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Buying & Leasing a Car

Living la Vida Geo

Gas-sipping retro cars from the 90s are setting the used-car market afire. So is my car sexy -- or what?

By Douglas Harbrecht, New Media Director

Sometimes we look smart in spite of ourselves. Twelve years ago, I bought a '96 Geo Prizm, new off the dealership lot, for $13,000. Cherry red. Standard four-cylinder engine. Stick shift. No frills -- just air conditioner, radio and a cassette tape deck.

Oh, and did I mention this baby gets 36 to 40 miles to the gallon? Never in a million years did I envision that one day I'd be cruising in one of the hottest vehicles on the used-car market, thanks to $4-plus a gallon gasoline. Like Apollo, my Prizm has become my chariot. Together, we pull the sun across the sky every day.

The car was a going-away gift for my daughter in her second year at college. Alison got almost six years of trouble-free driving out of it, traveling to and from the University of Virginia only two hours away. She held onto it for a year or so after graduation then bought herself a Honda Accord, handing the Geo back to me with the admonishment that I be good to it.

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Let me confess: I did not always honor my part of the bargain. But am I ever being good to it now.

The car has 126,000 miles on the odometer. The oil and filters have been changed regularly, however, and it starts up every morning and still rolls with the best of them. I commute to work daily, 22 miles each way, and fill it up every two weeks for around $40. At the self-service pump, I'm the guy beaming from ear to ear. My carbon footprint? Compact, like the car.

Truth is, my driving habits have been no different from the next American. We also own a 2000 Jeep Cherokee (with a thirsty V-8 engine), and a 2000 Ford Ranger pickup truck. So yes, I feel your pain.

But with gas prices at all-time highs and long, growing waiting lists for new fuel-efficient vehicles, demand for retro cars like the Geo has gone from zero to 60, as they say in the car biz.

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Cars.com reports that economy cars that were built in the 90s have seen a 200% leap in consumer searches. Demand is putting the pedal to the metal on prices for these old clunkers, too. Cars.com lists Geo Metros from the mid-1990s, with book values of $1,300, on the market for more than $4,000.

Edmunds.com, appraises my dinged-up Geo at $1,019. Yet, sellers on the poplar car site are asking anywhere from $4,50 to $5,000 for similar 1996 Prizms in the Washington, D.C., area. Forget about the odometer. This is all about the gas tank.

Fuel economy experts caution that you do the math before trading in your gas guzzler. One drawback to these old fuel-efficient cars: They have driver- and passenger-side air bags, but no side air bags. So factor that into your decision as well.

But, hey, I've never felt so serene commuting to and from work in what is essentially a people-mover (read one-person-mover) with a glorified lawnmower engine. Geos were Toyotas built in America to help GM meet congressionally mandated fuel-efficiency standards in the '90s.

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They're good, solid cars, actually. And with my cassette tape player (another relic), I wile away my commuting time listening to books-on-tape that I rent from the local library. Ask me about the history of Western civilization sometime.

It's good to know that, sometimes, I'm NOT as stupid as I look.

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