Sci-Fi Spaceship in our driveway

What to drive in retirement? When an old car goes out to pasture, and you still want the freedom to travel? But in retirement, operating costs are critically important. The quest begins. See what we chose.

Answer me this riddle – what small, efficient car did we buy? We have a new-to-us, used car sitting in our driveway. And plugged into an electrical outlet. The last owner got 171 miles per gallons (mpg). Mind-boggling, phenomenal. Electrifying fuel economy. Literally. We’re looking for efficiency. Guess we found it. But it still uses some gasoline. Our prior small gas-sippers were more in the 40-mpg range. The minivan we sacrificed to the trade-in gods? The V6 front-wheel-drive Chrysler Town & Country gave us about 20-mpg all-in. The new Sci-Fi spaceship’s 100-mpg, with our driving habits, beats that all to heck. Like by 5X. Welcome to the world of plug-in hybrids. But which one?

The Story So Far. . .

Transportation is among the handful of high-cost buckets in the household budget. Transportation costs demand special attention to control a retirement budget. This is especially true for those of us in rural areas. We have long commutes to work, shopping, and healthcare. What to drive in retirement determines one of our biggest budget categories.

Part 1 of this series on when to upgrade cars is here. https://agingwithfreedom.com/2019/09/12/what-car-must-go-the-hold-or-replace-dilemma/

Investing more into a fully-depreciated 235,000-mile vehicle? That’s a decision inflection point. Our Chrysler Town & Country (T&C for short) was there. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. Years, miles, and rust caught up. A Chrysler minivan is hard to beat for utility and flexibility. The utilitarian Stow’n Go seats drop the middle and back seat rows into the floor. When you need to haul stuff not people. Easy. We considered a newer used Chrysler minivan like the impressively sleek Pacifica.

But we already own another utility vehicle, a 2008 Cadillac SRX. The SRX is a sport utility vehicle or SUV. It’s really a tall station wagon with All Wheel Drive (AWD). I’m okay with station wagons. Cool or not. Dad had several when I was young. Not as much cargo space as the minivan but “only” 185,000 miles. And we live in snow country where AWD is helpful at least part of the year.

Between the T&C and the SRX, the SRX has more remaining life. What to drive in retirement? Not the old minivan. The Chrysler ended up on the chopping block. So now, what to buy?

Our Car Buying Rules

We’re dedicated to buying used, with cash. Let someone else eat the initial depreciation.

We learned this the hard way. Our car-buying history includes at least four new cars. Only one of which worked out in the long run.

We’ve been upside down on a car note. And didn’t like it. We’ve had to change cars at a loss when circumstances changed. Ouch.

Cars are a necessary consumable. They depreciate. We learned not to put too much cash or cash flow into the car. Even if friends are driving flashier sheet metal. Learned from experience and Dave Ramsey.

So, cash it is.

Our budget? An average new car is over $34,000 (as of 2019). Shocking. We’re not spending that much. We’re aiming for a two to three-year-old car. Approximately 40% depreciated from the original list. An average car. Say, $21,000. Money always matters in what to drive in retirement. But it’s never the only thing that matters. Your answer might be different than ours.

We’re trying to buy an affordable car with much lower than average operating expenses. Seeking low lifetime ownership cost or cost-per-mile. Pennies add up.

We weigh insurance costs before pulling the trigger.

And reliability and safety both matter. Five-star safety. Count on it in the cold of night reliability.

Resale value? Not so much for us. We tend to keep cars until their value is negligible. Drive ‘em into the ground after a long and faithful service life. Ten or twelve years is the goal. Not resale.

We do our research in advance. To know what we’re getting into.

And we’re conscious of our dealer. No car is good enough to overcome a bad dealer experience.

Timing the Car Market?

What to drive in retirement? Big or little? More utility or more efficiency? We’ve learned timing matters.

If there’s a time to buy a smaller, high-efficiency car, it’s when everyone else is buying gas hungry trucks and SUVs. Dealers have a harder time selling economy options. And we can get a better deal.

We didn’t get to be debt-free by doing average things. We’re counter-cyclical contrarians. If everyone else stampedes one way, it’s probably the wrong way.

Average behavior gets average results.

We figure a newer big utility vehicle will be on sale during a recession. When other people are trying to downsize their lifestyle. Forced to match expenses to reduced income. They then dump the expensive to operate behemoths. It happened in 2008-2010. It’ll happen again. (We bought before the coronavirus pandemic induced recession.)

