By Mike Hanley on May 6, 2013
Car ownership is expensive. Take your monthly payments and add insurance, gas and maintenance, and it's a big part of the family budget. Some features available in today's cars, though, can make the ownership experience more expensive than it needs to be. Because it's not always apparent which features might hit your wallet later, we've outlined some common ones with hidden costs — and how you can minimize those costs through smart shopping.
It wasn't all that long ago when 20-inch — or larger — alloy wheels were rarely offered by automakers, but they've become much more common, especially in the luxury segment. They look great, but the cost of the low-profile tires they wear could come as a rude surprise when it's time for new rubber as the cost for a single replacement tire can top $400. If one of those large wheels also needs to be replaced, you can plan on paying considerably more.
Takeaway: Choosing smaller wheels (and, where offered, steel wheels over alloy) will help keep repair or replacement costs lower.
The idea of summer tires might be appealing if you're keen on extra grip for your car, but it's worthwhile to consider the different driving conditions you might encounter. That's because, despite advances in tire technology, summer tires can be abysmal in even small amounts of snow, so bad, in fact, that you might need a set of dedicated winter tires just to get out of your driveway. Summer tires tend to be more expensive to replace than all-season tires, sometimes to the tune of an extra $100 or more per tire.
Takeaway: Unless you rarely venture from warm climates, all-season tires are better equipped to handle varying road conditions and will be easier on your wallet when you need to replace them.
Rugged trucks and SUVs were once the only vehicles with four-wheel drive, but the technology has proliferated and is now offered in everything from family sedans to luxury cars to sports cars. These systems are more complex, and have more moving parts, than conventional front- or rear-wheel-drive systems, and that's a recipe for expensive repairs when something breaks. It's not unheard of for repairs to four-wheel-drive systems to cost thousands of dollars. What's more, the added weight usually exacts a fuel-economy penalty.
Takeaway: Unless you regularly drive on unplowed roads, snow-covered hills or the Rubicon Trail, you probably don't need four-wheel drive.
Despite volatile gas prices, performance remains a big selling point for some car shoppers, and automakers have heartily offered up performance components. When looking at the cost, though, it's not just the performance engine's typically lower gas mileage that you need to consider. The maintenance schedule for the Dodge Dart's optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine, for instance, calls for more frequent spark plug changes than the base engine, and things like high-performance Brembo-brand brake systems require more expensive brake pads and rotors.
Takeaway: Most modern cars deliver adequate performance, so non-enthusiasts can save money by avoiding performance features.
Besides adding hundreds to thousands of dollars to the cost of a new car, built-in navigation systems lose their value faster than the car itself, which represents another cost when it comes time to sell it. While a 5-year-old car should usually have a lot of life left in it, a 5-year-old navigation system is probably as dated as that 5-year-old cellphone you found during spring cleaning and quickly tossed in the trash.
Takeaway: If you must have navigation in your car, portable devices are getting better and cost much less. Remember, though, to set your destination into the device before hitting the road.
Take a close look at a newer car, especially one with a luxury badge, and you'll likely see a camera or two or a row of small round sensors. These have been added in the name of safety and convenience, but they're also highly susceptible to damage if they're located on or around the bumpers. According to RepairPal, expect to pay $860 or so to replace the backup camera of a 2013 Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
Takeaway: If you like the additional peace of mind offered by these systems, look for systems with cameras mounted near the inside rearview mirror, out of harm's way.
If something is going to get knocked off your car, it's likely one of the outside mirrors. A 2013 Toyota Camry side mirror with its blind-spot monitoring system, for instance, could cost $397 to replace, according to RepairPal. That doesn't take into account other high-tech elements like integrated turn signals or power-folding functionality that are appearing on more cars.
Takeaway: Skip the high-end features, especially if you street park in a city. It'll save you money now and possibly in the future too.
The convenience of power-sliding doors can't be overstated, especially when you're trying to herd young children into a minivan, and powered liftgates are equally useful when your hands are full. That convenience can become an aggravation, though, when one of those motors fails. According to RepairPal, repairing the motor for the 2013 Toyota Sienna's power-sliding door can cost $1,181. Ouch.
Takeaway: Power conveniences are great when they work, but manually operated side doors and liftgates eliminate the expensive repair cost.
Roof racks are great for holding skis and bikes that don't always fit well inside a car, but if a roof rack is just an extra space for stuff, more or less, you're probably compromising fuel economy more than you realize. Automakers spend a lot of time tuning a car's aerodynamics so it slips cleanly through the air, but a roof rack (even when there's nothing in it) acts as a giant wind deflector that will decrease your gas mileage, especially on the highway.
Takeaway: Try to fit all your cargo inside the car, if possible, and if you need to use a roof rack, take it off your car when you're done using it.
Until recently, air suspensions were mostly offered in the luxury segment, but they've begun appearing in mainstream models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and Ram 1500 pickup. The technology's advantages — a comfortable ride and active management of the vehicle's ride height — are noteworthy. However, RepairPal says that air suspensions, in general, are more expensive to maintain and repair, and some consumers opt to replace them with conventional springs when they experience a failure.
Takeaway: Unless you absolutely need the unique attributes of an air suspension, stick with a conventional setup.
Retractable hardtops have made a resurgence blending the freedom of top-down summer driving with the comfort and security of a coupe. Though popular in the luxury segment, they've also appeared in mainstream convertibles such as the Volkswagen Eos. The operation of these systems is something to behold as the multipaneled roofs motor up and down in a carefully choreographed dance. It just looks expensive. But if something goes wrong and the car is out of warranty, expect to open your wallet wide.
Takeaway: A convertible with a manual-folding soft-top brings all the enjoyment of top-down driving without the complexity and cost of a power-retractable hardtop.
Senior Editor Mike Hanley is a father of three boys; he reviews new cars, admires classic cars and has embraced the minivan lifestyle. Email Mike