/ Motoring

When cars cost too much to run

Car exhaust

Ever bought a car and all-too-quickly regretted it because it cost an arm and a leg to live with? Do you consider the running costs of cars before you buy?

Being a car fan, I have to admit that I’ve regretted some of my car purchases due to the cost of running them. Before my mortgage and kids were denting my earnings, one of my most extravagant purchases was a 1939 Studebaker Commander.

Not only did it weigh a couple of tons, it was fitted with a 2.7-litre petrol engine with the thirst of a squaddie on a weekend’s leave. And to top off the astronomical running costs, this American giant was also too big to fit in my garage, so I had to rent a barn for it to live in.

That may be a very extreme case, but there are still pretty massive differences in the cost of running different versions of the same modern car model.

Car running costs calculated

If you choose a pacey Audi RS6 Avant estate over a bog-standard A6 Avant you’ll pay 20p more for every single mile you drive. The RS6 costs £1.90 per mile for fuel costs servicing and car tax, while the A6 costs £1.70 according to CAP.

And most people cover more than 10,000 miles a year, so that’s a £2,000 difference.

Before buying my Commander I could really have done with a quick calculator to plug in some raw stats, which would then spit out a simple cost-per-mile figure. That way I could see how much each element of ownership was going to cost up front, as well as the overall figure.

Do you work out the cost of owning a car before you buy? If so what factors are most important to you – depreciation, car tax, servicing, fuel costs, insurance, or others? Or perhaps you don’t really consider costs upfront and have a car running cost regret to share…

David says:
13 June 2013

So annoying! Have owned a 6 year old Citroen Grand Picasso for just under 3 years – no problems for most of this time but lately had to pay £786 for a replacement electronic parking break ‘ECU.’ Most of my friends absolutely, completely, utterly, phenomenally detest electronic parking brakes – (get my drift?) Nothing wrong at all with the excellent, traditional, ‘touch and feely’ wire handbrake. There they are – the manufacturers/boffins – sitting in their ivory car pits, thinking of rather pathetic new car features to ‘wow’ us, the idiotic, unsuspecting drivers with. While I’m at it, I innocently thought a car was a car – a means of travelling safely and comfortably from A to B (and back again). The manufacturers now ‘wow’ us with everything but the car – entertainment and IT/info systems – and all quite unnecessary, other than to distract us on our journey. ‘Wow’ me? Certainly not! I’ll not buy a car with electronic braking again so, bye bye Citroen Grand Picasso, bye bye Volkswagen Passat, bye bye other prestigious makes that I might have considered. Whatever’s next on the motoring horizon, I wonder? An automatic nose-picker and debris disposer for the gents, perhaps? We’ll save a fortune on interior valeting Or, how about an automatic make up applier for the ladies – that’ll make the roads safer for us all, surely!

Back to the Grand Picasso – it’s really nice, very comfortable and, b*****, another light’s flashing – this time it’s £141 to replace a faulty clutch warning light switch. Anyone got a spare ‘grand’ to keep my ‘Grand’ on the road this month?

Geoff Johnson says:
13 June 2013

As I approached retirement, I decided to down-size my car and reduce my car related outgoings by purchasing a Smart 2 seater. On paper this offered 56 mpg and £20 annual Road Tax. With previous cars I have always achieved the quoted average mpg and in many cases exceeded it, so I was disappointed that even driving carefully the best I ever managed was 45 mpg. Add to this exhorbitant servicing costs at my local Mercedes dealer (£300 for a service which is little more than an oil change), and insurance premiums that did not reflect the modest performance and the Smart was not such a smart move. After 1 year I cut my losses and reverted to a more conventional medium family hatchback.

Smofalsh says:
13 June 2013

Can anyone help me? I’m looking for a brand new standard car.
This is my wish list:
NO electric windows. NO air conditioning. NO power steering. NO power brakes. NO “fly-by-wire” electronics. NO electronic locks. NO super audio sound system. NO provision for electronic add-ons.
I think that probably a brand-new original spec. Morris Minor 1000 would suit the bill…

Difficult. I suppose there is the Renault Twizy, which does not even have windows, but it probably comes with the other features.

We need to know whether you expect your ideal car to come with a full-size spare wheel, tyre sealant or a space-saver that looks as if it might suit a Morris Minor.

Smofalsh says:
13 June 2013

A proper full-size spare wheel is a must! Another “old fashioned” feature would also be desirable as well, that is a steering/suspension/transmission system that can be lubricated/replaced piecemeal; not the “sealed for life” types of today where “life” is short.

