Car consideration

Dr James Whalen discusses SUVs and outlines how the various costs of car ownership can be categorised to help with purchasing decisions

Yesterday I was watching a news item on TV about SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles, a term that has come across from the USA) which was talking about how they are among the worst polluting cars. They are popular, with many being owned by people in urban areas (75% are bought by residents of towns and cities). One way manufacturers promote them is that they say they are more profitable per unit to sell. 

This reminded me of an occasion on a lesson when a Range Rover pulled up alongside us at the traffic lights and my pupil, who was into cars, said “Jim, would you get one of those?”. My reply was “No, they have high running costs, I have no need for one, and with their high centre of gravity their handling is worse.” 

As many clients often ask about what would be a good first car to buy, ADIs are in a position to give advice about this important choice and generalise the conversation into the pros and cons of particular sorts of cars. 

History of the SUV

The history of SUVs goes back further than you would think. In 1935 Chevrolet created the first such vehicle by mounting a two-door estate body onto a half-ton truck chassis creating their first Suburban. The Suburban has become one of longest-running model types and has been in continuous production for 86 years. 

The 1935 variant had seating for up to eight people, which could be removed to create extra luggage space. Shortly after the Second World War, in 1948, Jeep increased the trim level on their estate version of their iconic car. With a six-cylinder engine the model boasted comfort like being in a car and when four-wheel drive was introduced in 1949 one could argue that this car was the first true SUV with the characteristics that are frequently seen on this type of car today. Jeep was also the first manufacturer to produce a model aimed at the luxury market segment for SUVs with their SJ Wagoneer in 1963. 

Having seen the growing SUV market in the United States, here in the UK Land Rover began designing the Range Rover in 1967 with the car being released in 1970. The Range Rover has become more luxurious as time has gone on. This trend can be seen across the segment now with manufacturers such as Porsche, Mercedes, Lexus, Lamborghini, Bentley, and Rolls Royce (the Cullinan has a starting price of £264,000 – I do not think many farmers or park rangers would be thinking of buying one of these!) offering SUVs. 

In the United States Ford now only sells SUVs, pickups and the Mustang, saying that car sales are too low to warrant offering models such as the Focus or Fiesta. Whether this trend is a result of people wanting these cars as status symbols or as a result of manufacturers’ advertising is a matter of debate. I personally feel much of the demand for these types of vehicles comes more from the consumer side.

With around 66% of the largest most polluting SUVs being sold to people living in towns and cities they are exacerbating the air pollution problem and making already congested streets more difficult for other road users. Although overall emissions from passenger cars fell by 75 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) between 2010 and 2018, emissions from SUVs grew by 544 metric tonnes. This figure is higher than the increase from heavy industry, aviation, trucks or shipping. Three wealthy areas of London (Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith & Fulham) feature in the sales figures of large SUVs with a third of the cars being bought in these boroughs being one. 

Although drivers feel safe in SUVs with their size and high driving position, research in the United States has shown that occupants are 11% more likely to die in a collision than those in cars, primarily due to the high centre of gravity in SUVs making them more prone to rolling over. Their size is also bad news for pedestrians as features such as bumpers are higher making the impact more at chest height which increases the chance of the pedestrian being knocked over rather than falling onto the bonnet. This extra height also causes a problem for car drivers. An example of this is the fact that their headlights shine straight into your interior mirror when an SUV driver is following you at night. 

With the large numbers of SUVs on the roads, many of them driven aggressively due to the drivers’ mindset, it is likely that your clients will experience this in their lessons. This not only sets a good example of the importance of awareness and a defensive driving style it also offers the opportunity to talk to clients about why SUVs, despite all their disadvantages (both for their owners and generally), are so popular. This conversation will often move onto what to consider when purchasing a car. Some factors to consider are outlined next.

Cost of car ownership

Car ownership has many advantages, but these benefits are expensive. A good way to divide the cost of having a private vehicle are standing costs and running costs. Standing costs refer to expenses that you will have despite how often you drive your vehicle. These include insurance, paying for the car (do not forget the interest payments when buying using a loan), taxing, an MOT for cars over three years old, depreciation (which is often the most expensive standing cost), and it is a good idea to have breakdown cover. 

Running costs include fuel, tyres, servicing (and MOT costs for cars over three years old), parts (eg going to buy new headlight bulbs), consumables (eg screen wash, polish, etc) and parking charges (toll charges also need to be considered but these are relatively rare in the UK). 

