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Drive for Free

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May 8, 2023


DRIVE FOR FREE: I have a luxury sedan because I’m so cheap

This all started with those darn tiny houses.

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I can’t pinpoint what inspired this but I dedicated a good portion of the extra free time I gained during the early-pandemic to watching “tiny house” videos on YouTube—how-tos and tours, which lead to exploring off-grid living and then had me search for land upstate for sale. Instead of just buying one of these super-cute tinies, or better yet trying to build one, one should have the land to put it on first. By miracle and motivation, I somehow landed the land and it already came with a sort of tiny house (AKA an RV) so I fast-tracked to start experimenting in collecting rainwater, replacing a flush toilet with a compost bucket, ripping out all the propane-powered systems. This woodlands work-playland (which I’ll catalogue in more detail sometime here) gave me the confidence to think I could do similarly on a bigger scale in my own normal-sized suburban home. My off-gassing journey began in this home early last year, for which I had a pretty logical timeline that ended in getting an electric car.

The car was supposed to be the final step of the plan, because I figured I’d want the 100% electric house first and then solar panels to net-zero things—all the better for me to further drain the electric use with an EV. This was years down the road. But then many things snowballed to push me from ICE to EV faster than I imagined. Like everyone, I was feeling the burn of increasing gas prices. Add to this, I now drove much more than I used to, as I now took off any free weekend/day possible on a four-hour round-trip to the mountains. The hypocrisy of this wasn’t lost on me either: the fact that I spent so much fossil fuel getting to my supposed eco-friendly happy place. Then my trusty Subaru Crosstrek started having an apparently undiagnosable issue with a tire knocking in a terrible way when I made a sharp turn, for which I quickly tired of the mechanic’s ongoing investigation.

I thought, upon counsel from the BF (who bumps around in a very earth-unfriendly but mountain- and carpenter-appropriate pickup truck), that using training wheels first was a good way to ease into the electric world. In early 2022, I put myself on the waitlist for a new Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, building into the math and an adjusted tax withholding form at work, the assumption that I’d partake of the hybrid $4,500 tax rebate on my return in 2023. Many months passed and that Subaru never surfaced—supply chain hell at its peak, blah blah. As the year went on and I still had no car and that car kept knocking on hell’s door every time it turned left, I finally investigated that tax rebate everyone assured me existed and found out these new hybrids wouldn’t be included in Biden’s new plan focused on domestic-made models. Subaru never told me that, in fact they claimed they didn’t know at all—I actually had to inform HQ to check out IRS.gov!

Concurrent with my pandemic tiny-house obsession was a growing interest in all-things Elon Musk, probably sparked by the exciting pandemic moment when his rocket ferried men to the International Space Station and we got that kind of 1960s JFK moon-magic feeling for a moment. Mind you, this is not about the “man” Elon, who I realize is problematic to say the least, but the maker—when he makes things that seem good for the earth rather than designed to trash it in order to get to Mars ASAP. No question he’s up there with our all-time great geniuses so I can’t help but be pretty interested in anything he’s peddling (except Twitter checkmarks). I reserved a solar tile roof because I wanted a roof + solar in one project together, and his achieves both very beautifully, until I found out my roof was too small. Then I reserved (these reservations cost $100 that you can refund), one of those ridiculous Cybertrucks, because I think they are ugly in a badass way (Mad Max-meets-Star Wars) and indestructibility pleases me. Again, a problem of not being the right fit. This monster metal contraption would probably be a nightmare in my driveway and get stuck in the tiny narrow roads of my parking-congested village. I still consider this a someday splurge item for my bucket list, but in the meantime my research introduced me to the magic of the early Tesla concept of free unlimited supercharging. A lightbulb went off when I needed a real car to replace my Subaru pronto and I remembered that supercharging concept again. A new urgent dream was born. I had to get one of those old Teslas so I could drive for free forever.

