10 Great Cars for Less Than $20,000
Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, consumers are still cautious when buying a car. If you're on the fence, try one of these 10 new cars. Your wallet will thank you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the Ranger and Durango missing in action, those with a maximum of $20,000 and the need for an honest-to-goodness pickup truck have only three options: the Nissan Frontier/Suzuki Equator, the Chevrolet Colorado and the Toyota Tacoma Access Cab. This trio of extended-cab, 6.1-foot bed, 2-wheel drive, 5-speed manual transmission trucks hit the utility-and-value target so tightly grouped that it's difficult to make a decision on numbers alone. But of the three, the Tacoma has the most comfortable interior, gets the best in-town mileage at 21 mpg, and it is the only one to come with satellite radio standard.
The Koup starts at $17,200, but with less than $1,400 separating the base 2.0-liter trim and the zoomier SX trim, with its 2.4-liter 173-horsepower engine and a sport-tuned suspension, why not go all in for the SX right from the ante? With only one other sub-$20,000 coupe currently available in the United States (Hyundai's pending Elantra coupe hasn't been priced yet, and its Veloster is technically a hatchback), the Koup SX's purpose in life is clear — to out-Civic the Civic Si. Although the Koup SX falls a tad short of the Si in driving dynamics and consumer recognition, it does win one crucial category: It costs almost $4,000 less.
Those who demand a traditional, no-nonsense 4x4 SUV for less than $20,000 don't have a lot of options. In fact, the Patriot is their only option. Add 4x4 capability to competitors such as the Kia Sportage, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Mitsubishi Outlander and prices quickly climb into the mid-20s. But if you're willing to trade nuance, road manners and interior appointments for ground clearance and 4-wheel drive wrapped up in an instantly recognizable Jeep package, you can score a Patriot for close to $10,000 less than a similarly equipped Wrangler Unlimited or Liberty. The Patriot isn't for everybody, and smart shoppers will use that fact to negotiate an even better deal.
Configure the Fiesta any way you wish: hatchback or sedan, Spartan or sporty. From the base S trim to the top-shelf SES, all Fiesta models come with a class-leading interior, a refined mechanical essence and lively driving dynamics. True, Ford isn't the only maker to have recently revised its recipe for small-car goodness, but the sum of the Fiesta's parts yield a particularly well-rounded example for a bargain price. In addition to the standard complement of airbags, the Fiesta includes a driver-knee airbag, unique in this class. And the small car's 29 mpg city/38 mpg highway mileage numbers maintain the frugality without infringing on the fun.
Attention students, tightwads and the automotive indifferent: Your transportation device has arrived. Sporting a list of standard features not seen since the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the base Versa 1.6 comes equipped with manual windows and locks, a 5-speed manual transmission and four of the sexiest 14-inch steel wheels this side of a Lada 21. You also get a spacious interior, tilt steering, intermittent wipers, four stereo speakers and a hole in the dash where the radio would be if the car came with one. It is possible to option a Versa into a well-equipped econo-cruiser, but where's the fun in that?
Andrew Wendler is an entrepreneur and journalist based in South Detroit. A former editor of the now-defunct MPH Magazine, his work has appeared in Car and Driver, Edmunds Inside Line and Hot Rod, among others. When not writing, you'll find him wrenching, racing, or on occasion, tour-managing a rock-music combo.
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