I put on my reporter hat yesterday and covered the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, still the country's largest and most influential car show. If part of your retirement planning includes buying a car to last you a long time, my advice is to hold off for at least a year or two as the industry perfects the fuel-economy advances that have been brought about by the development of electric-powered cars.
Despite the recent release of the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, electric cars aren't ready for prime time, but they are coming close. And gas engines are getting overhauls that take advantage of electric technology to double gas mileage. Several manufacturers have plans to release next-generation hybrids in 2012 that offer better than 50 miles per gallon.
What makes the difference is the adoption of Lithium-ion batteries as opposed to nickel-metal-hydride. The first generation lithium battery in the Chevy Volt bisects the length of the car and gets in the way of everything. Meanwhile, battery manufacturer Johnson Controls introduced a lithium battery at this year's car show that is no more than one-quarter of that size and fits neatly underneath the rear passenger seats. A full-size car can run 100 miles on it before switching over to gas, and it recharges by plugging into ordinary household power in about half the time that it takes to recharge a Volt.
Another interesting electric vehicle that people planning to live in a quiet area during retirement might consider is Chrysler's line of electric GEM cars that weigh less than 3,000 pounds, seat as many as five with room for groceries and max out at 35 mph. They cost about $10,000 and qualify for a 10 percent federal tax credit if you buy before Jan. 1, 2012. GEM cars are first cousins to golf carts, but they are fully enclosed, heated and air conditioned, and would do fine as a second car for people who need something for running errands in an area without high-speed traffic. They meet the federal crash-test safety regulations for those kinds of usages.
A third option is a kit that adds electric power to an existing gas vehicle. A number of small companies have developed these and are selling them to fleet owners -- companies that rely on a truck as big as a Ford F450 can buy a kit that will up gas mileage from the current 4 or 5 mpg to 50 mpg. Right now, the conversion cost is too high to be practical for drivers of ordinary cars and trucks, but the price will undoubtedly fall.
Any way you look at it, cars are getting more fuel efficient and more comfortable, so you'll probably be sorry if you rush out and buy yesterday's technology.