Thursday, September 09, 2004

The New Car
The New York Times gets my vote for best title of an article dealing with high oil prices, “Laissez-Faire My Gas Guzzler, Already”. The article also nicely illustrates the difference between the short-term and long-term price elasticity of demand for petroleum products. It describes anecdotally why, even with higher gas prices pinching drivers' wallets, it’s hard for them to change their fuel consumption much. It also discusses some of the uncertainties that weigh in these longer-term responses, such as the purchase of a new car.

I have some skin in this game—beyond mere punditry—since I’m seriously considering replacing my seven-year-old car this fall. One of the first things I’ve discovered is that my technology choices are much wider than I’d have suspected, even given my interest in the industry. It’s not just a choice of hybrid or no hybrid.

In fact, there’s already a bewildering array of possibilities out there, without contemplating anything as exotic as fuel cells. Before I even get to styling and fun, which will be key decision attributes, I must evaluate the following powertrain choices:

- Conventional gasoline engine, normally aspirated (i.e. regular fuel injection)
- Conventional gasoline with turbocharging (or supercharging)
- Gasoline rotary engine (e.g. Mazda RX-8)
- Gasoline hybrid (e.g. Ford Escape Hybrid or Toyota Prius)
- Gasoline “mild hybrid” (several new pickup trucks coming out this fall)
- Advanced gasoline engine (e.g. GM’s new V-6 with variable valve timing)
- Advanced diesel engine (e.g. VW’s turbodiesel Passat with direct injection)
- Flexible fuel engine (capable of running on gasoline or 85% ethanol)

There are also several transmission choices that weren’t available seven years ago, including six-speed transmissions in either standard or automatic, plus the intriguing Continuously Variable Transmission, appearing on a few selected models. In addition, many makes now offer all-wheel drive as an option on multiple models; this was one of the key selling points of the Audi I bought in 1997, when they and Subaru had a near monopoly on AWD.

The above choices of engines, fuels and transmissions gets me into a pretty wide range of uncertainties that will affect my operating costs and future resale value:

- Will fuel prices remain high or return to historical levels (in nominal dollars)?
- In particular, will a car chosen today for better fuel economy retain value better or worse than one chosen on other grounds?
- Will a new technology, such as VVT or CVT, expose me to higher repair costs and lower reliability over the time I own the car?
- Does the rotary engine have enough experience behind it to be as reliable as a piston engine?
- Is it wiser to lease, rather than purchase, a car with a new and less proven powertrain?

Finally, these choices force me to get real about my concerns about climate change, local pollution and energy security. I will keep you, my readers, posted along the way with any noteworthy conclusions or discoveries.

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