Buying & Leasing a Car

Cheapest Cars to Own

In addition to price, car buyers should also factor in the cost of fuel, insurance and repairs when determining which vehicle will cost them the least.

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.

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: 10 Cheapest Cars to Own

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.

Follow Jessica on Twitter and Facebook.

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