Look beyond the sticker price
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A good deal of information must be sifted through to get down to the nitty-gritty on the 10 cheapest cars to own. If you want to know what owning a car really costs, you must look far beyond the purchase price.
In arriving at this list of 10 cheapest cars, Edmunds.com used its True Cost to Own calculator and included all of the costs of new-car ownership, such as depreciation, financing interest, insurance premiums, fuel cost, maintenance and repair costs. Taxes, fees and any federal tax credits also were included. Edmunds assumed the cars would be driven 15,000 miles per year for five years, and the list is for cars as of July 2012.
Because financing rates, insurance costs and even fuel costs vary according to the individual and geographical area, the True Cost to Own calculator is a tool for comparing costs of different cars you might be considering.
You can arrive at the estimated five-year cost of any car using this calculator. Although the list is based on national cost averages, your total cost of owning the car will be based on average costs in your geographical area.
Kia Rio LX five-door Price: $13,660 Gas mileage: 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $31,714 Cost per mile: 42 cents
Redesigned for 2012, the Kia Rio is more stylish than its bargain-basement price might indicate. The LX is at the bottom of the Rio pecking order where every model gets the same 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. As priced here, it uses a six-speed manual transmission to get power to the front wheels.
Despite being the entry-level version, the LX comes with air conditioning, trip computer, 60/40 split-folding back seat and a four-speaker audio system with satellite radio capability, CD player and iPod interface.
Toyota Prius C One Price: $18,950 Gas mileage: 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $31,346 Cost per mile: 42 cents
Almost a brand within a brand, Toyota added the Prius C One for 2012 to its three-model Prius lineup. It is the smallest in the group of cheapest cars to own. It's tiny, really. Because of its size, it gets a somewhat smaller version of the hybrid system found in the rest of the Prius family. Its 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and electric motors combine to generate 99 horsepower funneled through a continuously variable transmission.
Among the standard features: automatic climate control, split-folding rear seat, full power accessories, remote keyless entry, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, trip computer, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and iPod interface.
Honda Insight Price: $18,500 Gas mileage: 41 mpg city/44 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $31,079 Cost per mile: 41 cents
Despite helping launch the hybrid segment, the Insight nameplate just never caught on as Prius did. Nonetheless, it is the least expensive hybrid on the market and does deliver very solid gas mileage. Its combination of a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and electric motor delivers 98 horsepower to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission.
As the entry-level Honda Insight, the base version still comes with automatic climate control, full power accessories, remote keyless entry, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, trip computer, and a two-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.
Honda Civic DX Coupe Price: $16,555 Gas mileage: 28 mpg city/39 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $31,013 Cost per mile: 41 cents
Receiving some updating for 2012, the Civic remains one of the better compacts on the road. Its 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine turns the front wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission as it is priced here.
Historically, Civic has offered something for everyone with its many configurations and versions. This is still true. There's even a natural-gas model. The DX is on the bottom rung of the Civic ladder. It comes with power windows, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and little else in the way of creature comforts. It is the definition of "bare bones."
Ford Fiesta S Sedan Price: $13,200 Gas mileage: 29 mpg city/38 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $30,994 Cost per mile: 41 cents
With Fiesta, Ford finally got a compact car right. It's not the best looking car nor is it the quickest compact in the segment -- or quickest on this list of cheapest cars to own for that matter -- but it is a well-engineered, carefully made small car. As priced here, it comes with a five-speed manual transmission to usher production from the 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine to the front wheels.
Owners of the Ford Fiesta S Sedan get a few popular features such as air conditioning, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, power outboard mirrors, and a four-speaker audio system with iPod interface.
Mitsubishi i-MiEV ES Price: $29,125 Gas mileage: 26 city mpge*/99 mpge highway Five-year cost to maintain: $30,729 Cost per mile: 41 cents
The only all-electric car on our cheapest cars to own list uses a "miles per gallon equivalent" because it doesn't use gas. The iMiEV is helped along in the TCO department with an average annual fuel-cost rating that's about $4,000 less than the next lowest car on this list, which is the Honda Insight.
It is also eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Its 49-kilowatt electric motor spins out 66 horsepower. It takes up to seven hours to charge, using a 240-volt hookup like your clothes dryer uses. Its peak range is just more than 62 miles.
Among its standard features are full power accessories, air conditioning, a split-folding and reclining rear seat, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player.
*This car's mileage is written as "miles per gallon equivalent," or "mpge."
Mazda2 Sport Price: $14,530 Gas mileage: 29 mpg city/35 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $31,714 Cost per mile: 40 cents
Not the quickest small car on this list, the Mazda2 is fun to drive, thanks to its responsive steering and tight handling. Every Mazda2 comes with a 100-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. The price listed here includes the standard five-speed manual transmission. Although it's priced higher than a couple of cars further down the list, it performs well in the cost-to-own arena because it holds its value and its insurance costs are less.
The Sport model comes with full power accessories, air conditioning, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.
Nissan Versa 1.6 S Sedan Price: $10,990 Gas mileage: 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $29,735 Cost per mile: 40 cents
If you want the updated Versa, the Sedan is the way to go. Nissan redesigned it for 2012, while oddly leaving the hatchback alone. As its price tag indicates, the Versa 1.6 S Sedan is one of the cheapest cars, but it's also a very basic car. Its 109-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine sends its output to the front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission.
Standard features include air conditioning, a trip computer and a two-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.
Scion iQ Price: $15,265 Gas mileage: 36 mpg city/37 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $29,429 Cost per mile: 39 cents
Scion aimed the iQ directly at the 2016 average federal fuel mandate of 35.5 mpg for cars. It actually gets a tad better gas mileage than the mandate demands. It may be one of the cheapest cars, but it's very small. It's more than a foot and a half shorter than the little Fiat 500. Its 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 94 horsepower to the front wheels by way of a continuously variable transmission.
Despite its small size, front-seat occupants have plenty of room in a cabin that includes full power accessories, air conditioning, split-folding rear seat, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and iPod interface.
2012 Smart fortwo pure coupe Price: $12,490 Gas mileage: 34 mpg city/38 mpg highway Five-year cost to maintain: $27,632 Cost per mile: 37 cents
By Edmunds.com's reckoning, the Smart fortwo coupe is the cheapest car to own over a five-year period. It is also the only car that makes the Scion iQ look big. The iQ is more than a foot longer than the Smart fortwo. A car for the city, the Smart fortwo uses a 70-horsepower 1-liter three-cylinder rear-mounted engine for propulsion. A five-speed, driver-shiftable automatic sends engine production to the rear wheels.
Standard equipment doesn't include very much. Power door locks and remote keyless entry are about the extent of creature comforts. It also comes with two speakers, but bring your own stereo receiver -- that's extra.