Why I’ve never bought a new car—and never will

Siegel-Lead-Never-New-Car
Rob Siegel

I got an email recently from a good friend who lives in Vermont. He said that both his wife’s Subaru and his daughter’s Subaru (hey, it’s Vermont—it’s the law) were nearing the end of their useful lives, so they’re looking at getting rid of them and buying new cars. He and his wife are honing in on a Nissan Leaf EV. It’s a high-demand vehicle with a roughly $38K MSRP.

Even the EV part of it notwithstanding (no value judgement either way), my knee-jerk reaction was, “Holy hell, that’s a lot of money.” It brought to the forefront something that I’m obviously aware of but don’t fixate on:

I’m 64 years old and I’ve never bought a new car.

Among the many ways I’ve been fortunate in this life is that the combination of a) being able to fix cars, b) having a short or non-existent commute, and c) having a very understanding spouse has meant that I’ve been able to get away never owning a new car.

I’ve regarded this as neither hardship nor penance. Quite the contrary. If I had the cash to outlay on something new, I’d look at the price and instantly think about what cool used or vintage car that sum might buy. If I’d consider a loan or lease, I’d look at the monthly payment and think, “OK, this month, that could buy the stainless-steel exhaust for the BMW 2002; next month, Bilstein shocks and struts; and the month after that …”

As I said, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve worked from home since 2017, but for decades I had a commute that was just five miles each way. This allowed me to limp back and forth to work in just about anything. Similarly, until the kids were born, my wife was quite content to drive our ’69 VW Westfalia camper the few miles back and forth from Boston’s Brighton neighborhood into Harvard Square, where she worked.

Once child #1 arrived in 1988, it was obvious that the camper wasn’t the best transportation for the baby’s doctor visits, so I bought a 1983 BMW 533i on the thin premise that it would do double duty as a family car and was something that I actually enjoyed driving whenever we needed to head out of town.

My then one-year-old son in the back seat of my 533i. Rob Siegel

It worked, sort of, until child #2 came along, at which point it was obvious that the car was too small for our needs. Of course, the late 1980s/early ’90s was very much the heyday of the minivan. I went through a couple of well-used Volkswagen Vanagons. As compared with any other minivan, they were enormous inside, but their reliability was pretty poor. I eventually got religion in terms of the need for my wife and family to have something that was safer and more reliable. The newly introduced Toyota Previa caught my eye, as it was rear-wheel drive, looked cool, topped Consumer Reports’ ratings in terms of frequency of repair, and was available with a five-speed stick, which my wife, bless her, prefers driving to this day.

When I read that for the 1992 model year the Previa was available with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and an air bag, I decided that it was time to suck it up, be a grown-up, and pay for a new car. I ordered the pricing information from Consumer Reports so I could do the “I know what it costs I’ll pay you X above dealer invoice” thing.

Armed with the numbers, I walked into a dealership for the first time in my life, and explained exactly what I wanted—Previa, rear-wheel drive (they were also available in an All-Trac configuration),five-speed, ABS, airbag.

“That’s a problem,” the salesman said. Not what you expect to hear.

“Why? I know that these options are available,” I said, rattling my papers like evidence presented by a prosecuting attorney.

“The five-speed is being phased out for the 1992 model year. And when it was available, it was part of the base DX option package. However, the newly available ABS and air bag are part of the LE package. The five-speed did overlap with the ABS and air bag for a few months, but because they were part of different option packages, you’d have to find a car that someone had special-ordered that way in late 1991 but didn’t pick up, so it’s on a dealer lot by accident.”

“So, I’m sitting here prepared to buy a Previa if it’s configured a certain way, and you’re telling there’s no way to get it?”

He sighed. “I could make some calls to other dealers to check inventory, but the chances are just about zero. Besides, why do you want a five-speed in a minivan?”

“It’s what both my wife and I want.”

He did the “if I find one, you’ll have to act fast” thing, but it was clear he had nothing to sell me. We were done.

I scoured the newspaper and the local Want Advertiser publication for the elusive loaded early ’92 Previa five-speed / ABS / bag, and never found it. I think the existence of such a thing was perilously close to an urban myth anyway. But a few weeks later, I found a used low-mileage ’91 Previa five-speed (no ABS or bag) for a fair price and bought it.

