Drive By Blogging

Some quick, odds and ends updates.

  • Yesterday I had to call the complimentary road side assistance number to get my car started. I guess the other day when I went out to check on the mileage so I could blog about the car, I must have not turned the car off properly and that drained the battery; not the hybrid battery, just the 12V one that powers accessories and so forth. The car was still in the garage and I got the car started in plenty of time to run the only time sensitive errand I had (picking up a friend from the hospital). I have no idea what I did wrong to drain the battery, but at least I can say the road side assistance offered as part of the Toyota certified program was very prompt and helpful. The guy liked my chickens and was actually quite envious of my little rooster.
  • Speaking of the chickens, the winter decline in egg laying has started. Yesterday B told me we got two eggs, and the day before that it was only one. I should hopefully still get half a dozen eggs a week since there are five hens, but there are no guarantees.
  • The chickens are also molting, so they are looking rather ragged. At least they aren’t looking as bad as this chicken. Yes, that’s a real, non-Photoshopped image of a chicken going through a horrific molt. You can see more of little Kung Fu Henny in this post, and some updated lyrics praising her bravery here.
  • “Little roo” (a.k.a. Rory the rooster) is very cantankerous whenever we open up the coop to let the chickens out for their afternoon stroll. He apparently thinks we are after his ladies. I guess it’s understandable since in the past few months I’ve temporarily removed a hen or two about four times so they could be taken to various chicken-promotion venues, chicken-keeping classes, the vet, etc. I hope he calms down a bit since we are tired of him acting like an asshole and flogging our legs.
  • I’ve lost weight over the past few months. Yay! I have no idea how much weight since I don’t have a scale at home and rarely weigh myself at the gym. I know I’ve lost weight, though, since my clothes are much more loose, I had to buy new bras in a smaller size, and I was able to fit into some suits that I haven’t been able to wear in at least a year. ūüôā I’ll probably write more about this in another post since there are a lot of points I could expand upon.
  • I spent nearly $900 last month getting my heat to work properly. I made a stupid mistake letting the handy man move a pipe that is part of the radiant heat system for the first floor of the house. It took four visits by the heating service to properly identify the problem and fix it since there were so many variables in play. The heat works really well now, though, and I’ve learned another valuable lesson about boilers and radiant heat. Too bad these lessons usually result in me spending a lot of money.
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My hybrid car experience: seven month check in

One of the blogs I’ve been following had a post about hybrid cars recently which has reminded me to do a follow up on my “March madness”¬†of buying a 2009 Toyota Prius. I’ve been driving this “new to me” car for seven months now, so it seems appropriate that I share my experiences and thoughts.

Interior features and overall impression

I love this car and am very glad that I bought it.¬†The ride is comfy, the car handles well, and I am enjoying having all these high end features like a Bluetooth connection for my phone, HomeLink button (which I’ve programmed to open my garage door), back up camera, navigation system, “air conditioning” system (I just adjust the temp up or down and it automatically turns on heat or a/c and adjusts to the proper fan speed and vents!), and voice command. There are buttons for many of these features on the steering wheel itself, so I don’t need to look at the dash screen (in theory, but I still do).

I also really like the smart key feature that allows me to simply carry the key fob in my pocket or purse and not have to fiddle with it to open doors or turn the car on.¬†If I was buying new, I highly doubt I would have paid for all these bells and whistles, but I’m really glad to have them.

The Prius capacity for cargo is amazing considering it’s size. (And now there is a bigger Prius V available, too. That thing must rival the capacity of a pick up truck!) I think I’d only had the car for one month when B and I took a trip out to Ikea to buy him a new desk and office chair. Once I folded down the back seats we had no issues with slipping in the boxes with the desk, chair, and a few other odds and ends, too. Just last weekend we took the Prius up to the house of B’s friend to pick up a wheel barrow and some garden tools she was giving away in preparation for their down-sizing and move to a condo. Again, it was no problem fitting this into the Prius once the seats were folded down. Consider that I used to drive a station wagon mainly because I wanted to be able to haul around gardening stuff, and it’s understandable why I’m happy to find that I can still do this with the Prius.

