Cheapest possible automobile
December 27, 2012 10:25 AM   Subscribe

The cheapest car, period. Don't care about safety, looks, frills, country of origin, or anything else except as to how it relates to cost.

So I'm thinking of buying a new (to me, at least) car, and I want to make sure it's the most affordable-over-its-lifetime that I can find. Everything I can find online seems to be full of caveats ("Cheapest in class") or doesn't visibly balance purchase vs. operational cost very well, or recommends a lot of things without giving good numbers to differentiate among them, so I'm turning to the hivemind to ask: Counting purchase price, cost of maintenance, and cost of fuel, what is the very cheapest car that I can drive for, say, the next 5-10 years?

I have a 30-mile one-way highway commute around Detroit, but occasionally, Google Maps tells me that a route that's about 1/3 surface street is faster. I presume this will be the case for the foreseeable future.

I know that used cars are way cheaper, and there will doubtless be argument about it, but for sheer ease of finding and pricing, I'd rather not go back more than a couple of years.

I can drive stick. I had a bunch of other pre-answers listed here, but it's easier to assume that my answer to any follow-up question will be "I don't care if it doesn't make the car cheaper."
posted by Etrigan to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say if you're going cheapest - see if you can get a 1 year old Hyundai Accent that still has its warranties intact.
posted by skittlekicks at 10:33 AM on December 27, 2012

The two cheapest cars, depending on the lot deals you can make with the dealership:

- Nissan Versa sedan
- Hyundai Accent hatchback

The Accent will be a better bet in terms of reliability, the Versa will be more practical. 2012 or 2011 holdover models, that is, cars dealers ordered but didn't sell last year, will be significantly cheaper than 2013 models, and will be brand new with a new car warranty, while offering more fancy options and creature comforts you'd normally pay through the teeth for.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:33 AM on December 27, 2012

The cheapest car, period, is more than a couple years old. I just paid $1800 for a '97 Mazda protege, because the cheapest used car is not a particular model but rather whatever car falls into an economical class and is priced below market because of the own we'd unique position (i.e., the car must sell before the owner moves).

If you want the cheapest car, just watch Craigslist for deals on economical cars and jump on them as soon as they're listed.

That Mazda was $1800, gets about the same gas mileage as a newer car in the same class, and won't actually require much more maintenance in the next 50k miles compared to a newer car.

But even if you don't want to go back more than five years, the cheapest car is still one where the owner is selling under duress, not a specific model.

Also, unpopular car models are cheaper. Everyone wants used Honda civics and toyota corollas, not so many people want saabs and Saturns.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:34 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Surface streets in the city of Detroit have a tendency to be incredibly rough. Which route are you looking at - it would make a huge difference in what vehicle you should get. Other than that, I'd go with a Honda Civic or Accord.
posted by checkitnice at 10:34 AM on December 27, 2012

A Toyota Corolla / Honda Civic or something similar with 20K to 30K miles on it is probably the best bet for cheapest overall cost of ownership. You aren't paying for the initial depreciation of a new car, and the defects that will fail early most likely have already happened, leaving you with a vehicle that should need nothing but routine maintenance until parts start to fail at around 100,000 miles.
posted by COD at 10:36 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Our car was purchased used from a rental car company (not by us -- we bought it from the second owner). Rental companies turn their cars over pretty fast, because nobody wants to rent a four-year-old car, and they maintain them meticulously. It's a good way to avoid paying the new-car premium without running too great a risk that the car was used hard.
posted by KathrynT at 10:38 AM on December 27, 2012

Consider the Ford Focus. Mine was cheap to buy when it was 1 year old, and 10 years later it has really been reliable, with minimum repair costs (parts are cheap, everyone knows how to work on them).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:39 AM on December 27, 2012

Best answer: Counting purchase price, cost of maintenance, and cost of fuel, what is the very cheapest car that I can drive for, say, the next 5-10 years?

This is what True Cost to Own is about-- cost including maintenance, gas costs, etc. It looks like the Toyota Yaris is the lowest, lately, but you can look up others.
posted by deanc at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

KathrynT: " It's a good way to avoid paying the new-car premium without running too great a risk that the car was used hard."

As a frequent renter who lives by the motto "It's a rental, go mental!"* I would never in a million years buy a used car from a rental company.

And if you check out they have a pretty good article on there about the actual cost of owning a car...and on preview it looks like deanc has the actual link!

* - Ok, not really, but still, I drive rentals WAY harder than any car I or a friend owns. And I know plenty of other people who do as well.
posted by Grither at 10:46 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The cheapest car, period, is more than a couple years old.

I realize that it's entirely possible that I'll be able to pick up an awesome deal from someone who didn't get a lemon and treated it really well and is motivated to sell, but I simply don't have the knowledge or inclination to do the work necessary to determine this. Pricing of long-used cars seems to be so variable (especially if buying from a third party) that I don't even want to try it, plus it opens up the field so wide that it's not worth the effort to me.