The average cost in the UK of owning and using a car is more than £3,000 so people need to think very carefully about how they budget for car ownership and to be prepared for big expenses coming up (eg a new set of tyres). As an ADI, you can use these costs to advise clients how to draw up a list of costs for different cars to help decide which to buy. Having an example worked out to give as a handout or an email attachment for your clients would help make a novel process for them much easier.

Making clients aware of how expensive cars are is also a good motivator for developing a sympathetic driving style. An obvious example would be using less fuel as fuel expenses can be reduced by around 15% with a good driving style. Regarding car sympathy, mention facts like how much it would cost to replace a major item (eg replacing a clutch is usually around £500 and is often more expensive) and how the car being off the road can be inconvenient and expensive. 

Driving style will also help another large motoring expense, insurance, to be less painful. As many of your clients will not be familiar with purchasing car insurance, go over terms like no-claims bonus, excess (compulsory and voluntary), insurance groups, and stress how proving yourself to be a low-risk customer helps bring the cost of insurance down.

Whether to purchase a car new or second hand is another factor to consider. The disadvantage of buying a new car is suffering higher depreciation, especially if the car is not kept for very long, but the running costs are lower as it is less likely to need to expensive parts replaced, for example. Owners do not need to worry about the history of new cars, can set the specification they want and are more likely to get better fuel efficiency, technology and safety features. 

A study in 2016 by MoneySuperMarket found the overall annual cost of running a new car was calculated to be £1,398 on average, compared to £1,645 for models which are five years old – a £247 difference or 15%. They used five cars for their comparison: BMW 3 Series, Ford Fiesta, Nissan Qashqai, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf.

Second-hand car sales usually outnumber new ones at a ratio of 3/1 and there is a wide range to choose from. Some of the newer ones may still have some of the manufacturer’s warranty remaining; it is more expensive to buy from a dealer than a private buyer but the purchaser is in a better position if something goes wrong. 

I usually ask my clients if they know anyone who would be good at helping them to buy a car and outline the advantages of getting the car checked by a professional before committing to buy. As many of your clients will not have the budget for buying a new car, or it may be their parents who are paying for their first car, most will be buying a second-hand car as their first car. Therefore, it is important to give them some advice about buying second-hand cars to help avoid a disaster occurring for them.

Another choice is whether to buy petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric. An advantage of diesels is that they burn less fuel and have fewer carbon dioxide emissions. This is offset by other toxic emissions that diesels have, problems with particulate filters, and they are less reliable than petrol cars as they age. The fuel consumption gap is narrowing, especially with small start/stop engines fitted with turbochargers, such as Ford’s ecoboost engine. Hybrid cars are the most fuel efficient out of petrol, diesel or hybrid cars, especially when you consider that most people do most of their driving in urban areas.

The final choice to consider is whether to buy a manual or automatic. Automatics are easier to drive, have a smoother ride and are better in queueing traffic. Disadvantages are they are more expensive to drive and can be a less engaging experience. 

With manual cars a driver has more control, often accelerate faster and are cheaper to maintain. Disadvantages include repeatedly taking one hand off the steering wheel and fatigue/pain in the left leg (especially in urban driving with a lot of junctions and start/stop traffic). It used to be that manual cars were more efficient when automatic gear boxes mostly had torque converters and three gears, but it is not so clear cut now with some of the changes in modern automatic gearboxes
(eg dual clutches or eight gear ratios). 

As most cars on the market are manuals, I still would recommend that people learn to drive in one if they can. However, on their first lesson I do mention that in the future cars are likely to be automatics and ask them which foot they would brake with if a car is fitted with only two pedals. The reasons why it is best to keep using the right foot to brake are then covered. I also cover e-pedals, such as those in the Nissan Leaf, where you press down to increase speed. Lift off the pedal and it acts as a brake with the car coming to a stop when the pedal is released completely. 

Initially, the government announced that sales of new petrol and diesel cars would be stopped in 2040 but this has recently been brought forward to 2030. With the 2040 date and my age I felt it would not affect which tuition car I purchased too much. With the 2030 date and the fact that I think I will need to purchase another three to four driving school cars it is looking more likely that the later purchases will be automatics and probably hybrids as well. 

I do not think I will be buying a fully electric tuition car, especially considering that most new drivers purchase a second-hand car as their first vehicle. However, I will keep an eye on how the driver training market develops and keep an open mind.

It is certain that this decade will see ADIs having to consider which driving school car they purchase very carefully, more so as the decade gets closer to 2030.

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