Shopping for a new car on a budget is simple -- just pick the cheapest one that you can afford, right?
Not so fast. A car costs a lot more than whatever price you pay at the dealership. In fact, it’s an investment that requires you to keep paying well after your monthly payments are complete. With fuel costs, insurance fees, maintenance, repairs and even depreciation, your car can wind up costing more than twice the price you originally paid. Experts call this your car’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).
Though there’s no getting around it, you can minimize your TCO by choosing a car that’s cheaper on gas, more reliable or holds a higher resale value (or a clever combination of the three). Luckily, you won’t need to do a lot of complicated research. IntelliChoice, the auto industry’s leading source on TCO, forecasts and factors these costs into a single, easy-to-understand estimate that tells car shoppers how much they can expect to spend on a new car over the course of five years.
Combined with analysis from U.S. News’ car rankings, we take a look at five popular affordable small cars and compare their five-year TCO estimates to class competitors. We even recommend similar alternatives that provide more overall value. In some cases, our recommended picks have slightly more expensive starting prices. In the long run, however, they prove to be the better buy.
The IntelliChoice data is based on 2009-model vehicles. However, most of these cars have changed very little since last year -- making the estimates good guides for 2010 models. In the end, what we find might shock you. Cars that seem like a bargain can often be budget busters.
MSRP: $11,965 - $15,365
Those in the market for a new car but with little money to spend will like that the Aveo comes cheap. It doesn’t provide exceptional performance or a lot of cool convenience features, but it’s roomy for a small car and gets good gas milage -- netting an EPA-estimated city/highway fuel economy as high as 27/35 mpg. And while Chevy only provides three years or 36,000 miles of basic coverage, it does provide a lengthy five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Still, the Aveo is trumped by its competitors in nearly every category. And while its MSRP starts below $12K, IntelliChoice assigns it a value rating of “Below Average” to “Average.” The Aveo’s total five-year TCO ranges from $25,570 to $28,457, depending on trim.
Better Buy: Starting at $9,900, the Nissan Versa carries an even lower sticker price than the Aveo. What’s more, IntelliChoice assigns the Versa a value rating of “Above Average” to “Excellent,” and its total five-year TCO ranges from just $21,302 to $27,106. The 2009 Versa even won IntelliChoice’s “SmartChoice” award for ownership costs.
Suzuki SX4 Crossover
MSRP: $13,359 - $19,949
The SX4 Crossover’s biggest selling point is that it comes equipped with all-wheel drive -- a rarity in the class of affordable small cars. Its wagon body style also provides a whopping 16 to 54 cubic feet of cargo room. However, drivers looking to save a few bucks won’t like its less-than-stellar city/highway fuel economy of 22/30 mpg. On the plus side, its powertrain warranty runs for seven years or 100,000 miles, which is one of the longest in its class.
Though the SX4 Crossover has a lot going for it, it doesn’t provide much value. IntelliChoice assigns it a value rating of “Below Average” and estimates that its five-year TCO ranges from $31,792 to $32,607, depending on trim.
Better Buy: Shoppers with little use for an all-wheel drivetrain can get more for their money by opting for a Honda Fit instead. Not only does it earn an IntelliChoice Value rating of “Excellent,” but in 2009 it won numerous awards -- including IntelliChoice’s “Best Overall Value of the Year” for compact vehicles priced under $17,000. Depending on what trim you buy, the Fit’s five-year TCO ranges from $23,645 to $28,332.
MSRP: $14,790 - $27,590
Critics knock the Lancer for its poor acceleration and sub-par cabin materials, but it’s arguably the best looking vehicle in the class of affordable small cars. Not surprisingly, car shoppers who prioritize image over quality flock to it. An added bonus is its relatively low sticker price and lengthy warranty -- five years or 60,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage and 10-years or 100,000 miles of powertrain coverage.
Shoppers, however, shouldn’t assume that the Lancer is a great buy. With the exception of the top-of-the-line Ralliart trim level, the Lancer earns an IntelliChoice value rating of “Below Average” to “Average.” Also, its total five-year TCO ranges from $27,544 to $32,400, depending on trim.
Better Buy: Despite its less-attractive design and a recent recall regarding unintended acceleration, the Toyota Corolla is a better value. In fact, IntelliChoice gives the Corolla a value rating of “Above Average” to “Excellent,” and estimates its total five-year TCO at $21,566 to $30,426. In 2009, the Corolla was awarded IntelliChoice’s “SmartChoice” award for highest retained value.
Car shoppers, however, should take note that Toyota has halted sales on 2009-2010 Corollas until it can resolve a dangerous issue related to its acceleration pedal. Drivers unable to wait until the problem is fixed should consider the Hyundai Elantra instead. At $27,735, its base model has a higher TCO than both the Lancer and Corolla. However, it features one of the longest warranties in its class (five years/60,000 miles of basic coverage and 10 years/100,000 miles of powertrain coverage) and is a recipient of IntelliChoice’s “Smart Choice” award for lowest repair costs.
MSRP: $15,995 - $18,485
The Focus attracts affordable car shoppers who want the option to add a few extra bells and whistles. It doesn’t afford much in the way of performance or cargo capacity, but features Ford’s popular Sync infotainment system -- standard on all trims but the base. Also standard is MyKey, which promotes safe driving habits in teens by allowing parents to limit their top speed to 80 mph, disable the audio system when seatbelts are not in use and sound a persistent chime when the vehicle’s speed hits 45, 55 and 65 mph.
Despite its cool gadgets, the Focus earns an IntelliChoice value rating of “Poor” to “Below Average.” And while the base model nets a total five-year TCO estimate of $29,630, the highest trim’s TCO is $34,220.
Better Buy: The Honda Civic provides more value and sacrifices little in the way of safety. With so many Civic trims and packages available, IntelliChoice offers numerous value ratings. However, most standard models earn an “Above Average” to “Excellent” Rating. While the base-model DX Coupe’s total five-year TCO is estimated at $21,190, the standard EX-L’s is pegged at $31,278. In 2009, many Civic trims received IntelliChoice’s “SmartChoice” award for retained value.
MSRP: $17,000 - $17,800
While the Focus appeals to parents, the tC is aimed squarely at teens and young adults. It’s not as powerful or sporty as some competitors, but it sure looks the part. Plus, Scion lets drivers customize their rides with a wide selection of tuner options. And though its three-year/36,000-mile basic warranty and five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty are basic for the class of affordable small cars, Scion is a product of Toyota -- which has a reputation for building reliable vehicles.
Even so, the tC’s overall value is cause for concern. Not only does it receive an IntelliChoice value rating of “Below Average,” but its total five-year TCO ranges from $26,456 to $30,972.
Better Buy: The MINI Cooper is just as appealing to young drivers and provides more value. In fact, IntelliChoice gives the Cooper and Cooper S trims a value rating of “Excellent” and estimates that their total five-year TCO ranges from $25,102 to $31,507. The MINI Cooper received numerous IntelliChoice awards in 2009 -- including “SmartChoice” for lowest maintenance costs and “Best Overall Value of the Year” for the convertible trim.
Editor's Note: Upon publication, "5 Small Car Money Pits" stated that the Mitsubishi Lancer's total five-year TCO ranges from $23,917 to $32,400, depending on trim. According to IntelliChoice data for the 2009 model year, it actually ranges from $27,544 to $32,400, depending on trim. The article has been edited to reflect this correction.