Overall: Honda Civic sedan
The Civic is a reliable stalwart of affordable cars. Excellent fuel economy combined with good looks and a fairly peppy motor make the Civic a good choice for anyone on a budget.
Utility: Honda Fit
With efficient use of interior space and the ingenious Magic Seat feature, the Honda Fit lives up to its name.
Technology: Chevrolet Sonic
With a starting price of less than $15,000 and standard features like 4G LTE, a Wi-Fi hotspot and OnStar, the Sonic takes the affordable tech crown.
Fun to drive: Mazda3
Mazda didn’t skimp on driving pleasure with this little sedan. A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a zippy 2.0-liter engine produces great bang for your buck.
When talking about the best affordable cars available today, we must first define “affordable.” Mark Zuckerberg has enough money to buy a Ferrari without a dent in his wallet…you or I, not so much.
Spending 20 percent of your yearly salary on a car is a good rule of thumb, but with the average median household income being $53,657 (according to the US Census Bureau), that leaves the average consumer with only $10,731 or less to spend on a car. You can’t even buy a Toyota Yaris for that kind of scratch, and that’s the least expensive car on the market today.
To hell with that pesky formula! Let’s go all in with your hard-earned cash and take a look at cars that fall below $20,000. Interestingly enough, this segment includes everything from subcompact cars to SUVs.
Bigger is not necessarily better
You’ll find these less expensive cars to be on the smaller side, with a few surprises. The Fiat 500 and Chevrolet Spark, starting at $16,845 and $12,660 respectively, are by far the smallest in the affordable group, both at a smidge under 12 feet in length, and they seat only four. Others in this segment can fit five passengers, albeit some more comfortably than others.
Tiny dimensions make these mini-cars a breeze to drive and park in the city, but you’ll definitely be limited to the amount of cargo you’ll be able to carry.
It’s important to consider how small you’re willing to go when looking for an economy car. If you routinely carry passengers in the rear seats, you may want to look at something a bit larger, such as the Mazda3 or Ford Focus, both of which are at the higher end of this price range. If your hobby or job entails moving oddly shaped items from one location to the other, the Honda Fit should be on your list.
The largest in the group is the Jeep Patriot at nearly 14 and a half feet long and a total passenger volume of just over 104 cubic feet, with maximum cargo space of 53 and a half cubic feet. This is much bigger than the rest of the segment, but it’s a small SUV. Ask yourself if you really need the extra space. While you might be tempted to buy the biggest car you can afford, if you don’t use that space, it can become a hindrance.
Less money, less power
While you may suffer from a lack of space, you may also find yourself underpowered. Many economy cars get their economy by using tiny, wimpy engines. True, less power is needed to motivate a smaller car, but don’t expect to win drag races in any of these vehicles.
All of these cars can be optioned up to bigger engines, of course, but with extra power comes extra dollars. You’ll find most of these cars with horsepower and torque ratings in the mid-to-low 100s. Many manufacturers will often use a turbocharged engine to get more bang out of their smaller engines.
And be prepared for three-pedal driving in these economy cars. Most are available with an automatic, but you’ll have to pay more, anywhere from $600 for a four-speed automatic in the Toyota Corolla to $1,500 to add a continuously variable transmission in the Nissan Versa.
When test driving these cars, decide how much performance you need. Do you want a bit of fun behind the wheel? You most likely won’t be upset about driving a manual, but you may want to look at a smaller, turbocharged engine for more mid-range torque. Will you be doing a lot of highway driving? Take the car out on the road and see how long it takes to get up to speed. Can you merge easily? What’s your daily commute like? It may be worth it to opt for the automatic if you drive in stop-and-go traffic every day.
There are even a few all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicles under $20,000. The Subaru Impreza features the company’s impressive Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system and can be had for $18,250. Both the Jeep Renegade and Patriot can be optioned up with four-wheel-drive for a bit less than $20,000. Think about weather conditions and what you plan to do with the vehicle before shelling out the extra cash, keeping in mind that all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive do not mean all-wheel-stop. Some front-wheel-drive cars can do just as well in certain weather situations with a decent set of winter tires.