Small and Fuel-efficient it Is

What to drive in retirement? Small it is. We want a good deal. And we’re going to emphasize low operating expenses. Given that, how efficient do we want to be? Very.

Let’s give credit to Tesla for fueling electric vehicle (EV) popularity and demand. We saw a white Tesla Model 3 plugged-in a couple of cabins away. That did start us thinking down the electric highway.

We live in rural America. A pure electric vehicle (EV) like a Tesla? With only batteries? A Tesla might work in a major city with a dense charging infrastructure. Not so much in the boondocks. We have too many 200 mile plus trips in our routine to count on battery power alone. And many of the destinations are rural, not urban. We can’t count on charging infrastructure along the way.  The few pure EVs with 200 miles plus range are out of our price range. Lithium batteries are expensive even with Gigafactory economies of scale.

Give the industry another five years and we’ll have more options within our rules and reach.

Love Elon Musk and Tesla. SpaceX gives us a thrill. We like the not-yet-on-sale Rivian electric pickup. Rivian is an innovative EV startup with funding from both Amazon and Ford. Plan a Tesla or Rivian for the next utility vehicle. For now, either not available or too pricey for our budget.

And the used pure EVs are impractical for our driving patterns. If we want an EV for rural America, that requires dual fuel. That means a gasoline engine with some battery-powered range — a plug-in hybrid.

Plug-in Hybrid Options — Gasoline Engines+Electric Motors+Batteries

Okay, so we’re set on efficiency over utility. What to drive in retirement? It’s going to have a big lithium battery. Electricity plus gasoline to avoid battery range anxiety. (Range anxiety is the fear of running out of battery charge far from a charger.) Now, which one? The number of new plug-in hybrids is expanding, but back up three years. Remember we’re buying used. And the range of choices narrows.

Toyota. The pioneering Toyota Prius in Prime form. We lean to American nameplates and engineering. And away from God-awful anime mecha styling. So not the Prius. Styling taste is personal. You don’t have to agree.

Honda. Honda’s “weak” hybrids fail to impress.

Hyundai. The nearest dealer is an hour away. Impractical for service.

European? Forget the European options like a BMW i3. Not practical in our location. Service is even further away than Hyundai and much more expensive.

Ford. Their Energi plug-in hybrids like the C-Max or Fusion? Ford pairs modern technology with safe styling. Toyota and Ford cross-license their conceptually similar parallel hybrid technology. Parallel hybrid tech was impressive in 2004. The break-through second-generation Prius sold like hotcakes. But parallel hybrid is now less than leading-edge. We have happy experiences with Ford’s reliability and service. The First Daughter is on her second Ford Focus. We’ve had a series of Fords or sister division Mercuries – a Topaz, a Tempo, a Taurus, a Cougar, and a Focus. The local Ford dealer may have the inside brand hand.

Chevrolet. Or maybe the revolutionary Chevy Volt EV. It’s a serial hybrid with a range-extending internal combustion engine (ICE) electric generator. The gas engine powers a generator to create electricity.  Like a diesel-electric locomotive. The Volt in second generation form was GreenCarReports.com 2016 EV Car of the Year.

Dark Horse Volt

The Volt uniquely offers over 50 miles of full power pure electric range on batteries. No gasoline assist required for that all EV range. That’s enough to perform most daily commutes on electricity alone. At less than half the cost of the same mileage on gasoline. The EPA rates the Volt at 42-MPG when the range-extending ICE is running. Plug-in hybrids compute a combined electric and gasoline MPG called eMPG. The Volt’s rated eMPG is 106. Worth a look. The first look.

What to drive in retirement -- 2017 Chevy Volt Premier in pearl white, passenger-side front three-quarters view. Showing the low, pointy noise and aero-efficient body that helps deliver 106 eMPG.
2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier, GM’s eREV plug-in hybrid. Electric motor propulsion. The gasoline engine is along for the ride as a range-extending generator for the electric batteries and motors. It’s a serial hybrid like a diesel-electric locomotive.

First Look – Chevy Volt

Revolutionary is a good attention grabber for tech-savvy boomers. The Toyota and Ford hybrids are gasoline-powered cars with electric assist. They can drive at slow speed on battery alone. But need more power or speed? Then the primary motive power is the gasoline engine. And there’s a mechanical connection to the drive wheels. The car picks between electric motors, the gas engine, or both as required.

The Chevy is technically very different. The Volt is first an electric vehicle. The gasoline engine is along for the ride. It generates electricity for the electric drive motors. When the batteries are empty or when asked. Giving more range than on the battery pack alone. Approximately eight times (8X) more range.