Smofalsh – I can certainly relate to the comments made in your first post. The main unexpected costs of running my last car were due to faults in the central locking system and electric windows, the latter being a well known weakness with the model.

Twenty years ago I would have joined you in condemnation of modern sealed-for-life assemblies but good design can make them reliable and for those who pay for servicing rather than do it themselves (a large majority) the modern practice can be more cost effective.

I expect that rising fuel costs will push manufacturers to ditch the ridiculously wide wheels fitted to many modern cars, which will make it more practical to store full-size spare wheels. Many have learned the hard way that tyre sealant does not always work and that they will need a new tyre even if it does – which certainly adds to running costs.

I would not like to go back to a car without air conditioning. Even in the UK it can become sometimes become unpleasantly hot inside a car.

smofalsh says:
13 June 2013

Wavechange – Having spent most of my professional life within the motor industry it is only the advent of more advanced lower-cost materials and better precision engineering that has led to “sealed-for-life” assemblies in order to keep the cost -and more importantly- the unsprung weight down. The old-fashioned greased type assemblies would outlast most modern greaseless types provided they were correctly maintained and that was despite the fact that materials then used were not of the same quality available today.
Regretfully the days of a spare wheel are over due to the weight/space/cost implications of modern vehicular design. Decades ago I had a Rover SD1 Vitesse with a full sized spare. It was too wide to fit completely in the spare wheel well, and the alternative position (upright to one side of the boot space) took up too much room!
The Land Rover Defender has the air conditioning I like – Opening vents!
I usually only utilise air conditioning (or so-called climate control) during the wet winter(?) months when inner condensation presents itself.

Mike Wise says:
13 June 2013

About 2 years ago decided to replace my Vauxhall Zafira 2 litre diesel,which, like my previous one, was giving me no end of trouble with the egr valve – I have decided never to buy another Vauxhall after having had 3 in a row all giving me expensive problems with the engine. I looked at lots of different cars and finally decided on an Hyundai IX 35 which offered me a 5 year warranty and fuel economy in the low 50’s.
My big disappointment is the fuel economy which only averages around 38 and that is with me driving extremely carefully with fuel economy in mind all the time – I generally set the cruise control on the motorway around 60 mph. I, like a previous contributor, understand that Hyundai have made recompense to owners in the U S, it is time that something is done for U K owners!

Bought my Toyota car (Urban Cruiser) in September 2009. In weighing up the costs at the time of purchase I took out a Service Contract, paying a D/D amount each month. This is the first time I’ve taken such a step.
Whilst it’s not been necessary to have any really comprehensive work done, with the back-up of the Warranty cover, it has certainly made the experience worthwhile.
It seems to have been cost effective (even the Garage admits that) as, over a period of time, prices/costs have risen.
It gives a ‘warm glow’ when collecting the car, after it has been serviced, to have no bill to pay. A complementary courtesy car is provided too.

As with your car service contract, you can buy extended warranties for your washing machine and TV, buy peace of mind by having your central heating on a service contract, and protect yourself from unexpected costs caused by problems with water and sewage systems between your house and external services. Some will benefit and some will not, but on average these services are not good value for money – as Which? frequently points out to us. I think it is better to regard the courtesy car as part of the service you pay for rather than complimentary.

I got a pretty good deal from VW on our Golf, with a free service package included up to 30,000 miles or 3 years.
The service intervals were only at 10K, but when it went in for its 30K service, for a payment of only £50 the dealer changed the service intervals to long term 18K from then on, which means It won’t require another service until after our current lease contract ends next at 45K.

Three years ago I bought an Astra estate with 1.7CDTi diesel engine which had “great economy with low emissions”. The Vauxhall brochure also claimed the following fuel consumption: urban 50.4 mpg; extra urban 72.4 mpg; combined 62.8mpg. However gently I drive the car, whether locally or long distance, I cannot get fuel consumption below 52 mpg. I queried this discrepancy with the Vauxhall dealer. The checked with Vauxhalls who said my consumption was average for this engine and that I should expect 43.5 mpg for urban driving and 55 mpg for motorway or higher speed driving. My previous Astra estate had a 1.6 petrol engine and averaged over 40 mpg. Need I say more?

Sue says:
13 June 2013

I bought my VW Passat 7 years ago and it’s now 13 years old. It has done just over 250,000 miles which is nothing these days for a well-maintained diesel engine. There are lots of reasons I like Passats, and one is fuel economy – I get about 50mpg round the doors, and about 63mpg on a long journey. In the time I’ve had it, apart from things like tyres, all I’ve replaced is the alternator and the steering arms at around 230,000 miles. I get hammered for tax because it’s a diesel and it’s ‘old’, but I can’t afford to replace it for another 5 years – though why replace such a reliable car anyway, until I have to?!

