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Back in the 1980s, the Yugo GV sold for a base price of just $3,990.
Even adjusted for inflation, from 1986 to 2013 (about $8,400 in today's money), that's a steal—and one that did indeed prove irresistible for more than 140,000 thrifty Americans.
Yet the GV—for 'great value,' ironically—didn't save its buyers money in the long run. Costly premature engine and clutch failure were surprisingly common and expensive; gas mileage was disappointing for what it was; resale values plummeted; and insurers charged more in premiums because they didn't trust the Yugo's occupant protection. It underlines an important distinction: The cheapest cars to buy aren't necessarily the cheapest to own.
That advice holds true today, yet thanks in part to tighter federal regulations, more of the cheapest models are now safe, dependable, and truly penny-pinching picks over the long term.
Lower-priced cars typically cheaper in the long run
“The smaller, lower-priced cars have the lowest cost of ownership,” said David Wurster, the president of Vincentric, a data analysis firm providing cost-of-ownership information. The cheapest models—which include cars like the Nissan Versa and Ford Fiesta—all have sticker prices under $15,000 and five-year ownership totals under $30,000.
To put it into perspective, that five-year Vincentric ownership number, which includes depreciation, insurance, fuel expenses, maintenance and repair costs, and even an 'opportunity cost'—for what you maybe have earned on your money elsewhere—totals more than $100,000 for many luxury models and more than $200,000 for the Mercedes-Benz S 65 AMG or CL 65 AMG.
Soothing depreciation's sting
Looking at all the components that add up to what a car costs to own, it's the sting of depreciation that hurts most. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average new car will be worth just 35 percent of its original value after five years; and with a current average around the $30k mark, you’ll essentially lose nearly $20,000 for the privilege of driving a new car. Late-model used cars are often the better deal for that reason, as they dodge the steepest part of the depreciation curve, but if you want a new car, along with many of the things that come with new-vehicle ownership—like a strong warranty, the relatively low chances of a breakdown, and modern safety features—you don't need to spend a lot.
Considering these other factors, like insurance costs, anticipated reliability, and projected resale value, if you can find something at the lower end of the market that you like (and if you’re okay doing without the glamor of a more upscale new car), you’ll also take the smallest hit to your wallet in the long run.
That said, unless you’re obsessed with being a die-hard miser, you can’t get too caught up in the bottom-line cost projections. The totals are best viewed when comparing vehicles within the same class against each other, Wurster emphasizes. In other words, choose the kind of vehicle you need first (minivan, crossover, etc.) and then compare the costs.
Don't forget about insurance
The AAA, as part of its most recent annual Your Driving Costs study, found that small sedans have the lowest driving costs'—of about 45 cents a mile, considering all those factors, versus nearly 76 cents for a large sedan.
Thinking about hybrids or special fuel-stingy models? They may come with higher sticker prices, but in general their improved fuel economy (and in some cases better resale value) mostly offset the premium. For instance a modest Chevrolet Cruze 2LS has a five-year ownership cost of $32,678, while the mile-per-gallon-minded Cruze Eco, at $33,492 over five years, can't quite make up for its $2,550 sticker-price premium, despite lower fuel costs.
So remember the Yugo. While many of the cheapest cars on the market are also the cheapest to own, don't assume so; run the numbers for yourself.
For the following list, we ran the numbers with the most recent Vincentric Cost of Ownership data, as of February 2013. And because there can be a lot of variance even within models, we've listed the specific trim and bodystyle whenever needed.
Nissan Versa (S sedan)
Depreciation over five years: $7,199
Average annual insurance: $1,027
EPA fuel economy: 27 mpg city, 36 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $27,405
If you're looking for excitement, you sure won't find it here. What you will find in the 2013 Nissan Versa is a vehicle that's adequate as a commuter and comfortable enough for a modest weekend trip, but certainly no more. Even at the base Versa S level, you get standard air conditioning, although power windows and mirrors are out of the question—but as these numbers attest, the Versa is the best it gets in the U.S. market if low ownership costs are the priority. To echo the Bottom Line from our full review of the Versa, this model is at its best up against used cars.
Chevrolet Spark (Base)
Depreciation over five years: $8,614
Average annual insurance: $996
EPA fuel economy: 32 mpg city, 38 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $27,871
As Chevy's first minicar—a step down in size from the Sonic subcompact that replaced the Aveo—the little 84-horsepower Spark hones in on young Millennial buyers, and those who both live in an urban area and want a very small car at an affordable price. While that, and its color palette that includes hues like Techno Pink and lime-green Salsa, may shout out the wrong message for recent college grads who want to be taken seriously, the Spark's unified, almost sporty design inside and out, combined with a nimble, stable driving feel and a price that's lower than either the Scion iQ and the Smart Fortwo, add up to an interesting way to keep your driving costs low.
