The Second Car Dilemma

Recently I’ve been thinking (dreading?) about what we should do about getting a second car for the family.  With two kids, it won’t be too long until we’ve completely outgrown the little Saturn.  It’s already placing some limitations on trips we can take.  For example, with two car seats in the back, we basically can only choose one of the following items:  stroller, playpen, cooler, dog, or an additional person.  The dog and extra person are not a major deal, but for longer trips it would really be great to be able to bring along the stroller, playpen, and the cooler.

Clearly, the threshold of becoming a two-vehicle family is near.  If nothing else, it’ll be an absolute necessity by the time we have a third baby.  (I haven’t actually measured, but I am pretty sure that two toddler seats and an infant seat won’t all fit in the back seat of the Saturn.)  As much as I don’t want to have to deal with this, I’m realizing that we need to start planning and saving.

The major internal dilemma I have is the full-size SUV vs. minivan, mostly with respect to fuel efficiency.  I’ve been spoiled (blessed?) with 30 MPG in the Saturn, so the thought of a 30%-50% cut in gas mileage makes me cringe.  But with the current problems in the auto industry, I’ve given up on the pie-in-the-sky dream of gas/electric hybrid SUVs that achieve 25-30 MPG, at least within the timeframe that we’ll need to get a second car.  So, I’m slowly forcing myself to accept the fact that in the future we’ll have to burn 50%-100% more fuel.

Deep down, I really want to get a Chevy Tahoe, Toyota Sequoia, or Honda Pilot rather than a minivan.  I justify that by figuring that the higher ground clearance and 4WD will be useful for trips to the mountains or on snowy days.  But, realistically we’re probably never going to drive on any off-road trails and there are at most 5 or 10 days each year that have enough snow that actually requires 4WD.  Although I hate to admit it, I’m probably more motivated by the image of driving an SUV, which is silly, but I don’t have a better way to explain why I want one so much.

Of course, after this last summer, there is a bit of a social stigma attached to driving an SUV as well.  I don’t want to be seen as an arrogant, stuck-up exurbanite who thinks I’m entitled to driving a huge, inefficient vehicle regardless of the climate and energy implications.  Perhaps my largest motivation against getting an SUV is the image, too.

But, maybe it’s not so bad.  I got to thinking that I should really approach the efficiency measurement as person-miles per gallon rather than just straight MPG.  After all, beyond a family of four, it’s not possible to use a 30 MPG sedan for transportation, so I really can’t use 30 MPG as the standard for the family vehicle.  (The only exception would be one of the few full-sized gas-electric hybrids, but they are almost impossible to find and are so expensive that they don’t make economic sense. And, even those only achieve 20-24 MPG.)

To run some numbers:


  • 4 people x 30 MPG  = 120 person-miles/gallon


  • 4 people x 20 MPG = 80 person-miles/gallon
  • 5 people x 20 MPG = 100 person-miles/gallon
  • 6 people x 20 MPG = 120 person-miles/gallon


  • 4 people x 15 MPG = 60 person-miles/gallon
  • 5 people x 15 MPG = 75 person-miles/gallon
  • 6 people x 15 MPG = 90 person-miles/gallon
  • 7 people x 15 MPG = 105 person-miles/gallon
  • 8 people x 15 MPG = 120 person-miles/gallon

Assuming we have four kids, a minivan is just as efficient (per person) as what we have now, and an SUV is only 25% less efficient.  If we have five or six kids (more unlikely, but possible), then the numbers are even better.  This way of thinking helps justify the bigger second vehicle a little more.  As long as we use it primarily for trips with the whole family, then we’re still doing about as well as we can with the number of people we have.

Now, I can only hope that the auto market remains depressed for another year or eighteen months so we’ve got some time to save up a significant down payment…