A tale of two cars

Written by erin


Truism: Cars are expensive. Expensive to buy, expensive to fuel, expensive to maintain.

Since we all know this, (hence it being a truism), some data I recently came across caught me by surprise. And made we wonder whether I have been misjudging the actual cost of my driving choices.

Here’s the scoop, and I begin with a confession. I own a car. Actually, more than one. And I drive regularly. Indeed, this post is A Tale of Two Cars. One, a Prius. One, a minivan.

I was an early adopter of the Dodge Caravan double-sided-door minivan. In 1995, I got myself on a list and waited six months for my eggplant-colored, eggplant-shaped car-that-seats-seven. There is a part of my brain that, even, now has no regrets about this car. We have special needs in my family and a minivan was the only vehicle which accommodated the special modifications we required.

Nine years later, I got myself on another waiting list. I waited nine months for my silver Prius. Not to replace the minivan, because we still needed that, but to replace the two-seater my husband was driving. Our family of four was creating too many situations where one parent or the other was stuck with a car improperly sized for the task at hand.

Today, we are still driving both cars and, just for fun, compiled all of our repair and maintenance bills so we could have a look at the true cost of each one. Without any attempt to account for inflation, but including all expenses except purchase price, gas and insurance, here is where each car stood when it hit 120,000 miles:

Dodge minivan: 13.63 cents per mile
Toyota Prius: 3.35 cents per mile

Ouch. And Wow. I mean, OK, I was not surprised that the minivan had higher maintenance bills. It is a heavy car and has gone through tires and transmissions and brakes with keen regularity. And of course, it has different functionality than a Prius. It carries lots of people and lots of stuff.

But 4x the cost for every mile? Not including gas? (The minivan’s gas cost is a bit more than double that of the Prius). Even the raw number without any comparison is a shocker. It’s almost as high as the cost of gas.


And here’s what I learned. The cost of gas is the most obvious, most visible ongoing cost of driving a car. You get reminded of it very frequently. But ongoing maintenance costs aren’t trivial by comparison. They may be lower, but not a lot lower. So when you think about how much it’s going to cost you to drive somewhere, don’t fall into the trap of considering just the cost of gas and parking. And when you do drive, and especially when car-shopping, choose wisely. Buying more than you need costs you more than you think.

You May Also Like…


  1. Sean Y

    This still isn’t a completely fair comparison. The Caravan is likely a 1996 model and is now at least 14 or 15 years old. The Prius is likely a 2004 model, and therefore is about 7 years old.
    Depending on how long it took to reach 120k in each vehicle, there are certain things that go wrong with time rather than mileage. Electrical components, wiper blades, tires, and exhaust systems are subject to weathering rather than physical wear.
    Maybe the Prius needs oil changes every 7k miles, whereas the Caravan requires 3k. I’m not sure of the maintenance schedules, but they’re probably different.
    You also said “special needs” with no clarification. If this is something that adds substantial weight to the Caravan, such as a wheelchair lift, then things like the tires are going to wear sooner than they should, the transmission and engine will both have greater loads than normal, causing quicker wear.
    And you haven’t reached the point of needing batteries. When your Prius is 14 years old, come back with a report on the costs. That would be a more fair assessment.

  2. Dave R

    @Sean Y:
    Caravan doesn’t require any special treatment regarding oil changes compared to the Prius. It might need an extra quart or two for each change. The Prius definitely doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, so duh – it’s cheaper to run. Even if you doubled the cost of maintenance on the Prius, it’s still way cheaper than the Caravan – and it still uses half the fuel of the Caravan at least.
    The Prius battery is warranted for 15 years or 150k miles. Should it fail outside of that period, you can head over to Luscious Garage and have it replaced with a refurbished battery for $2-3k. Assuming you need to have that done every 150k miles and it costs $3k, that adds $0.02/mile to your operating costs.
    Still have a long ways to catch up to the Caravan.

