Debate: When to Buy an Expensive Car

nice car for a long commuteWhen you drive a lot, and spend a lot of time in your car, should you spend the money on a nice car?

That’s the debate I had some years ago with a co-worker, as we discussed the cars we had.  He and I both had fairly long commutes, but he drove a nicer car, and I drove one that was once good but was on its way to the 200,000 mile mark.  Frankly, he had a car that at the time I actually liked, and would have preferred to have.  I drove an old Toyota, he drove a new Volvo.

It started with him talking about how he just got a new car, and how they’re so expensive these days.  So, I asked what he bought, and he told me that he got a new Volvo wagon.   First of all, I know that right away some of you reading this might laugh at the notion that 2 people might find this to be a desirable car!  Fair enough, I suppose it’s something that might particularly appeal to people who are new parents.  That’s what I was, and so was that guy.

Anyway, the value of my own car was probably $5,000 or so at the time.  His car, purchased new, was probably over $30,000.  I would have rather had his car than mine if money was no object.  However, money was an object.  Thus, I would rather have the old car with a ton of miles rather than the sparkly new car.

I commented (nicely) that he could have bought a car that wasn’t as nice, but was less expensive and got better mileage.

He paused, smiled, and exclaimed that it wasn’t realistic for him to do that.  His reasoning was that he spent so much time in the car – 1.5 hours each way – that it just made sense to drive something he liked and felt comfortable in.  If he didn’t drive so much, he would drive a lesser car.

That was the opposite of how I approached it.  My thinking is that if you’re spending a lot of time in your car due to a long commute, the most important thing is getting a cost-effective car that gets good mileage.  There are often significant costs when you have a long commute.  Clearly, by the car I was driving, I’m someone who embraces car longevity and how that can save money.  Having a car that’s nice is something that I might think is more appealing if you don’t drive much.  Actually, I wouldn’t even buy one then:)

One thing to add: he said nothing about safety and family when it came to his car choice.  He was focusing on his enjoyment and comfort while driving, though I have to believe those other factors came into play.  My other car, not for commuting, was the safe one.

My Questions for You

If you had a long commute and spent a lot of time in your car, what attributes would you focus on when making a purchase?

Would you be more interested in spending more on comfort and something you like, or being practical and focusing on fuel economy?



  1. says

    I would always look for a car that was fuel efficient, reliable and comfortable if I had a long commute. What I would not do would buy new, knowing that each day I drive the car it was losing its value. I would purchase something 2-3 years old in great condition and save some cash.

  2. says

    My mom has an hour long commute one way, and drives a beat-up, old Honda Accord with over 200k miles on it. It’s great on gas and runs, and that’s all she cares about. Since she has to drive so far, she’s much more interested in how fuel efficient the car is and how cheap it is to maintain. I think she’s got the right idea!

    • Squirrelers says

      Sure seems like she has the right idea! Of course, that’s just about what I did (sub Camry for Accord), so I’m naturally prone to agree :)

    • Squirrelers says

      Yes, safety and gas mileage are where it’s at! As for more money than that guy, it might seem that way but I always got a sense that he came from more money. Not that it excuses the logic any!

  3. says

    I drive a SMALL car. Mileage is important, so this is the first thing we’d have in mind. We’ll probably get a car for my husband in 2-3 years, but we’ll look for something that’s not that expensive, is reliable and has good mileage.

    • Squirrelers says

      Mileage is very important, and reliability trumps luxury. Agreed! I’d also add safety as important, particularly for a family.

  4. says

    I don’t really understand what he means by the “comfortable” part:

    “that it just made sense to drive something he liked and felt comfortable in.”

    How is an expensive car more comfortable? I’m a car fanatic and have driven all types of vehicles. As far as comfort, I don’t really notice much difference between cars. Most seats, even in cheap cars, are adjustable so that isn’t an issue. Cheap and expensive cars both have heating and AC, so that’s not an issue. About the only thing that I really notice is wind noise. Luxury cars are a bit quieter at speed, but that certainly isn’t worth paying many thousands extra for.