I’ve a 20 year old diesel Renault Espace which turns in the mid 40s mpg. It is a fairly simple car and most things easy to maintain. In just 150 000 miles it has had a steering rack and pump and radiator. I reckon servicing, including brakes, tyres, cambelts and batteries have cost 12.2p / mile. It’s versatile – from 7 seats down to a respectable load carrier. A family friend.

I’m not concerned about style. My vote would be to make items that need replacing properly accessible. One fault on the old Espace is when the heater fan resistor board fails, you’ve a lot of dismantling to do – so just stick with fast speed. And why on my newer version do you have to take the front of the car off to get to the alternator?
Replacing cambelts, waterpumps, screenwash pumps, headlight (and sidelight) bulbs, can make replaceable items very expensive in labour. I’d campaign to make anything that is likely to need replacing easily accessible.

It is worth trying different fuels to get more mpg. Shell V-Power has worked out cheaper than regular due to more mpg. Noticed this had changed to V-Power Nitro last fill up and was pleasantly surprised to get another 45 miles out of the tank.

I think we need proper trials. I get bigger differences that this when filling up with the same fuel at the same pump.

I’ve tried the diesel – around 5% more expensive, but I wouldn’t be confident I got 5% more mpg. Difficult to replicate the same drive. I do buy it when I visit Shell on the basis that it helps clean the engine – am I being duped?
I think Which did some tests a couple of years ago and found then the “better” grades were not more economical. I think Honest John rates them though. A test programme for Which members?


I’m sure you will remember when it was standard practice to decarbonise engines every 30,000 miles and change oil every few thousand miles. If buying a more expensive fuel did give significant benefits in fuel consumption or avoiding engine problems, I’m sure that this would be well known by every motorist. There may be a benefit in using a higher octane rating than necessary in a petrol engine but like you I have driven diesel vehicles for years and I am not up-to-date.

Increasing the content of biodiesel in road fuel could conceivably result in significant differences between brands and if the motorist is faced with expensive damage or even ‘diesel bug’, that could make petrol engines a more economical option.

The only time I have deliberately paid extra for fuel was when low sulphur diesel was an option. As an asthmatic who is strongly affected by sulphur dioxide I was desperate to hasten phasing out of the old fuel.

In my experience on diesel fuel, you would have to do an enormous amount of miles each year to recoup the difference in cost between the supermarket fuels and the so-called premium fuels offered by Shell and others.

Peter, on MPG (l/100km!) I’d agree. It depends whether you believe that additives and the claims made for them benefit your engine; there are informed opinions that some supermarket fuels lack additives that are beneficial.

Road fuels have to comply with British Standards and perhaps we would know by now if the manufacturers were cheating us or if substandard fuel was on sale. I don’t doubt the claims that the premium fuels have additives that may be beneficial, but if there was evidence that cheaper fuels were blocking injectors, causing (engine) fuel pump failures or creating other costly damage on a regular basis, we would know by now.

The motor manufacturers need to collaborate closely with fuel producers to ensure that standard fuels on sale are fit for their purpose. This will be particularly important when the biodiesel component of diesel road fuels in increased for good environmental reasons.

wavechange, I’m not suggesting supoermarket fuels don’t meet BS or are substandard, only that “premium” fuels may (do is claimed) have extra additives that are beneficial to engine longevity and performance. Honest John strongly advises using them. Premium fuels additive packages definitely makes them far superior to any fuel from a supermarket. “Most fuelling system problems reported to me are by readers who have been using supermarket fuels” (HJ). Search on his website under AskHJ.

I was certainly not criticising your comments, Malcolm. I was just adding some relevant information.

I would trust independent tests commissioned by an independent organisation such as Which? What motoring journalists, car magazines and fuel manufacturers have to say is interesting but not necessarily reliable information.

wavechange, not taken as criticism. In the (current) absence of fact about premium fuels I was pointing to someone who has experience and generally comes up with sound information, It is slightly off topic, except that for those who run cars to high mileage (I do) it may be a sound investment and reduce overall costs.

Information about high mileage cars is obviously most useful in establishing the benefits of premium fuels.

In addition to considerations of economy and reliability of engine components, the evolution of the diesel engine is another consideration. Some modern diesel engines are known to be more demanding about fuel they burn, and can be expensive to fix if problems arise. I won’t go into detail but it’s fairly easy to find information about this.

