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The 10 Cheapest Cars to Maintain, Explained

By Matthew de Paula

By Exhaust Notes May 3, 2011 12:31PM
The Honda Fit was ranked as the cheapest car to maintain. (Photo courtesy of Honda.)When picking a car based purely on upkeep needs, smaller is better. Just look at the top 10 vehicles with the lowest maintenance and repair costs: Six of them are small by U.S. standards.

 

The Honda Fit hatchback, which many Americans consider tiny, has the lowest five-year service cost of any vehicle sold in the United States: $2,937. The Toyota Corolla and Yaris round out the top three for maintenance misers, costing owners a projected $2,991 and $3,029, respectively. Those figures are according to Vincentric, a research firm in Bingham Farms, Mich., that calculates ownership costs for every vehicle on the market.

 

“I would certainly hope that the Corolla and the Fit are less expensive to maintain -- their parts are less expensive,” says Tracy Schneiter, a vice president at IRN Research consultancy in Grand Rapids, Mich.

 

Therein lies one of the biggest reasons that smaller cars are less of a burden to maintain and repair long term: Generally speaking, the larger the car, the pricier its parts.


“The bumper on a Cadillac DTS is bigger than it is on a Honda Fit, so you’re going to have an $800 bumper versus a $500 bumper,” Schneiter says.

 

So how did big luxury cars like the Cadillac DTS and STS make it onto this top 10 list? Three words: free scheduled maintenance. Last July, for example, Cadillac started offering complimentary oil changes, tire rotations, inspections and other routine maintenance on all of its new cars for four years or 50,000 miles; that brings the 5-year maintenance cost of the DTS down by $1,090, according to Vincentric.

 

Volvo’s S40 sedan and V50 wagon (considered the same car for the purposes of our ranking) saw their maintenance costs drop by $1,992 -- almost twice as much as the Caddy’s -- thanks to the Swedish company’s 3-year/36,000-mile free scheduled-maintenance program.

 

(Note: Although other high-end European automakers such as BMW and Jaguar also offer free scheduled-maintenance programs, the programs don't offset the companies' exorbitant parts and labor costs enough to put them in the ranking.)

 

Toyota, on the other hand, has four cars on the list, the most of any manufacturer. The proven reliability of its vehicles contributed to that, of course, but so did the fact that the company is now covering routine maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles.

 

Crunching the Numbers

Although it’s obvious that reliability plays a role in repair costs, it was hard to define for our slide show exactly what that role is, because Vincentric does not track what breaks on cars, or how often.

 

Looking at Consumer Reports data, only two vehicles on the list show below-average reliability: the Cadillac STS and Chevrolet Aveo. While past models of the Volvo S40 and V50 have proved problematic, a rating isn’t available on the current crop.

 

The Cadillac STS and the Volvo models, along with the slightly more reliable Cadillac DTS, have the highest repair costs on the list, although this could be more a function of higher parts and labor costs charged by luxury brands rather than a greater number of things going wrong outside of warranty coverage. Bottom line: There’s no way to tell for sure, so take the data for what they're worth.

 

Vincentric calculates every possible expense involved in owning a vehicle, including fuel, insurance, depreciation and others. But for this ranking, we deliberately focused only on maintenance and repairs.

 

To calculate maintenance costs for each vehicle, Vincentric looks at the service schedules provided by each automaker and adds up the parts and labor costs involved for routine oil changes, inspections and the like. They then "add on top of that certain wear items, such as batteries, shock absorbers, tires and a few other things that we know are going to wear out, but aren’t on a strict schedule,” says David Wurster, president of Vincentric. “And if there’s a free maintenance program, we just don’t include that part in the totals for the cost.”

 

The 5-year projections for repairs get handled differently. They are based on the cost of a zero-deductible extended warranty that covers all repairs outside of the manufacturer’s warranty, minus a certain percentage broken out as profit for the warranty company. “The reason we use that is because we don’t have actual data on how many things are breaking and what they cost to fix,” Wurster says. “But these warranty companies have to pay for all of those repairs, so they literally have experience in accounting for those costs.”

 

While our list reflects data for the 2011 model year, we had to exclude two vehicles -- the Nissan Leaf and Ford Fiesta -- because they are new for 2011 and therefore don’t have a track record for maintenance, repairs and reliability.

 

It’s interesting to note, though, that the Leaf would have taken third place on our list, with a 5-year service cost of $3,011. Wurster says that’s largely because its electric drivetrain doesn’t require oil changes and other routine maintenance that an internal-combustion engine does.

 

Had the Fiesta -- yet another small car -- not been knocked off for being a newbie, it would have landed between the Cadillac DTS and Volvo S40/V50. “I’m not saying it will not be reliable -- it’s just that it’s a totally brand-new model from an engineering perspective,” Schneiter says.

 

One last point to note is the difference in 5-year service costs between the first-place Honda Fit and 10th-place Ford Focus: It’s only $152. This means that anyone who drives a Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Subaru or any other car that has proved reliable and easy to maintain need not get in a huff just because it’s not on this list.

