Looking Beyond Purchase Price

When budgeting is a major factor in choosing a people hauler, you need to look beyond the purchase price in determining the cheapest-to-own family sedans, says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at the auto research website Edmunds.com.

"A lot of consumers look at price alone when several components determine ownership cost," she says.

Online consumer sites like Edmunds.com and Cars.com often provide a research tool to help shoppers fine-tune their new-car choices based on a more comprehensive cost of ownership than just price. Cars.com calls its tool Total Cost of Ownership, while Edmunds.com labels its tool True Cost to Own.

Because certain costs, like gasoline, are always in flux, and driving habits vary wildly, the cost of ownership as estimated by these tools isn't absolute. "It should be used as a comparison tool," Caldwell says.

Cars and Edmunds calculate their cost-to-own estimates based on a five-year-ownership period and driving 15,000 miles per year. Both sites measure seven components in determining ownership cost: depreciation, taxes and fees, financing, fuel, insurance, maintenance and repairs. Edmunds includes any available federal tax credits; Cars.com includes opportunity costs.

Here are five cheap-to-own family sedans based on Edmunds.com's Total Cost of Ownership feature. Figures will vary depending on the ZIP code used.

Honda Accord LX-P

Price: $23,730

Five-year true cost of ownership: $30,689

As a sensible family sedan, the Honda Accord LX-P is tough to beat. Its relatively low cost to own reflects its durability and better-than-average fuel economy, estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 23 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. A peppy 177-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine turns the front wheels. Its price as listed includes the five-speed, automatic transmission. A roomy back seat is ideal for adults or children. Consumer Reports also recommends it.

Among its standard features are air conditioning, full power accessories, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, remote keyless entry, cruise control and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.

Nissan Altima 2.5

Price: $20,670

Five-year true cost of ownership: $31,540

The Altima 2.5 is a popular workhorse family sedan that not only is relatively inexpensive to own, but also has the lowest suggested retail price on this list. Output from its 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine is passed to the front wheels by a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT. The EPA estimates its fuel economy at 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. The cabin is roomy and the trunk has more than 15 cubic feet of cargo room.

Contributing to the low sale price is the lack of an audio system. It has four prewired speakers, but an audio system is not even an option. Otherwise, the Altima 2.5 is well-equipped with full power accessories, cruise control, air conditioning, trip computer and tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel.

Toyota Camry

Price: $21,630

Five-year true cost of ownership: $31,587

Offering the most rear-seat legroom of any family sedan on this list, the Camry combines better-than-average passenger space with an eerily quiet ride. Comfort is excellent and, despite a couple of dings to its reputation for reliability last year, the Camry remains a recommended pick by Consumer Reports. Its power comes from a 169-horsepower, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. Its gas mileage is 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.

Among its standard features are full power accessories, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, air conditioning, cruise control, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.

Chevrolet Malibu 1LT

Price: $23,585

Five-year true cost of ownership: $31,886

Armed with its base 169-horsepower, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and the six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission, the Malibu 1LT delivers EPA-estimated fuel economy of 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. Of the family sedans on this list, only the Toyota Camry has more rear-seat legroom than the Malibu. The Malibu's cargo capacity is in the middle of the pack. The ride is comfortable and the cabin quiet.

Standard features include full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, trip computer, OnStar telecommunications (free for a year, then it becomes a subscription service), and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and an auxiliary input jack.

Hyundai Sonata GLS

Price: $21,145

Five-year true cost of ownership: $33,113

Hyundai totally redesigned Sonata for 2011. In doing so, Hyundai elevated its brand stature as well as raised the bar for midsize sedans. Representing Sonata's lowest cost to own, the GLS has a potent 198-horsepower, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. The listed price includes the six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Estimating fuel economy, the EPA puts the numbers at 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway.

Among its standard equipment: full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, remote keyless entry, tilt-adjustable steering wheel, trip computer, Bluetooth technology, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.