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The cost of ownership - a crucial factor in choosing a car

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Deciding what car to buy is rarely easy. You have to decide on the type you want and what you expect it to do, the importance of the design and performance, the reputation of the manufacturer and car dealer, and usually the cost. With such a broad array of cars in the showroom, both import and domestic, and more on the way, the final choice can be tough. Indeed, the decision could - and perhaps should - come down to the cost of operating one car versus another.

Two similarly priced 1988-model cars, for example, can differ by more than 25 percent in ownership costs over the next four years.

``While people spend a lot of effort comparing car prices, few realize the importance of ownership costs,'' says Peter Levy, president of Intelligent Choice, a California-based publishing company. ``In just a few years, the average new-car buyer will spend more money to own and operate his car than he paid for the car itself.''

Ownership cost embraces such items as insurance, license and registration fees, taxes, upkeep, and fuel.

You can buy a Volkswagen Jetta, Buick Skyhawk, or Honda Accord for about the same price, says Mr. Levy, but if you figure out the four-year cost of ownership, the best buy among the three is the Accord. The most expensive, adds Levy, is the VW Jetta, with the difference between the two being about $2,500. A guide for car buyers

To give the buyer a cost-to-operate comparison, Levy's company has come out with an inch-thick paperback, ``The Complete Car Cost Guide'' (Intelligent Choice Information Company, $25). It's updated twice a year, and the price for the two issues is $45. It can be found in many public libraries or may be ordered by calling 1-800-CARBOOK. The book lists more than 1,000 cars, including utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

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