  3. Johnmichael Monteith

    Sorry, but a Dodge Caravan versus a Toyota Prius is not a fair comparison. If you take a Honda Odyssey versus a Honda Insight you will find that, yes, the Insight maintenance costs less but not nearly as dramatic as your example. There is a cost per person element to this, as well, since if your minivan versus small car comparison is like our own family you will find that there are regularly more than one person traveling in the minivan and rarely more than 2 in the car.

  4. Bryan

    Thanks for posting. Can you provide more detail on the Caravan maintenance expense? I have a 2000 Caravan and I’m scratching my head how you managed to spend over $1000 per year on the car on maintenance (if I follow your math…13.63 cents per mile x 120,000 mils divided by 16 years). Your Prius is a 2005? So you put 120,000 miles on it in 6 years? Your maintenance cost was $670 per year for the Prius. I agree with Dave that there is a time factor that’s not being considered. On an annual basis, your Prius maintenance is running about 60% of the Caravan. That’s not 4 times as much. Looking forward to more details.

  5. mike

    Hi Erin,
    I agree a truly green car where the pollution is tied to it’s construction and that production is carefully monitored is a better future than the one we currently have. That however is not the future of the Prius or it’s chinese counterparts.
    I have a great deal of concerns over the move to Lithium-ion that Toyota are making. That seems to be their chosen future and what concerns me most of all is their investment in Bolivian mines. When it comes to regulations you can’t get worse. So to me the Prius is like many many consumer products – good for the user, bad for the planet – a gesture. I guess if you have a local air pollution issue then it would help there, but that is a not in my back yard attitude. It won’t help the pollution of child miners in Bolivia.
    The solution that your government won’t ever tell you and that most people won’t adopt is STOP consuming, STOP driving 20,000 miles a year. Up to now there is NO consumer available system that means you can do this without creating pollution and also suffering. Just how much pollution do you think is created by building batteries for 2,500,000 Prius?

  6. sara

    I agree with mike, in that the real solution is to find ways to drive less. I own a Caravan which I bought new and cheap in 2004. The first few years I drove it a good deal, but now my situation is such that I don’t really need to drive much. Over 7 years I have averaged 6,000 miles per year, but that figure has fallen the last 3 or 4. I would do without but in our small town, there is not a lot of public transportation.There are taxis, some buses and some private services. Question: for someone who drives less than 3,000 miles per year, is a car worth the money? (I have figured that my car has cost me, for all costs including purchase price, about $300-$360 per month over 7 years). Since no car ever has zero cost, what would be the break point?

  7. mike

    I drive less than 3000 miles per year.
    I have just kept the same car that I had for a few years before I moved. Not the greenest car out there but I think for the miles I do that it must make more sense than buying a new car? There is no public transport alternative for where I live. The cost of ownership is not high once you own a vehicle and reduce your driving down to a tiny amount. Not driving places is such a win win… no cost, no environmental impact, no wasting time in traffic. Once in a blue moon I might go for a holiday but it’s generally not far and I now try to use public transport as much as possible for that too. It’s not perfect but it’s very hard to be so when the rest of the world seems hell bent on consuming all it can.
    @ everyone on this thread:
    I just want to make clear, I do support Erin and any efforts she makes. More power to her! I just want to chuck my thoughts in when I feel there is “more to” a given situation. I’m afraid I am distrustful of any organisation (like Toyota) who is solely motivated by profit. I don’t let this stop me from pursuing the right way in life BUT it does make me do a lot of “due diligence” on anything these folks try to sell me. The more you dig around regarding the Prius, the muddier the water gets.
    I became so frustrated with trying to be a green consumer that I just stopped consuming all together. I buy the bare minimum I need to lead a basic life. Not something I find the average Prius owner is prepared to even consider! That is not directed at you Erin 🙂 – just a certain ‘type’ of Prius driver. You know, the type who ALSO owns a personal jet! 😉

  8. Erin Craig

    Hi Spencer,
    No secret sauce involved, just a look at one particular slice of the cost picture. It was a calculation of maintenance costs alone – no gas, no insurance, no depreciation… and no oil changes. Essentially it was everything which came as a bill from our mechanic.
    Thanks for your support!