When it’s time to buy a new car and desperation comes calling, all other priorities peel away, leaving price alone to govern the decision. But simply buying the cheapest car isn’t necessarily the cheapest route. Cars—even the affordable ones—are expensive to own and operate. So we went in search of the answer to an important question: What is the cheapest car to buy and own? Fuel is an obvious consideration, but insurance can’t be ignored, either.
To normalize purchase-price variations based on the terms of a loan, we’re using MSRP for purchase price and settled on a three-year ownership window. On top of MSRP, we rolled in the cost of insurance over three years for a 28-year-old male, single, living in the same area as our Ann Arbor offices. Fortunately for him, he has no tickets. To that sum, we added the cost of fueling each car during that time based on 12,000 miles traveled annually and using the EPA’s combined fuel-economy rating and the nationwide average price of regular gas over the past year—which, at $2.57 a gallon, sounds mighty appealing. Although the EPA’s figure doesn’t perfectly reflect the fuel economy people will see in day-to-day use, it does provide an accurate prediction of how vehicles will fare relative to one another.
DISCLAIMER: The figures below are accurate as of the publishing date. However, MSRP varies almost daily. Fuel mileage will vary depending on driving conditions, driving style, and other factors. Insurance rates vary town to town, driver to driver, and minute to minute. Cars are listed in descending order of ownership cost. No, we will not buy you one.
A manual transmission is the short-changed buyer’s best friend, as manuals are typically $1000 or so cheaper than automatics and, except in the case of today’s most bleeding-edge transmissions, are more fuel efficient to boot. This Hyundai is a perfect example, as the only manual transmission available in the entire 2010 Elantra sedan lineup is in the base Blue model tuned for—you guessed it—maximum fuel efficiency. Lower-rolling-resistance tires, a more efficient alternator, and electric power steering—instead of hydraulic—also aid fuel economy. We here at C/D like manuals because they increase driver involvement, too, an area in which the Elantra sedan could use some improvement, so there’s a bonus.
Kia Forte Sedan
Of the 10 cars on this list, five are Korean: Kias or Hyundais. (The Japanese industry has three representatives; the U.S. has one; and a European, as imported by Roger Penske—the Smart—fills the last spot.) Of these Korean cars, the new-for-2010 Forte is the strongest in its respective class. In its slightly more expensive coupe form (only $600 more than a similarly optioned sedan), the Forte is even sort of attractive, too. The cheapest Forte is arguably the most fun, as the larger engine adds pounds without much extra power, and the manual transmission is a six-speed, giving enthusiast drivers plenty of ratios from which to choose. If we were to pick a car from this list, the Forte would be among the front-runners.
Suzuki SX4 Sedan
In its more expensive (by about $2500) and better-equipped hatchback form, the SX4 is one of the most underrated cars on the market. The four-door comes in a more America-friendly three-box shape—although it’s a bit gawky-looking—and it’s actually decently quick for something so affordable, although a nine-second 0-to-60-mph time is only favorable when compared with many other cars on this list, fully laden freight trains, and limping lambs. Although it is moderately fun to drive, the SX4 sedan placed sixth in a recent eight-car comparo, mostly because we just couldn’t get comfortable in it. Be sure to take a long test drive before committing to this Suzuki.
The small-car explosion that’s been going on over the past few years has reached the point at which we start to see automakers investing in interesting and fun small cars and not simply inexpensive ones. The Kia Soul belongs to both groups. Its presence here is testimony to its affordability—even in the long run—and its appearance immediately identifies it as something different. Kia offers an extensive menu of customization options—including stripe packages, wheels, and body add-ons—and a Scion-esque stream of limited editions sporting exclusive paint and interior trimmings. In the often dreary small-car segment, the Soul stands out.
Toyota Yaris Three-Door Hatchback
The Toyota Yaris is often cited as an example of why the Smart Fortwo needn’t exist. About $1000 more expensive, it feels and looks more like a real car, it has more cargo space, and it won’t hang your buddies out to dry if you occasionally need to accommodate more than one passenger. Even so, the Yaris is as devoid of driving pleasure as the Smart, although its center-mounted instrument panel adds driving excitement by taking the driver’s eyes off the road whenever he wants to know how fast he’s going. So there’s that.
Kia Rio Sedan
Her name is Rio, and although she doesn’t exactly dance like a river twisting through the dusty land, she does manage more than just an anemic shuffle. In a comparison test of econocars, we placed the Rio third, finding it actually kind of cute and almost fun to drive—certainly when considered in the spectrum of under-$15,000 hatchbacks. Buyers looking for a similar driving experience with a little more funk in the styling—and who can shake loose a few more bucks—would do well to consider the Kia Soul, just two notches pricier on this list.
Chevrolet Aveo Sedan
Remember Daewoo, the poorly received Korean subsidiary whose products GM thought would be the next big thing after it gave them to college kids for free? As Oprah would prove again with the Pontiac G6, giving cars away doesn’t help anyone’s perception of their value. Daewoo lives on outside our shores and sends an undercover agent here as the Chevrolet Aveo. The little Chevy has improved dramatically in the past few years, but if you’re drawn to this little four-door, might we suggest waiting another year or so? A replacement is due in 2011, and it should be wholly more exciting than the current car while being similarly thrifty.
Smart Fortwo Coupe
Think of the Smart as the perfect cure for parallelparkusphobia, or as a motorcycle for people with chronic vertigo. The Fortwo actually is a good idea: Just look around and notice how few cars actually have more than one person in them. It’s a strong argument for the smallest possible vehicle, period. Still, we fall short of wholehearted endorsement—heck, even half- or quarter-hearted endorsement—for one reason alone: The sole transmission choice is a total bummer. If all you want is small, cheap, and fuel efficient, get a Suzuki Hayabusa superbike. It, unlike the Smart, at least will pop wheelies.
Hyundai Accent Three-Door Hatchback
The Accent is something of a darling at our office. It’s a delightfully tossable little blob, and there’s something liberating about driving around in a brand-new car with a replacement price of less than $11,000. But the Accent illustrates an interesting trend we noticed in researching this roundup: Korean cars tend to have higher insurance rates than similarly priced and matched cars from other countries. The Accent is actually the cheapest car on this list in purchase price, yet the Accent’s insurance cost over three years is nearly $750 higher than the Versa’s. So remember, if your decision will be based strictly on dollars, your insurance agent can be more important than your salesperson.
Nissan Versa 1.6 Base
The Nissan Versa is a competent and capacious car in any trim, and even people with no criterion but price of entry might be a bit shocked at how little a base Versa includes. Both the engine (1.6 liters) and the wheels (14 inches) are smaller on the ultra-cheap 1.6 than they are on other Versas. It has no ABS and no power locks, mirrors, or windows. Not even a radio is standard. The transmission is manual, Nissan skimps on the seat padding, and even the clock is gone. If all you want is cheap, then all you get is this. It’s still not a bad package, but if you want the cheapest car possible, for goodness’ sake, buy used.