Cheapest Overall Vehicle to Drive

We get may questions about gas mileage as a basis for vehicle selection, but the poster really wants lowest overall ownwership costs. Some say a beater with a good powertrain, others like OK buy used police cruisers on the auction.

Aside from appearance, what would the best (lowest ownership costs) overall vehicle be??

Keep in mind that depreciation is the biggest cost by far, and other costs are fuel, insurance, and maintenance & repairs.

My own version is a 6-8 year old econobox with low mileage, owned by a senior and well maintained. We recommended such a vehicle to a student in Houston recnetly.

Any mid 90s to mid 2000 small car with 4 cylinder and manual transmission. One that comes to mind but gets no respect is a Chevy Cavalier. A very simple, and straightforward car.

“owned by a senior and well maintained. We recommended such a vehicle to a student in Houston recently”. A big Plus

The lowest cost vehicle to own and operate is a bicycle.
Second is probably a Vespa or similar scooter.
Third is probably a motorcycle amsller than 750cc.
Forth, I’d have to guess a Civic or Corolla.

Doesn’t one of the consumer publications publish such data?

My picks are the Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla of the early 90’s to the mid 90’s. They need to be 4 cylinder with the manual transmission.

The problem, Mountainbike, is that the published figures usually are for buying a NEW car, keeping it 5 years and then selling it. That’s OK for a salesman, but the real economy is in letting someone else absorb the depreciation, and buy the car used while it is still in good condition.

Consumer Reports did an article on this in the past, but they did not really know how mcuh to allocate for maintenance and repairs in the years 5 to 15. They did conclude along with the Tappet Boys that buying a used car saves money.

Excellent point.

Personally I buy new and keep the thing until it falls apart in the middle of the road under me. But I do pay some for the sense of security of knowing I didn’t buy someone else’s problem.

The only published numbers I’ve seen concern new cars. A few years ago the Honda Civic topped the cheapest new car to own list due to few repair bills, low maintenance costs, low insurance premiums, and low depreciation compared to other cars of the same year.

Used cars can likely beat the new car for cheap to own, but how do you account for the time and inconvience of taking the car in for more frequent repairs?

Big Buick That’s Done Depreciating, Senior Owned, 28 - 30 Hwy. MPG, High Reliability, Low Maintenance, Inexpensive Easy To Get New And Used Parts. Safe, Cheap Insurance, Etcetera, Or Get One Of These . . .

It runs on a cold one.


That’s a very personal decision. Most of my wife’s friends, for instance, are not mechanically inclined and buy new cars and keep them for 6 years or so.

I have an engineer friend who has never bought a new car in his life, although he has had some new company cars. He takes an organized approach to car ownership and pro-actively makes sure he has few breakdowns.

Agree, this is not for everyone, especially those who are very busy and depend on the car to make a living.

I have bought only 2 new cars since starting to drive in 1958, and have had 4 company cars.

Keep in mind that depreciation is the biggest cost by far, and other costs are fuel, insurance, and maintenance & repairs.

In order to determine whether a vehicle is less expensive to operate than another car, you’d have to know how long each car would last and how much it cost to purchase, insure and maintain.

Depreciation is not even part of the computation if a person is trying to determine the “cheapest overall vehicle”. You would only incorporate depreciation if you were trying to determine the cheapest cost of a vehicle for a finite period.

In other words, a $35,000.00 Lexus that requires few repairs and little maintenance might be cheaper overall than a $18,000.00 car if the Lexus were to last 20 years and/or 500,000 miles as opposed to a lower purchase priced car that may only last 5 years and/or 150,0000 miles.

Almost any 4 cyl, stick shift pick-up truck, IF YOU CAN BUY IT RIGHT!! These vehicles can be imported into Mexico duty free and Mexican buyers scour the U.S. looking for them. They will outbid you every time so you have to quick because they don’t stay on the market for long…

At the other end of the spectrum, a six to eight year old Crown Victoria or Grand Marquis can usually be purchased VERY reasonably will less than 100K miles on them. With a little maintenance, most of which can be DIY, they are rock-solid cars for 200K and beyond miles providing a very low cost per mile to operate…You can say the same thing about an F-150, but you will pay more for it and they don’t get as good fuel mileage as the Panthers…

Joe, good post. A good car as you point out, can be expected to last 25 years and 500,000 miles if parts remain available. A “cheap” car not designed with long life in mind usually bites the dust a 150,000 miles or 10-13 years.

In case of my Nissan, it depreciated $8000 in the first 5 years, and another $7000 in the next 12 years. The maintenance and repair for the fist 5 years was $1057 and in the next 12 years came to $5700. During that time the insurance also dropped.

Using this logic the cost of owning, excluding gas and insurance, were $8000+$1057=$9057 in the first 5 years ($1811/year) and $5700+$7000=$12700 in the next 12 years($1058/year). I’m not including the lower insurance cost on a car over 5 years old. I am giving you actual costs here, not an estimate or formula calculation.