Completely unrelated, but a possible unforeseen cost of running a modern diesel car is cost of replacing a blocked diesel particulate filter (DPF). When I bought a diesel last year I was warned that it would not be suitable for lots of short journeys.

wavechange, you have been told correctly – you need to get the DPF up to a temperature that will burn off the residual diesel, I understand. So journeys of around 10 miles at least recommended. More of a case these days for petrol cars, particularly as they become more economical.

I was aware of the problem and would have switched to petrol if I was still commuting 1.7 miles to work each day, but it was a bit of a surprise when the salesman gave me a leaflet explaining the need to do periodic longer journeys at higher speed so that the cleaning process DPF is effective. I do at least one 50 mile round trip a week and so far the warning light showing an urgent need for a high speed run has stayed off. There is no soot on the tail pipe and I don’t even know when a cleaning cycle is occurring.

I’m sure that a petrol car makes sense for someone who drives less than 10,000 miles a year, but it’s just a daft personal preference and if I keep the car for ten years or more it will probably not cost me much more.

Guy says:
15 June 2013

Mercedes offer a service plan to spread the cost of servicing evenly across the months of ownership – this was a good deal until they decided to increase the cost of servicing for second hand cars by 23%

Bill Foulkes says:
16 June 2013

I had a Rover 400 auto with a Honda engine and gearbox. I bought it when it was 3 years old and kept it until it was 13 years old. In all that time it very rarely needed repairs except for normal day to day things like tyres etc. It never let me down and on motorways and trunk road running I could get nearly 40 mpg, with local mileage working out at 34 mpg. I only got rid of it because It blew a head gasket and shortly after that started overheating again. (Cracked head or block?) It was also getting difficult to get Rover parts. After looking at Which? reports i bought a 3 year old Mazda 3. Unfortunately i did not check the mpg figure. The best that I can get from it is 30 mpg even on motorway driving which I consider pretty bad. I have been told that this is the sort of figure I can reasonably expect. Do I regret buying Mazda? You can bet your boots I do!

What is the latest advice on the break – even point as between diesel and petrol engine running costs? It used to be argued that if you averaged around 12,000 miles a year, you were better off running a petrol engined car, whilst any higher and a diesel represented better value.
Is that still the case ?

Dr C Fleming says:
17 June 2013

There are NO good environmental reasons for biodiesel. Vast areas of food-producing agricultural land are being lost due this fad..the change of use is being driven by financial considerations only. TYhe result is starvation for whole populations!!!

That might be the basis of another discussion. Trying to remain on topic, the introduction of biodiesel into road fuel is a relevant but not obvious consideration in the choice of a vehicle.

richjbuk says:
17 June 2013

Bought a VW Polo auto and was terribly disappointed in the mpg compared with the manufacturers figures. Can’t recall the numbers but a big difference.

JohnW says:
17 June 2013

After years of owning VAG cars, I decided to buy a Mazda. The fuel costs were huge but the main problem was that just about any part I needed, had to come from a main dealer. I’d been used to nipping down to Swedish & German for spares and it came as a bit of a shock.

Richard Davis says:
18 June 2013

Deciding that I had finally had enough of ever-rising prices for fuel, I traded in my diesel car for an all-electric Nissan Leaf. Although expensive to buy, the operating costs have dropped massively for everything except insurance. Every time I drive past a petrol station I have a laugh at the prices and say “No thanks” – well, perhaps not exactly those words, but you get the idea! I can’t see me ever going back to a ICE car (Internal Combustion Engine) in the future.

Does that include budgeting for a replacement battery (or battery leasing costs)? I have heard a lot of talk about electric vehicles but don’t know one person who has taken the plunge.

Best Goifer says:
18 June 2013

Did you pay around £10,000 etc for an electric car as comparable to an equivalent Petrol and Diesel Car? On top of this there will be the cost of replacing the battery in a few years time. I am not sure how long the batteries last and how much they cost to replace. Probably around £5,000. Apart from the cost of car another major point is the range of electric cars. As i understand it its only about 50 miles unless you do not use any electrics in the car, for example AC in summer and heater in Winter etc. I think currently electric cars are OK for people with a lot of spare money and who do not mind the hassle of charging the car every day or so. Imagine if they forget to charge their car and realise they have to go urgently somewhere. I won’t be laughing too much on people driving Petrol and Diesel cars yet. Give it another 15 years and then may be.

Give it another 15 years and then i will start thinking of using an electric car.

