The Car

Welcome back Science Enthusiasts! As we continue our planning, one of the choices we’re facing is on what to do about our car. Presently, we drive a Honda Civic from 2005. Even though it’s 16 years old, it’s relatively low mileage (sub 100k – yay for too many years of schooling?). However, with a little one, it’s going to be somewhere between impossible and pretty hard to fit everything we need for a camping road trip. We love the car, and don’t want to get rid of it, but we need something else for at least the next year. What should we get?

Well, since space is an issue, we naturally started looking at cars larger than the civic. That doesn’t exactly narrow down the range though. We like the idea of a hatchback, and Subarus have an excellent reputation for longevity and reliability, so we started looking at the Outback.

Subaru Outback Wilderness Edition

Subaru has cultivated a reputation designed to appeal to the outdoor enthusiast. Their cars are built to be able to handle rough roads and really get out into nature. This has some obvious appeal, since we’re intending to drive this car into all weather, across all seasons, in national parks and away from cities for the next year or so. The Outback also has a nice cargo/passenger capacity – something we’re enthusiastic about both for the current trip and in case our family keeps growing in the future. Speaking of kiddos, the second row of the outback has latch points that allow for a kids seat to mount in any of the three positions across the row (left/right/middle). These are all very good things. It’s also a pretty reasonable price, even if the one specifically intended for off-roading is one of the most expensive models.

There are a few shortcomings of the Outback for our intended use. The first is that the gas milage is relatively low. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not much worse than my somewhat aged Civic, which is impressive as the Outback is much larger, but it’s not all that good when compared against other cars around the same size. As Geo-wife and I are avid environmentalists, we’re also concerned that there isn’t a hybrid option for the Subaru, so gas usage is going to be a concern for the lifespan of the car. The gas mileage of the Outback also decreases as you move towards higher-end models, like the Wilderness, which have larger engines and are more capable vehicles in general.

In the future, we’re hoping to be able to use this new car to help us move, so we’re also considering towing capacity. At present, most of our stuff is in a storage unit near where I did my postdoc, but we hope that I’ll get a tenure track job once academia recovers from the pandemic, and we’ll relocate everything once we know where that might be. Or, you know, when we settle on something else and find a new permanent location to raise our family. The base model of the Outback has a towing capacity of 2700 lbs. When you consider that an empty U-Haul trailer takes up about 900 lbs of that capacity, that’s not nearly as much as it sounds like. For comparison, a mid-sized SUV has a typical towing capacity in the 4000-5000 lbs range; a few go even higher, especially in full-sized, but often have much worse gas mileage.

There is also the question of range. The base model of Outback has the longest range, estimated between 480-610 miles depending on how much driving is highway driving. The Wilderness has a range closer to 410-480 miles, with the Premium coming in between the two. For day-to-day use, I don’t worry much about range, but when we’re talking driving through the mountains it’s nice to have a longer range so that we’re not fretting about making the next gas station. That said, my Civic has a range of ~300 miles on the highway, so any version of the Outback would be a substantial upgrade here.

Volvo XC90 Recharge

As an alternative, we also started looking at a mid-size SUV, specifically the Volvo XC90 Recharge. We’re less enthusiastic about the idea of a full SUV (rather than a hatchback or crossover like the Outback) from both a size of the car and environmental impact perspective, but the XC90 Recharge performed well for us despite these reservations.

Right off the bat, the biggest disadvantage is that the XC90 is far more expensive than the Outback, with MSRP base values around $30k higher. That’s not a small chunk of change for an academic like me, particularly without a tenure-track job. One of the disadvantages to SUVs as a class is that they’re larger, which to my way of thinking makes them a lot less fun to drive. That said, the XC90 drives well, and, for a mid-size SUV, doesn’t feel as horribly large as some of the others out there.

The pros of the XC90 come on a few fronts. First off, the Recharge edition is a hybrid, which is better for the environment, and kicks the gas mileage up towards an estimated 55 MPGe. I don’t know how realistic that mileage is – from what I understand hybrid gas mileage estimates tend to be far removed from actual gas mileages when tracked over time – but that’s a very appealing number. The XC90 has the same size gas tank as the Outback, but the improved gas mileage means that the estimated range could be just over 1000 miles. The reported value is 520 miles, which is considerably less, but still better than the Outback. The towing capacity is also much higher: at 5000 lbs we can likely haul our 1-bedroom apartment with us when we move it out of storage.

In a more parental line of thought, while the Subaru has good safety features the Volvo has truly excellent safety features. In fact, the reputation of the Volvo company is particularly built around its safety and reliability ratings. The Volvo also has a larger internal capacity, which will be useful not just for this trip, but into the future, particularly if our family grows again. As a full-sized, rather than mid-sized, SUV the Volvo also has the ability to carry two more people than the Subaru – again, useful if we have more kiddos or if our kiddo makes a bunch of friends (remember the days before the pandemic when people could see each other?). In the meantime we can easily fold down the back row of seats and fit more camping gear.

There are lots of pros and cons to each car. We really like the look and feel of the Subaru, particularly given the company’s emphasis on life in the outdoors, and the lower price tag. We like the improved gas mileage, storage and towing capacity, and emphasis on safety for the Volvo. So, there’s the debate. Which should we go for? We’ve actually already made the decision, but I’m curious to hear what you think. Check out our Twitter feed if you’d like to vote.

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