Shopping for a luxury car this year? Get a truck.
That's what a Forbes analysis of all 2011 model-year vehicles on the U.S. market today found. When it comes to value, pickups and SUVs like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid or the Lexus 450h dominate sedans among vehicles with a base price higher than $40,000.
The one exception: The 2011 Chevrolet Volt, which topped our list. While it's by no means a traditional luxury car (especially considering the interior trimmings or performance level), its $40,280 price tag qualifies it for our purposes. And its fuel-saving hybrid technology and generous federal tax rebates make it the most affordable expensive car of the year.
"It's obviously a unique vehicle," says Dave Wurster, the president of Vincentric, an auto industry analysis firm. "The thing to keep in mind is a lot of people look at the Volt and quote numbers like '$40,000 MSRP minus the federal tax credit.' And that's not really true because you pay the $40,000; it's just that you get a tax credit later. The (Nissan) LEAF wouldn't make this list — it's a lot cheaper."
Thanks to those credits, the estimated five-year ownership costs on the Volt are just $500 more than its manufacturer suggested retail price.
To compile our list of the Most Affordable Luxury Vehicles of 2011, we consulted data provided by Vincentric, which is based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. We included any car, truck or SUV with a price of at least $40,000; the evaluation detailed five-year total costs of fuel, maintenance, repairs, average national insurance rates, depreciation, interest, opportunity costs and taxes.
Data assumes an annual rate of 15,000 miles driven per vehicle and a price of $2.899 for regular, $3.189 for premium and $3.186 for diesel fuel. Fuel prices are national prices from the previous five months and then skewed along an average weighted toward the more recent months. All costs are plotted as projections based on forecasts by Vincentric analysts, and gas prices include a 3.5 percent inflation rate.
Depreciation is the biggest factor in determining how much a certain vehicle will cost the owner. Most new cars lose anywhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of their sticker price the moment they leave the lot — luxury cars tend to depreciate more than others, thanks to price premiums based on brand image, interior trim and newfangled technology rendered obsolete by the model's next generation.
Car buyers should evaluate the value of the car after five years of ownership, not just its purchase price, but there is a strong correlation between MSRP and total ownership cost.
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"Ownership costs do fall in line along with their vehicle price as a group quite a bit," Wurster says. "A $100,000 vehicle is going to have a much higher cost of ownership than a $50,000 vehicle. That doesn't mean it's a bad value, but it's going to depreciate a lot more."
Consider the Chevrolet Suburban 1500 LS (No. 10 in our ranking), the GMC Acadia SLT (No. 5) and Honda's Odyssey (No. 2). They each have prices only slightly higher than $40,000, which is the main reason they made the list, Wurster says.
Exactly half of the vehicles on our list cost under $41,000; the others show that initial price isn't the only thing that affects long-term cost. Sales taxes and fuel costs — or the lack thereof — determine much about the overall costs of owning a car (see: Chevy Volt, which got an average $4,613 tax credit in the Vincentric data, while others on our list paid taxes as high as $2,996). The Cadillac CTS Wagon has a just-over-the-cutoff price of $40,165 but misses out on our list because of higher-than-usual depreciation and insurance costs; the Buick Enclave CXL (No. 7) made the cut for the opposite reason.
That's also where trucks like the Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid (No. 4) and GMC Sierra Hybrid (No. 6) come in. Trucks have done exceedingly well in the down market as other segments suffered — total U.S. light truck sales were up almost 18 percent for 2010 compared with a 5 percent increase for passenger cars; SUVs alone were up 19.2 percent — and that high demand for a good pickup directly affects resale value and depreciation rates.
"The demand of a popular vehicle is going to benefit it in terms of its deprecation numbers," Wurster says.
Of course these days, with the heated leather seats, DVD screens and chrome-heavy trims offered as creature-comfort essentials in most pickups, you may not even know you're in a truck at all.
© 2012 Forbes.com