Kia Rio (LX hatchback)
Depreciation over five years: $9,355
Average annual insurance: $1,089
EPA fuel economy: 29 mpg city, 37 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $28,516
Just a few years ago Kia was an also-ran import brand, with a lineup of bland economy cars. But look at the perky details and classic hot-hatch proportions of the 2013 Rio hatchback, and you'll understand what kind of transformation Kia has pulled off brand-wide. The base Rio hatchback costs a few hundred dollars more, but it includes a few more features like steering-wheel audio controls and split-folding rear seatbacks, and it's the better deal in the long run because of its lower depreciation.
Toyota Yaris (L)
Depreciation over five years: $8,788
Average annual insurance: $1,090
EPA fuel economy: 30 mpg city, 37 highway
Five-year total cost of ownership: $28,685
The Yaris, just like the long line of Echo and Tercel models before it, isn't just one of the most affordable subcompact hatchbacks, but one of the most affordable cars to own for years. Although the Yaris lacks the hybrid powertrain of the the current Yaris, it has a low sticker price and low average insurance premiums; the Toyota Prius C hybrid gets muchbetter gas mileage, but it also costs almost $5k more.
Kia Soul (Base)
Depreciation over five years: $8,875
Average annual insurance: $881
EPA fuel economy: 25 mpg= city, 30 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $29,338
While the Kia Soul doesn't return gas mileage that's on par with most other models in this group, it doesn't depreciate as severely as them either, and its insurance premiums, on average, are the lowest in this top-ten group. Perhaps more importantly, though, the roomy, fun-to-drive Soul gives cost-conscious shoppers a distinct, daringly different body style that combines just the right amount of crossover-vehicle influences with small-car sensibilities.
Hyundai Accent (GLS Sedan)
Depreciation over five years: $10,139
Average annual insurance: $1,031
EPA fuel economy: 28 mpg city, 37 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $29,474
Hyundai used to be the price leader among small cars—and had the lowest-priced car in the U.S. market for some time—with its Accent; but this year especially it's repositioned this family of subcompact cars for a somewhat different definition of 'value.' The 2013 Accent, still closely related to the Kia Rio, but taking a completely different tack with respect to, now includes air conditioning, a sound system, and power windows and mirrors, even in the $14,545 base model. Figure in good gas mileage and a reputation for being trouble-free, and the Accent will keep your budget well under wraps.
Depreciation over five years: $9,814
Average annual insurance: $1,092
EPA fuel economy: 36 mpg city, 37 highway
Five-year total cost of ownership: $29,490
Scion, Toyota's urban-focused small-car brand, pitches the iQ as a premium city car with a more sophisticated driving feel (and more noise insulation) than other budget-priced minicompacts. For the most part, this 10-foot-long hatchback stands up to that, with its 94-hp four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) offering plenty of perkiness around town; it's surprisingly safe and stable on the highway, too—although we're by no means going to say that it feels in its element there. It's hardly a gas-mileage champ either, but its unique '3+1' seating layout makes it way more useful than the two-seat Smart Fortwo.
Ford Fiesta (S sedan)
Depreciation over five years: $9,043
Average annual insurance: $1,125
EPA fuel economy: 28 mpg city, 37 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $29,727
Among this cheapest-to-own set, the Ford Fiesta, even in its base S form, is easily the most enjoyable to drive, if not the quickest. Considering its modest 120-horsepower engine and five-speed manual gearbox (skip the available PowerShift transmission), and basic econocar roots with rear drum brakes, the Fiesta is simply better than the sum of its parts—albeit a little loud inside at times. Although you might like the look of the Fiesta hatchback a bit better (we tend to think it's sportier and more cohesive), we can't ignore for the purposes of this list that the sedan costs $1,000 less. There's also a $795 Super Fuel Economy package that boosts the highway rating to 40 mpg.
Kia Forte (LX sedan)
Depreciation over five years: $9,704
Average annual insurance: $929
EPA fuel economy: 25 mpg city, 34 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $29,769
Normally, buying a model that's in its last model year before a major redesign (the redesigned 2014 is arriving as soon as next month) isn't a smart move; yet with Vincentric figuring on more than a $1,000 discount, and low insurance premiums in this established model, the base 2013 Forte LX has some impressively low ownership costs. While this model looks like less of a standout than it used to next to rivals like the new Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra, or the rest of the even-more-Euro-stylish Kia lineup, it's perky-driving, well equipped, and smartly laid out—as well as very cheap over the long run.
Toyota Corolla (Base)
Depreciation over five years: $9,327
Average annual insurance: $1,093
EPA fuel economy: 27 mpg city, 34 highway (manual)
Five-year total cost of ownership: $30,435
Of all the models on this list, the presence of the Toyota Corolla is one that's probably not at all surprising. Toyota has remained focused over decades in keeping this well-recognized nameplate's reputation as a low-priced, dependable sedan, with low running costs to boot. The current Corolla is one of the blandest, most innocuous compact sedans on the market, but its cabin is quiet and surprisingly comfortable—and even this base Corolla L now gets features such as power windows, keyless entry, and air conditioning.