The 10 Cheapest Cars to Maintain, Explained
By Matthew de Paula
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.
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