I was between jobs when COVID came. For months I could not find work of any sort. I went up to the Maine mountains to do some hiking. The world was ending, I lived out of my car, and it was wonderful.
When I’d hiked all the mountains in Maine – most a few times! – I needed some new scenery. So I bundled into the car and drove out west. Portland to Portland – in July of 2020.
It was a wild ride. I didn’t want to get the plague – or spread it – and so I treated my car like a damn spaceship. I only ate the food I brought – and I had a month’s worth of food in the trunk. I filtered water out of rivers, I peed only in bushes, I slept under the stars (or in the car). The closest I came to human interaction was stopping to pump my own gasoline.
Gasoline was $1.30 a gallon, which didn’t hurt.
When I got to the Left Coast I decided to do some more hiking. I turned into a vanlife guy. I went from trailhead to trailhead, mountain range to mountain range, and it was wonderful. My life was full of wonders and I loved it. I miss it – and I dream of how I could do it better.
I learned a lot about living vanlife during plague-times. And I dreamed many a dream about how to do it better. It seemed very clear that the best way was to get a better vehicle. Because I did this all in a Honda Civic.
Now, two years later, I still own the same Honda. I can afford a new vehicle – even quite-a-vehicle. But I have chosen not to buy a spaceship. And here’s why.
I wanted a vehicle that would carry more stuff. I wanted a vehicle I could sleep in more easily. I wanted a vehicle where I didn’t have to shift around everything I owned, every time I wanted to lie down inside of it. I wanted something I could more easily take offroad. I wanted something that I was less worried about getting stuck offroad. Basically I wanted a big offroad vehicle.
A van would have been ideal. But “offroad van” is a bit of a misnomer. Very few vans have 4WD, let alone any dedicated offroad technology. Very few vans even have the ground-clearance of my Civic. And I can also imagine how “toppling over” would be a real problem for them. Especially when you’re going over a boulder, or slogging through mud… or driving the way I like to drive. Natch.
But even more than that: I did not need a van. I really only needed room to carry more stuff, with a coffin-sized cutout for sleeping. The rest of my time, I could live outside. Or in the front seat reclined allll the way back.
As such, I would have been quite happy with an offroad SUV or pickup. The difference is often small between them: a 4Runner and a Tacoma share a platform; the former is just the latter with a permanent bed-cap and extra seats. And in most SUVs, the rear seats can be fully removed.
When I got home, I got down to research as to what vehicle I should get. I learned a great deal. I wasn’t in a lot of hurry because I was stuck in Maine for the winter, which does not lend itself to hiking, let alone living not-indoors. Then I got a job as a lawyer. Then a second job that came with a company car. Now I am an attorney with a career – the dirtbag life is far away, and the nearest mountains just ain’t very near either.
What I found is that it is terribly difficult to find a vehicle that is useful for daily driving, weekend warrioring, and long-duration dirtbagging, all at once.
Some of these roles produce vehicle characteristics that are just plain mutually exclusive. Big vehicles are hard to take through the old streets of Portland – let alone to park on them. Big vehicles also handle like big vehicles… and I have discovered that I like carving corners. Impasse.
And some of these roles just lead to death by inches. Big vehicles are naturally less fuel-efficient than small vehicles. The bigger, the more gas-guzzly. MPG is also lost proportional to height of ground-clearance. AWD and 4WD don’t help – and the underpinnings that allow it weigh a lot, so even if it’s an on-demand system it’ll still cost you at the pump. All manner of other offroad technologies weigh a bunch, from disconnecting sway bars to thick coilover shocks. And the structural reinforcements necessary to survive offroading – and to carry all the weight of these technologies! – weigh yet more.
For example: my Honda is just fun enough to drive, is a useful city car, is an acceptable dirt-road car (I have put more offroad miles on my Civic than most Jeeps will get in their lifetime), and gets 38MPG combined.
Whereas the quintessential offroad SUV, the Toyota 4Runner, handles like a whale, moves through a city with the grace of a stampeding herd of water buffalo, and gets 17mpg combined. And costs $35,000 more than a new Civic.
WHY DO I KEEP WAFFLING ON ABOUT MPG
A cross-country road trip is about 3,500 miles each way.