Certain early Tesla models (X and S) of certain years come with unlimited free supercharging for the life of the car. In the case of Xs, which are generally pricier (blame those falcon wings), it’s just a few model years and harder to come by. A Tesla S sedan year 2016 or older originally came with unlimited free supercharging to sweeten the pot when Teslas were new enough that they needed to entice people to try. Some of these models kicking around still have it grandfathered in, if they haven’t passed through a Tesla dealership at any point, who are more than happy to wipe out the deal since it’s costing Tesla a fortune to forever-fund that giveaway. You are more likely to happen upon one of these unicorns from a private seller, and the price of them are dropping constantly. As opposed to earlier in the pandemic when Tesla sales spiked, the Tesla frenzy seemed to be calming down enough when I started hunting that I figured I might be able to sneak my way in through the backdoor, the way I do everything. I’d have to go far back (nearly to the first dawn of Tesla EVs in 2012) into a really old model 2013, and sacrifice my desire for a four-wheel drive, but I found her in CT and adopted her in Oct. 2022.

I say “her” because Tesla owners are immediately prompted to name their cars and of course any car of mine would be a she. It’s the defining moment you take when you convert your humdrum driving life to a computer-run car with its name greeting you on the big screen or associated app every time you look. My girls and I brainstormed, and same as when we were naming our American green tree frog, decided a Stranger Things reference was necessary. We fondly remembered Yuri’s sad, battered helicopter, named after his former big-bottomed lover Katinka and immortalized in this hilarious clip below, which against all odds rescues Hopper and Joyce from the Russian jail.

Used if beloved Katinka was easily re-homed but probably shocked to discover she would be playing the role of a humble and hardworking Subaru Crosstrek only disguised as a luxury barge. I think the Katinka title really suits her as I haul many wooden pallets I find on curbs and coax her up and down the winding roads of the Catskills in a very abusive manner. So much so that Katinka combusted quickly after my pothole-prone purchase with a tire going sideways and the suspension failing. But even at this great expense, and the trauma of the first emergency tow in my life, I can say this still makes the math acceptable on the car, a 10-year-old broad at that. All said and done, she was cheaper to buy than the Subaru and certainly cheaper to live with.

People aren’t really computing it when I tell them: when I say drive for free, I mean free. Not me paying to charge or plugging into my house and me considering that free because it’s not gas or the cost is hiding in my electrical bill. Legit, it’s 100% free. Supercharging for life means being able to use this ever-growing network of Tesla fast-chargers (and slower ones) just off major roadways nearly wherever you roam. Teslas supposedly don’t take well to always supercharging since it depletes the battery life faster. So the assumption, even with free unlimited charging, is you would pay for the slower charging at home in between your longer road trips. I was just planning to break that “rule” and charge my heart out between the Stop & Shop parking lot north of me, and the Stop & Shop parking lot south—battery life be damned—and then on my roadtrips as needed. But then my friend in all things eco who rents a space from my driveway (and said my car makes me look “rich”—go Katinka, you fooled him!) blew my mind when he revealed to me that there’s a slow-charger free to any EV just around the corner from my house! Suddenly, a portal opened to EV nirvana. I had free home charging (or close to it) and free supercharging. And the more I explored, the more I found that many EV owners, with or without the supercharger deal, can really charge for free all over the place if you have the time to hunker down for hours/overnight. When I went to Maine, I could park overnight at the Mt. Snow chargers, for instance, as I can when I’m in the Catskills and can hang at the Emerson Resort and watch that silly kaleidoscope show again. “Destination” chargers of various brands, not just Teslas, are all over the place and often free. Many are intended for the official guests of said destination, like at a hotel, but often these are free to anyone and/or no one’s checking. There’s an app/website you can use to search for free charging called PlugShare.

Supplemented with my unlimited Tesla charging options, I have so far (in the last six months of ownership) almost entirely charged for free, with the exception of two winter nights when I plugged into a regular exterior outlet at my BF’s house to partake of a little “trickle” charging just to be safe, at the cost of about $1-something added to his electric bill each night.

