Cost Of Owning A Car Goes Up

April 30, 2012

If it seems like owning the family car is costing more money these days, it is. A new study by AAA finds that the average yearly costs to own and operate a sedan rose 1.9 percent to nearly $9,000.  SUV and minivan costs increased as well, to more than $11,000 and $9,000, respectively.

The 2012 “Your Driving Costs” study provides consumers with a comprehensive look at what it really costs to own and operate a vehicle. And, it’s more than just the purchase price when you drive the car off the lot.

Good news, bad news

According to the survey findings, not surprisingly, relatively large increases in fuel costs are helping to drive up average annual ownership costs. But tire costs have also increased to a relatively large extent. Other areas had more modest increases.

There is some good news with the bad news, however. Michael Calkins, AAA’s manager of approved auto repair, tells FamilyCarGuide that “Reduced depreciation, due to a shortage of clean late-model used cars, means your 1-4 year old vehicle is likely to bring top dollar at trade in time for at least the next 12 months.

“The other good news is that AAA’s driving costs are based on a five-year/75,000-mile ownership period, said Calkins. “If you don’t mind driving an older, well cared for vehicle, the longer you keep your car the less expensive it becomes to own and operate. While the variable operating costs (fuel, maintenance and tires) remain relatively constant, the fixed ownership costs (insurance, taxes, licensing, depreciation and finance charges) all decline or go away entirely – as does your monthly car payment.”

2011 Chevrolet Cruze (Courtesy: GM)

2011 Chevrolet Cruze (Courtesy: GM)

Here’s a quick look at the study findings.

  • Fuel: up 14.8 percent – The cost of fuel had the largest percentage increase from 2011, to an average of 14.2 cents per mile for sedan owners. Regular-grade fuel, used by most vehicles in the study, increased 16.6 percent to $3.357 per gallon (compared to $2.880 per gallon in the 2011 study).
  • Tires: up 4.2 percent – Rising one cent per mile, on average, for sedan owners, tire cost increases are attributable to higher costs for natural rubber and oil used in tire production as well as transportation costs from factory to distributors. AAA notes a collateral factor is auto manufacturers equipping new cars with premium-grade tires, rather than mid-grade.
  • Depreciation: down 4.9 percent – If there’s a silver lining, this is it, with depreciation dropping nearly five percent across the board from the 2011 study. This may be because reduced new car sales in recent years shrunk the number of good used cars and driving up their value. If you’ve got a good used car, it should be worth more at trade-in.
  • Maintenance: up 0.7 percent – This translates to an average of 4.47 cents per mile for sedan owners. Why the increase? AAA says it’s because of higher oil prices and more manufacturers now requiring synthetic/synthetic-blend oils. And, although synthetic oils may mean extended service intervals, there’s more maintenance that may be required at servicing – more time equals more money, thus driving up maintenance costs.
  • Insurance: up 3.4 percent – Averaging $1,001 yearly for sedan owners, insurance costs are up $33 from the previous study. AAA’s insurance cost estimate is based on a low-risk driver with a clean record.

2011 Toyota Corolla

2011 Toyota Corolla

Tips to help offset ownership costs

Calkins offers the following tips to help cut the sting of ownership costs:

  • Buy a smaller car that meets the majority of your transportation needs, and rent something bigger when necessary.
  • In a multi-car household, use the smallest vehicle practical for any given trip.
  • If you drive your family around in an SUV, consider switching to a minivan when it’s time for a new car. With operating costs that fall between those of medium and large sedans, minivans provide far more cost effective family transport than do SUVs.
  • Modify your driving habits, combine trips, don’t use a higher grade of fuel than is recommended for your vehicle, and consider carpooling to increase fuel efficiency and maximize people miles per gallon.
  • Competitively shop your auto insurance when it comes up for renewal. If you have an auto loan with a high interest rate, consider refinancing.
  • Don’t over maintain your vehicle – follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule.

Vehicles in the study

The AAA’s 2012 “Your Driving Costs” study analyzed detailed driving costs for the five top-selling small, medium and large 2011 model year sedans, as selected by AAA. The list includes:

  • Small sedans – 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla
  • Medium sedans – 2011 Chevrolet Impala, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry
  • Large sedans – 2011 Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Avalon

SUVs, although not part of the study’s composite average, included: 2011 Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner. Minivans included: 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna.

An in-depth look at the study is available from AAA in this PDF brochure.

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