In my Honda (@42mpg highway), that would take about 84 gallons of gasoline. At $5 a gallon, that’s about $420. Each way.
In an offroad-trim 4Runner (@17mpg highway), we’re talking about 206 gallons of gas, costing $1030. For a round-trip price difference of twelve hundred dollars.
For that amount of money, I could spend every night on the road-trip in a motel, with enough left over for meals. And so I wouldn’t hardly miss being unable to sleep in the car – negating a great deal of its purpose!
By the same token, this summer – living in Portland, Maine – I would wager that I will drive back and forth to the mountains about once a week. That’s a 300-mile round trip. Call it 350 miles with a trailhead approach or two. 350 miles, times 24 weeks, is 8400 miles. That’s more than a cross-country there-and-back. The fuel-cost difference between my current vehicle and a representative offroad SUV will be $1500 for the summer. (And probably another 500 during the year.)
$35,000 – for the privilege of spending $2,000 more per year?
No thank you.
There are numerous compromises that could be made. I could go down from 4WD to AWD – or dispense with it entirely. I could go from a more offroad-friendly ~10″ of ground clearance, down to a more highway-friendly 7.5. I could get a smaller vehicle, more of a CUV than SUV. I could dispense with both the technology and strengthening of an offroad-focused vehicle. I could still accept a cut to fuel efficiency. I could get a smaller vehicle. And I could give up any notion that it would be remotely fun to drive.
A base Rav4 would fit the bill. Make it a four-year-old car with 50,000 miles on it to bring the price down. I’d gain 2 inches of ground clearance and a little extra cargo room, but lose 8 miles per gallon and any joy of driving.
I’m not sure this would be a worthwhile trade even if it was a wash. But throw in the fact that I’d spend $15,000 for the privilege? Yeah. No. I don’t think so.
And there’s more even than that! If I got offered a good job that let me work fully remotely, I would seriously consider investing in a proper and sizeable offroad vehicle. It would pay for itself over the course of several years of not-paying-rent. The half-measure of a CUV would not be interesting to me. I would not keep the Rav4 for a moment.
Conversely, if I got offered a great job in a city – heck, even here in Maine – I would not need a large vehicle. Around the city, I would be perfectly content with a car that is small, cheap, and fun to drive. A GR86 costs 27k and gets 31mpg on the highway. Or 20mpg if you drive it on back roads in a manner consistent with God’s intentions – but I would be driving it so little that mpg would hardly matter.
A small and fuel-efficient car would save me so much money – both to purchase and to operate – that I wouldn’t ever need to sleep in it; I could spend nights in small hotels every time I went up to the mountains and I would still come out ahead.
OR, I could take the money I’ve saved, and buy a cabin out in the hills. I could keep most of my hiking materials there, and not need to cart them back and forth beyond the capacities of a GR86’s 2+2 seats.
And if I got a job in a city with actual public transportation, I could maybe take the train to my home-away-from-home. Which might even mean that I did not keep a car at all – or that I kept one only out in the mountains. At that point I would use it so little that MPG would not be a big issue, and I would never need to sleep in it or use it to carry much stuff. At that point I could just by a fucking Jeep.
I have been forced to reckon with two things. First, that I may not need a vanlife vehicle again. This thought does not necessarily break my heart, but it does make me wistful. I would love to live that life again, for even a week or three – but then I could just rent a vanlife setup. And would probably want to, because flying across-country and then renting a pickup is probably easier on the pocketbook, as well as the vacation-days.
The second reckoning is that my vanlife needs would probably be very different the second time around. I have to keep reminding myself: we are no longer in High Lockdown. This is not August of 2020, when we did not know quite what COVID was, when things were all acrumble, and when my vehicle had to be a self-contained adventuremobile more comparable to a 17th-century merchant-schooner than to any road-going vehicle.
In 2020, I had to sleep in the back seat a bunch. Even now in 2022, I could go to a campground. Or a motel. Or even a hostel. In 2020 I carried twelve gallons of water. In 2022 I could stop in a gas station and get a gallon or two as needed – cold. In 2020 I relieved myself only outdoors. In 2022 I would basically never do that. In 2020 I carried a month’s worth of food at a time. In 2022 – after stumbling off of a big multiday hike? I would drive a hundred miles to go to a Chinese buffet.
