service. With a new car, the risk associated with both cost and safety is pretty much eliminated. Cost is fixed with a new car–I will pay only my monthly payment. The Volvo is a steel tank–probably the safest vessel you could drive. However, my check engine and service lights go on and off at their own volition, and it makes me nervous that something will happen and either cause me to wreck or break down. This is unnerving for cost and safety purposes. Furthermore, every time I shell out a few hundred or thousand dollars, I can’t help but compare that amount to how many car payments it would have been on my new Prius. For instance, I have spent roughly $5300 on the Volvo including the cost of purchase and initial repairs I mentioned above, which would have been just about a year of car payments on the Prius. I recognize it’s not likely I would spend that much on repairs each year, but it’s still a little hard to swallow when you think of it that way.


Old Car:

  • Volvos are reputed as the safest vehicles ever, especially this one because it was made in Sweden completely of steel. This particular model won many awards for safety at the time it was released.
  • However, as I state above, the longer it goes the more mechanical issues will crop up. I live in fear of breaking down or something going wrong while I have my baby in the car.

New Car:

  • Given that I won’t be concerned about mechanical issues jeopardizing safety, it’s mainly a question of whether the body of the vehicle will be as safe as the Volvo. The answer is very likely “no.” Crash test ratings for the Prius V can be found here. It looks like the 2015 models get an across the board rating of “good” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the highest rating. In 2014, the Prius V lost the “Recommended” rating from Consumer Reports, due to some issues which have been remedied today. It is now a Top Safety Pick of 2015 according to the IIHS. It is worth mentioning that I do not have crash test ratings for the Volvo, so my notions of its safety are really just speculation based on hearsay.

Environmental Factors

Old Car:

  • Emissions: Let’s just say, it’s not up to current EPA emissions standards for new vehicles. I don’t know what this car is emitting, but I know it’s way more than I want to be responsible for.
  • Fuel Usage: As we’ve established, I use at least double the fuel that a Prius uses.
  • Solid Waste: This is the crux of the issue–should I throw away what I have for something new? There is a lot of life left in this car, and it is valuable enough for me to sell rather than trade in. Thus, I can rest easy that this car is not headed for the junk yard when it leaves my possession (especially if I sell it, rather than trade it).

New Car:

  • Emissions: Toyota claims the Prius V produces 66% less smog forming emissions than the average new vehicle. Those emissions would be ozone, made up of volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen. Thus, the Prius exceeds current emissions standards for new vehicles.
  • Fuel Usage: My gasoline use will be cut in half, at least.
  • Solid Waste: I’m not throwing this one away any time soon.


Old Car:

  • Cons: The Volvo isn’t uncomfortable, but it does have its quirks. It doesn’t have tinted windows, for one, so it is usually too bright or too hot (which, in turn leads to more fuel usage since I have to run the A/C more in the summer). The automatic window buttons are cantankerous. The back hatch (1) sometimes won’t close, (2) when it does, it won’t open, and (3) won’t stay propped up when open, so it falls on your head and almost knocks you out (thus, I pay for extra space in my car that I don’t get to use–a big zero waste no-no).
  • Pros: The seats are leather and heated, A/C and heat work (well) . . . nothing else is really broken. That is all I can say.

New Car:

  • It is a new car, I don’t have to describe the advantages in comfort it has over my 17-year old car. You already know.

Before I began writing this piece, I was salivating all over the internet on the search for my new Prius V. I had forgotten my principles, namely that I’m cheap and I don’t fork over good money for frivolous things. That is the big drawback for me–that I already have a functional, running piece of heavy machinery that is going to get me from point A to point B (for now). But you know, I want a nice ride! I got the skills to pay the bills, and I ought to enjoy the fruits of my labor (this is the devil on my shoulder). After all this, I don’t know if I’m going to get the new car. Zero waste is partly about being satisfied with the things you have. Currently, I am of the mind that it would be better for the environment to drive a hybrid, considering the reductions in air emissions and fuel usage and the fact that the car will continue to be used by someone else. Economically, however, it is a more frugal choice to drive the old car. As of now, I’m keeping the old car as a matter of frugality and prudence. I’ll follow up with posts as I explore this choice and as new considerations arise.

What are your thoughts? I am sure there are lots of other viewpoints on the issue of whether to keep your old car or get a new one. I want to hear them!

Here are some articles for further reading:

Should I Repair or Just Replace My Old Car?

Readers Agree: Keep the Old Volvo Running

The 200,000 Mile Question: How does the Toyota Prius hold up?

Ten-Year Old Toyota Hybrid Priuses Defy Early Critics

Frugal Shopper: No Hybrids Don’t Cost More to Repair and Maintain