10 Great Cars for Less Than $20,000
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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