There are many little storage areas on the Prius, too. I really like the storage area under the main deck in the back. Besides holding the spare tire and jack, it has enough space for me to slip in a few other tools (flashlight, jumper cables, etc.), a large beach towel (for covering the back seat when I take Hannah dog somewhere), a tarp, and the cargo net when I need to pack it away. And there’s still room for more in that space. I also like how the cup holders in front and back can be flipped closed (I like a neat and tidy car!), and the covered storage area between the front seats is very handy to store change, charging cables, etc.

There are some things that could be improved, however. Voice command is iffy. Sometimes it seems to understand me, but often it does not, so I rarely use it. The navigation system is not as easy for me to use as the map interface on my phone. My navigation system also works off a DVD from 2006. If I wanted to upgrade to a more recent disc I could, but that would be at least $200. My sound system may rock (it is a premium JVC system with awesome speakers), but in the years since the car came out many premium sound systems started offering an iPod dock, which mine does not have. I do have an AUX input that works through my iPod/iPhone headphone jack, but this type of attachment doesn’t allow for controlling what’s playing from the sound system controls (such as skipping a song in a playlist using the buttons on the steering wheel).

The biggest down-side of the car, though, is that B does not have enough room for his long legs. When I test drove the car I was impressed with how much legroom there was in the back. Turns out this wonderful rear legroom is possible because the front seats have a limit to how far they can be pushed back! B has only been a passenger in my car a few times, but every time he rides with me it looks awkward and uncomfortable that his legs can’t extend all the way. At 6’2″, he is pretty tall, but not unusually tall for a North American man. (I’ve since learned there’s an after market product that will help with this, but I’m not sure it’s worth the money since B is rarely in my car.)

Maintenance and service

It’s hard to rate this since I’ve had to do no service so far. I did purchase a service agreement to cover maintenance on the car for seven years or 100,000 miles (whichever comes first), but haven’t used it yet. When I bought the car it had 44,116 miles and had just been through the extensive Toyota Certified service which included reconditioning and new tires. The regular intervals of service for the Prius are every 5,000 miles, and after getting a reminder in the mail that my car was due for it’s 45,000 mile service I took it to the local Toyota dealer. There they told me that because of the car being completely serviced at 44,000 miles, I wasn’t due back until I had 49,000 miles on the car, so the reminder system could use some improvement. (With the amount I drive, it’s going to take me a while to get to 49,000 miles, too.)

I’m still glad I purchased the extra service agreement since it will cover any malfunction of all the electronic gewgaws on the car. Fixing a malfunctioning display screen cannot be cheap on this vehicle.¬†The only “maintenance” I’ve done on the car so far is to get regular washes and add air to the tires when prompted by the fancy electronic warning that my tire pressure was low.

Mileage

And here’s what everyone wants to know: is the mileage as good as it’s hyped to be? To that I can very positively say “Oh, yes!”

Since I’ve purchased the car near the end of March, 2012 I’ve spent $154 on gasoline and I’ve driven 2,073 miles. That total for gasoline also includes the $18.34 I spent to top off the tank over the weekend, and I can easily drive until December without re-fueling based on my driving habits over the past few months. Fuel price and tank size come into play here, and the tank (well, technically I guess it’s a bladder, not a tank) on the Prius is only 11.9 gallons, but realize that unless fuel prices more than double I would never have a triple digit bill filling up this car.

The car has an information screen that gives a read out of mileage in real time. I leave this screen up most of the time so I can learn how to drive for the best mileage, and because I get a kick out of it. (This is gamification at it’s best!) Only once have I seen that screen show my mileage as less than 40 MPG, and that was on a day when I was running several very short trips and running the air conditioner, too. Here’s a photo of the best result I’ve seen since I’ve had the car, snapped just this weekend.

Prius power consumption screen

Yeah, that’s right: 53.5 MPG. Woot!

I’ve actually been driving a lot more that I used to since I bought the car in March. March was also the month that I had my braces put on, and I need to drive to the orthodontist at least once a month. I’ve made three trips out to a far flung suburb to visit a specialty shop; driven back and forth to two fiber/yarn festivals; visited my father and stepmother twice (at least 150 miles round trip); visited my mom twice (at least 100 miles round trip) and ran her around for errands once (at least 40 miles); and lent this car to a friend who was in town and doing a lot of driving. It has delivered the great mileage I’d hoped for, and I’m really, really happy with it.