Surface streets in the city of Detroit have a tendency to be incredibly rough. Which route are you looking at - it would make a huge difference in what vehicle you should get.

Davison, sometimes Southfield (which I guess may not technically qualify as "surface street," but you get the idea). Not unreasonably bad.

This is what True Cost to Own is about...

Thank you. Edmunds hides that pretty efficiently, because I could not find it myself. I wish it were a little easier to just say "Give me the lowest TCO," but that'll help.
posted by Etrigan at 10:47 AM on December 27, 2012

Yeah, not only are rental cars used pretty hard, but they often purchase from lower build quality fleet sales. I would not go that route if I were you.
posted by Kimberly at 10:49 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are looking for the cheapest total cost of ownership, consider picking up a consumer reports used car guide or similar. Libraries also tend to have them, and you don't exactly need the latest one. Also familiarize yourself with local lemon laws.
posted by poe at 10:50 AM on December 27, 2012

Also chiming in for Hyundai. Hyundai had a bad rep in the 1990s, but they have improved the manufacturing and parts in their cars since the 2000s, and even offer 100,000 mile/10 year warranty. Hyundai cars tend to lose their blue book values really fast, which makes them very affordable when even slightly used.

The Hyundai warranty can go either way. I was able to use the warranty to replace a bad transmission in my 2008 Hyundai Elantra, but I've also heard horror stories from Hyundai owners who were denied warranty service because they didn't follow their recommended maintenance schedule to a T.
posted by nikkorizz at 10:50 AM on December 27, 2012

From the website The Truth About Cars:

Ask the Best and Brightest: What’s the Quietest, Most Comfortable and Economic Long Distance Cruiser?

Hammer Time: Value

Would The Most Efficient Midsized Car Please Stand Up?

Curbside Classic: The Most Reliable Car Ever Built? 1983 Toyota Starlet

Hammer Time: Road Warriors

Make sure you read the comments......

As a competent shadetree mechanic, my personal opinion would be a used Ford Crown Victoria, Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. The Crown Vic is easily repaired, the Camry and the Accord will run forever.

(Do not believe anybody who says the answer to all car related questions is: "buy a Miata.")
posted by lstanley at 10:50 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I worked one summer for Budget Rent A Car. I would never buy a used rental car. You might argue that I don't have a large enough sample size, or that one summer 25 years ago is not material.

I would respond that people don't change, and you didn't see what I saw in those three months.
posted by COD at 11:02 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

I came in to say the Toyota Yaris. I bought mine brand new about five years ago (less than $17,000 all in to drive it off the lot) because I did not want any more sudden expensive car repairs. The savings on gas per month was amazing.

Seriously the best purchase of my life. I have not had to do anything to the car beyond routine maintenance - costing less than $500 - the past five years (which was less than Toyota's suggestion because I ran into serious cash flow problems after my husband became disabled and the time between oil changes stretched uncomfortably wide). It was driven a lot, close to 200,000 km in the first four years through all four seasons in Canada. It has given me no trouble at all.
posted by saucysault at 11:29 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have Hyundai Accent. When I bought it, it and the Kia Rio were the cheapest cars on the market. I went with the Accent, um, because it was cuter. I've had it for almost 8 years (knock wood) and it's held up well, drives nicely enough. It's kind of loud, but it's an eensy car, you'll have that. I've been really happy with it. Plus, it had a good warranty for the first five years.
posted by Aquifer at 2:13 PM on December 27, 2012

I'd look at the low end of the cars that routinely get great reviews.

Any Scion (Toyota) tC is the cutest, xB is weird looking, iQ is small but adorable and xD is a grocery getter
Honda Fit
Toyota Yaris

All of these are under $20,000 and some are around $15,000. NOW is the time to buy new, you can probably get a never driven 2011 for a steal (that's how I got my Accord.)

Husbunny works as an actuary for an after-market car warantee company. He has ALL of the reliability, cost of repair information and basically it's either Honda or Toyota.

He VERY specifically says, NOT Hyundai, NOT Kia.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:24 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anything small, Japanese and 15 years old, or small, Korean and at most 8 years old, should get you close enough to lowest possible TCO. You can buy far more bringing-up-to-par than you're ever going to need for the difference between a $15000 used car and a $3500 used car.

I love my 1995 Daihatsu Mira. 5l/100km makes me smile every time I fill up.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 PM on December 27, 2012

After you take into account the purchase cost + mileage + insurance + future (and maybe "current") repair costs, your best bet would be to get something that everybody else has.

Civic, Corolla, Yaris, and FIT will likely be your best bets. Everything will be cheaper to repair or replace -and- as Ruthless Bunny mentioned, they're ridiculously reliable.

Personally, I try to stick to cars manufactured in the previous 5 years, and you should have no problem with these four.

If you absolutely must buy new, the MSRPs for the bargain basement models are:
Yaris - 14.3
FIT - 15.5
Corolla - 16.2
Civic - 18.1

Side note: Avoid the 2011-12 Civic.

Let us know what you decide!
posted by NYC-BB at 7:40 PM on December 27, 2012

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