What's the Cheapest Car to Own?


Searching for a new car? Take heed: Do your homework thoroughly and look beyond the sticker price and amenities to the long-term costs of ownership.

Rank Cars and Manufacturers by Cost to Own.

The exact long-term cost of owning a vehicle is impossible to determine in advance given differences in driving habits and geographic location. Still, useful guidelines, like the cost and frequency of repairs, can help savvy consumers narrow down the choices.

CarMD ranked 10 carmakers and 100 models according to the number and cost of repairs associated with "check engine" warnings during the year beginning October, 2012; vehicles included in the research were manufactured between 2003 and 2013. Hyundai raced to the head of the pack, followed by Toyota, GM, Chrysler, and Honda. Although GM cars, on average, are cheapest to repair ($304.99 per incident), the higher frequency of repairs parked GM in third place. Toyota cars registered the highest average cost ($540.53 per incident) but fewer trips to the mechanic.

Data from CarMD show that three of the five most reliable cars bear a Toyota nameplate: the 2012 and 2011 Camry and the 2011 Corolla. The 2012 Camry, for example, boasts an average repair cost of $54.25 per incident. The runner up vehicle in CarMD's rankings, the 2012 Nissan Altima, costs an average $402 for each repair, but, again, ranks high because owners experience few problems.

Vincentric, another automotive researcher, also produces an annual list of the best-value vehicles. This one is based on variables such as maintenance and repair costs, depreciation, and insurance. Toyota's passenger cars cross this finish line first, with the 2013 Camry the No. 1 mid-sized sedan and the Prius C the best value compact hybrid. Using Yahoo Autos' car profiles drawn from Vincentric's data, we estimated that the average annual cost of maintenance and repairs on a 2013 Camry L is about $900 during the first five years.

Fixya, an online question-and-answer platform, recently determined that among the five best-selling sedans, the Toyota Camry is the least prone to problems in the long run. The "Test of Time" report doesn't purport to be scientific -- the data reflect the number of online views of specific model-related ailments that are discussed on the site. The analysis of these so-called "problem impressions" covers the past 10 model years and ranks the Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla, and Ford Focus in order behind the Camry.

Expert Opinion.

Stan Markuze, president of PartMyRide.com, an online marketplace for used car parts, says a long and comprehensive warranty may be the best way to shift maintenance and repair costs down to zero regardless of make or model. Some warranties last up to 10 years or 100,000 miles (whichever comes first) and extended warranties may cover the basics, like oil changes or brake pad replacement. Markuze stresses the importance of researching a model's service-cost history and paying attention to its reputation, particularly for big-ticket items like transmission and engine. His experience with Toyotas corresponds with the CarMD and Vincentric analyses and he notes that Toyotas have been known to run for 200,000 miles or more. Mechanics he works report that Chevys often require major repairs even before they've rolled 100,000 miles.

Low repair costs for Toyota vehicles likewise catch the attention of Jordan Perch, an analyst at DMV.com (a resource for driving-related information but no relation to state-level motor vehicle departments). In addition, Perch singles out Hyundai, the top manufacturer on CarMD's list, for making cars that aren't likely to break down in the first five years and for offering long warranties. He cautions, however, that resale values on Hyundai vehicles trail those of Toyota and Honda.

Bottom Line.

The expert consensus suggests that Toyota Camry is the vehicle of choice if long-term ownership costs are the make-or-break factor. But the Camry certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, the best-selling vehicle in America isn't a car at all -- it's the Ford F-Series truck.

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