Odds and ends 

After the car is warmed up, the Prius is powered entirely by battery at very low speeds. This means that when one is stuck in annoying bumper-to-bumper traffic, at least there is an upside. A couple weekends ago while returning to the city from a weekend away visiting my mom and a friend, I was stuck on the “expressway” (ha, ha!) during a bad traffic back up. It took me 45 minutes to go 10 miles (really, I timed it, ugh!), but I barely used any fuel so there was an upsides of sorts.

But what about that battery? Isn’t it prone to failure and expensive to replace? Well, if you read through all the comments on that linked post by NZ Muse you’ll see that one person said her friends had to replace their Prius’ battery at 30,000 miles at a cost of $3,000. I subscribe to Funny About Money’s blog and read the original blog post last year. So I was very cautious about checking into the particulars around the car’s battery. My car’s battery is under warranty eight years from the original date sold as new (which would be May 2015) or 100,000 miles (whichever comes first). If I need to replace the battery after that point, I’m on my own.

I’m thinking that early battery failure is either due to getting a “lemon” (it does happen occasionally), something going wrong at a service appointment, or some sort of driver error. Since my car is well past the age where it would have proven a lemon and it went through a very thorough service check before purchase, I feel the odds that the battery will fail prematurely are quite low. In fact, it appears that on average the hybrid battery should last until 150,000 miles.

I trolled around quite a bit on the Prius Chat forums to get an understanding of  the questions and issues people were raising most often. In regards to the battery, there are a couple links here that seemed quite helpful.

Hybrid battery life, must use and other myths

Prius wiki: lifespan, operating costs

To anyone thinking about buying a hybrid car, I’d recommend buying a used one from a dealer that offers a “certified” program like Toyota does. The premium for buying a new car is no longer an issue when buying used, and the worries that can come with a used car are mostly addressed through a certified maintenance program. I’m looking forward to driving mine for a long, long time. ūüôā

How I almost bought a new car

I’ve been side-tracked from my Spain trip travel log by blatant consumerism.

Late last week I was sitting in front of the TV one night finishing up some work between watching my favorite shows. (I love 30 Rock! I’m also fond of Parks and Recreation and glad it’s back on the air.) A commercial came on for a national Toyota sales event — 0% financing on the 2010 Prius — and my interest perked up. With a laptop so close at hand (when isn’t one pretty much attached to me these days?) I could investigate this a bit more online, and I did.

I started looking up the specs, which meant visiting car sites like edmunds.com since the Toyota site was featuring the 2011 Prius information by now. As I investigated more that evening and at odd times the next day I was getting a bit excited. A new car! A hybrid that would make visits to the gas pump a rare event! Fun features like Bluetooth for my phone! And that 0% financing…well, that was sweet!

My current car (a 2002 Saturn wagon) was purchased during a 0% financing event. Back then I was driving a Saturn S sedan that I had purchased new with financing somewhere around 8%. I had one year left on the loan and was glad to trade up to a more luxurious car and not pay any interest at all. I was in the dealership getting standard maintenance when I saw the 0% event and it didn’t take long for me to get very interested in one of the two remaining wagons they had on the lot. I ended up coming back the next day to buy the car. My credit was so good that I had no problem qualifying for the financing (over a 60-month period) and I declined to put any additional money down other than my trade-in. I’ve been quite happy with the car and made my last payment a few years ago. It’s nice being free of a car payment.

Over the past two years I’ve had to pay out a bit more for maintenance than the standard oil changes, tire rotations, and filter replacements. The battery died and the car had to be towed out of my garage to a mechanic so it could be replaced. The brakes were replaced. An oxygen sensor was replaced. The airbag light came on and some other sensor had to be replaced. I bought new tires last fall, and I’m now potentially looking at some power steering repairs that will be in the triple digits. For a nine-year old car, none of this is completely out of line, though. And let’s say it again: it’s nice being free of a car payment.

My driving habits are so minimal that I’ve actually considered living car free. My nearly nine-year old car has just over 40,000 miles on it. I live in a big city with public transportation and a dedicated bicycle lane steps from my house. I easily get to and from work on the train and only really need the car for trips to the suburbs to visit friends and relatives. I do enjoy the convenience of a car for shopping (I can buy all the heavy canned goods I want at the grocery store in one trip!) and for getting to places in the city at least twice as fast as public transit can move me there during non-peak traffic hours (at peak traffic hours public transit and private transit are pretty much equal in speed, with public transit trumping private transit on cost mainly because parking is so expensive in the business district). My dog walker gets by with just his bicycle all year ’round, and I have one friend who gave up her car over a year ago and gets by with public transportation and a car sharing service. (We have two in Chicago, iGo and Zipcar; unfortunately neither offers cars in my neighborhood.)