I simply do not need a large vehicle… even if I were to be a big vanlife guy.
(I might choose to invest in it, as a luxury. Much as I might choose to live in a 1BR instead of a studio. But I absolutely do not need it.)
Preparing for a life that I am unlikely to live in the near future, is not the wisest way for me to spend my hard-earned money. Preparing for a life that will be very different from the life when I last lived it, is foolhardy.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Also, there are a lot of changes expected to the marketplace for vehicles.
Firstly: current prices for vehicles are bananas. This due to increased demand (lots of people who lived in cities, and did not need cars, now live in places where they do); supply (there is none); and the cheapness of credit (I maintain that the temporary flatlining of interest rates will end up being the most significant long-term effect of the pandemic). This is true for new and used vehicles. This is especially true for fuel-efficient vehicles (because cost) and for offroad-y vehicles (because utility… or, kerb cred). As such, “wait a little” has probably never been a better strategy.
Secondly: a bunch of new models are slated to come out over the next year. Many mid-sized offroad SUVs are in the offing. The Mazda CX50 is incoming; the Subaru Wilderness should finally hit lots; and – drumroll – the world will get a new Tacoma and 4Runner. Both are badly in need of overhaul. These will also likely get turbocharged 4-cylinder engines that produce more torque than the current 6cyl, all while getting significantly better MPG.
Thirdly: all these upcoming vehicles will almost certainly be available hybridized. Heck, the current Ford Maverick Hybrid gets about the exact MPG of my car – except reversed: 42 city, 34 highway. If it had a 6′ bed, or if it was available in SUV form (with a linear 6′ of interior space), this would allow me to achieve a very large part of my spaceship dreams while matching my current car’s efficiency. I would not want to spend more at the lot just to spend more at the pump, but to then spend less at the pump… that would be intriguing to me.
A new 4Runner with a 10-speed slushbox, blown 4cyl, and mild hybrid, could very well get double the mpg of the current generation.
Fourthly: electrification. There are a number of electric pickups and SUVs on the market, with even more on the near horizon. I expect that this will come to dominate the American vehicle market. This both in terms of sustainability (reduced emissions), price (reduced fuel costs), and also: efficiency.
For one, an absence of ICE engine frees up a huge amount of space in a vehicle. The electro-frunk on the F150 Lightning could fit the better part of a Miata. For another, a quad-motor configuration – the presence of independent motors at each wheel – blows even the most complex and expensive 4WD system right out of the water. Thirdly, a large rechargeable battery is a great thing to have at home in case of power loss. Fourthly – well, a large rechargeable battery would be a game-changer in living vanlife.
And, fifthly: there’s the expense of EVs. In Maine, a large and capable EV will be cheap enough to charge that it’ll be like it got 45MPG! But, to buy such an EV will cost you at least 75 thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money for what is basically just a bigger Prius. In short: the numbers do not yet favor the transition.
SHOWING MY WORK ON THE EV THING
In America, EVs tend to give their “fuel” efficiency in terms of MPGe.
I think this is a very silly measurement. A better measurement is kilowatt-hour per mile – kWh/mi.
(Okay, yes, I really should use kWh/km. And I should have been computing fuel efficiency in terms of km/L, rather than MPG. But it’s late and I’m tired. Plus I’m American. Don’t make me invade your country.)
The Ford F150 Lightning boasts that it takes 48 kWh for it to drive 100 miles. That’s .48kWh/mi or ~2.2mi per kWh. This makes it among the least efficient EVs – which is no surprising, as it is a full half-ton work truck with a large battery and quad-motor “4WD”.
The Rivian R1S – the first SUV EV with real offroad chops – gets about the same energy efficiency, at .49kWh/mi.
The least energy-efficient modern EV is the Porsche Taycan Turbo S sports car, at .5.
The most energy-efficient is a base Tesla Model 3 at .24, or a Hyundai Ioniq at .25.
Middle of the pack is the Ford Mustang Mach-E SUV or base Tesla Model X at .32.
In Maine, the cost of residential electricity in March of 2022 was $.23/kWh. In Utah and Washington it was about 10 cents per. You know, until the rivers dry up and the dams stop generating.
