If you wanted a cheap car 15 years ago, your options were limited to the kind of transportation usually reserved for Third World countries. Back then, cars on the low end of the spectrum amounted to nothing more than four wheels, something that resembled an engine and a cardboard interior wrapped in recycled beer cans. At best, they were slow, uncomfortable and relatively unsafe. At worst, they were time and money sucking machines that could double as a coffin in a pinch. That is, if EMS couldn't cut you out after a metal-to-metal mishap.

Thankfully you can kiss those days goodbye. Today's econo cars live on a much different plane of existence. For less than $15,000, you can purchase a vehicle equipped with a bevy of safety features, decent pep and phenomenal fuel economy. Bottom line: We're talking better-than-basic transportation at a fair price. To help you narrow down what to buy, here are our picks for the best vehicles under $15,000.

1. 2009 Honda Fit

Click to enlarge picture2009 Honda Fit Sport 5-Spd AT (© American Honda Motor Co., Inc.)

2009 Honda Fit Sport 5-Spd AT

The Fit just barely squeezes under the price line, at $14,750, and can easily climb upward with a few ticks on the option sheet. But, as the adage goes, you get what you pay for. This little Honda is an all-star in the utility department thanks to plenty of cargo room in back and clever storage spaces throughout the vehicle. What's more, the 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine delivers 117 horsepower — more than enough to scoot you and your friends downtown in a hurry — all while delivering 33 mpg highway in 5-speed manual trim or 35 mpg highway with the available 5-speed automatic.

2. 2009 Hyundai Elantra GLS

Whereas most cars in the economy segment tend to be just big enough for a driver and a briefcase, the Elantra GLS serves up boatloads of space. The roomy 4-door also offers standard features such as a tire-pressure monitoring system, electronic power steering, front and side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, power windows and doors and keyless entry — all for $14,120. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, though an automatic is available. Worried about Korean reliability? Hyundai's fantastic 100,000-mile warranty leaves you with no excuses. Fuel economy from the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine could be better (25/33 mpg city/highway), but if that's the price to pay for additional space between kicking kids, it can easily be overlooked.

3. 2009 Ford Focus Sedan

Click to enlarge picture2009 Ford Focus SES Sedan (© Ford Motor Company)

2009 Ford Focus SES Sedan

The Focus has been a longtime favorite of the coin conscious, and there's little guesswork regarding why. The car received a complete redesign for 2008, and the lovable hatchback of old was replaced with a slick-looking new coupe and 4-door design. Aside from the snappy suit, the Focus is also blessed with a potent 140 horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Coupled to the standard 5-speed manual transmission, the Focus is good for an applause-worthy 35 mpg highway. Of course, opting for the automatic gearbox will easily put you over the $15,000 mark, and if you're crossing that line, it should be the fault of Ford's fantastic Sync audio system. The manual transmission Focus comes in at $14,995.

4. 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer DE

Click to enlarge picture2009 Mitsubishi Lancer (© Mitsubishi Motors North America)

2009 Mitsubishi Lancer

Like the Hyundai Elantra, the Mitsubishi Lancer serves up lots of space on the cheap. Powered by a near-bulletproof, dual-overhead-cam 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, the Lancer delivers an impressive 152 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque. A 5-speed manual transmission comes standard, but if you aren't into the row-your-own scene, a continuously variable unit can be had for a little above the Lancer's $14,340 sticker. That may seem steep for basic transportation, and it would be if this car were actually basic fare. From the factory, the low-end Lancer comes with power windows and mirrors and a kickin' 140-watt CD/MP3-capable audio system, plus the awesome styling of its big sibling, the Lancer Evolution.

5. 2009 Toyota Yaris 3-Door Liftback

Click to enlarge picture2009 Toyota Yaris Liftback 3-Door MT (© Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.)

2009 Toyota Yaris Liftback 3-Door MT

If you're looking for king-of-the-heap fuel economy in a cute-as-a-button package, the Yaris is your ride. Don't let the cutesy looks and meager power specs fool you. This tiny hatchback has a surprising amount of pep in spite of the 106-horsepower 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. How is that possible? A featherweight construction means this ride makes the most of every last pony, as well as every ounce of fuel. The Yaris is capable of an astounding 36 mpg highway, even with the most lead-footed, disgruntled commuter behind the wheel, and that's pretty impressive for a nonhybrid. What's more, the Yaris will hit you for only $12,205 in 5-speed manual trim.