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Driving Costs Add Up

It's isn't just gas that you'll pay for here. Depreciation and other expenses can take their toll.

Gasoline prices have been dropping for nearly three weeks -- welcome news for those planning a last-minute getaway on the road before the fleeting days of summer have disappeared.

Still, it's important to note that gas prices have accelerated faster than prices for other products, adding $1.04 per gallon over the past year. That equates to a 37% rise, vs. 5% inflation for all goods.

Each gallon may now cost less than the record $4.114 per gallon reached in mid-July, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service, but $3.881 per gallon is no bargain. (Not on

American soil

, at least.)

Furthermore, while gas can take up the lion's share of driving costs these days, there are quite a few other factors to consider: Maintenance, insurance, finance charges, government fees and taxes, as well as depreciation. Many dealers are practically throwing themselves at potential customers' feet to move cars off the lot, which can offer good opportunities for those in need of new wheels.

One recent email entreaty from a Nissan dealership in New York promoted its "HUGE MIDNIGHT MADNESS SALE!!!" which included "live music, cash machine and great food" as well as the "most aggressive prices of the year."

Many are also offering longer-term financing deals -- in some cases as long as eight or nine years -- to provide a more enticing deal with lower monthly payments for those who can't afford traditional four-year plans. However, it's also important to note that those payments can increase the cost of the vehicle by many thousands of dollars. In addition, loans in general are more expensive and harder to acquire these days because lenders are reducing their exposure to risk.

You can figure out the costs for your specific vehicle and driving patterns using AAA's

driving cost worksheet

, but here are the current average costs for sedans, SUVs and minivans, based on a driver who travels 15,000 mile per year:

A small sedan costs a driver $6,771 per year in overall expenses, or 45 cents per mile. Gasoline makes up 37% of the total costs for such vehicles, or $2,539 per year. The


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Civic, Nissan Sentra or


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Corolla are examples of this type of car.

A medium-size sedan -- like the Chevy Impala, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima or Toyota Camry -- costs $8,865 a year to own, or 59 cents per mile. Fuel takes up 37% of those expenses, or $3,271 per year.

A large sedan has an annual tab of $10,406, or 69 cents per mile. These cars -- like the Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300, Ford Five Hundred, Nissan Maxima or Toyota Avalon -- rack up $3,505 in expenses at the local


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station. However, fuel represents a smaller 34% of total costs, because depreciation, finance charges and government fees are much higher.

While minivans fell out of favor with the onslaught of SUVs in recent years, the tides may turn. They might not be as glamorous, but they can hold the same number of kids, pets and soccer balls and are much cheaper to own and operate.

A minivan costs $9,316 per year to own, or 62 cents per mile. That's nearly $2,000 less than an SUV -- for example, the Chevy Trailblazer, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota 4Runner -- which costs $11,266 per year, or 75 cents per mile.

Perhaps consumers who have to lug around lots of people, work supplies or other merchandise will check out alternatives, like the Chevy Uplander, Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona, Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna instead.