So you want to cut the cost of your commute. If you're looking to save money with a gas sipper, don't stop at the sticker price and fuel economy. Other ownership expenses -- from repairs and maintenance to depreciation and insurance -- can push up what you actually spend by hundreds of dollars a year.
We asked Vincentric, an automotive data firm, for a list of vehicles with the lowest five-year ownership costs in four categories. The data include all of the costs listed above, plus taxes and financing. Then we compared those vehicles with ones that did well in Kiplinger's ranking system -- considering performance, safety and value -- to determine the best bang for your buck.
Compact sedans. You can't find a cheaper car to own than the base-level, manual transmission Nissan Versa ($10,750). But in exchange for paying only $27,028 over five years, you get a car without air conditioning, anti-lock brakes or even a radio. We think a better choice is the sporty Nissan Sentra SR ($18,530). Despite an $8,000 difference upfront, the five-year ownership cost is only about $4,000 more. (The ownership cost assumes you are paying 5.6% interest on a five-year loan but that you recoup the cost of the car, minus depreciation, when you sell the vehicle after five years.) The Sentra boasts a full complement of safety equipment -- ABS, stability control, traction control and six airbags -- and has a 60/40 split folding rear seat. Plus, you can get an automatic transmission at no extra charge. The Sentra has more power than the Versa but gets about the same fuel economy (30 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving).
Midsize sedans. The base model Toyota Camry ($21,630) is the cheapest midsize sedan to own, with a five-year cost of $34,388. It's comfortable enough, but its handling is lackluster and the interior is frumpy. On Kiplinger's value scale, the Honda Accord LX ($22,730) is the clear winner over the Camry. Its five-year cost is $1,236 more, but the Accord gets a five-star overall safety rating from the government versus four stars for the Camry, and its four-cylinder engine is more powerful and gets better mileage (27 mpg overall). Spot-on handling and a larger interior give it a boost, too.
Luxury sedans. Lexus's most recent entry in its hybrid series, the CT 200h ($29,995), has a five-year ownership cost of about $44,400. That is the lowest of the luxury class, partly because the CT 200h gets a thrifty 42 mpg overall. The downside: Both power and space leave much to be desired.
To find an entry-luxury vehicle that did well in our rankings, we had to move up the list to the Audi A4 2.0T ($33,175). It doesn't have the green cred of the CT 200h, but it gets our vote for value -- even with a five-year ownership cost of $51,217. The four-cylinder engine puts out 211 horses but manages 25 mpg combined. Legroom, headroom and cargo space are decent for a compact car, and resale value is 46% after three years.
Family crossovers. When it comes to holding a couple of kids and luggage, most of the midsize and large crossovers get the job done. And the Toyota Venza ($27,385) has the lowest five-year ownership cost in the segment: $38,733. Its four-cylinder engine gets an overall 23 mpg, making it a fine choice if fuel economy is your top goal. But its 182-horsepower engine lacks zip, and its handling feels less than precise.
If you want more power, more room and a better driving experience, consider Kiplinger's Best in Class winner for 2011, the Mazda CX-9 Sport ($29,930).
It seats seven, and it has three-zone climate control to keep everyone comfortable. The V6 puts out 273 horses, with about average fuel economy for the segment, at 19 mpg overall. The CX-9 offers nearly 50 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row folded, and more than most sedans with it up. Over five years, the ownership cost is $45,383.