Everybody who has ever held a job knows well that your salary isn't what you actually earn. By the time Uncle Sam withholds his income tax and Social Security, your paycheck is a pale shadow of the robust sum you had imagined.
Auto insurance can have a similar effect on the true cost of a new vehicle. You've crunched the numbers and figured out how, by eating only ramen noodles for the next 60 months, you can swing the monthly payment on that hot new 4x4 you've been eyeing. Then along comes the insurance man to rain on your parade.
Insurance for many new trucks and SUVs can be quite costly. That's because, although you're probably careful with your pride and joy, other truck and SUV drivers as a group haven't established an enviable driving record. Worse yet, the bad guys covet your wheels as much as you do: As a class, trucks are stolen much more frequently than typical cars.
Cars also tend to cost less to buy than most trucks, and insurance rates directly reflect a vehicle's value, as the insurer will have to replace your ride if it's totaled or stolen. Further, large vehicles can cause more damage in a collision-to other vehicles, passengers, or structures. Bottom line: Trucks cost more to insure than cars.
That said, within the truck category (or any other, for that matter) insurance rates vary dramatically. Insurance company accountants are very good at counting their beans and therefore know exactly how much every make and model is likely to cost them in claims. So forget what you've always heard about insurance companies not liking red vehicles or two-seat cars; they set rates based on your exact vehicle and your particular driving history.
"We use a make and model rating system and track the claims experience for every make and model there is then rate them accordingly," says Dick Luedke, State Farm spokesman (statefarm.com).
So while we'd like to be able to tell you that you can get a break on your insurance by buying the two-wheel-drive version of the truck of your dreams, or by getting white paint instead of red, it really depends on which truck-including model, trim level, engine type, and other variables-you buy and what kind of driver you are.
To get a more accurate idea of what a vehicle might cost to insure, check ratings of new cars online on your insurer's Web site, or call your broker and ask for rates on the vehicles you're considering.
For theft loss averages you can check the Highway Loss Data Institute's Web site (hldi.org) for the model you are considering. For example, the 4WD Lincoln Navigator shows the third-worst average theft loss rate of $71 per insured vehicle, while the two-wheel-drive version is seventh worst, at $62. So regardless of drivetrain choice, a Navigator is going to be expensive to insure because thieves like them.
And better to avoid the Cadillac Escalade if insurance cost is a concern. The Escalade leads the HLDI list in theft-claims frequency and loss per vehicle, with a claims frequency nearly five times the average for new cars. And thieves don't just target high-bling SUVs, the Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Ram pickup are fourth and eighth on HLDI's claims frequency list.
But insurance companies consider more than just theft losses. Vehicles are rated for a variety of factors, not least of which is occupant protection. "A lot of people think that a bigger car would protect you better, but that is not always the case," says Luedke. "It is hard to make general comments about types of vehicles. It depends on how a vehicle is constructed."
Construction also affects how much vehicles cost to fix after a fender-bender, which is reflected by collision insurance rates. "We adjust rates according to the claims payments," Luedke says. "One car might have lower comprehensive payments because it is harder to steal, while another car might have less collision insurance [cost] because it has better damage-resistant bumpers."
Some vehicles in the light-truck category are relatively inexpensive to insure, according to Progressive Insurance (progressive.com). They aren't exactly macho off-road machines, but the Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Montana minivans are Progressive's cheapest vehicles to insure, and the pseudo-SUV Chrysler PT Cruiser is fourth cheapest.
Of course, that's only Progressive's list. Your company's list probably differs. According to Progressive spokeswoman Shannon Radigan, "Auto insurance companies base their rates on their book of business. Therefore, companies have the potential to have very different rates because they may have very different cars on their book of business and have different recorded claims experiences with those cars, so it pays to shop around.
"The advice I would give a car buyer is that if you're shopping and it comes down to two cars, you can call your agent and find out how much they cost to insure. In general, the more expensive the car, the more it is going to cost to insure."
Vehicle type also impacts insurance costs, but not always as dramatically as you might expect. For example, you may think an SUV would be much more expensive to insure than a station wagon, but Progressive's rates show that with a wagon and an SUV of similar cost from the same manufacturer, the SUV is only about 10 percent more expensive. Using the Saturn LW300 station wagon and the Vue SUV as an example and assuming ownership by a thirty-something married couple, the wagon costs $235 for six months, and the SUV is $267, hardly enough difference to steer your purchase decision.
On the other hand, you'll likely find a significant insurance-cost difference between a large, full-size SUV and a midsize crossover SUV of similar price because the big, truck-based machine can inflict much more damage in the event of a collision. "On the bigger vehicles, the liability insurance is much higher than on a smaller truck that would be more compatible with a passenger vehicle," says Dan Kummer, director of auto insurance for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. "It seems to be a big problem with some of the much bigger vehicles, like a Cadillac Escalade or Hummer H2. If you hit someone in one of those, the people in the other vehicle are much more likely to be injured."
Generally, big vehicles do a good job of protecting their occupants, which can make the medical premiums lower, and they might not suffer as much body damage, so physical damage premiums will be lower. But the bigger trucks and SUVs also tend to be more expensive, so a Dodge Ram will cost more to insure than a Dakota, for example.
Premium luxury models like the upcoming Lincoln Mark LT and the increasing availability of luxury goodies on trucks also make insurance more expensive. "If you've got a high-end vehicle, a minor fender bender is expensive," says Kummer. "Backup sensors in the rear end may make rear-end repairs cost $2,000 to $3,000. All of these things help lower liability, but they raise physical damage. We're seeing, on average, physical-damage costs going up."
On the other hand, some electronic goodies, like anti-lock brakes and airbags, earn customers a discount. "The insurance industry gives discounts for just about everything," Kummer says. "You really want to take advantage of some of the discounts that are out there. If you put on LoJack [auto security system], it will lower your comprehensive rate."
The standard rule of "higher deductibles and lower limits mean lower premiums" applies, so you'll need to decide how comfortable you are each deductible and limit. According to Kummer, "If you can handle a deductible of $500 instead of $250, that'll lower your rates on physical damage by 10 percent. The liability limit depends on what you can afford. Younger drivers don't usually have many assets to protect, so lower limits are fine for them. If you have a lot of assets to protect, we recommend $300,000 per person/$500,000 maximum."
Considering the myriad factors involved in auto-insurance costs, you should check with your insurance company before you buy a new vehicle to find out how each of your contenders might affect your rates.