Cost of Ownership Index

What's a car really going to cost you?

Answering that question requires looking at a ton of issues. Over five years, there are plenty of factors to consider: Gas. Insurance. Interest. Depreciation. The list goes on.

What we wanted to show are the cars that cost the least over five years when compared to their MSRP. Do that, and cheap cars may not seem so cheap anymore: For some $15,000 economy sedans, these factors total $30,000 over the course of five years.

That's why we came up with the Cost of Ownership Index. We looked at every 2009 model and tallied their five-year ownership costs in eight categories — depreciation, fees and taxes, financing, insurance, fuel, maintenance, opportunity cost and repairs — and then compared that figure to their original MSRP.

Here's how to read the index: Say a $25,000 model's index score comes to 200. That means those eight factors total $50,000 over five years, putting it near the bottom of our list. An identically priced competitor with a 130 on the index, on the other hand, would cost $32,500 to own for five years. It would rank considerably higher on our index. Remember, the lower the score, the less that car should cost you over the first five years.

Note that five-year ownership costs don't explicitly include the car's price, only its depreciation so far. That's because your car still carries some resale value — so, in effect, depreciation accounts for the price you paid minus what you could still get if you sold it.

The cars listed here are the top 10 we can recommend — meaning models with the lowest ownership costs that also pass basic reliability and safety standards — with each car's score based on the average of a vehicle's available drivetrains and trim levels.

10. Saab 9-3 sedan and wagon: 133.8

Ownership costs for the 9-3 range from 125.8 percent for the all-wheel-drive wagon to 141.7 percent for the base sedan. Safety and reliability data are acceptable, but we can't recommend the 9-3 convertible, whose reliability has been poor.
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9. Acura RL: 133.6

Acura's flagship RL sedan's base model and pricier Tech Package edition average 133.6 percent. Safety and reliability ratings are good.
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8. Nissan Altima Hybrid: 133.1

The Altima Hybrid comes in essentially one variant, whose total five-year ownership costs run about a third over its $26,650 base price. Reliability and crash-test ratings are good, but we wish the Altima Hybrid were sold nationwide; it's available only in California and several northeastern states.
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7. Volvo S80: 132.9

The S80 V-8 might have scored higher if there were sufficient reliability data for the V-8 model, which has an even lower cost of ownership than the six-cylinder ranked here. As it stands, the six-cylinder S80 — in turbo or normally aspirated versions — averages just less than a third more than its sticker price to own for five years.
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6. Infiniti M35: 131.9

It's not surprising that the M35, a perennial Best Bet, ranks well. With excellent reliability and safety ratings, its total cost of ownership comes in at slightly more than 130 percent for both rear- and all-wheel-drive variants.
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5. Lexus GS 450h: 131.6

Inexpensive the GS hybrid is not — it will set you back a cool $56,550 — but thanks to its fuel-efficient drivetrain and excellent reliability, its five-year ownership costs are relatively low.
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4. Hummer H3 SUV: 131.5

How did the thirsty H3 make it this high? Fuel costs certainly don't help, but relatively low insurance and maintenance costs do. Its safety and reliability ratings are acceptable, giving the H3's relatively low cost of ownership for its mid-$30K to mid-$40K price range. We can't endorse the H3T, however, which has insufficient crash-test data.
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3. Saab 9-5 sedan: 130.7

The Swedes are on a roll: Though long in the tooth, the current 9-5 sedan comes closer to the 130 percent sweet spot. Give credit to its low insurance and repair costs, as well as its good reliability ratings. The related 9-5 wagon, unfortunately, lacks sufficient crash-test data to be rated.
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2. Toyota Highlander Hybrid: 130.6

Low fuel and insurance costs help the Highlander Hybrid rank near the top of our list. The two major configurations offered — the base and Limited trims, both with standard all-wheel drive — just edge out Saab for second place.
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1. Cadillac DTS: 128.4

The DTS isn't just comfortable — it's smart, too. Cadillac's largest car leads the Cost of Ownership index thanks to seriously low insurance, maintenance and repair costs. The current generation may be headed for the exit, but it's still a smart choice overall.
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Editor's Note
We ranked our index by comparing five-year ownerships costs to listed MSRPs for all 2009 models. Ownerships costs come from Vincentric LLC, with models broken down according to's Research section designations. Listed percentages are an average of all eligible configurations of a model, including most major drivetrain, body style and trim-level variations. In total, nearly 1,750 variants were analyzed. We compared each trim to its respective MSRP, with the exception of cars with insufficient or below-average reliability or crash-test scores, leaving only trims that met those standards. That's why, for example, we recommend the Saab 9-5 sedan but not the 9-5 wagon. Data sources include Consumer Reports reliability scores and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-test data.

© 5/1/09