Small Car Intimidates Big Truck

Why Small Cars Are Better Than Big Cars

A few years out of college I had my mind set on buying an SUV. Not that I needed an SUV, as I had smooth-paved roads where I lived, plus I didn’t need any hauling capacity. I just thought SUVs were cool.

Back then, mid-90s, gas was pretty cheap. If I remember right, a gallon of regular was just under $2. Climate change was just starting to become a headline, but it wasn’t front-page. So what’s a young, single professional male to do, but to make a financially-destructive decision and finance a brand new Jeep Cherokee or Ford F-150?

The fanciest car I’ve owned since getting my license is a Subaru Outback. And that’s the car my wife drives. I’ve owned compact cars and kept them for at least 10 years.

My current ride is a Honda Fit sub-compact that gets over 35 miles per gallon in city driving and can haul a washing machine without a problem. The insurance, fuel, and repair costs are quite low. The savings from avoiding fancy, costly vehicles goes towards purchasing new rental properties and paying down the mortgage.


Honda Fit ate a fridge
My Honda Fit was able to haul a five foot refrigerator home from Best Buy

Driving around anymore you get the sense we’ve been invaded by a legion of pick up trucks that have no future in hauling any cargo other than groceries or wide screen TVs. I have to wonder what goes into the decision making process of our fellow consumers. Having made my own share of bone-headed purchases over the years, I have a few thoughts:

Why Average Joe buys a Truck

1. Bad Reason: “I’m finally making some good money. I want to reward myself with a REAL Tonka truck!” Just be prepared to stay in debt for a while. The payments, fuel, and depreciation on trucks might keep you home when friends are planning trips to Cancun, or later, planning for early retirement.

2. Good Reason: “I own a landscaping (or other haul-worthy) business and I need to haul my mowers, trimmers, and rakes to my job sites.” Problem is about 5% or less of the pick ups I see on Minnesota roads are hauling anything in the bed, much less anything on the hitch (less than 1% of the time.)

3. Bad Reason: “It’s cool.” I guess the commercials make these rigs look really bad-ass, with all the off-road terrain hard-driving in slow motion while Bob Seger sings some old 70s song. But in reality, your pick-up truck is stuck on the freeway with the rest of us in rush hour traffic. In truth, no one besides you really cares about your truck. And you’re likely driving alongside, behind, and in front of other pick ups, which makes you feel less than special, like the commercial had seduced you to feel. Buyer’s remorse – beware…

4. Good Reason: “I have a trailer to pull, man!” I get this. You do need something with power to haul a boat or big camper around. Just make  sure you’ve got no debts and you’re a good steward of the environment. That chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island is about to break off down in Antarctica. It’s on.

5. Bad Reason: “They’re safer.” No they’re not. Check your statistics. Trucks and SUVs give a false sense of confidence in bad driving conditions. That’s why you see as many 4-wheel drive vehicles in the ditch as you do sedans and compacts during a blizzard. The keys to road safety are this: Limit driving at night, live close to work, get snow tires (more important than 4-wheel drive), and walk/bike more.

What about those Lexusii?

Sadly, our marketing-driven society considers a personal vehicle an extension of one’s image. If you’re “making it” you better be driving a Lexus or BMW. This is probably the most obvious example of hedonic adaptation (alongside the next most obvious example: that ridiculous 4,000 square foot McMansion.)

When you park your Lexus in the driveway, garage, or parking lot, imagine it for what it really is: a heavy pile of moving parts and toxic compounds that’s costing you thousands of dollars and several months and years of your life; directly – because you could have walked or biked; and indirectly, because the payments have you tied to that cubicle.

Small cars to the rescue

What makes a little car so great? They look ridiculous! You can’t get a date driving around in a Smart Car! Well, maybe, but dating aside, practically, small cars can do more and offer more than most people think. In Europe, families of four or more cram into Fiats and haul mini-campers on their multi-week vacations. Small cars are generally cheaper to maintain, fuel, and insure. They hold their value longer.