I wonder how many miles it will take to recoup the massive extra costs of an all-electric vehicle – even allowing for the Govt. cash back subsidy, and how long the batteries will last ?
If you take into account the development and manufacturing costs of all-electric cars, plus the generating costs of power, I don’t see how they can ever be truly economical to run.
Add to that the dreaded range anxiety of only around 80 miles at best and a charge time of many hours, I’m afraid I don’t see the point.
GM / Vauxhall may have it partly solved with the Ampera / Volt models (same mechanicals different bodies) whereby the petrol engine charges the batteries whilst you are on the go, so no range anxiety, and you always drive ‘electrically’ but, again, given the cost, you would have to do an awful lots of miles per annum to justify.
The long term solution is going to be in more and more efficient ICE vehicles, with possibly a smattering of diesel hybrids around as well, once they can get the particulate pollution problem in cities sorted out.

I was wondering if we might be going off at a tangent discussing electric cars but the URL for this page mentions diesel-electric hybrid even if the introduction does not. 🙂

As far as all-electric cars go, I think the problem is trying to produce a car with a high speed and long range capability. A small electric car with a top speed of 40 mph might be just the job as a second car for those living in built-up areas.

Feel free to talk about that, thanks.

George says:
19 June 2013

I drive a Skoda Octavia (diesel) and having previously had VW Passats (both petrol and diesel), I am seriously impressed with the Skoda’s performance, both mechanically and fuel efficiency wise. The build quality is also pretty good in comparison to others and, to date, I have had no need for repairs to the car, having owned it for the last 4 years.
Having worked in the oil industry for virtually all of my working life, I am really annoyed at the fact that diesel is more expensive than petrol, yet it is much cheaper to produce. So the price we pay is purely down to profiteering on the part of the oil companies/retailers.

George, the argument I’ve heard is that it is supply and demand. There is a limited amount of the refined products that can produce diesel and allied oil for heating – the demand for the latter affects the price of diesel. So presumably depends on how cold the winter is. Is this a smokescreen?

Malcolm – I remember reading exactly the same, but it was quite a few years ago. At one time there was a different grade of diesel supplied (for road use at least) in the colder months, but that seems to be history. Assuming that petrol and diesel are produced by the same companies, they can choose how to price their products irrespective of cost to produce as long as their competitors decide to use a similar strategy.

Steve P says:
20 June 2013

I slightly regret buying a six year old VW Passat V6 Syncro about ten years ago. It had been my company car from new, and I was very pleased with it, but tax changes made it more sensible to own privately. However, it cost a lot to run and servicing was very expensive, so I reluctantly sold it. I then had a Skoda Octavia for several years, which was much more economical. I now have a VW Tiguan (2.0 Diesel 140 PS, 4-Motion with DSG) and it’s a great car, but even driving quite moderately I only get 40.1 mpg compared with 44.3 on the trip computer and 44.1 on VW’s data. My figure is based on two years of brimming the tank and logging every litre, so I do have a very accurate (if rather anal) figure, some 10% worse than the official one (which doesn’t surprise me).

I have a pre-owned Jaguar S-Type purchased from a dealer in Devon in April 2008 as we lived in Exeter at the time. I had one subsequent service done there that left me totally amazed and financially bruised, and after that experience decided not to return. We subsequently moved to Surrey and for a number of years all work on the car was done by a local Skoda garage who were outstanding, and when there was additional work required, did it swiftly, professionally and at a realistic cost.

As we had moved back to the South West, I decided to take a flyer and return to the original dealer for the annual service and MOT inspection. Big mistake! The £129 service and MOT inspection turned into a £3000 bill.

The comment from the service manager, when I expressed incredulity at this outrageous cost, was “that it was all down to wear and tear.” While I’m not naïve and can understand that parts do wear out, the totally unrealistic and almost criminal cost of labour to replace them beggars belief. In particular; £460 to replace the suspension arms, £575 to replace a £45 pipe brake, £350 to replace front and rear brakes and £115 to re-gas the A/C, which I subsequently had an offer by email to do for “free”.

These dealers think that all Jaguar owners have more money than brains and they can rip them off at will. Clearly I’ve proved them right – this time. There won’t be a next. While we generally don’t think much of what the EU does, it’s clearly time for a commission to be set-up to look at repair costs and put some of these overcharging clowns out of business! I’ll also be pursuing this with the OFT.

I use an independent mechanic – ex Renault – for our Espace. His approach is to take the car for MoT, and repair anything that is modest in cost. Otherwise he phones me with a price. He apologised last time when he had to replace the rear brake discs and pads – the discs also combine wheel bearings – because it was going to cost £324 including the MoT, collection and delivery. I’m not unhappy with that attitude!
Best thing with an MoT is put it in for test only, then if it fails look at quotes for putting things right.