Getting the Most for Your Car Dollar

Peter Smith decided he was finally going to play it smart. The next time he bought a car, he told himself, he was going to buy the cheapest car he could find. That way he could trim his transportation costs to the bare minimum.

But a funny thing happened to Peter. He did buy the cheapest car he could stand to own, but four years later, when he decided he wanted a new vehicle, his old "cheap" car didn't turn out to be such a bargain after all. Why? Well, there might have been a variety of contributing factors like insurance rate, fuel economy, and maintenance/repairs, but the big pin that burst his financial bubble was depreciation. Over time the value of his "cheap" car plunged like a stone, while the value of others in the category held up far better. So not only did Peter end up driving a car he didn't particularly like for four years, he also found it cost him money. In the world of popular psychology, they call that cognitive dissonance. Peter called it a big downer.

So how do you avoid falling into the money pit that trapped Peter? Well, a simple way is to eyeball the data from IntelliChoice, a Primedia company that earns its keep poring over ownership and leasing cost data. IntelliChoice has just announced its 18th annual Best Overall Value of the Year Awards based value calculations on more than 1,000 vehicle model and sub-models. The analysis accounts for the price of a vehicle and the accumulated costs of depreciation, maintenance, repairs, fuel, fees, financing, and insurance and projects what these costs will be for the upcoming five-year ownership cycle.

As well-defined as all this sounds, there are a couple of cautions: first, Intellichoice's value calculations are based on a five-year term of ownership, so if you plan to keep your car, say, eight years, the value calculation can be significantly different. And since over the course of five years the predominant "cost" for most vehicles is depreciation, if Intellichoice's estimates of depreciation turn out to be erroneous, the company's value estimates will be wrong as well.

Okay, with the disclaimers out of the way, let's get to this year's award winners. The Best Car Value under $24,000 is the Honda Civic DX sedan, while the Best Car Value over $24,000 is the Toyota Avalon sedan. Both cars parlay relatively low purchase price, high resale value, and low maintenance and insurance costs to take the titles.

Toyota wins another award with the Toyota Tundra regular cab, the Best Truck Value under $27,000. A domestic model does the trick as the Best Truck Value over $27,000 -- Chevrolet Silverado C1500 LS extended cab. Toyota-built vehicles seem to reign over the SUV category. The Best Sport Utility Value under $30,000 is the Toyota RAV4, and the Best Sport Utility Value over $30,000 is the Lexus RX 330.

In addition to the six category winners, IntelliChoice also recognized the following vehicles as class winners:
  • Subcompact Class - Honda Civic Coupe
  • Compact Class under $17,000 - Honda Civic Sedan
  • Compact Class over $17,000 - Honda Civic Hybrid
  • Midsize Class under $21,000 - Toyota Prius
  • Midsize Class over $21,000 - Honda Accord Sedan
  • Large Class - Toyota Avalon
  • Near Luxury Class - Lexus ES 330
  • Luxury Class - Lexus LS 430
  • Small Wagon Class - Toyota Matrix
  • Midsize/Large Wagon Class - Subaru Legacy
  • Base Sport Class - Mazda Miata
  • Sport Class - Acura NSX
    Sport Utilities:
  • Compact Sport Utility Class under $21,000 - Toyota RAV4
  • Compact Sport Utility Class over $21,000 - Honda CR-V 4WD
  • Intermediate Sport Utility Class under $31,000 - Honda Pilot
  • Intermediate Sport Utility Class over $31,000 - Lexus RX 330
  • Full-Size Sport Utility Class under $38,000 - Chevrolet Suburban 2WD
  • Full-Size Sport Utility Class over $38,000 - GMC Yukon XL 4WD
  • Compact Pickup Class 2WD - Toyota Tacoma Extended Cab
  • Compact Pickup Class 4WD - Chevrolet Colorado Crew Cab 4WD
  • Full-Size Pickup Class 1/2 Ton 2WD - Toyota Tundra Regular Cab 2WD
  • Full-Size Pickup Class 1/2 Ton 4WD - Chevrolet Silverado Extended Cab
  • Full-Size Pickup Class 3/4 Ton 2WD - Chevrolet Silverado Extended Cab
  • Full-Size Pickup Class 3/4 Ton 4WD - Chevrolet Silverado Extended Cab
  • Full-Size Pickup Class One Ton 2WD - Chevrolet Silverado Extended Cab
  • Full-Size Pickup Class One Ton 4WD - Chevrolet Silverado Extended Cab
  • Mini-Van Class under $27,000 - Honda Odyssey
  • Mini-Van Class over $27,000 - Honda Odyssey
  • Full-Size Van Class - Chevrolet Express AWD
Contributor Tom Ripley is an automotive and human behavior specialist who writes from his home in Villeperce, France.