Tesla ownership is such a brave new world, and I can get into all the technical/cultural details should anyone care for a whole different post on that (the frunk! the farting app!) but I’m truly here for the frugality and my mission to get off fossil fuels, so on that front I say yes. Everyone’s worried about the cost of the battery—I get it, they are pricey—but the batteries are built to last for the life of the car (500,000 miles) and if it did ever come to an early death, they are getting cheaper as the tech gets better and recycling is becoming an option.

Comparing apples to oranges here but here’s what the math looked like between my attempt to buy a 2022 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid verses the 2013 Tesla P85S (@ 79,000 miles) I hooked up with instead.

My original Subaru Crosstrek, 2016, had an amazing trade-in value, considering I bought it used for $18,111 including tax/fees and resold it for $17,500 despite it needing new tires and major repair. Cost of Subaru ownership for five years: $611!

If I went ahead and bought that hybrid Subaru, the deal was $38,542 minus $15,800 trade-in value for the old model at the dealer for a total of $22,742 including tax.

Instead, enter Katinka: Originally $107,000 with its premium features and all the bells and whistles (just predating self-driving, which is fine by me, but other than that it still feels surprisingly new and luxe). Bought it in great condition (no trace of the suspension to fail any second now, oops!) at $28,000 minus my Subaru trade-in of $17,500 from AutoNation for a balance of $10,500, plus sales tax at the DMV for total $12,845.

That’s $9,897 less than I would have outlaid for a car that still required me to keep buying gas and would have immediately felt like a letdown (I think) when I had my starry sights now on full EV. Apparently Subaru themselves think these hybrids are disappointing because they are already being discontinued after the most meager sales. Factor in the Tesla suspension repairs (gulp), and it’s still $5,983 less than the hybrid purchase. (See how you can manipulate math to justify anything?!)

Ongoing is the real fun so far, where I watch the savings spreadsheet really go in my favor, and the farther I drive the better this would look. While I spend more on Tesla insurance than Subaru (because though the car has the same high safety rating, it’s parts/repairs are so pricey as I’ve already experienced and will do my best to avoid forever), and have to switch out winter-to-regular tires twice annually since it’s a RWD, I pay way less on any maintenance (no oil changes, no tune ups), “emissions testing” is gone and now just a cheaper formality of a safety inspection where the guy glances at/admires it for a moment and lets me go, and registration is a cheaper EV flat rate rather than by weight of the car as it for an ICE. Along with the supercharging came free premium connectivity (negating the need for a $10 a month data plan), and free towing should I have a tire disaster again. And NO GAS. No gas, no gas, no gas!!! Now I go to gas stations for the restrooms. The following chart of my estimated monthly typical expenses compares my original Crosstrek to my current Tesla, minus the extra snacks I might buy when I’m hanging at a supercharger.

There’s no denying there are more Teslas on the road than ever. I see them multiplying daily, so much so my girls have already gotten sick of giving peace signs to them all. Teslas currently own the EV market (at about 65% of sales) but that’s dropping as more makes come online and Elon does more stupid things to piss people off. As the price of Teslas drop, including the used ones, as usual I’m on the bad end of a curve where I get to watch in retrospect how I paid more than necessary.

The Department of Energy knows the future is electric and cars are at the forefront of this so to further push progress toward a net-zero economy in 2050, there are aggressive new EV tax incentives, even for used car purchases. Of course the fine print disqualifies me, since I didn’t purchase in 2023, surpassed the minimum purchase price of $25K, and bought from a private seller rather a dealer. Oh well, I love her enough to think she’s worth it!

“Katinka can fly you home, little bird,” announces Yuri, and I too plan to fly, float or roll her long past the time anyone thinks it’s technically possible. My kids already have dibs on the car when I croak.

The only unknown in this equation is for how many years will my other garage renter (the opposite of the eco-friendly one) keep his vintage Mustang in one of the bays, and come weekly just to rev that incredibly loud, stinky engine. Never to drive, just to roar and fume, fume and roar.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop, Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is shar­ing reg­u­larly with The Hud­son In­de­pen­dent read­er­ship. You can sub­scribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your email in­box. 

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