My $6000 mistake

After my 2004 Prius was totaled, I had one prevaling thought when it came to transportation: I needed to replace the car. As such, I went looking for another Prius, loaded, with the JBL sound system, bluetooth, and GPS navigation. My wife strongly encouraged me to look for a later model, as it would be better covered by warranties and have less of a chance of something going wrong. Because rising gas prices have been driving up the demand for hybrids, and because the recent tsunami in Japan was hindering supply, my choices were rather limited. I found a couple dealers with Priuses, and it came down to a 2005 base model and a 2009 loaded touring edition. The '05, without any options, felt too much like "just a car"; while the loaded '09 offered all the bells and whistles I was used to, plus had newer components which made for a better warranty and piece of mind.

The cost, however, was really tough to swallow. After the check from my insurance company, I ended up owing over $13k, which I financed with the intention of pulling money from various accounts and paying off as soon as possible.

After a couple weeks of driving, however, I noticed the strong new car scent had given way to a strong cigarette smell. Not a smoker myself, the smell was beyond irritating — and the fact that I take my kids to school in the morning made me more concerned about the environment I was using for transportation. This and the out-of-pocket expense weighed heavily on me for the following weeks.

When fabric cleaners and deodorizers failed to improve things, I came to the conclusion that I had made a terrible mistake.

I knew I would take a small bath on the cost of the car compared to its trade-in value, so I began the search for an inexpensive and economical car (and, to satisfy my wife's concerns about warranties, a relatively late-model with a good warranty). My search led me to a used 2010 Chevy Cobalt previously used as a rental car, which I couldn't beat for the mileage/year/economy at that price.

It's a good car, drives well, is comfortable, and, very imporantly, does not have a cigarette smell. It doesn't have the bells and whistles of the Prius, but those are features I didn't really need — my phone can serve as a GPS well enough (and one that's continually up-to-date), and plugging the phone's headphone jack into the stereo's auxillary input (which I do out of habit anyway, as I listen to podcasts or audiobooks almost exclusively) is a more-than-acceptable substitute for a wireless handsfree bluetooth connection. Plus, the Cobalt has features that even the 2009 Prius didn't: a tire pressure and oil life monitor, daytime running lights, automatic headlights (seriously, for all the bells and whistles, how can the Prius not have automatic headlights?), and doors that automatically lock when the car is in gear. Plus, the Cobalt does not attempt to control everything through a single LCD touchscreen. (It seems cool, but it ends up being far more distracting and annoying when you have to switch screen modes just to adjust the temperature or see what radio station is playing — which might be why the 2010 model Prius went back to discrete radio and climate control panels.)

The car cost me just about the exact price of my late Prius, but after figuring in the loss on trade-in, taxes, and two dealer delivery charges, I estimate I lost somewhere in the ballpark of $6000 on the deal. But it was a huge weight off of my mind to be able to pull that money together, write a single check, and buy the car outright without any financing whatsoever.

The cost all comes down to a simple mistake. When I went to get a replacement car, I focused on replacing my old car with a near-equal match. If I had instead focused on what I need instead of what I want, I could have avoided the extra cost — or taken that extra money and considered more expensive but more economical or featured cars.

Do I miss my old Prius? Absolutely. It was my fun car, and I enjoyed it for the nearly seven years I was privileged to drive it. I'm glad I was able to get my fun car. But what I didn't initially accept was, it was time to move on. Now that I've accepted that, I feel much better about my old car's replacement, and I can move ahead.

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