Fuel economy FTW
One thing that can be said for most of these affordable cars is that they get excellent fuel economy. The Chevrolet Sonic gets up to 40 mpg on the highway. The base Nissan Versa, the least expensive car offered at $11,990, gets 36 mpg on the highway, while the top-of-the-line Versa will set you back just over $17,000 and nets 40 mpg on the highway due to its continuously variable transmission.
The heaviest in this segment, the Jeep Patriot, still does okay with 30 mpg on the highway, bested by the slightly smaller Renegade at 31 mpg. Both can be had starting at just under $18,000.
Expect to give up a lot in the technology department when you commit to an economy car. That’s not to say they’re completely devoid of modern features, but if you’re expecting things like blind-spot monitoring, navigation or adaptive cruise control, be prepared to go to higher trim lines.
Instead look for things like Bluetooth, which allows for hands-free calling as well as streaming music from your phone, and a USB port, which will connect your phone to the stereo system and charge it as well.
Some models may have cruise control, but it will be the basic, set-to-one-speed-and-go type of system. Other less expensive vehicles may eschew electric door locks and windows in favor of a do-it-yourself system. Few will have a touchscreen infotainment system.
Starting at $18,640, the Honda Civic sedan gets our pick for best overall affordable car. It looks great, has plenty of power, gets excellent fuel economy and has room for five. A high-revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. A 1.5-liter turbocharged engine is available on the higher trim lines, but it pushes the price up by about $2,000. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, netting 27 miles per gallon in the city, 40 miles per gallon on the highway, and 31 miles per gallon combined. Those numbers go up even further when equipped with the optional continuously variable transmission.
Also on tap are a spacious trunk, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and a 5-inch color LCD screen. The Honda Sensing suite of active safety features such as forward collision warning, lane keeping assist, collision and road departure mitigation is available.
Newcomer Scion iA also comes in as a top pick. Its 1.5-liter engine knocks out only 106 horsepower, but the tradeoff is an EPA fuel rating of 33 miles per gallon in the city, and 42 miles per gallon on the highway. While certainly not as refined as the Civic, its starting price of $16,495 with a six-speed manual is nothing to scoff at.
Best for utility
While these cars are all driven by economy, the Honda Fit stands out for its practicality and ingenious use of space. Honda’s Magic Seat is standard across all trim lines, allowing for 4 feet of vertical cargo space, and rear and front seats can be folded down to haul longer objects such as surfboards or kayaks. The Fit starts at $15,790, making it a great deal for musicians, theater geeks and anyone else who needs to haul lots of inconveniently shaped gear on the regular.
If you just can’t bring yourself to knock around in a small car, the Kia Soul offers 61.3 cubic feet of space. On a personal note: I once had to sleep in the back of a Soul due to a ridiculous travel schedule, and did so quite easily and comfortably. Look for the Soul to start at $15,690.
Best for technology
The Chevrolet Sonic offers many standard features not found elsewhere in this segment. 4G LTE and a built in Wi-Fi hotspot is standard, as is six months of OnStar. Sirius satellite radio and cruise control are standard with the LT, which is still below our price point. Further, the Chevrolet MyLink system, standard on the LT, is compatible with BringGo, a third-party navigation app. Once paired, the app will show full maps and traffic alerts on the 7-inch touchscreen. All that starting at $14,335.
The Ford Fiesta is also a good choice, with its new Sync3 infotainment system. AppLink lets you use the touchscreen, voice commands or the multi-functional steering wheel to control some of your smartphone apps. The Fiesta starts at $14,090, and it’s worth noting that the performance-oriented ST version can be had for under $21,000. That’s well above our affordable price range, but a bargain for a 197-horsepower hatch.
Best for fun
Perhaps the most fun to drive is the Mazda3, coming in at $17,845 for the sedan or $18,545 for the hatchback. With 155 horsepower coming from a 2-liter SkyActiv engine and a six-speed manual transmission, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had. Additionally, disc brakes are standard all the way around, while many in this segment use drum brakes in the rear, sacrificing stopping power for economy.
Taking the checkered flag after the Mazda3 is the Volkswagen Jetta, starting at $17,680. The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine puts out 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, making it quite zippy off the line. Add to that a nicely slotted five-speed manual transmission and you’ve got the recipe for a good time behind the wheel.
There are plenty of economical cars out there, so be sure to take the time to test drive your favorites before you open your wallet. And remember, buy what you love…you’ll have it for a long time.