I myself have totaled a car and came close to totaling a second. It was much easier than I thought possible.
The first car was my parents' 1989 Volvo 240 Wagon. I crashed it into a parked Corolla and while there was only a few grand of damage to the still-running car, the insurance totaled it.
We sent it to a friend's shop and got the front fender straightened out (and some new wheels for free - thanks Evil Genius Racing!). The car drove fine after that and is now in the hands of another family friend, living out many more wonderful miles.
The second car I nearly totaled was my own, when I rolled my VW Baja Bug off of the side of a wet road. That's the poor thing up top. The whole car cost $1,500, which wasn't that much more than the towing bill alone. My insurance doesn't cover damage to my own car, so I paid out of pocket for the whole affair.
The moral of the story is that low-cost cars are extremely easy to total because the whole car is vaued so low in the first place. This comes as no surprise to owners of genuinely old cars, but even kinda-newish chars can be easily totaled, as P161911 explained in our post on why your next wrecked car may go to Afghanistan.
As a couple of others have sort of mentioned, when you pop 5 airbags at $1000 each to replace it doesn't take long to total a $10,000 car, even if it only had $2,000 in actual body damage.
In most cases insurance has to pay for factory parts and possibly any diminished value from the car being in a wreck, which can vary from $20 to a few thousand on a nicer, newer car. You also run into things like foam filled body panels, such as the B and C pillars or Ford Explorers that have to be refilled after the parts are replaced to be correctly repaired.
Have you ever had a car totaled? Did it surprise you how easily the bills outpaced the value of the car itself?
Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove