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While overall inflation has been relatively low in recent years, car ownership just keeps on getting more expensive. Last year, the cost of owning and operating a new car rose 13 percent - $647 more than in 1990.

That's the bad news from the American Automobile Association (AAA) in its 1992 edition of "Your Driving Costs."The good news is that AAA projects the total cost of car ownership/operation will rise only 3.9 percent this year, or $219 over 1991, thanks to cheaper gasoline.

The 1992 costs are figured for an average new car driven 15,000 miles. The average per-mile costs this year are projected to be 38.8 cents per mile, up 1.5 cents over '91 for a total cost of $5,820. The average per-mile costs last year were $5,601.

AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske said the cost estimates are based on computations made by Runzheimer International, a Rochester, Wis., consulting firm that specializes in figuring out such things.

According to the AAA publication, the average per-mile cost of gas and oil has dropped from 6.6 cents in 1991 to 5.9 cents this year, a projected savings of $105 annually. Acknowledging that it's still a little early in 1992 to be making predictions about the cost of oil for the rest of the year, AAA notes that a 10-cent change, up or down, in the price of gasoline would alter overall driving costs by approximately one-half cent per mile.

AAA doesn't use Jaguars or BMWs to reach its composite figures. On the other hand, it doesn't use Honda Civics or Nissan Sentras, either. The figures are based on a composite national average for operating three domestic sedans: small, medium and large. A Ford Escort LX fills the subcompact role, a Ford Taurus L is used for the midsize segment and a Chevrolet Caprice does duty as the full-sized player.

All of the cars have automatic transmissions, air conditioning, power steering and brakes, cruise control, tilt steering, AM/FM stereo, tinted glass and rear-window defogger - a rather arbitrary list of options, but it's their survey so they can do what they want.

To remain consistent, AAA used the same four cars last year and the cost estimates are based on a four-year, 60,000-mile ownership period.

While gasoline costs have gone down this year, other costs have gone up. Here's how AAA compares costs in 1991 and 1992:

- Depreciation will increase $213 this year, from $2,504 in 1991 to $2,717 in 1992.

- Total insurance costs, including collision, comprehensive and property damage/liability, have increased $79, from $708 in '91 to $787 this year.

- Taxes, license and registration costs rose $6 this year, from $168 to $174.

- Maintenance costs and tire costs were unchanged at 2.2 cents per mile and 0.9 cent per mile, respectively.

For the first time, AAA's "Your Driving Costs" '92 edition includes ownership and operating costs for a light truck and minivan. However, they were not included in figuring the composite national average cited above for passenger cars.

The "Your Driving Costs" pamphlet has a page for charting car costs for those who might not drive one of the three vehicles used to obtain the composite and want a more precise analysis. Copies of the pamphlet are available from AAA clubs in Utah and across the nation.

Single copies may be obtained at no charge by sending a stamped, self-addressed, legal-size envelope to: Your Driving Costs, Box 75, AAA Drive, Heathrow, FL 32746-5063.