(March 26) -- Even if gasoline prices dropped modestly, motorists still would face higher driving costs this year because of rising insurance, licensing and finance charges, travel organization AAA says in a survey of driving costs published Monday.

When all costs are taken into account, including purchase price of a vehicle, depreciation and routine maintenance, the average cost of driving a car 15,000 miles a year works out to 52.2 cents a mile. It's higher for SUVs and minivans.

The good news is that the overall cost is unchanged from last year.

The bad news is "that's darned expensive. A 20-mile round trip to the mall is costing you $10," says Michael Calkins, manager of AAA's approved auto repair operation and author of the study.

AAA lowered the cost of gasoline in this year's calculation. Based on prices last fall, it assumes gas will average $2.26 a gallon, down from $2.40 used in last year's driving cost study. Monday, AAA showed a U.S. average $2.581.

While "fuel prices went down about 15 cents a gallon, insurance went up and tax and finance costs went up because of the rise in vehicle prices," Calkins says.

And gas prices are actually rising.

The national average price for gasoline climbed for the eighth straight week, to $2.610 a gallon for regular gasoline, according to a government report released Monday.

Retail gasoline prices are 11.2 cents higher than they were a year ago at this time.

But there are ways of cutting the cost of transportation.

Driving a small vehicle can make a big difference. The study found that operating a small sedan such as a Chevrolet Cobalt or Nissan Sentra 15,000 miles a year costs $7,871. That's substantially less than $9,380 for a large one, such as a Toyota Avalon or Chrysler 300.

"If you don't need the extra space, consider the small car. There are tradeoffs. You give up things when you drive a smaller car. But in a larger car you give up the lower operating costs," Calkins says.

Switching from a traditional, truck-style SUV with towing capacity to a minivan, which is still roomy, can save about 10 percent in overall annual costs. AAA hasn't yet sorted out the costs of a car-based crossover SUV.

Depreciation remains the single biggest cost of owning a car, averaging $3,392. Next are gasoline, maintenance and tires, about 14.5 cents a mile alone. In the study, the cost of insurance crept to $985 this year, up from $926 last year; taxes rose to $538, from $535; and finance charges were $733, compared to $716 last year.

"If you want to save, alter your driving habits, shop for insurance, maintain your vehicle," he says.

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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