A Toyota Previa like the one we owned. WikiCommons

I didn’t set foot in a dealership again for years. Until I was working insane hours in my engineering job. I was doing a lot of work-related travel, and my incredibly understanding wife gently intimated that she would appreciate it if, when I was home, I was really home and with the family and not working on the cars so much.

BMW had recently come out with the little 318ti, an entry-level four-cylinder hatchback version of the E36 sedan. I’d been daily-driving an E36 325i four-door for a few years, but with 200K on it, it was getting needy. I wondered if the thing to do was to pair the still-reliable Previa with a not-insanely-priced new BMW for me. That would leave only the vintage cars to work on, which wasn’t a must-be-done-by-tomorrow-thing anyway.

And then, I read in the BMW Car Club magazine that BMW had come out with a “Club Sport” edition of the 318ti. It had the same 138-hp four-cylinder engine but was kitted out with some of the M sport suspension components from the M3, had an M3-styled front air dam, mirrors, side sills, and rear apron, sport seats, and steering wheel, and 16×7-inch wheels. Only 200 were being built. I was intrigued.

The 318ti Club Sport. BMW

I went into my local BMW dealer with a copy of the magazine and asked about price, availability, and delivery of the 318ti Club Sport. He poked around at his desk and said that he could not find any order information on the model. He then said dismissively, “If it’s a Club Sport, maybe you need to order it through the club you’re in.” Attaboy, there, mister salesman. Way to take a lifelong buyer of used BMWs and make him feel right at home in a dealership.

As was the case with the Previa, I searched and found an affordable 318ti. It had just 42,000 miles on it, which, to me, made it like a new BMW. And it cost a quarter what a new Club Sport would’ve. It became my daily driver for the next few years. The idea of it being a zero-maintenance car, though, went out the window when a little plastic coolant neck snapped off the back of the head, causing the car to dump most of its antifreeze.

The little BMW 318ti hatchback. It did not solve my problems. Rob Siegel

As my kids got older, I went back to daily-driving inexpensive high-mileage cars. My wife’s driving patterns, however, changed, as she started her own business and drove to customer sites. The now-long-in-the-tooth Previa gave way to a lightly used Mazda MPV. When my oldest son crashed it, we bought a lightly used 2008 Honda Fit that a couple in Connecticut had purchased for the wife when gas spiked to $4.50/gallon. She never warmed to driving a stick, so when gas prices dropped, they sold it. When my oldest son crashed that, we bought the 7000-mile 2013 Honda Fit Sport that we still own (and I was only kidding when I was shaking my fist at it here). It was a repaired salvage car I found on eBay. The before-repair photos showed a folded-under left front strut from a curb strike. I couldn’t figure out why that would be enough for an insurance company to total a car. It turned out the curb had dragged under the floor pan, putting a crease in it. I didn’t care. For the low mileage and low price (it was less than half of new), it was an absolute steal.

The 2013 Honda Fit Sport—as close as we’ve come to a new car. Rob Siegel

The little Fit now has over 60K on it. It’s doing fine, but I like to think ahead, as I hate being put into any situation where I need to make a snap decision and it costs me large amounts of money. If the Fit suddenly dies or gets totaled, I’m not sure what would replace it. As my wife and I are now in our mid-60s, the idea of a car with the modern suite of active safety features (e.g., automatic braking, lane departure warning) is appealing. I guess that one of the positive unintended consequences of owning 13 vehicles is that if the newest and most dependable one suddenly kicked the bucket, there’s still my daily driver 2003 BMW 530i, the truck, the little RV, and the nine cars on the Hagerty policy, so it’s not negligence on my part to not have scoped out what comes next.

But it won’t be a new car. I get that many folks have long commutes and need the comfort, reliability, and bells and whistles that come with new cars, but we don’t, and without that need, it’s just too much money.

Besides, the coin that my friend in Vermont is about to drop on a new Nissan leaf would buy a nice Porsche 911SC. Hey, for $38K, I bet I can pick up the Porsche and one of his needy Subarus.

***

Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.

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Comments

    I’m with you Rob. I’m 70, and have never bought a new car. If I had, I could never have bought my E-Type coupe. I’ve rarely bought a used car from a dealer either.
    Drive on!

