David Wurster could hardly believe it recently when he filled the tank of his Ford Focus ZX5 with gas that cost just over $1.60 a gallon. It was a far cry from the $3.60 he paid last summer. But Wurster's not letting himself get used to the new low.
"It was great," says Wurster, who leads product development and industry analysis for the auto consulting firm Vincentric, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "I think in the short term it's going to go down more, in fact. But this is the short term. Don't get comfortable. We're going to see $3 again."
It's the unease of impending high gas prices and the shaky economy that necessitates consumers arming themselves with as much information as they can before heading out to buy a new car, experts say. And the research can pay off, since the true costs of owning a car are realized only after you drive off the lot, not when you hand over a cashier's check for the car itself.
Take, for example, the $22,990 Volkswagen GTI and the $23,565 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Though comparable in price, the two-door GTI's fuel efficiency (21 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway) and low maintenance costs help make it the most affordable compact premium model.
The Wrangler Unlimited SUV, however, fares worse when it comes to affordability over five years. Its lower gas mileage (15 mpg in the city, 20 mpg on the highway) and the higher cost of insuring a mid-size SUV make it more expensive to drive than a smaller car of comparable sticker price.
Dan Jarvis, a Ford spokesman, says more drivers, especially young ones, are making the "very wise" decision to do this kind of research online before talking to a dealer.
Behind The Numbers
To identify 2009's most affordable vehicle in each major market segment, we used Vincentric data to add to the base price the five-year totals for fuel costs, maintenance and repairs, as well as the average national insurance rates in each segment. To find the gas expense, we assumed an annual rate of 15,000 miles driven per vehicle at a price of $3.25 per gallon (the 2008 year-to-date average). We then evaluated affordability based on the percentage of each vehicle's five-year costs compared with its grand total costs, including base price.
Experts say the key to choosing a truly affordable vehicle is to know what your needs are--and stick to them. Nowhere is this more important than when considering buying an SUV. The Kia Sportage, for example, is the most affordable SUV overall on our list. The base model costs only $16,695, but still offers luxury-associated amenities such as keyless entry, alloy wheels and full power accessories. But it leaves out the heft, which helps keep its gas costs low, getting a combined 22 mpg.
Most SUV owners don't really need the extra towing capacity of a larger, heavier SUV for making weekend trips to Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ), says Jason Fogelson, a Los Angeles-based auto writer who maintains the About.com guide to SUVs. Consumers should buy the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle they can get away with, he says--the Kia fits the bill for those who truly need an SUV. And despite recent generous deals on full-sized SUVs, buyers should remember that they'll usually save more money on their initial purchase and on gas later on if they choose the smaller SUV or engine.
"Plan for expensive gas, and plan for fuel economy," Fogelson says. "And take a second look at that V8 and make sure you really need it before you buy it. You're going to pay for it in the very near future in my opinion."
Scaled-Down Luxury, Bigger Savings
Of course, smaller vehicles tend to cost less to own over the years than crossovers and SUVs. The Nissan Versa, which topped the compact entry-level segment, costs roughly $26,000 to own over five years, while the Chrysler 300, the large premium sedan winner, costs almost twice that much. But opting for the smaller car doesn't mean settling for chintzy workmanship and a bare interior.
The compact-car market consists in large part of buyers under the age of 35--most of who want wireless connectivity, good fuel economy and a decent sound system, all at an affordable price, Ford's Jarvis says. In short, they appreciate--demand, in fact--luxuries in their small, fuel-sippers.
"People want small, they want fuel economy, but they want the creature comforts they see in other cars," Jarvis says. "They want the leather seats. They want heated seats. They want [the voice-activated communication system] Sync."
Nissan's $9,990 Versa option packages include amenities like fog lights, a power moon roof, Bluetooth capability, leather-clad detailing and premium speakers--all luxury components previously unheard of in compact, entry-level cars.
The Bottom Line
So what really matters when searching for an affordable vehicle? Keep in mind smaller, cheaper cars tend to include less equipment, which reduces weight and improves fuel efficiency. They also tend to have lower maintenance fees.
But if a small car doesn't suit your lifestyle, do your homework on long-term costs, since certain segments, like luxury sedans, are crowded and all the cars are not made alike.
Models like the Volkswagen Tiguan SUV and Ford Fusion mid-size, for example, are both in crowded segments, but each is the most affordable in their class because they have lower fuel costs and lower long-term maintenance costs than their competitors.
Consumers should also shop around for insurance, getting multiple quotes on several different vehicles. Most insurance providers use their own formulas to determine how to price their coverage, so the cost is a variable that can fluctuate even within a given region.
Jarvis took all that into account before he bought his 2009 Ford Focus, which cost him $14,995.
"If I'm on the highway cruising along at 60 miles an hour, I'm getting 42 miles a gallon," he says. "It's amazing. And that was with my wife in the car and with a whole bunch of groceries!"
Consumers who do their homework, as Jarvis and Wurster did, will feel much less of a pinch should gas prices spike again in the summer ahead.
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