Whether you’re paying $15,000 or $50,000 for a car, every buyer is looking for a good deal. But it’s hard to tell what you’re really getting for your money. Will the car hold up well or send you to the repair shop time and again? How much will it cost you to own? And down the road, will it continue to deliver the performance you expect?
That’s where our annual analysis of the best new-car values comes in. It can steer you to the keepers and help you avoid the disappointments.
Take the Toyota Prius, for example, which topped our value list for the second straight year. On paper, you might think the Honda Civic Hybrid would be a better buy, because its sticker price is about $4,000 less and it gets similar fuel economy: 40 mpg overall vs. the Prius’ 44.
But the Civic costs more to own in the long run, and it can’t match the Prius’ combination of fuel efficiency, versatility, roominess, and outstanding reliability. We think the Prius is worth the higher purchase price.
Just because a car is cheap to buy doesn’t mean it’s a good value. The Nissan Versa Sedan, for example, is one of the least expensive cars we’ve tested. But we found it to be noisy and uncomfortable, and no one on our staff liked driving it. For about $1,500 more, we’d go with a Honda Fit, which is fun to drive, cheaper to own, more reliable, and provides almost twice the value.
The same applies to SUVs. When shopping for a small SUV, you might think it would make sense to buy a Hyundai Tucson for its relatively low price of less than $25,000. But in our tests we found the Tucson to be noisy and hard-riding, with limited rear visibility and roominess. It also got an unimpressive 22 mpg overall. For about $2,000 more, the Subaru Forester, which is our top-rated small SUV, is more comfortable, provides great visibility and handling, gets an impressive 26 mpg, and has excellent reliability.
The bottom line is that real value comes from what you get for your money. To *determine which models deliver the most, we analyzed more than 200 vehicles that we recently tested and are currently on sale, focusing on their road-test scores, predicted reliability, and five-year owner-cost estimates. (See “What Makes a Great Value?” below) In short, the better a car performs in our tests and reliability ratings, and the less it costs to own, the better its value.
Bigger isn't better
Overall, we found that small cars have a big advantage. Their low prices and very good fuel economy keep a lid on depreciation and gas costs, the two biggest ownership expenses. Other value-rich categories include midsized cars and small SUVs.
Some of the worst values in our study are large luxury vehicles that have enormous fuel appetites and high depreciation. In those groups, even the models with the highest value scores could still rate slightly below average overall.
Most categories offer a range of values. Among luxury cars, the Lexus ES 300h hybrid gives you a lot more for your dollar than the average car, even at its hefty sticker price of almost $45,000.
Sports-car fans looking for something fun to drive can also take heart: The BMW 135i, Ford Mustang, Honda Civic Si, Mazda Miata, and Subaru Impreza WRX, among others, all deliver above-average value.
At the lower end of our value ratings are a number of high-priced models, *including the Nissan Armada, Cadillac Escalade, and Lincoln MKX SUVs, as well as the BMW 750Li, Cadillac XTS, and Lincoln MKS luxury sedans.
In several categories, hybrid models offered the most value, with their great gas mileage and low depreciation. Most of these models, such as the Prius, are made by Toyota. Other top scorers included the Toyota Avalon Hybrid and the Lexus ES 300h and RX 450h. The Camry Hybrid and the Prius V wagon also scored at the top of their categories, but we don’t recommend them because of poor performance in a new insurance-industry crash test. Another top value, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, is not included because it has been redesigned for 2014.
Our value ratings below provide an easy shortcut to models that deliver the best combination of performance and reliability for the lowest owner costs: in short, cars that give you the most for your money.
The highs and lows of our value score
HIGH: Toyota Prius
Price: $26,230, Cost per mile: 47 cents
The Prius does a lot of things right. It’s roomy, it rides well, and it handles securely. And it does it all for not much money. The Prius’ 44 mpg overall is the best fuel economy of any non-plug-in car we’ve tested. And though it’s not particularly cheap to buy, the Prius’ depreciation is so low that it costs less to own over the first five years than its initial MSRP. We call that a bargain.
LOW: Nissan Armada
Price: $55,400, Cost per mile: $1.20
Despite its high price, the Armada doesn’t really give you a lot for the money. This large SUV gets only 13 mpg overall, and it has a stiff ride, a cheaply outfitted interior, and difficult access. The Cadillac Escalade, priced at almost $10,000 more, didn’t fare much better in our value scores, but at least it’s fairly reliable. Our subscribers who own Armadas have reported an unusually high number of problems with them.
What makes a great value
To determine which vehicles give you the most for your money, we look at three important things when calculating our value ratings for each model:
Road-test score. The road-test score reflects how good a vehicle is overall. Each car’s score is the result of more than 50 tests and evaluations performed at our test track and on public roads. We measure performance, comfort, convenience, fuel economy, fit and finish, cargo space, and more. Ratings are based on a 100-point scale and range from a high of 99 for the Tesla Model S electric luxury car to a low of 20 for the crude, off-road-ready Jeep Wrangler. If a car doesn’t perform well enough, we can’t recommend it.
Predicted-reliability score. We forecast how well new models are likely to hold up based on their recent history. The information comes from our latest Annual Auto Survey, in which subscribers told us about problems they’ve experienced with 1.2 million vehicles in the last 12 months. If a model has a below-average reliability score, we won’t recommend it no matter how well it performed in our road tests. For example, the V6 Honda Accord earned an impressive 90 points in our testing, but owners reported more problems with it than for the average model, so we can’t recommend it. New or redesigned models for which we don’t have survey data, such as the Chevrolet Impala, are not included in our value study.
Five-year owner costs. Estimates of owner costs include all major expenses incurred during a typical five-year ownership cycle, including depreciation, fuel, insurance premiums, interest on financing, sales tax, and maintenance and repairs. In the charts below, they are shown as cost per mile.
Depreciation is by far the largest factor, accounting for almost half of all owner costs over the first five years; our analysis assumes the cars will be traded in after five years. Fuel is the second largest expense. We use the national average of 12,000 miles per year to calculate costs. Maintenance and repair costs come from our Annual Auto Survey.
We excluded electric cars (such as the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S) from our analysis, because of the lack of data on their depreciation and on maintenance and repair costs. hum, hasn't the Volt been out since 2011??
Best & worst for the money
Here you can see the models with the highest and lowest value scores in several major categories. Models are ranked by value score, above or below the average car, which is represented by a score of 1.0. Scores are calculated based on a model’s five-year ownership costs, shown here as cost per mile, road-test score, and predicted reliability rating. A vehicle with a score of 2.0 is twice as good a value as the average car, and one that scores a 0.5 is half as good. The best values in each category are all recommended models. The models with the lowest value scores are listed below the gray lines.