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Sticker Shock: How Much More Than the Starting Price Will That Car Really Cost You?

starting-price-to-final-price New car starting price | Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

It’s hard to miss a new vehicle’s starting price when it’s plastered all over advertisements and on the automaker’s website. It should come as no surprise that it serves as a point of reference among shoppers to gauge a car’s affordability relative to the alternatives. But this highly visible (and often heavily promoted) price may not be an accurate representation of a vehicle’s true price. A starting price usually references a car’s base model, excluding available features, options and fees, making it a poor benchmark in some cases.

Related: Here Are the 10 Cheapest New Cars You Can Buy Right Now

An analysis of the most affordable cars, SUVs and pickup trucks reveals that the starting prices for some vehicle types better reflect the prices shoppers pay; others are far from it. Knowing how the advertised starting price for new vehicles compares to the median posted price among Cars.com dealers can make it easier for budget-conscious shoppers to narrow down and compare their options.

It’s worth noting that all Cars.com articles and reviews include the vehicle’s destination charge in the starting price. This fee, which has risen steeply in recent years, usually falls between $1,000-$2,000, and it’s typically excluded from the advertised starting price. Other additional fees excluded from the starting price are title and license fees, and dealer documentation fees.

ford-maverick-2022-10-angle-badge-black-exterior-shadow-black-truck 2022 Ford Maverick | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

Starting Price Vs. Median Price

So, which vehicles’ median prices are significantly higher than their starting prices? And what’s to blame for the discrepancies? To answer these questions, we compared the starting and median prices for the most affordable model-year 2022 vehicles on the market and highlighted where the bulk of the additional costs come from so you can better estimate what you’ll really pay.

First, we examined the list of cheapest cars, SUVs and pickup trucks on the market to see how each vehicle’s starting price compares to its median price. While the difference is moderate for sedans and hatchbacks, the median prices for some SUVs and pickups can prove markedly higher than their advertised starting price. (Note: Median prices reported below are drawn from Cars.com dealer inventory in January 2022.)

Cheapest Cars

kia-forte-2022-17932-exterior-front-angle-sedan-silver 2022 Kia Forte | Manufacturer image

Sedans and hatchbacks see the smallest gap between starting and median prices compared to SUVs and pickup trucks, which means their advertised starting prices are more likely to be representative of the price shoppers actually pay. The difference ranges from just 2% for the Mitsubishi Mirage to 12% for the Hyundai Elantra.

  • Chevrolet Spark: $14,990 starting price; $15,695 median price (5% higher)
  • Mitsubishi Mirage: $16,990; $17,275 (2% higher)
  • Kia Rio: $17,275; $17,785 (3% higher)
  • Hyundai Accent: $17,670; $17,985 (2% higher)
  • Nissan Versa: $17,775; $18,655 (5% higher)
  • Kia Forte: $20,115; $21,107 (5% higher)
  • Hyundai Venue: $20,125; $22,170 (10% higher)
  • Kia Soul: $20,505; $21,990 (7% higher)
  • Nissan Sentra: $20,535; $21,368 (4% higher)
  • Hyundai Elantra: $20,875; $23,471 (12% higher)

Cheapest SUVs

hyundai-kona-2022-03-blue-exterior-front-angle-suv 2022 Hyundai Kona | Cars.com photo by Jennifer Geiger

The difference between starting and median grows larger among SUVs when compared to their lower-riding counterparts. Among the most affordable SUVs on the market, the difference between starting and median pricing stays modest for some SUVs, such as the Chevrolet Trax and Kia Seltos; alternatively, the median price for the Hyundai Kona and Volkswagen Taos climbs to 20% and 22% above each respective vehicle’s starting price. In other words, Kona and Taos shoppers are likely to spend a lot more than the base price for whatever example they buy; Trax and Seltos shoppers stay closer to that low-end price.

  • Hyundai Kona: $22,395 starting price; $26,865 median price (20% higher)
  • Chevrolet Trax: $22,595; $23,516 (4% higher)
  • Mitsubishi Outlander Sport: $22,690; $26,761 (18% higher)
  • Chevrolet Trailblazer: $22,795; $26,155 (15% higher)
  • Honda HR-V: $23,095; $24,595 (7% higher)
  • Toyota Corolla Cross: $23,410; $25,663 (10% higher)
  • Kia Seltos: $23,805; $25,846 (9% higher)
  • Volkswagen Taos: $24,190; $29,551 (22% higher)
  • Subaru Crosstrek: $24,920; $27,478 (10% higher)
  • Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross: $24,940; $28,556 (15% higher)

Cheapest Pickup Trucks

ford-maverick-2022-01-black-exterior-front-angle-shadow-black-truck 2022 Ford Maverick | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

Pickup trucks have the highest discrepancy between their starting and median prices among Cars.com dealers, ranging from an 18% increase between the two for the Nissan Frontier to a 77% leap for the Ford F-150. Full-size pickups offer a multitude of options — upgraded powertrains, optional four-wheel drive, and varying cab sizes and bed lengths — all of which contribute to the large gap. Pickup trucks like the F-150 and Chevy Silverado 1500 Limited cover a wide spectrum of models, from bare-bones work trucks to luxurious top trims. (Note: The Silverado 1500 Limited and Ram 1500 Classic are value-priced carryovers of previous designs.)

