How can I find the car with the best overall long-term value?
March 7, 2010 10:46 AM   Subscribe

How can I determine which cars represent the best long-term values? I'm open to buying either a new car or a used car but in either case I will likely keep it for at least eight years and 100,000 miles. I want to find a car I like which costs the least over this period of time, taking into consideration factors like purchase price, depreciation, fuel economy, reliability and the costs to insure, maintain and repair.

I've used Consumer Reports to find reliable models, but it doesn't offer much data about costs to repair the car when it does break down. The "True Cost to Own" feature is much closer to what I seek, but only gives data for five years out and requires you to query a specific year/model.

Style, performance, comfort and safety are also important, so while a Kia Rio might truly be the best value, it would not make the cut for me. I'd ideally like to a find a Web site or other resource that shows a sorted list of total ownership costs over N years. Naturally this would need to be statistically significant — not based on anecdotal data.

Is anyone aware of a service like this? I'm willing to pay a reasonable fee to access it, if that's required.
posted by tomwheeler to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Models change too often for anyone to have solid data that far out for cars that are actually available to you. By the time they've got 8 years of data on a given model, new cars of the same name are significantly different (if they're made at all) and the used ones have too many miles on them for you to be interested.

You can be sure that a used car will be a better value than new, since new cars depreciate significantly the moment they're sold.
posted by jon1270 at 11:02 AM on March 7, 2010

By the time people have found out that a car is AWESOME and lasts twenty years, it's twenty years old. This sort of thing is pretty damn hard to predict, at least with newer cars.

That said, if you can find a model which is well-known to make it to 200,000 miles (Saab, Volvo, Subaru) and only has 100,000 on it, I would get that. You get the best return on investment if you buy a car halfway through its life and drive it into the ground.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:26 AM on March 7, 2010

Best answer: I went through the same decision process as you a few years ago. I don't think there's a service exactly like the one you're looking for for the reasons jon1270 points out, but Edmunds' cost to own feature is pretty close. If can run a few tests with different models using their calculator you'll find:

1) That the biggest costs of owning a car are depreciation and insurance. Financing is barely a blip by comparison. Find a car that has had great resale value (check and is cheap to insure (check one of those online insurance quoting services).

2) That most cars depreciate 15-20% of their value each year. When the initial cost is high (such as when buying new) that translates into big dollar numbers. Buying used is a much better value.

3) The maintenance costs really start to pick up after 100k miles (or about 7-10 years old).

Play with the numbers on Edmunds, but I figured the best bet was to buy a 5 year old car with low mileage for about 1/2 its original price and sell it when it reaches 9 years old for about 1/4 its original price.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:29 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You won't find exactly what you want.

FWIW: Saabs/Volvos are not cars I'd anticipate going 200K miles painlessly like they once did.

In my experience, with newer (post-2000) cars I'd trust almost everything by Honda/Acura, Toyota/Scion/Lexus, Subaru and BMW/Mini. Also ok are base model VWs (they get progressively less reliable as you start getting into the bigger/more complex engines, turbocharging, crazy complex transmissions, etc), a few Mazdas, as well as a few domestic models (Ford's newer models, mostly) and Hyundai/Kia (for their bang-for-the-buck).
posted by paanta at 12:14 PM on March 7, 2010

You can think hard about this, or you can buy a used Honda. With a Honda, you know it will last and you know you'll always be able to get parts. My last Honda had 260.000 miles on it, and I *sold* it to someone.
posted by acrasis at 2:00 PM on March 7, 2010

This is partially unanswerable. Yeah, old Hondas were reliable and had plenty of cheap parts available and were good deals. We can't know if the same thing is going to happen for later model ones.

The only guaranteed way to reduce the cost of ownership is to:

1- Be lucky and buy a car that was well made with parts that were well made. (Not this brand or that model, but that specific hunk of metal.)

2- Choose a model and brand that's common. The more copies of a car that are out there, the cheaper the parts will tend to be in the aftermarket.

3- Learn about maintenance and be vigilant about having it done on (a) schedule. Nothing wears parts out faster than other worn parts. If maintenance is done, then repair costs drop. If repair costs drop, you have the money to spend on doing what few repairs there are the right way. Hint: the only maintenance that needs to be done is in the owners manual. If some service person tells you anything else needs to be done as regular maintenance, make them show you why.

*IF* you can find a mechanic that is talented and trustworthy, this becomes a LOT easier.
posted by gjc at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2010

Best answer: This may not be exactly what you're looking for, but TrueDelta has car reliability comparisons based on owner surveys. For example, here is a comparison of the Toyota Prius's reliability compared to similar cars. You have to become a member to get the full results, but it's totally worth it (just have to fill out surveys on your own car to get full access).
posted by acridrabbit at 9:48 PM on March 7, 2010

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