    I actually think luxury cars are less comfortable because most come with leather seats. I have no clue why people think this is something worth paying more for. I’ll take cloth any day over leather.

    Back to your original question:
    Fuel economy is very important to me.

    Also important is reliability and maintenance costs. In this category, a cheaper car has the luxury one beat hands down. A Volvo or any Euro luxury brand will cost a whole ton more for parts and labor down the road. I’m also not sure they would be as reliable as a Honda or Toyota.

    Bottom line is that I think your co-worker is making excuses to purchase a fancy car. Also, many associate paying more with getting more, so maybe he’s fallen into that trap?

    • Squirrelers says

      I think you’re on to something with the excuse aspect of it. That would be a way that someone could rationalize buying something he or she wanted – making it sound practical when really it was purely and emotion/consumer-oriented desire for something nice.

  5. says

    Long commutes can be pretty hard on cars and certainly depreciate them pretty fast. I drove a beater that got over 30 mpg when I had a 35-mile commute each way. I got rid of it when it could not longer pass the smog test at 265k miles. We now have a Prius that gets 50 mpg no matter how we drive it, and our commute is 13 miles each way. I like the Prius.

  6. says

    I personally agree with you and would get a car for its reliability factor instead of for comfort. But in his defense, a Volvo is a trustworthy car and that 30K car would realistically last 10 years, saving him money down the road.

    • Squirrelers says

      Interesting…you might have a case for him there! I suspect his reasoning was more along the lines of an upscale vehicle :)

  7. says

    A long commute would make me want to buy the most luxurious car possible. Maybe a Range Rover or 911 Porsche since I’d spend so much time.

    But as a regular bus taker in SF, I have a 13 year old car and feel that spending anything more than $20,000 is a big waste.

  8. says

    I hate my long commute. I definitely think that fuel efficiency would be the main factor for long commuters. Safety is also a big one for me…especially because I have a little one in the car pretty often. I actually don’t think I would want a luxurious expensive car. Honestly the novelty of the nice car wears out pretty quickly. When my 10 year old Altima wasn’t reliable anymore I bought a used but fairly new Hyundai Sonata. It has all the new safety features which was important, I like driving a nicer car (comparatively). But honestly I don’t think having a fancy car would really make my commute any better. Actually looking back, I might have considered the Prius, not just for fuel efficiency but I would be able to use the HOV lane.

    • Squirrelers says

      Fuel efficiency and safety, makes sense what you’re saying. You know, you have a good point as well about how the nice car novelty can wear off.

  9. says

    For me, I don’t really care what kind of car I drive to work. I drive a 10 year old Maxima now, and plan to keep driving it until it dies. But when it comes to my family car, that will keep my kids safe, I don’t mind investing a little bit. I am not buying luxury here, but I will go well beyond the 30k mark for a decent family hauler.

  10. says

    My wife and I had this very same debate a few years ago. She had just started a new job with a long commute where moving wasn’t an option. The plan had been to drive her car (which we paid off with her sign on bonus) for a few years before we got a car with a back seat (when we had children).

    One week later, she was hit and it totaled her just paid off car. So the decision time came to us: get another vehicle that was cheap and get us through until we had kids or get a larger vehicle now? We wanted something extremely safe, fuel efficient and with space for car seats.

    We looked at several vehicles and narrowed it down to two. In the end, we opted for the more expensive choice despite the 35,000 miles/year she would be putting on it because she’d be spending roughly 2-3 hours/day in it and having navigation, Sirius satellite radio, smartphone jack and the latest safety features meant that she’d be using and experiencing the benefits of these services all the time. Plus, this would be the family vehicle for road trips (nearest family lives over an hour away, in the opposite direction of her job, incidentally). So we ended up with one premium equipped vehicle and one lightly equipped (for me, since my commute was between one quarter and one half as long).

    I estimate that the purchase delayed our retirement by 6 months due to the money being spent on it above what we needed and not being saved.

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