Ford Fiesta (© Ford Motor Company)

Twenty grand — for many car shoppers, that figure represents the financial tipping point where the reality of buying a used car begins to blur with the dream of buying a new one. We've all heard that a new car loses 10 to 20 percent of its value as soon as it's driven off the dealer's lot, and that the smart move is to let someone else take the hit of depreciation for you. On the other hand, never before has the marketplace been so rife with competent, attractive and truly affordable new vehicles, each of which comes equipped with a manufacturer's warranty. So before you resign yourself to purchasing a used vehicle, take a look at what less than $20,000 can buy you in today's new-car market. You might be surprised.

Bing: Car Buying Advice

2012 Chevrolet Cruze

Price: $16,800

For years, barroom auto-industry analysts have been opining on the fortunes of General Motors to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot: "What GM needs to do, see, is make a cheap, reliable car that gets good gas mileage and ain't too ugly to look at." Well, it appears GM has finally caved in to the demands of the nation's taproom savants with the release of the 4-door Cruze sedan. We like the LS trim for its low entry price, but all models come with stability control, an absurd number of airbags, a 5-star government safety rating and a combined mileage estimate in the mid-30s.

Read:  Gas-Powered Mega-Misers

2012 Mazda Mazda5 Sport

Price: $19,625

What the Mazda5 gives up in interior volume to bigger and pricier players in the minivan segment, it makes up for in driver involvement, right down to its standard 6-speed manual transmission and 16-inch alloy wheels. It will seat six in comfort, but with only 157 horsepower available from the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine it's no heavy hauler. Likewise, the list of standard features emphasizes utility and convenience over gimmickry: dual manual sliding rear doors, keyless entry, cruise control, height-adjustable driver seat, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and 6-speaker CD stereo. Extravagant luxuries such as an automatic transmission and elaborate navigation systems will take the price north of $20,000 in short order. Some families just don't want a lot of fuss in their family bus.

View Slideshow:  Autos in a League of Their Own

2012 Fiat 500 Sport

Price: $17,500

Although the spotlight-stealing Abarth edition of the Fiat 500 won't be available until early 2012, consumers looking to add a little zing to their 500 can opt for the Sport hatchback right now. In addition to a slightly retuned suspension and 16-inch alloy wheels, buyers get snazzy red brake calipers, fog lamps, a rear spoiler and unique front and rear styling cues. With only 2,400 pounds of car to motivate, the 500's 101-horsepower engine and 5-speed manual transmission provide an ideal platform for perfecting your heel-and-toe skills, and without getting in over your head on the street or at the gas pump.

Read:  Fiat Unveils Performance-Based 500

2012 Kia Soul

Price: $13,900

That's not a misprint. For about the same money as a used sedan or an off-lease mini-ute, you can put a brand-new, Kabuki-faced Kia Soul in your driveway. Refreshed for the 2012 model year, this smaller version of the Nissan Cube has been earning fans from an unlikely demographic: tall people. Internet forums and message boards are littered with earnest testimonials from people standing 6 foot 2 inches and taller who are thrilled to find a small, efficient vehicle with plenty of headroom and legroom. A 6-speed manual transmission and a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine team up to deliver an estimated 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway, and Kia's 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty helps keep operating expenses fittingly low.

Compare: Kia Soul vs. Nissan cube vs. Scion xB