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Image: Nissan Versa
Nissan
The Nissan Versa's suggested selling price is $16,900. It's total estimated cost of ownership is $30,259.
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updated 3/8/2011 7:44:21 AM ET 2011-03-08T12:44:21

Things are looking up for the auto industry this year: Global new car sales are expected to rise 6 percent over 2010, which would beat the record 70 million units sold in 2007. J.D. Power and Associates has said U.S. auto sales will reach 13 million units this year, an increase of 12 percent over 2010.

But a lot could happen to derail the rosy forecasts. Unrest in the Middle East and Northern Africa has the oil market on edge, and higher prices or the fear of them directly affects how and when consumers spend money on a new car — and which type they choose.

The main thing drivers want these days is something they can trust for the long haul, says David Wurster, head of product development and analysis for the automotive analytics firm Vincentric. An unstable outlook for fuel costs affects more than you might think — in everything from compact cars to SUVs.

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"If fuel jumps up to $4 a gallon, now all of a sudden nobody will want trucks," Wurster says. "Then the residuals will start to fall and as a result the deprecation will go up and the cost of ownership will go up."

These days, compacts are some of the safest bets when it comes to getting the most value for the money. The Mazda2, Nissan Versa and Chevrolet Cruze take three of the first four spots on our list of the most value-packed cars on the market.

To compile our list, we used cost-of-ownership data from Vincentric, which is based in Bingham Farms, Mich. We first selected the 114 vehicles that received overall value ratings of "excellent." We then ranked them based on the manufacturer suggested retail price and how overall ownership costs over five years are affected by depreciation, taxes and fees, fuel costs, insurance, interest, maintenance, opportunity costs and repairs. We chose the top 10 vehicles from that "excellent" group with the lowest cost of ownership to be on our Most Value-Packed Cars list.

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The data assumes an annual rate of 15,000 miles driven per vehicle and fuel outlays of $2.899 for regular, $3.189 for premium and $3.186 for diesel fuel. Fuel prices are a weighted average of national fuel prices from the previous five months that is skewed 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 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.

One of the reasons the Toyota Prius made our list is because of its outstanding depreciation ratio. Alt-fuel vehicles in particular do well with on resale lots.

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"Diesels and hybrids have excellent resale values," says Jake Fisher, the senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. "If you want to go out and buy a 60,000-mile Prius, you'll pay top dollar for it."

Cars made by non-luxury manufacturers have something else going for them when it comes to a list like this: They simply cost a lot less than a new Porsche 911 or a BMW M3.

In fact, no vehicles on our list cost more than the $26,850 Prius — though the $26,645 Honda CR-V comes close. Four of the 10 models on our list are made by Honda, and two by Toyota, both companies known for inexpensive-but-reliable cars.

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"It's a general rule that the cost of ownership number is going to be a lot higher for an expensive vehicle," Wurster says. "Think about sales tax. Since you're not looking at ratios or percentages — it's just gross tax — the number is going to be higher on something expensive. "

Of course, a low initial price doesn't guarantee a good value. The $11,965 Chevrolet Aveo, $13,255 Toyota Yaris and $13,320 Ford Fiesta, for instance, all cost less than the $14,180 Mazda2 and the $20,825 Honda Element — both of which made our list. But their relatively high depreciation rates and proportionate repair costs shot their overall cost of ownership much too high to qualify as good values.

Still, a low MSRP helped several pickup trucks and crossovers make the list, like the $19,745 Hyundai Tucson and the $22,515 Toyota Tacoma. They both demand a bit more for fuel costs over five years than their smaller counterparts, but their reliability (low maintenance and repair costs), low MSRPs and — most importantly — current low depreciation rates qualify them as value-packed vehicles.

Now if only more of their big-rig brethren could follow suit.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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