    Rob I used to be a new car buyer–or had new company cars (the best!). These days the thrill of the chase is more fun. I just scored a beautiful 2007 Lexus ES350. Never looked at one before, this is Japan-built and the quality is incredible–at an extremely well maintained 150K. Have $9K into it–last new car was a $45k 300S–frankly the Lexus is head and shoulders above it in quality at its advanced age and mileage. I’m an engineer type too–and just turned 65. Only 3 insured with Hagerty…so far.

    I never bought a new car until I was 60. In 2006, I looked out the window at our collection of daily drivers, every one of which was 10 years old, or more, and had hudreds of thousands of miles on them. Every one needed work of some sort, though nothing serious, just annoying. I just didn’t feel like working on them any more.

    I realized i was now rich enough to buy any new car I wanted. So I bought my wife her first Mustang GT convertible, and I bought myself one of the first 335i coupes. Plenty of money, no deals on either of them, but also no regrets. Both cars lasted us more than 10 years, 150,000 and 200,000 miles respectively.

    In 2017, my wife, now retired, graduated from college with a 2nd Bachelors degree. Ford, and others, sent her promotions for the “recent college graduate discount”. So, we went and bought another new Mustang. When she told the 20 something salesman she was entitled to the recent college graduate discont, he didn’t laugh out loud, but I cold see him thinking,”what do these old guys think is recent?” So he asked when she graduated, and when she told him, “last Saturday”, he signed us right up. I don’t regret spending the money on that car either.

    I thought about buying another new BMW, but when I saw a used 335i coupe for sale, for very little money and very few miles, I bought that instead. That left me enough money to buy a used Bentley.

    Another new car? Maybe, maybe not. Sure, used cars save money, but I’m now 75 years old, and tme is sometimes more important then money.

    Rob, The few new cars I’ve sprung for have rarely lived up to the hype or purchase price. My first car, a 1974 BMW 2002, bought used in college, a year old in 1975, was the coolest, best handling car of all. I traded it for a new 1977 Olds Omega (a piece of crap) to accommodate our new baby girl . . . what a mistake. Been trying to make up for that error ever since . . . the car, not the baby-girl. I must confess, though, after searching endlessly for a rust-free 2002 replacement, I bought a new, 6-speed VW GTI in 2020, which somehow reminds me of my old 2002: nimble, fast, fun. The rest of the stable is old, used and much more interesting. Keep the stories coming. Joe from Mass.

    Originally I never bought new cars because I was broke. I learned in those days (a) to have two clunkers, because you can drive one while you are working on the other one, and (b) I could run two cars cheaper than most folks I knew could run one. This later swelled to five cars as my financial situation improved over the years, and the collection largely hedged toward the collectible realm of the spectrum. Even now, I can run my 5 collectibles cheaper than most folks can run one. I also generally prefer that someone else eat all of the depreciation and warranty problems, and think that new cars are just plain boring. We have really ‘convenienced’ the life right out of the driving experience and I don’t want to be part of the thought process where the number of icons on my infotainment center is more interesting than the lines of the car or what is under the hood. It is worth mentioning however that I like you have largely supported my approach via a short commute and now work from home situation

    This article basically boils down to Appreciation versus Depreciation which I could write a book, however it boils down, when does the teeter totter or does it?

    I usually find decent cars at tow yard auctions. I bought a really nice 10 year old car for $125 with a full tank of gas.
    I bought a nice abandoned BMW cheap at the Airport auction but no key. After $300 key made, in the trunk was a surprise. A briefcase full of money.

    Great article, Rob. But missing a vital piece of information (perhaps my beloved spouse forgot to mention): the reason we bought a New Leaf is that we qualified for $11,500 in federal and state rebates, including a $7500 tax credit, effectively bringing our cost down to $26,500. Still a chunk of change, but after pouring thousands these past two years into our 2008 (used) and 2012 Subarus, and 2010 Toyota truck, it seemed like the right decision at this time. The 2008 is effectively now a parts car, and the 2012 was just at the mechanics for a month. Wish the rebates were as generous for used, but alas, not. Also wish we had your talent for repairs! At this point, we should own stock in our mechanic’s business. And it’s kinda nice to sail by the gas stations while doing our part to make the earth a little bit cleaner. Putting on the miles in VT.

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