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Why it's so expensive to own a car in the Mountain West

A person pumps gas into a pickup truck. The truck is muddy, especially around the wheel rim.
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“If you look at the cars that Westerners like to drive, these tend to be bigger vehicles – SUVs, trucks...we're just driving more expensive vehicles," said Skyler McKinley with AAA.

Mountain West states are some of the most expensive places to own a car, according to several data sets analyzed by Forbes Advisor.

“I don't think it's a surprise to anyone who's owned a vehicle, operated a vehicle or tried to buy a car in the past several years that prices have been surging upward,” said Skyler McKinley with the American Automobile Association.

Nevada and California tied as the most expensive states. One reason for Nevada's high ranking is that gas prices there are currently the third-highest in the U.S. at $4.24 a gallon, according to the report.

Colorado ranked third on the list, in part because drivers pay the second-highest amount for repairs related to the check-engine light. New Mexico and Wyoming also made the top 10 due to high auto loan payments, while Utah ranked 13th.

The analysis was based on four key metrics: the cost of gas, average repair costs, average annual insurance costs, and average monthly auto loan payments.

McKinley said there are some regional factors driving the high costs.

“If you look at the cars that Westerners like to drive, these tend to be bigger vehicles — SUVs, trucks, typically equipped with all weather tires, typically equipped with four-wheel drive,” he said. “We're just driving more expensive vehicles … when you're buying a Ford F-150, a RAM 1500, you know that's going to cost more than a Toyota Corolla really in every category.”

In addition, snowfall and wildfires tend to drive up insurance claims. Also, the temporary shutdown of the Suncor plant, Colorado’s lone oil refinery, has been a big and unexpected contributor to high gas prices since late December.

“Generally, the sort of Rocky Mountain West states don't have gas prices that are much higher than the national average,” he said. “If this survey were taken, you know, for example, this time last year, the numbers would be, I think, a little bit different in that category.”

There are, of course, other factors beyond consumers' control contributing to high prices at the pump, such as the war in Ukraine and the pandemic's impacts on supply chains and labor.

But McKinley believes stability is on the horizon, especially with the wave of federal and state legislation aimed at improving infrastructure and incentivizing electric vehicles. One thing drivers can do in the meantime, he said, is drive carefully.

“We know that, generally speaking, 94% of all crashes relate to some misbehavior behind the wheel,” he said. “Now, those are choices we can make that will lower our cost. You can choose not to speed. You can choose not to run that red light.”

To find out how much owning a car costs in your area, check out AAA's car cost calculator.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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