Beyond the pure economics, little bitty cars are easier to park. I love pulling into the ramp at work and getting to slip into what would be an impossible parking space for any other car. That saves me time. And also, because the car is small (and cheap), I worry less about door dings. Parallel parking? It’s a breeze. Need more room in your garage? Check.

Got a mountain adventure lined up? We rented a Toyota Yaris to visit Rocky Mountain National Park a few years back. That little car had zero issues getting up and down mountain passes. The rental car company tried to sell us an unnecessary upgrade, but we were glad we stuck with the Yaris. It’s a heckuva lot easier to downshift on your way down a pass in a small car than it is in a fifty-ton war wagon that wants to barrel down that hill with bat-out-of-hell momentum behind it.

The planet will be better off

Ultimately, we need to be smarter about what we drive and how we get from Point A to Point B. Maybe that means limiting how often we fly to far-flung destinations, or simply limiting how often we drive to the mall to buy things we don’t need, things that required spent-fuel to get to the shelf.

I have a hard time believing there’s some hidden agenda behind climate-change science. If pollution isn’t a real danger or threat, then we should just keep on burning up oil and pretending the party won’t end. In reality, climate change is an inconvenient truth, and future generations are going to pay the piper for our indifference.

So on that happy note, reconsider your mode of transport. Make sure your car or truck is practical for what you need, so that you can feel good about your choices in later years. Your kids and grand kids will thank you for it.

(Featured image courtesy of Sivi Steys)

Small Cars and Better than Big Cars

Comments 14

  1. Sadly, too many Americans are ego-driven. While there are GOOD reasons to own a larger vehicle, beside those you already mentioned, is that a larger person (6 feet +) and disabled individuals, the rest of the population would do well by following your advice!

    1. Great points, SJB! There certainly are good reasons to own “big” that include accessibility. Too bad that more often than not, you see brand new monster trucks rolling down the street with average sized drivers and no intent to haul anything but a massive ego.

  2. I think your missing a very reasonable reason to own a larger vehicle. If you have a larger family they simply don’t fit into a small car. I currently have a Mazda 3, and my 2 kids car seats just barely fit. If my family goes anywhere together its a real challenge. Most of my family members have bought big haulking vehicles as a result, including one grandparent. I have a vehicle that’s just large enough to fit my family, but if I had 3 kids I’d need something much larger.

      1. What’s the fundamental difference between a used minivan and a used SUV? Personally well be buying an SUV if we upscale our family. Not because of something silly like looks however. Simply put we prefer manual shift cars. Minivans don’t have stick. I guess what I’m saying is be careful when making assumptions on others why.

  3. I’m a member of the small car crowd, when my Ranger was totaled, I replaced it with a Ford Focus. Then I added a hitch, and a trailer, and suddenly I had plenty of room for bikes, and camping gear. I’ve also used it to haul appliances for my rentals. The best part is that I can leave it at the house when its not needed, I don’t have to drive it everywhere like my old truck.

    1. Crazy how that works, isn’t it?? We own a small hatchback that could haul a new refrigerator if we needed it to. For our rentals, it’s likewise just as easy to throw a table saw in the back along with all sorts of tools and materials. You don’t need the big rig.

  4. Good points, but you missed one big benefit to owning an SUV. Snow!

    I live in the North East, and having a 4 wheel drive vehicle in the Winter is great for me and family. We also own a small car, but it’s nice to have a large car for stormy winter days.

  5. The right vehicle is very individual. If somebody wants to drive a Hummer because they just want to I would never judge them. If it makes you feel good to drive a go kart then have at it. You can’t begin to guess the entire carbon footprint someone creates just by looking at their vehicle. Not to mention who made any of us the environmental police when they are making perfectly legal choices?

  6. 4. Good Reason: “I have a trailer to pull, man!”
    alternative :
    ANSWER RENT a Truck for $20 a day plus mileage! Then return the 4 wheeled planet pulling monster to the owner. and the IV tube of the gas pump it needs. 🙂
    Quality post here.
    Peace Scott

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