 

We assembled the best of the best, according to the numbers from one data provider, but lots of other great vehicles are available.


“The market has gotten so competitive that really there’s not much difference between any of these vehicles on their cost. If you were to look at this 10 or 15 years ago, I guarantee you that the spread of dollars between the highest and the lowest was much deeper,” Schneiter says.

 

Click here to check out the complete list.

10Comments
May 4, 2011 2:56AM
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In part a joke because these cars are all on less than a 100,000 miles basis, and figured on a warranty basis? If you use a car in the western states 30,000/ year is often low miles. Many of these cars also will not hold up if you have to drive the gravel roads etc. I have seen several cars driven 100,000 miles with out even changing the oil. Driving 5-12,000 miles a year on paved roads they should mandate a 6 year 0 cost factory warranty.
May 3, 2011 6:43PM
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It's not easy to hold the top spots in this category.  Reliability is key.

Jun 9, 2011 1:02PM
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Totally meaningless study.  They seem to factor in reliability but then admit they don't or can't track what breaks or how often.  So how can they objectively conclude anything about reliability or the cost of parts and labor to repair things?  Guess?  No credibility to this study.

 

Other than the obvious that smaller, more fuel efficient cars cost less to fuel and maintain, what does that matter if those vehicles don't fulfill your needs?  It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that a set of crappy tiny 13 or 14 inch tires costs less than a set of 19 or 20 inch performance tires.    

 

Again, totally meaningless study.

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Larger cars are more comfortable.    If you have specific costs to compare you can decide whether that comfort is worth the cost.    Stylish cars are worth more but how much?     It helps to have numbers to make that decision.     It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that information that you're not interested in isn't necessarily meaningless to everyone.

May 12, 2011 12:50PM
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The best way to estimate the cost of ownership of any car when buying is to ask the cost of parts and installation of :

1. Waterpump (the most commonly replaced engine part).

2. Brake pads/shoes all four wheels.

3. Total Exhaust (from the front pipe/catalytic converter back to the muffler tailpipe).

4. The two front drive shafts/cvjoints (in the case of a transverse engine). Front to rear engines do not have this expense.

5. Set of ignition wires.

 

Those are the parts typically replaced during ten years of ownership of an otherwise healthy car.

 

I have been an NIASE certified mechanic since 1977 and it is my opinion that japanese car makers especially engineer for price competition on the sales floor and backload the costs on parts/repair, with the intent of getting the car off the road as soon as possible.

 

The above costs for the 1963 cadillac I drive are a tenth of a new import. PLUS the environmental impact of my car is FAR less than the alternative which is to maintain/rebuild new/rebuy and take to the junk yard.

 

If we were all driving older/maintainable cars for longer times (very inexpensive) the world would be a much cleaner place.

May 5, 2011 8:40AM
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The only one on the list that I'd even consider is the Cadillac DTS.....and that's getting dated.  You can keep the rest.
Jun 9, 2011 12:54PM
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I've had my Honda Accord for just three months shy of 5 years now and haven't had to replace any of the things listed.   battery, tires,  shock absorbers     They must be assuming more mileage than I have.

Jul 20, 2011 2:34PM
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My 2006 Nissan Murano was the most reliable car I ever had...in the four years I owned it, new tires were my only expense.  I traded it in for a 2011 Murano based on its reasonable gas mileage for the size of the vehicle, the comfort factor, dependability, style and the free oil changes and tire rotations for the duration of my ownership..not to mention the excellent service personnel at Nemith Motors in Latham, NY.  This is a great 4-person family vehicle with lots of room for luggage and travel comfort to boot.
Feb 24, 2013 5:19AM
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I wonder if when making these calulations of the cost of maintenance they have taken into account the extra services that some dealer push? I was given a Toyota dealers invoice that showed four extra services costing $500! These were not recommended by Toyota, they were

1.  Fuel induction service $189.95

2. Mass air flow service $139.95

3. Evaporative mold flush $109.95 

4. Mist service $89.95

I was so concerned about people buying these services I wrote a blog on the subject. It can be found at  

Feb 23, 2013 10:36AM
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I would be interested in inspecting vehicles after there 3 year or 5 year free service. A lot of our customers maintain their cars with us from day one and we see a lot of issues that have not been addressed by the dealer. It seems like there are lots of things that maybe over looked during this period that would have to be addressed by the customer after the free service and warranty run out. Technicians at dealership are paid a lot less to do warranty work, the only time they might be more motived to address concerns is when business is slow. When I look at data from servicing cars over ten years it averages out about $1000 to $1500 a year for preventive maintenance, repairs (tires and brakes etc).
Jun 9, 2011 3:21PM
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Our Nissan Quest has 97,000, will be 6 years old in October.  So far, we only have had $4,800 in repairs, one in the 4th year, another in the 5th year.  Repairs were timing chain, motor mount and brakes after 80,000 miles.  Most of our driving is in AZ., once a year to Missouri. 

 

Compared to your study, a smaller car.  Dealers have been courteous, responsive to our immediate problem.  Now, paying for the gas is another story.

 

Revise in what manner?  We are retired and replying to your article today.

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