Prior to moving to the West Coast, I had little need for a car because I walked and / or took public transport to work (or a cab if I was lazy, back in the days when you could hail a cab on the street). Thus I typically invested the minimum amount I could in a reliable car that could fit 4 passengers with a full size trunk and also squeeze into a narrow parking garage.
The cars that “fit the bill” for me were the older model Nissan Altima which I drove for a decade and then a Jetta which I picked up in 2011. Each of these cars cost about $17,000 “out the door” and contained a reasonable level of equipment (the Altima was my first car with air bags, the Jetta was my first car with ABS and traction control) – they weren’t completely stripped down models with manual transmission, for instance. These cars have both turned out to be highly reliable autos – and the old Nissan Altima is still driving today, almost 20 years later, as a starter car in my extended family.
The average age of a car on the road today is 11.5 years (nowadays you don’t even have to “link” to sources – Google just brings in the data from Wikipedia as a search response when you ask a common question) and that seems long to me. For every new car on the road, for instance, there is a late ’90s model still driving to offset it in order to get back to an average of 11.5 years.
My theory today is that the total package of “functionality” or “value” that you could obtain from a new Jetta for $17,000 would be comparable to autos that cost far more for 99% of the scenarios in which you would plausibly use that auto. These scenarios include 1) commuting to work 2) running errands around town 3) going on a trip and putting luggage in the trunk.
That’s not to say that there aren’t scenarios where it doesn’t make sense to have a more powerful or capable auto. In Oregon we went to visit a friend who lives up in the hills and I had 4 people in the car and gravel had been newly laid on an uphill slope (which, as it turns out, means that it is very slippery). As a result our car couldn’t make it up the hill and we slid sideways into a ditch and had to have a friend hook up a rope and give us a pull from their big pickup truck to get us back on the road. If I lived up there, for instance, then this car would be completely inappropriate. But that isn’t a common “use case” for my auto.
When you look at the “true cost” of owning an auto, there are a lot of factors to consider, and whole web sites to calculate it in various ways. Instead, I am going to make the general statement that if you buy a new car at around the $17,000 price point and drive it for perhaps 7-8 years before selling it you are probably going to pay about $150 / month for that car (net of what you receive on resale).