How much do you really pay to drive that broken-down, clattering piece of metal you call a car? What about drivers behind the wheels of sleek, black, leather-clad SUVs with special tush-warmers? Although your mileage will vary, you can get a pretty good idea of the average cost of car ownership from a recent AAA report.

The study shows that many drivers won't benefit much this year even if gas prices stay low (and they probably won't). That's because lower prices at the pump are offset by higher costs for insurance, financing, licensing, registration, and taxes.

The net result: Drivers pay, on average, about 52 cents per mile for their car. Driving an average of 15,000 miles each year, that amounts to $7,823 every year. By using the report and an included worksheet, you can calculate whether your annual costs fall close to the average.

The study tries to capture all of the costs of car ownership, from fuel, maintenance, and tires to costs for insurance, depreciation, financing, and the myriad government obligations for registration and taxes. But there's some good news: If you delve into the details of the report, you'll find a few ways to shrink your costs.

Drive a smaller car. Car manufacturers like Ford (NYSE:F), Toyota (NYSE:TM), and General Motors (NYSE:GM) prefer that car buyers drive bigger models, since their profit margins are generally wider. However, from the driver's perspective, you can save a lot by bucking the trend and going small.

The 52 cents per mile that the average driver spends roughly correlates to the cost of owning a medium-sized sedan. The researchers used typical cars like the Chevy Impala, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry to estimate costs. If Joe Driver upgraded to a large sedan -- a Chrysler 300, Buick Lucerne, or Nissan Maxima -- he'd pay 63 cents per mile, or about 20% more.

However, if Joe follows the advice of his friend, Floyd Fool, he could cut his costs a lot. Driving something like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, or Toyota Corolla would cost him just 41 cents per mile.

If either of our motoring men opted to trade in his sedan for a bigger vehicle, like a minivan or a sport-utility vehicle, he'd see his costs rise significantly. A minivan costs 58 cents per mile to operate, and a four-wheel-drive SUV costs 67 cents, or almost $10,000 per year.

Drive less. Shrink your commute or take the bus on occasion, and you'll see your annual costs shrink. You can reduce the $7,823 that it costs on average to drive 15,000 miles each year to $6,214 by driving only 10,000 miles per year. Obviously, you'll save on gas. But researchers also assumed that a big hunk of your savings stems from maintaining more of your car's value over the years if you drive it less often.

Increase your insurance deductible.  The study envisions that you're a 47-year-old man with a good driving record who carries insurance with a $500 deductible for collision and a $100 deductible for comprehensive coverage. Raise either or both of those deductibles, and you can save significantly on your insurance costs. (Make sure to set aside some of your insurance savings in a safe place where you won't spend it, just in case you need to come up with that deductible in the event of an accident.) Of course, if you're a reckless 21-year-old speed demon, your overall insurance costs may be a tad higher.

Buy used. The study assumes that you purchase a new vehicle and drive it for five years. That means the cost of depreciation -- the amount of value your car loses each year as it transforms from a shiny new car into a used, slightly dinged, pre-owned vehicle -- is figured in. If you're looking for a new car, do some research on the vehicle's expected depreciation. In most cases, you'll pay a lot less for a used model, even if it's only a year or two old.

Buy with cash. The researchers assumed you bought this new car with a five-year loan at 6% interest and a 10% down payment. You can eliminate the costs of financing by avoiding a loan altogether and purchasing your car with cash. If that seems as much as a dream as owning a flashy red convertible, you can still shrink your financing costs by saving for a bigger down payment or shortening your loan term. Do both, and you might really slice your financing costs.

Keep reading for more Foolish advice about buying a car:

Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple welcomes your feedback. She doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.