I was with some friends on Friday night and I floated the idea of me buying a new car to them. One of these friends purchased a new car just a few months ago. In her situation, it was a necessity: she has a reverse commute (from city to suburb) and her previous car was 12 years old with high mileage and getting more and more unreliable. She had done lots of research on cars and found that it was a pretty good value for her to buy new, so she’d taken the plunge. The other friend is driving an older car that is also starting to have lots of critical and pricey mechanical issues that are unaffordable for her to fix. Both of them had the same response to my idea: don’t do it.

But I kept digging and researching and learning what I could about the car over the weekend. Because I regularly read personal finance blogs I’m fairly well-informed about other people’s car buying experiences and what I can learn from them. While I understand that buying a new car is never considered an investment, my thoughts were turned to considering a new car mainly because of the unknown maintenance costs looming in my future. What if the timing belt needs replacing? What if the alternator goes out? What if the A/C stops working this summer? Buying a new car moves you away from concerns like this. (Yes, there are new cars that are lemons, but there are also warranties and laws to give you some protection.) The interest-free financing made the fact that I don’t have enough saved to pay for the car in full with cash a bit more palatable. I could pay some of the purchase price from a targeted savings account where I’ve been putting aside funds for car replacement and finance the rest without feeling ripped off.

So after thinking about it some more and talking about it some more, I decided to visit a dealer and go for a test drive last night. (Toyota’s free standard maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles was the final nudge, I think.) B came along for the fun, and also because it’s usually a good idea to have a guy with you when you’re a woman buying a car. (Sure enough, the salesmen went first to B, who graciously said “Talk to her.”) Yes, the technology on these cars is fun. B is one of those folks who really loves electronics and gadgets and he was into all the whiz-bang stuff like the navigation system and the back-up camera on the test drive model. In my research I knew that this level of gear blew the car completely out of my pricing comfort range, though, so I tried to concentrate on the driving and riding experience.

Then it was time to sit down and start the dance around pricing. I had sent out some emails to a couple of dealers — including this one — so I knew that it may be a little more difficult than I thought to nail down the trim level I wanted. The 2010 Prius came in several trim models, and I was interested in a mid-range one (referred to as a III) without the fancy navigation system and sunroof. While I was driving to the closest dealer for a test drive last night another one phoned me to tell me he had no 2010 Prii left at all, in fact.

The test-drive dealership had a III, but it had the navigation system and would cost more than a IV they also had available that did not have the navigation. OK, how much was the IV? Total price was just over $30,000 with all the taxes and fees. I looked over the estimate more closely. The base price was MSRP, a “documentation fee” of $760 was added on, as were floor mats and another mysterious “doc fee” of nearly $200. Then there were all the things that were pretty much set: taxes and registration fees. I pointed out that they were only showing the suggested price to me, and the salesman quickly showed me on his computer screen that their invoice price was only $1,000 lower. Right. (I had info from more than one source that the invoice cost was more like $2,000 lower.)

After a bit more back and forth where I basically said I just could not pay that much for a car and would check around with other dealers the sales manager came over and tried to fear sell me. Hadn’t I heard about the terrible tragedy in Japan? Didn’t I realize that this meant scarcity of these vehicles? I pointed out that I was looking at a 2010 model and that those were no longer being built. He countered with the increase in gas prices and how much more kind I’d be to the environment. I came back with how I drove so little that gas prices didn’t really affect me and that the environment was better off by me taking public transit every day and riding my bike. I stood up and closed up my coat. They threw out a bone: they’d knock $500 off the price. No thanks.

Maybe they will sell all of the remaining 2010 Prii (isn’t the plural of Prius sort of goofy?) now that gas prices are increasing and the auto manufacturing disruption of the earthquake and tsunami ripple through to affect the 2011 Prius production line. Maybe others will be willing to pay the suggested price plus the extra padding of “documentation fees” to this dealer. When it came down to it, I just couldn’t stomach paying so much for a car and again taking on a monthly car payment. Even if I don’t have any financing costs.