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Great Cars for About $200 a Month

Americans spend a lot of money on their cars. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that American households, on average, spent $8,220 on car transportation in 2007. While that number takes into account fuel, maintenance and depreciation, a big chunk of it is paying for the car itself, and for most people that means a monthly car payment.

Since people often finance cars, price isn't the only factor when it comes to affordability. You have to figure out if the car's payments will fit into your monthly budget. With budgets stretched tighter than ever, a new-car payment can seem too extravagant. It may seem like you won't be able to afford the payments for a car you really like. And if you can afford the payments, it won't be for a car you want.

In reality, that's not exactly true. There are great cars that you can own for monthly payments of about $200. Still too much? Think about this: If you spend five dollars for your daily Starbucks run every working day of the month, you've already blown about $110. Spend another five dollars on lunch at work every day, and there's another $110. Start brown bagging and making coffee at home (or drinking the stuff brewed at your office) and that $200 car payment becomes affordable.

We found the following prices and monthly payments using car manufacturer and dealer Web sites. These are current as of March 2009, but remember that prices change. If you're interested, check current prices and offers available with your local dealer.

Honda Fit

MSRP: $14,750

Monthly Payment: $221.74  

The Honda Fit isn't just a car for the budget conscious. Its styling works for the fashion conscious, while its versatile interior works for people with practicality in mind. It doesn't disappoint drivers looking for zippy around-town performance either. Buyers looking for great gas mileage will love that the EPA gives the Fit a combined fuel economy rating of 31 mpg (which helps bring down your monthly gas costs). It's an excellent all-around car, and, if you put 20 percent down on a Honda Fit and qualify for a five-percent annual interest rate over five years, you'll be able to drive one off the lot for a little over $200 a month.

Volkswagen Rabbit

MSRP: $16,300

Monthly Payment: $240 buy or $199 lease

Buying a car is all about weighing your options. When it comes to getting a new VW Rabbit for about $200 a month, you've got two great ones. If you buy the 2009 Rabbit, qualify for Volkswagen's 3.9-percent financing over five years, and put 20 percent down (that's $3,260), you can own the Rabbit for $240 a month. If you don't like commitment, you can opt to lease the Rabbit.VW is currently offering a 36-month lease. You pay $2,499 at signing and get your Rabbit for $199 a month. The offer expires March 31, so if this sounds like a good deal to you, you'd better hop to it.

 

Toyota Camry

MSRP: $19,145

Monthly Payment: $199 or $219 for lease

Keeping your payment around $200 a month doesn't mean you have to stick with a small car. If you need space, the Toyota Camry is a great place to find it. The Camry offers good performance, a comfortable cabin, and space for five to stretch out. If you live in the New York Tri-State area or the Mid-Atlantic, you can lease a Camry for $199 a month. If you live in New England or the Southwest, the payment is a still-manageable $229 a month. Toyota deals vary by region, and this one expires at the end of March; contact your local Toyota dealer to see what they can do for you.

 

Chevrolet Malibu

MSRP: $21,605

Monthly Payment: $258.55

The Chevrolet Malibu is proof that GM can make a midsize sedan that can complete with the best Toyota and Honda have to offer. The Malibu was North American Car of the Year when it debuted, and though it's fairly affordable for its class, it hasn't been in $200-a-month territory until now. Chevrolet is offering zero-percent financing for five years to qualified buyers on the 2009 Malibu. If you put 20 percent down ($4,321), that brings your monthly payment to a little under $300. But that calculation is based on the Malibu's sticker price. With Chevy sales hurting and dealers desperate for buyers, we wouldn't be surprised if you could negotiate about $2,000 off the sticker price. And when you do that, you can drive the Malibu off the lot for around $250 a month.

 

2009 Nissan Rogue

MSRP: $20,220

Monthly Payment: $199 lease

The Nissan Rouge doesn't lead its class in any one area - except value. While other compact SUVS might be better performers, they can't be had for $200 a month. If you're watching your budget, but need the space, utility and all-wheel drive of a compact SUV, the stylish Rouge is your go-to cute ‘ute. Nissan is currently offering the Rouge for $199 a month on a 39-month lease. You'll need to put $3,349 down at signing, but for the next three years, you'll pay less than $200 per month for a very good car.