Used Car vs. New Car (Reprise)

A couple of weeks ago I posted my take on the environmental impact of buying new vs. used (see post here). I received a thoughtful email from a reader in Colorado:
I have been thinking about the same question. When buying/trading used cars does MPG matter to the environment?

Most people, rightfully, want to do the right thing for the environment and get more fuel efficient vehicles. But let's go in the opposite direction for the sake of argument.

Let's say that at a used car dealership I hand in my Honda Civic and purchase your Ford Behemoth (and you do the same in the opposite direction) was our transaction environmentally net-net?

I would think so since both cars are in use. Your article seems to point to the same conclusion. Does this abdicate used car buyers from considering fuel efficiency in their purchases and trades?

While I agree wholeheartedly that NEW car purchases need to be as environmentally friendly as possible, to guide manufacturers towards more fuel efficient vehicles. I think that used car purchases are just shuffling owners. The miles in each car need to be 'used up' prior to it's replacement in the U.S./Global fleet with a (hopefully) more fuel efficient model.

I might even go so far as to argue that if you maintain your Ford Guzzler you are doing the environment a favor by keeping it out of the hands of a secondary market. Many of our cars that are highly used end up auctioned and sent to Central and South America, where people may not be able to afford to keep them running as efficiently as possible - or where they would not be subject to stringent emissions monitoring. (A statement of economic inequality, not character.) Where I live near Denver you can watch them parade on Wednesdays from the Used Car Auctions down I-25 headed south towards Juarez, Mexico. Will their new owners have the means to optimally maintain the functioning of the vehicle to ensure minimal environmental impact?

Such thinking would also lead me to believe that a Cash-for-Clunkers would have a long term, net benefit by taking the guzzlers out of the total fleet faster. Obviously, such thinking then also points to the efficacy of raising CAFE standards.

Thanks - I enjoyed your article!

And thanks for reading and commenting.
Here's one more twist to think about. I have a colleague who suggests that as long as CAFE standards are in effect and the manufacturer you purchase from is not exceeding CAFE, then by buying a fuel efficient car you are just allowing the manufacturer to sell another less efficient (and more profitable) one, because they can do so and still keep their fleet average above the limit. There's probably a bit of truth to that--CAFE regulates a fleet average, and your purchase is just part of that overall average. However, it's a pretty complicated system (details here), so I'm not confident of my opinion. And all in all, I think the economic signal sent by purchasing a more fuel efficient car is the right signal to send, so I'll stand by my original post.

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