  • Ford Maverick: $21,490 starting price; $25,663 median price (19% higher)
  • Hyundai Santa Cruz: $25,385; $32,592 (28% higher)
  • Chevrolet Colorado: $26,630; $35,252 (32% higher)
  • Ford Ranger: $26,795; $38,545 (44% higher)
  • Toyota Tacoma: $27,915; $33,662 (21% higher)
  • GMC Canyon: $27,995; $38,475 (37% higher)
  • Nissan Frontier: $29,365; $34,715 (18% higher)
  • Ram 1500 Classic: $31,310; $42,341 (35% higher)
  • Ford F-150: $31,685; $56,070 (77% higher)
  • Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Limited: $32,095; $49,455 (54% higher)
ford-maverick-2022-22-center-stack-display-front-seat-interior-truck-wheel 2022 Ford Maverick | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

What’s the Base Get You?

The base model usually represented by a vehicle’s starting price may suit the needs of some car shoppers, but it often doesn’t check all the boxes — think all-wheel drive for SUVs or a four-door cab configuration for pickup trucks. Below is a breakdown of the offerings among base trim levels for each car, SUV and pickup truck above that has the largest difference between the median and starting price.

2022 Hyundai Elantra SE

Compared with the SUVs and pickup trucks covered below, the Hyundai Elantra’s base SE trim is relatively well equipped. The bottom of the four-trim Elantra lineup, it comes standard with a 147-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, wireless Android Auto and Apple Carplay and safety features including a blind spot warning system and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection. The SE also gets an 8-inch touchscreen. Higher trims offer a larger 10.25-inch screen (though it reverts to a wired connection for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay), more potent 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder (N Line) and additional safety features.

2022 Volkswagen Taos S

The base Taos S, the lowest of three trims, is powered by a 158-hp, turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine shared with higher trims. Front-wheel drive with an eight-speed automatic transmission is standard, while AWD and a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic are available. Heated seats also come standard. An IQ.Drive Package and S Convenience Package adds adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and rear traffic alert, plus a heated steering wheel for an additional $995. Standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are accessed through a 6.5-inch touchscreen on the S; higher trims feature a larger 8-inch screen.

ford-f150-2021-50-angle--exterior--front--silver.jpg 2021 Ford F-150 | Cars.com photo by Steven Pham

2022 Ford F-150 XL

The base 2022 F-150 XL ($31,685) is powered by a 3.3-liter V-6 engine good for 290 hp and 265 pounds-feet of torque; that starting price gets you the pickup’s regular (two-door) cab with a 6.5-foot bed and rear-wheel drive. Switching from RWD to 4WD adds $4,645, while engine upgrades include a 325-hp, turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6 and a 400-hp, 5.0-liter V-8. Shoppers who want more seating will need to upgrade to the two-row SuperCab or the four-door SuperCrew.

As for tech and safety, the F-150 XL comes with an 8-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (Ford’s larger 12-inch screen is only offered on one of the truck’s seven higher trims). The XL includes a rearview camera with dynamic hitch assist and automatic emergency braking. Despite not having the luxury amenities of the range-topping Limited or the off-road chops of the Raptor, the base F-150 offers an extensive menu of available packages, such as the Trailer Tow Package ($975) and the FX4 Off-Road package ($1,005), the latter requiring 4WD. Ford’s more advanced Co-Pilot360 Assist 2.0, which adds adaptive cruise control with lane centering, is also available as a package.

Don’t Be Fooled by the Starting Price

As average new-vehicle transaction prices reach record highs (J.D. Power estimated a record of $44,905 for January), a vehicle with a starting price of half that amount looks like an attractive choice for frugal shoppers. But it’s important to take that price with a grain of salt. Our analysis suggests sedan and hatchback shoppers will likely find the starting prices more helpful to budget and compare alternatives, but those looking to buy an SUV or pickup truck might be in for some sticker shock.

chevrolet-silverado-high-country-2022-01-angle-blue-exterior-front 2022 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 | Cars.com photo by Steven Pham

Moving up from the base model or adding AWD, engine upgrades, or technology and safety packages can quickly knock the vehicle’s starting price out of the affordable ballpark. Base trim levels still do exist, meaning that price should still be theoretically attainable somewhere, but it serves all shoppers — and especially those in the market for an SUV or pickup truck — to price out their must-have features and compare the vehicles on their list. The Cars.com affordability calculator can help you determine and stick to a realistic budget.

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