The press continues to hype the sudden popularity of older economy cars as a solution to surging gas prices.
An AP story appearing in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere this morning says "In the past year, the average used small car price has gone up 2 percent, from $9,278 to $9,470, according to wholesale auto auction data collected by the National Automobile Dealers Association." Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power, told the AP that "his company's data shows the biggest used car price increases in the super-small category."
A San Jose Mercury News story gets specific, saying that some older cars, "like the [Geo] Metro," can get "as much as 45 miles to the gallon," which "rivals mileage for hybrids."
Sounds terrific. It isn't true, though.
The federal government altered the formula it uses to calculate gas mileage last year. The old formula -- the one used to calculate the mileage of those economy cars when they were first sold -- exaggerated the actual mileage most drivers saw from their cars. The new formula is supposed to be more accurate.
It's easy to compare old and new numbers -- the EPA has already done it for you, publishing the older numbers alongside the new, revised numbers on its website.
So let's look at the mileage of that 1992 Geo Metro. According to the old formula it should have managed a combined mileage rating of 38 mpg. That's not far below the 46 mpg of the current Toyota Prius, just like the Mercury-News claims. According to the revised formula, however, that 1990 Metro should actually manage only 33 mpg -- 13 below the Prius. That's not nearly as impressive. In fact, it's nearly the same rating as many current small cars. Considering that the 1992 Metro features only one airbag and earned a "safety concern" from the federal government even by the standards of sixteen years ago, you should probably think long and hard before paying thousands of dollars for one.
That hasn't stopped some people from making a profit off the trend while they can. CNN reports, "In May alone, 43 Metros of various years and models were sold on eBay, ranging in price from $221.50," all they way up to "$7,300. The cars have been hot items, drawing upwards of 49 bids on certain vehicles, with many of the auctions coming down to last-second bidding wars." One recent Metro buyer told eBay she "has acquired another Metro, which she is considering flipping on eBay for profit. She has her eye on a third at a local car lot."