As a result, to drive 1 mile in Maine, it would cost a Lightning or Rivian owner [ (.48 kWh/mi) x ($.23/kWh) ] = 11 cents per mile.On 5 dollars, you could drive 45 miles.
In Utah, the Rivian or Lightning would cost you 4.8 cents per mile, or about 105mi per $5.
The most-efficient EV, a Tesla Model 3, is twice as thrifty at .24kWh/mi. In Maine, that gives you a cost of 8 cents per mile / 90mi per $5; in Utah; 2.4 cents per mile / 180mi per fiver. Which like – yeah baby, this is the future I’ve been lookin’ for!
The most energy-efficient SUVs are the Tesla Model X on offroad tires (.37) or the smaller and more on-road-y Ford Mustang Mach E (.32). Their average is exactly halfway between that of the two vehicles above, so about 9.5 cents per mile in Maine, or 3.6 cents per mile in Utah – 67 miles per fiver in Maine, or 142 miles per fiver in Utah.
I’ve been using the miles per $5, here, because gas is currently $5/gal and so that makes an easy point for comparing costs with ICE vehicles. For every $5, my Honda gets 38 miles; a 4Runner, 16 miles; an EV Truck in Maine, 45; an EV Truck in Utah, 105; an EV SUV in Maine, 67; an EV SUV in Utah, 142; a Small EV in Maine, 90; a Small EV in Utah, 180.
This would mean more if all the cars cost the same off the lot. Lord but they do not.
In ICE world, a new 4Runner costs about $50k, and a base Honda Civic 22k. In EV Land, a base Tesla Model 3 stickers for 42k (after incentives); a mid-range F150 Lightning, 75k; a well-equipped Rivian R1S $100k; a Tesla Model X costs even more. (And no comment about being able to get those EVs for sticker price. Or at all. Yeesh.)
Sure my Honda gets 13 cents per mile, compared to a Tesla Model 3’s 6 cents per mile. But at 20k cheaper, it would be cost-effective for me to switch from ICE to EV only if I were planning on driving it 371,000 miles. And that’s the cheapest and most efficient EV of them all.
This gap would close if gas got more expensive, or if electricity got cheaper. If gas cost $10 per gallon (like it currently does in Denmark), and electricity were 10 cents per kWh (like it currently is in Washington State), then I would break even on switching from a Honda to a Tesla after 100,000 miles. Everything after that is savings.
I drive about 5,000 miles a year, so I’d have to keep my car 20 years for the EV to be the more frugal option.
Also: this is all assuming similar cost of ownership – IE no difference in excise taxes, no difference in insurance rates, no battery replacement needs after two decades of regular use, no loss of efficiency due to things like using the air conditioning or it being cold outside. And also assuming that a Tesla is as reliable as a Honda. Which, as the poet says: lmao.
I would seriously consider switching to an EV only if the drive-away prices were to come down significantly; or if I were suddenly to drive a lot more per year; or if I stopped being liable for electricity costs – such as if I worked somewhere that provided free EV charging, or if I lived in the desert and had mad solar panels anyway.
Or if I wanted to pay $50k just for an electro frunk. Which… maybe if I win the lottery. Twice.
Until then – ICE ICE baby, I’m afraid.
A time might also come when I am sufficiently settled, and sufficiently wealthy, that could own multiple vehicles – or split their ownership with a partner. Or, I might live in a place with good access to rental vehicles. Or, I might live in a place where I do not drive much – not on a daily basis; not to trailheads; or neither/nor.
This could allow me to divide up functionality, and also to allocate different vehicles to different tasks in order to improve fuel/charge economy.
Or it might mean that I drive so little that fuel costs aren’t super relevant. And I could just buy an old Jeep, for when I need to go on a dinosaur safari.
- It is unlikely that I will ever again need a vehicle to meet the needs of my 2020 adventures.
- I may never need a large vehicle again.
- I may never need an offroad vehicle again.
- Hell, the day might come when I do not keep a car at all.
- It is a terribly inauspicious time to buy a car – both because of the markets for current vehicles, and the promise of vehicles upcoming.
- My vehicle needs will almost certainly change if my career changes – and, I very much hope it does.
- Or I’ll get a job in a city that has a god damn subway, and when I need to slam gears I will hop on my 33MT.