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Looking for a cheap car? Try one of these

There are plenty of fuel-sipping cars available today that are cheap to drive off the lot  and even cheaper to drive over the long term.
Image: Toyota Yaris
The Toyota Yaris, along with the Nissan Versa and Scion xD, top the list of the cheapest cars to drive. All of these cars cost around $15,000 or less, are relatively cheap to insure and maintain, and get no less than 30 mpg in combined fuel efficiency.NA
/ Source: Forbes

Japanese automaker Nissan has announced plans to sell an all-electric sedan, likely similar to its Versa, in Japan by 2010. The car will use a compact lithium-ion battery to achieve a driving range of more than 100 miles per charge, making driving about as cheap as it can possibly get.

For those looking to save money, there's no need to sit idle until such vehicles arrive stateside. There are plenty of fuel-sipping cars available today that are cheap to drive off the lot  and even cheaper to drive over the long term.

There's a gaggle of options, but narrowing down the choices purely in terms of cost is relatively easy: Think foreign, and steer clear of hybrids. Except for Pontiac's G3 hatchback and Chevrolet's Cobalt sedan, all of the cheapest cars to drive are made by non-U.S. automakers: Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Scion and Toyota. And none have hybrid-electric engines.

Behind the numbers
To compile our list of the cheapest cars to drive, we used data provided by Vincentric, an automotive data provider and consultancy based in Bingham Falls, Mich. The data lists the five-year costs of insurance, repairs, maintenance, interest and fuel for 2009 vehicles sold in the U.S., assuming the owner drives 15,000 miles per year with fuel at $2.50 per gallon. We did not consider the vehicles' suggested retail prices, depreciation or taxes in our assessment, as those costs are associated with the initial purchase and maintenance of a vehicle, not with the act of driving it.

Topping our list are the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Scion xD, all of which cost around $15,000 or less, are relatively cheap to insure and maintain, and get no less than 30 mpg in combined fuel efficiency. All three cars are also small.

In fact, size has a lot do with the expense of driving a car. Smaller cars cost less to insure and usually require less maintenance than SUVs or luxury cars, which tend to have more options, features and technology — all of which can and do break down. Furthermore, small cars use less gas and tend not to require expensive premium or diesel fuel.

"If you're a commuter and you're driving 50 miles a day, that's going to have a big impact on your decision of what kind of vehicle you buy," says James Clark, the general manager for Automotive Lease Guide, a residual-value data center in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The $16,380 Chevrolet Cobalt, for instance, has a combined fuel efficiency of 31 mpg; drivers can expect to spend $6,050 on the fuel it'll use over five years. Interestingly enough, though, that higher-than-average fuel efficiency isn't helping the car fly out of dealerships this summer (it sold 6,847 units last month, down 67 percent from June 2008).

On the other hand, sales of larger sedans and crossover SUVs have leveled off — and in some areas of the country, even gained a point or two — thanks to fuel prices averaging $1 per gallon less than a year ago. Chevy's larger Malibu and Impala sedans were down just 16 percent and 10 percent last month, respectively. Its Corvette, which guzzles gas at 16 miles per gallon in city driving, was down a middling 33 percent.

Still, the minute gas prices jump, consumers will flock back to fuel-sippers like the Cobalt, says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst at Irvine, Calif.-based Kelley Blue Book.

"That's what we see very typically," he says. "It just depends on how precipitous the rise is, how drastic the increase is."

Hybrid hype
It's worth noting that none of the vehicles on our list are hybrids. Cars like the $56,550 Lexus GS hybrid and $19,800 Honda Insight sedan do indeed post better fuel efficiencies than their conventional counterparts, but their maintenance fees and the insurance associated with owning a luxury sedan (which most hybrids are) quickly disqualify them from the group.

It should also be noted that without hybrid technology, eight vehicles on our list equal or exceed the 30-mpg combined fuel economy of the $21,605 Chevrolet Malibu hybrid, which costs at least $5,000 more than any car on our list.

In short, though it tends to get the most attention from consumers who want to be more earth-friendly, hybrid technology isn't necessarily the answer for fuel-efficient but cheap transportation.

"We've got to be careful not to overstate the hybrid issue, because it's still a relatively small part of the whole total," says Dave Sargent, the vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates. "Although hybrid owners tend to be more satisfied with their [cars'] economy than other owners, sometimes they're not."

The best way to a cheap ride? Choose something small, light, and more often than not foreign.