Chevy might not agree with this description but think of it as a car with an electric transmission. Power from the gasoline engine creates electricity. The link between the gasoline engine and the wheels? Electric wires feed electric motors that turn the wheels. This eliminates the need for all those transmission gears in other cars. The Volt has a single-speed transmission with the immediate on-demand torque of electric motors.

In some rare circumstances? The Volt’s gasoline engine provides mechanical power through the single-speed transmission. But that’s the exception and not the rule. Most of the time when the gas engine is running? The internal combustion engine (ICE) is only an electric generator. The car is powered by the highly responsive electric motors.

And the Volt can run wholly without gasoline for 50+ miles between charges even at highway speeds. A so-called strong hybrid able to run at full speed and long distances on batteries alone.

Familiar Design

The second-generation Volt reminds us of a former favorite car, Lori’s 2000 Mercury Cougar. The Cougar was a small 3-door hatchback with a very aero body and long wheelbase. Two plus two seating. The backseats were tight. But lay the rear seatbacks down and total load volume was huge. With a 2-liter four-cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission? The Cougar averaged about 36 MPG all-in. On the highway, it was good for 40-mpg plus. It was sporty, fun-to-drive, and efficient. We drove it over 220,000 miles before the First Daughter traded it in for her current Ford Focus. What to drive in retirement? Something like that. Durable, reliable, efficient, and good looking.

Our 2000 Mercury Cougar 3-door sport coupe in Merlot red. A prior favorite. Looking for a modern equivalent that will be equally durable, reliable, and even more efficient.
A predecessor cheap to operate car. Our 2000 Mercury Cougar delivered 40+ MPG on the highway and 36 MPG all-in. Went 220,000 miles with only routine maintenance. Owned the slick stick shift Cougar for over sixteen years.

The Volt is nearly the same proportions inside and out as the Cougar. Pointy nose and high tail. Two plus two seating. But the Volt has five-doors, rather than three-doors. And it is a bit wider. The Cougar was our all-time favorite car. The Volt feels similarly sporty and but is much quieter. Easy to like even without the leading-edge technology. Could this be a second chance at love?

Used but not Abused

We returned to our Cadillac dealer (Willis Cadillac). It’s where we got our SRX. They had a used 2017 Chevy Volt Premier with all the options. And 30,000 miles. Lori loved the attractive two-tone black and tan leather interior. Even though the white exterior is not her first choice in car colors. With used cars, we can’t be quite as picky. It looks exactly like the Volt in the GreenCarsReport.com article.

What to drive in retirement -- 2017 Chevy Volt Premier two-tone black and tan leather interior. This design feature is a plus for us.
2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier two-tone leather interior impressed us.

The telemetrics on lifetime performance record on the Volt’s energy management system. The dash display tells the story. This pre-owned Volt spent 85% of its time on battery power. Of the 30,000 miles, only 5,000 were on the 1.5-liter gasoline generator. All-in lifetime 171+ eMPG.

Of course, our actual future split will vary based upon how much long-distance driving we do. But most of our local driving is within a 25-mile radius. So, any way you look at the Volt’s efficiency? 171-mpg (last owner). 106-eMPG (EPA combined rating). 42-mpg (EPA gas-only rating). Better than anything we’ve ever had before and more than double the minivan’s 20-mpg.

And it’s fun to drive. Sounds like a good answer to, “What to drive in retirement?”

Sold

We welcomed the used 2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier to the stable. It replaced our venerable 2006 Chrysler Town & Country Touring minivan.

Only negative? The dealer didn’t deliver the car with a full battery charge. The Volt does not feature rapid charging (so-called Level 3 charging). So, our first ride home was 100 miles on gasoline. The Volt still delivered 47 mpg. Well above its rated 42-mpg on the ICE generator.

What to drive in retirement -- 2017 Chevy Volt Premier in pearl white, driver's side view showing the aerodynamic, swoopy body that helps with energy efficiency.
2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier left side view showing the swoopy aerodynamic bodywork to maximize cruising efficiency.

A charge overnight on regular household current and we’re into the green electrons. A few errands and a ride around the lake and our average is already over 80 eMPG. It’s easy to see how this could be addictive, extracting as much efficiency as possible.

The regenerative braking uses a magnetic field rather than mechanical brakes. It recaptures electric energy when slowing down. Further extending range. Learning to milk the system.

