Frugal Shopper: For Happiness, Don't Sweat The Numbers

February 26, 2010

Consumer Reports, as part of this week's torrent of announcements from its Annual Auto Issue, named the 2010 Honda Fit and 2010 Toyota Prius the best new-car values of the year.

While it so happens we like both of those models very much (and appreciate the Prius' 51-mpg rating), they definitely wouldn't fit every shopper—not even every shopper who's strongly value-minded.

Of course, we each hold a different formula for value, and what matters in a vehicle.

Initial price certainly is just a small part of the story. The 2010 Chevrolet Aveo, with the 1LT package, one of CR's designated worst values this year, has a bottom-line sticker price of just $14,970. Likewise, CR chose one of the more expensive Prius models, the well-equipped 2010 Toyota Prius IV model, which includes leather seats (heated in front), an upgraded water-repellent windshield, a Plasmacluster ionizer, Bluetooth connectivity, the upgraded JBL premium audio system with satellite radio.

Other top-scoring vehicles on the CR value scale include the 2010 Hyundai Elantra Touring, the Subaru Forester 2.5x, and the Acura TSX (four-cylinder).

2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

It's also revealed, unabashedly, a list of "worst value" vehicles. Six of the eight "worst value" vehicles—including the Dodge Avenger R/T, Charger R/T, Grand Caravan SXT, and Nitro SLT; the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara; and the Chrysler Sebring Convertible Limited—are from Chrysler. The Mercedes-Benz S550 was called the worst value among luxury sedans.

The exemption would apply to companies that sell fewer than 400,000 vehicles per year in the U.S.

The exemption would apply to companies that sell fewer than 400,000 vehicles per year in the U.S.

The formula Consumer Reports used included road tests, reliability ratings, and estimated total ownership costs over five years—in other words, depreciation, the cost of insurance, maintenance and estimated repair cost, even fuel costs.

Back in 2008, CR broke down those ownership costs into average percentages, and depreciation was by far the largest portion, at 46 percent of those total costs over five years. At that time the less impressive resale values of Kia and Hyundai models offset their low prices, long warranty coverage, and relatively good reliability records, for example, even though the Honda Fit is more expensive than the Hyundai Accent.

For this year, calculating these figures out and averaging them for a cost-per-mile estimate over five years, CR saw costs ranging from 42 cents per mile for the Honda Fit to $1.70 for the Mercedes S550. So if you keep them both for that long, the Benz costs about four times as much to own.

Buying a vehicle solely on buff-book performance-number bragging rights is silly. So is buying one based only upon ownership-cost numbers.

If you're setting out looking for a new car, and you're on a rather tight budget, you're quite simply better off to make a well-informed decision. Consider how the vehicle drives, how you feel behind the wheel, how your family fits, whether it has the features you need, whether it's good enough on gas, whether it'll cost too much to keep up, and whether you think it'll but not sweat these numbers.

Angular Rear Exterior View - 2010 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2-door Coupe

Angular Rear Exterior View - 2010 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2-door Coupe

One model that we have trouble arguing with on CR's list—one that makes sense both from a fiscal standpoint and for being a blast to drive—is the base Mini Cooper. The Cooper remains the top pick in CR's sporty cars category, and it's one of The Car Connection's top-rated vehicles. It's maintained a good reliability record, strong resale value, and very low fuel costs (thanks to an EPA rating of 28 mpg city, 37 highway), and we can vouch for the day-to-day ownership experience.

2010 Porsche 911 Turbo

2010 Porsche 911 Turbo

Even though one vehicle might be a better value—meaning that the numbers work out better, or the composite of features makes better sense—another vehicle might have that "must-have" magic. So whatever you call it, there's another more emotional side to vehicular satisfaction other than value and numbers. Sure enough, automakers are seeking ways to gauge and number-crunch this emotional response, too; for instance the market-research firm Strategic Vision has added a metric called Delight to its annual surveys—a way of showing what's beyond mere satisfaction.

But even Consumer Reports hints that shoppers shouldn't take their value numbers too devoutly. They point out that the 2010 Porsche 911 Carrera—an excellent sports car, but pricey at $77,800—has low value scores because of its high ownership costs, even though it does have good performance test scores and an impressive record for reliability.

The bottom line is that you should definitely consider the facts and numbers in the value equation, but a little spare change won't buy you love. Even if you're the biggest cheapskate in the showroom, going strictly by the numbers probably won't lead to happiness in the long run.

If you happen to plan to keep your vehicle for about five years, and you can stay cool and detached like Consumer Reports, you might want to consider their list below. If not, we're happy to see you follow your heart.

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CR's Best and Worst Value Vehicles

   
 

BEST VALUE

WORST VALUE

 

Small Cars

Honda Fit

Chevrolet Aveo5 1LT

 

Family Cars

Toyota Prius IV

Dodge Avenger R/T (3.5, V6)

 

Wagons/Minivans

Hyundai Elantra Touring

Dodge Grand Caravan SXT (3.8)

 

Small SUVs

Subaru Forester 2.5x

Dodge Nitro SLT (3.7)

 

Midsized SUVs

Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Wrangler Unlimited Sahara

 

Upscale Sedans

Acura TSX (4-cyl.)

Dodge Charger R/T (V8)

 

Luxury Sedans

Infiniti M35 (RWD)

Mercedes-Benz S550

 

Sporty Cars

Mini Cooper

Chrysler Sebring Convertible Limited

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[Consumer Reports]

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