Cheapest Cars to Own
Most car buyers fixate on price -- and how that translates into monthly loan payments -- without bothering to calculate other long-term ownership costs. But comparing what you'll likely pay for fuel, insurance and repairs over the time you own a vehicle makes you a much smarter shopper -- and could save you thousands of dollars.
We asked Vincentric, an automotive data firm, for a list of vehicles with the lowest five-year ownership costs, including repairs, maintenance, taxes, fuel, insurance, financing with a five-year loan, the opportunity cost of not investing your out-of-pocket expenses elsewhere, and depreciation (the calculations assume you will sell the vehicle after five years). Comparing those autos with ones that did well in Kiplinger's annual rankings -- in which we reward performance, value and safety -- we found the best bang for the buck in four categories.
Compacts. Nissan's base Versa (sticker price: $11,770), with five-year ownership costs tallying $27,135, tops the cheap list. But it has a full complement of safety features, plus standard air conditioning, and it gets 27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway. The Versa also earns a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But horsepower is a paltry 109, the interior is swathed in hard plastic, and the seats are uncomfortably stiff.
In this class, we think the Ford Focus S is a better choice. It has a higher sticker price ($17,295), but the total five-year cost, at $31,553, is close. Better yet, the Ford features a zippy 2.0-liter engine that puts out 160 horsepower and gets 26 mpg city and 36 highway. It also has high three-year and five-year resale values. The Focus was redesigned for 2012, and it is a Top Safety Pick.
Family sedans. Midsize family sedans may not be sexy, but they are safe. A case in point is the Toyota Camry. The Camry scores a Top Safety Pick from IIHS and a five-star overall rating in government crash tests. The base-level version ($22,715) has the lowest five-year ownership costs in its class: $34,237. The entire Camry lineup was redesigned for 2012, and the Hybrid LE ($26,660) won Best New Car in our annual rankings (its five-year costs run $35,257).
If your tastes run toward European driving dynamics, consider the Volkswagen Passat S ($20,765). It's clean-cut inside and out and matches the Camry's safety awards. Ownership costs are a modest $36,063. The Passat S is equipped with a peppy 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine; the diesel-powered Passat TDI ($26,765) picked up a Best New Car nod as well.
Luxury cars. The Audi A3 2.0T TDI ($31,125) has the lowest ownership costs -- $43,138 -- of any luxury ride, despite the price premium for the diesel engine. That's thanks mostly to the TDI's 30 mpg in the city and 42 on the highway.
If a German hatchback isn't your style, check out the Acura TSX ($30,695). Its four-cylinder engine is powerful but thrifty; it produces 201 horses and gets 22 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. A moonroof is standard, as are heated leather seats (both are options on the more expensive A3). Five-year ownership costs total $45,575. Both the A3 and the TSX are IIHS Top Safety Picks.
Midsize/large crossovers. If you're looking for an inexpensive vehicle for hauling the kids or the groceries, the Dodge Journey SE ($19,895) is it: Five-year ownership costs are $37,523. Handling is spot-on for a vehicle of its size, and it's an IIHS Top Safety Pick. But legroom and cargo space are cramped, and power is on the tepid side.
For tried-and-true value, our pick is the Honda Pilot LX ($29,280). Its resale values are high, it offers generous passenger and cargo space, and it has a dozen cup holders. The Pilot is also an IIHS Top Safety Pick. Five-year ownership costs total $44,396.