As a side note, Willis Cadillac was easy to deal with despite our remote location. The experience was courteous and pleasant. The Willis fully detailed and prepped the Volt. Looked brand new. Hard to tell it is pre-owned, even with 30,000 miles. And remember there are only 5,000 miles – one oil-change on the gasoline engine. Great experience. Remember no car is good enough to overcome a bad dealer experience.

Self-Driving on the Horizon

Plus, there’s some other cool tech included in our fully optioned Chevy Volt Premier.

  • Lane-keeping assist helps keep you between the lines. It nudges you back to the center of your lane if you drift over. It feels like the pressure of a semi rushing past.
  • Blind-spot monitoring is a great safety feature. It highlights in the mirrors and dash when someone is over your shoulder. Handy. One downside of the high, aero fastback tail? Poor rearward visibility.
  • There’s also a backup camera that displays on the large 8” infotainment screen when in reverse.
  • Add to that low-speed collision-avoidance automatic braking and heads-up alert. Both go into action if you’re closing too fast on a car ahead of you.
  • And even automatic parallel parking.

Spooky cool. Little sonic detectors inform the car’s brains of impending danger. And then you. There’s already a lot of the technology built-in required of self-driving cars. Is this our last driver-required car?

What to drive in retirement? Maybe we won’t be the drivers with this rapidly evolving self-driving technology.

We’d love a Rivian R1T EV pickup when the time comes for a new utility-focused vehicle. The Rivian promises self-driving. But for now, the Volt offers revolutionary efficiency and practical high-tech driver aids. We are in love.

What to drive in retirement -- a 106 eMPG 2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier in pearl white, right rear three-quarters view. Shows the high aero-efficient tail. But also demonstrates need for Chevy's included driver-aid technologies to deal with poor rear visibility.
2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier right rear three-quarters view. Shows the relatively high aero-friendly tail. Great for energy efficiency. But the high tail also makes several safety features useful. Like the included blindspot detection and a rear-view camera. Without them? Rearward visibility is limited.

Progress Reports

We’ll keep you up on our transportation budget with our new-to-us pre-owned Volt. And its Extended Range Electric Vehicle (eREV) system. The data suggests much lower than average maintenance costs. Electric motors are more reliable than gasoline engines. Yes, there’s a gasoline generator, but it doesn’t operate all the time or under heavy loads. So far? Plug-in at night. Fill up with gasoline about once a month. One full-synthetic oil change. No hick-ups.

The Volt is also inexpensive to insure despite its small size and the list price. There must be some self-selection going on with the type of person buying a Volt. An EV rewards smooth driving with range. This is the opposite of the street racer style.

On Volt Owners’ Forums, we see numbers well into the hundreds of dollars saved on gasoline per year. All very encouraging. A penny saved is a penny earned. Here’s hoping for many pennies.

First Report

With several months under our belt with the Volt? We still love it. No buyer’s remorse here. A perfect answer to, “What to drive in retirement?” We’re averaging right around 100 MPG. Most local driving is pure electric. But it took us on a roundtrip to Florida. And frequent longer Interstate trips of 4-5 hours. The combined range is well over 420 miles with a full 18.4 kWh battery and a full 8.9-gallon fuel tank. No range anxiety. Most of our charging is at home with a 12-amp circuit that refills the battery overnight.

Pre-COVID we took our $300 a month gasoline budget down to under $100 – mostly for the Cadillac SUV. One tank of gas for the Volt tends to last the month and averages about $15.00. Remember, it’s a small tank. We switched to time-of-day electric rates. And are spending less on electricity now than before buying the Chevy Volt EV. We’re saving over $250 per month in operating costs compared to our prior minivan. Twelve (12) months x $250 = $3,000 in first-year energy cost savings. In the summer, our Volt delivers up to 67 miles of electric range. In Iowa’s winter cold, 45 miles is more realistic. The official “range” is 53 miles on battery.

Regardless, on pure EV mode? It’s as quiet and fast as we need.

What to Drive in Retirement — A Futuristic Spaceship

For now, it’s like we leaped into a futuristic spaceship when driving the Volt. And the future looks great to us techy boomers. We both like innovation and the ability for technology to change the world for the better. The Chevy Volt delivers daily-commute electric range with zero range anxiety. No worries about losing battery charge far from a charging station. Our combined range, battery plus gasoline, is well over 420 miles. That works in flyover country regardless of our destination. GM should have marketed the Volt as the EV for rural America. This is the single biggest leap in automotive technology of our driving lives. It’s appropriate for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. We now own a little spaceship. Exactly what we want to drive in retirement.