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One hour, five cars, zero nonsense

How a quick scavenger hunt reveals the truth about the auto industry

(Note that this was originally published on Medium on July 23, 2018)

My 13-year-old lives at the intersection of private school, pop culture, and the latest video game craze. Like many kids his age, he is starting to become interested in cars (“dad, I want this car when I’m 16,” “dad, I’m gonna drive that car when I’m old enough”). In his teen-aged mind, Tesla is the coolest. Their cars are sleek, high-tech, and don’t harm the environment. The other day he said to me, “dad, they have this new one that’s only $35K!” He’s old enough to know that $35K, while still not cheap, is starting to get to the point where many people can afford it. “Oh really,” I said, as I opened a web browser. I proceeded to build myself a Model 3, starting with the least expensive version and adding absolutely no additional options. “You must have picked the wrong one!” he exclaimed, seeing the $49K price tag. “Nope,” I said. Looking disappointed, he walked away and mumbled, “oh, they must have raised it.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d also have to wait 1–3 months (or much longer) to receive the car, there were no local showrooms in our city to check one out, AND they’re not nearly as clean as he thinks they are. Those details came later, but first the real story…

This morning, while skimming through the latest news on my iPhone, I came across this article titled “The 5 Most Fuel Efficient Non-Hybrid Cars in 2018.” All of the cars on the list are (gasoline) IC engine powered, are less than $26K (some significantly less), and are fuel-efficient. That’s good for both the environment and your wallet, I later explained to my 13-year-old.

It was Sunday and I had wanted to take both kids on a field trip, but I wasn’t sure where. That article gave me the answer. How quickly could we drive around town and verify that each of these five cars not only existed, but they could be locally purchased immediately off of a car lot for about the same price quoted in the article? Note that my younger son is five, and so doing anything quickly can be difficult, but we were up for the challenge.

Our first stop was the Mitsubishi dealer. According to the article, the Mitsubishi Mirage starts at $15K and has a 35/42 city/highway MPG rating. Guess what? There were dozens of Mirages on the lot. Dozens. No waiting months for this one. We liked an orange SE model, which had a total MSRP of just over $15,500 and a rating of 37/43, slightly better than what the article quoted. One down, four to go. We checked the Mirage off our list, and continued the hunt.

Thumbs up for the Mitsubishi Mirage SE.

Next stop, the Honda dealer. According to the article, a Honda Fit starts at under $16,500 and has an MPG rating of 33/40. We quickly found about five Fits on the lot, with a silver one coming in at around $17,800 (including destination and handling charges) and the same 33/40 rating quoted in the story. I could tell that the kids were starting to have fun.

Yes! We found number two!

The next car on our list was the Hyundai Elantra Eco, starting at under $20K with a 32/40 MPG rating. We found about a dozen Elantras on the lot, but none of them had the Eco trim. In all fairness, there might have been one inside on the showroom floor, but being a Sunday, the building was locked. We almost found what we came for, in the Elantra SE. That one totaled about $19,500 and had a 29/38 city/highway MPG rating, coming up a little short of the Eco.

We gave this one a sideways thumb as we didn’t find the Elantra with Eco trim.

Our last stop was the Toyota dealership, which (hopefully) had both of the last two vehicles on the list. My five-year-old, who was close to having enough at this point, asked “does Toyota have toys?” It seemed like a reasonable question, and while I didn’t say yes, I also didn’t say no. It was enough to make it to our last stop, meltdown-free.

We first looked for a Toyota Camry. I was surprised to see a midsize sedan on the list with a 29/41 MPG rating, starting under $26K. There were dozens of Camrys on the lot, but just a few base models. This dark blue beauty fit the 29/41 rating and had a price tag around $25K.

Even a midsize sedan made the list! Good job Toyota!

One more to go — the Toyota Yaris iA. We found one for just under $18K with a rating of 32/40 that matched the article.

We (more or less) found all five! Time to celebrate!

At the end of the scavenger hunt, I could tell that my older son had a somewhat different view of the auto industry than when we started. He was just introduced to five fuel-efficient cars that are easy to get and at prices that almost anyone could afford. If you know my son, you know he is full of questions, which as a parent is both wonderful and completely exhausting. But after our scavenger hunt, his onslaught of questions was music to my ears: “Why wouldn’t people who want to help the environment buy one of these cars? Those hybrids we saw had even higher MPG ratings! Why isn’t Tesla making cheaper cars? How are they helping the environment if nobody can afford them?” Only one hour later and my job here was done.

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