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The least-expensive cars to drive

When it comes to saving money on a car, size isn't everything. And neither is the sticker price.
/ Source: Forbes

Americans may be snubbing trucks and sport utility vehicles in favor of fuel-efficient, smaller cars, but when it comes to saving money over the long haul, a range of costs — from depreciation to maintenance to taxes to insurance — has to be considered. This is especially important for a simple reason: Small cars aren't right for everyone.

In other words, when it comes to saving money on a car, size isn't everything. And neither is the sticker price.

"The sticker price is truly the tip of the iceberg," says Christie Hyde, a spokeswoman for AAA, the consumer motor vehicle association.

To find the least expensive-to-drive car in the class that best suits your needs, you'll need to do some homework as to what you'll be spending money on the instant you drive off the lot. And gauging what's most important to you — be it fuel efficiency or depreciation or reliability — could quickly sway your purchasing decision.

For example, it doesn't take much intuition to figure out that one of the least expensive cars to drive over a five-year period is indeed a small car, the $11,550 Toyota Yaris, which gets an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)- estimated combined 31 mpg. The five-year cost of owning the car is, on average, $33,831 (triple the purchase price), which is modest so far as long-term car expenses go. It's wise to consider, however, that while the car will save you on gas, with fuel taking up about 30 percent of the long-term costs (assuming you drive 15,000 miles per year), you'll be hit hard on depreciation. The car depreciates at a rate of 73 percent — the fastest of any car on our list.

Similarly, the popular Toyota Prius hybrid claims a spot on the list, with a markedly low 17.9 percent of the five-year costs going to fuel. But this car also depreciates quickly (though only just less than half the rate of the Yaris), as those in the market for a hybrid want the latest and newest technology, not a car that's a few years old.

Because of the range of factors that go into considering a car's expense over the first few years of ownership, the rest of the list of the least expensive cars to drive is a mélange with as many standouts as surprises. Some are fuel-efficient, some aren't; some hold their value well, others not so much.

To identify the 10 least expensive cars to drive we used data provided by Vincentric, a firm that tracks vehicle life expenses for the auto industry. To calculate the cost of ownership, Vincentric evaluates depreciation, interest and opportunity costs, fuel, maintenance and repairs, insurance, taxes and fees over a five-year period. We then divided the market into 10 vehicle classes to find the least expensive-to-own 2008 models in each.

The most fuel-efficient and more affordable cars aren't necessarily the cheapest to own. Finding a spot on the list is the $43,175 Cadillac DTS luxury sedan. The cost of fueling this car is the highest of any on the list, helping boost the five-year cost of ownership to $69,663. However, the car's depreciation rate is among the lowest on the list, at 38 percent, and insurance is only 10 percent of the total cost — far less, percentage-wise, than that of the Yaris or the Prius.

Why such high insurance costs for the cheaper cars? Smaller cars usually have higher auto insurance rates than larger vehicles because they tend to have higher rates of injury and collision claims, says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Small cars are less safe than bigger vehicles, so people are more likely to be injured in them when they crash, and small cars also tend to get into more crashes to begin with, so they have more insurance claims for repair."

Also noteworthy on the list, then, is the Jeep Patriot, which has a long-term cost of ownership similar to that of the Toyota Prius. Along with a base MSRP about $4,000 lower than that of the Prius, the Patriot is among the more fuel-efficient SUVs on the road, getting a combined EPA of 24 mpg (thus reducing the fuel costs), and has one of the lowest maintenance and repair costs of any vehicle on the list. The insurance costs are also among the lowest on the list.

Where the Jeep isn't so hot is on depreciation, but the same could be said for any car on the list. Paying close attention to depreciation, in fact, is critical since a whopping 60 percent of the cost of ownership occurs in the first year, and most of that will be depreciation. Depreciation is also the largest annual ownership cost for vehicles up to six years old, according to Consumer Reports.

But because so many other factors are at play as well, car buyers are best served thinking about their individual needs first and foremost. There's no point in buying a cheap-to-drive small car if it doesn't fit everyone in your family, for example. After thinking about the class of car that's right for you, then start doing your homework.

"People are finally starting to understand how these costs work," says David Wurster, president of Vincentric. "As the economy gets a little tighter, consumers are becoming smarter at looking at the total cost of ownership."