Although a Lexus is a reliable car, it will be more expensive to maintain and repair when those good parts need replacing, than, say a Camry or Corolla. Lexus cars are no more durable and reliable than a Camry, and parts and service are much more expensive. That’s the myth about a luxury car costing less to maintain. Agree that Lexus is less expensive to keep running than a Jaguar or high end Audi.

If you buy a car that depreciates a lot, the ownership cost decreases even more.

My little Civic has been pretty good to me all these years. It’s got a couple nagging little problems with it right now(CD player going out and a couple of times where it wouldn’t start for me), but other than that, it’s been a great car to own. About the only repairs I’ve had to do have been the window regulators, hood latch and release inside the car.
I could say that the 3 mufflers I’ve replaced over the years could be repairs, but since I don’t drive much, and we use salt on the roads in winter, I’d argue that it could be considered maintenance on my part.

I’ve been keeping track of vehicle ownership expenses for more than 25 years, and the cars I’ve owned that cost the least to operate per mile were the cars I paid the least for up front. Even if my overall maintenance/repair costs doubled or tripled the original purchase price, the lowest priced cars were the least expensive to own. Certainly not the nicest to own, or the most fun, or the most stylish, but the least expensive.

Brand doesn’t seem to matter.

The least expensive car I’ve ever owned, at less than 20 cents per mile, was a 1991 Pontiac LeMans VL Aerocoupe, followed by a Yamaha XS 500 Motorcycle, a 1983 VW Quantum Coupe, a 1979 Mercury Marquis, a 1979 Ford Fiesta, a 1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria, an '84 Toyota Camry, a 1963 Dodge Dart 270, and a 1971 VW Bus. I could go on, but you get the picture. All of these vehicles were purchased for between $500 and $3,500.

My current cars, an Acura and a Subaru, are much more expensive by comparison. Nicer cars, but a lot more expensive to own.

Initial purchase price, as far as I can tell, has more impact on overall ownership cost than anything else.

Lexus cars are no more durable and reliable than a Camry, and parts and service are much more expensive.

I agree. I only used the Lexus as an example of a high priced car that is reliable as opposed to a low priced car that isn’t reliable.

If you buy a car that depreciates a lot, the ownership cost decreases even more.

I’m not sure if you really meant that, but the point I was trying to make is that a car’s resale value is not a factor when trying to compare the long term costs of owning and maintaining cars. It only figures into the computation when you’re confining the ownership period to a certain period of time.

Two vehicles come to mind…a used Ford Focus for a car, and a Ford Ranger for a truck.
I hope it’s for research and not for actual ownership. I’m opposed to everyone getting a good long term deal. It just ain’t good for the economy.

Since so much depends on maintenance and driving habits about all I could recommend is that the more common the car the cheaper it will be to maintain.

If by “OK” and police auctions you mean me, then you would be incorrect. I’ve never bought a police cruiser (although I would never rule it out, especially with the phaseout of Crown Vics) and only attended one police auction in my life; where I had some heated words with the weasel of a cop who was holding the clipboard listing the impound vehicles for sale.

A nice VW Super Beetle had sat there for 6 months in one spot. At 6:30 that morning the car was there. When I came back just before 10 A.M. (starting time for the sale) that VW was gone and the cop stated they “never had a VW Beetle in that lot, ever” and “there was no VW on his list”. BS.

Here’s an estimate of your costs:

It’s that maligned Edmunds True Cost to Own. I just picked one at random, but it looks a lot like any other I’ve looked at, and you know I’ve looked at a lot of them. Fuel is the highest cost, followed by depreciation, then insurance. Maintenance, financing, repairs, and taxes follow at a distance. These are all estimated the same way for each vehicle, so they can offer a reasonable comparison. It’s a bit like getting gas mileage at The EPA numbers may not be exactly what you get, but they provide a consistent database to make comparisons. Everyone knows (me too) that a Lexus is a very reliable car, but annual repair costs are a lot more for a Lexus than many less expensive cars, because parts and labor will be more than for a Toyota. Here’s the scoop on a 2007 GS350:


The lowest absolute ownership cost is profoundly affected by the owner if he/she can do repairs and maintenance or get them done at low cost by a moonlighter rather than at a professional mechanic. I’d add that the car must have a manual transmission as well as a minimal amount of gadgets that have nothing to do with forward and rearward propulsion of the vehicle.

This selection could be an interesting contest between a trouble-free car compared to a car possibly prone to occasional problems but repaired at home and bought at a lower price.

The ultimate selection depends on what the owner can do for himself regarding repairs and maintenance. There is no single answer unless the question is made more specific.

It depends on the kind of driving you do. For 6000 miles a year you don’t care about mileage, get something old ,roomy and cheap. For 30000 miles get something almost new, low mileage and good on gas and cheap to repair.