If you're shopping for a new car, it's likely to be smaller than the vehicle it will replace. SUVs are still popular, no doubt--but high gas prices and new entries like the Focus, Elantra, and Cruze alike are changing the makeup of America's new-car fleet.
Size isn't the only factor changing hearts and minds. So is price. The average sale price of a new car may have held steady for the past few years, but the economic malaise of the past four years has shifted many buyers down into the economy class. That means the $20,000 price point is as relevant as ever--maybe more so.
Good thing, then, that the choices among $20,000 small cars have never been better. Whether it's a compact or a subcompact they have in mind, budget-minded consumers have never found safer, sportier, or more feature-rich new cars on the showroom floor.
The best of these? The following compact and subcompact cars score best in TheCarConnection's overall vehicle ratings, and sport a base price of less than $20,000.
2012 Honda Fit – 8.0
Peppy and fun to drive, with a space-efficient seating arrangement thanks to the second-row fold-flat Magic Seat, and massive 20.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, the 2012 Honda Fit is well-configured, affordable transportation that also comes with a pretty generous list of features. The base Fit includes air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, keyless entry, a USB input, and an MP3-compatible CD sound system. The small, tall hatchback is priced from $16,125 with five-speed automatic and $17,060 for the Fit Sport with five-speed manual. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 28 mpg city/35 mpg highway (base Fit automatic) and 27/33 mpg for Fit Sport (manual and automatic).
2012 Chevrolet Sonic – 8.0
A completely new global small car, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is also an extremely safe car, garnering Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Our review finds the Sonic “supremely roomy, comfortable, refined, tight, and quiet for a small car.” Along with 10 standard airbags, there are other surprise standard features on all models, including alloy wheels, remote keyless entry and air conditioning. For around $15,000, you can get a pretty well-equipped Sonic that delivers 35 mpg highway fuel economy with the base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Step up to the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the highway fuel economy increases to 40 mpg.
2012 Ford Fiesta – 7.6
Available in sedan and hatchback models, the 2012 Ford Fiesta offers buyers great styling, responsive and nicely weighted steering, and a nimble, maneuverable feel. Hatchback models provide added versatility. The base Fiesta S sedan starts at just $13,995 and includes a split-folding back seat, rear heater ducts, air conditioning, power locks, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, a decent sound system with auxiliary input, and even a driver’s knee airbag. The Fiesta SE hatchback begins a $16,465. Fuel economy is rated at 28/38 mpg across the board.
2012 Kia Rio – 7.6
With its Euro-inspired looks, nicely-finished interior and smooth drivetrain, the 2012 Kia Rio is “an exceptional value,” say TCC editors, “considering the amount of standard equipment offered in the base LX versions.” The Rio five-door hatchback is also the first non-hybrid, non-luxury vehicle to offer idle stop and go technology that helps reduce fuel consumption by shutting off the engine when the vehicle is not in motion, and automatically restarts it when the driver releases the brake pedal--though the feature has been delayed until the 2013 model year. All base 2012 Rio sedans and hatchbacks carry a less-than-$15,000 price tag, including $750 destination charge. Bluetooth, cruise control and tilt/telescopic steering wheel are standard on all but LX models. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 30/40 mpg across the lineup.
2012 Hyundai Accent – 7.4
The appeal of the 2012 Hyundai Accent is quite simple: a vast interior, great styling in the five-door hatchback, stellar 30/40-mpg fuel economy, and affordable price. The base $15,355 five-door Accent GS has standard air conditioning, a 172-watt stereo, CD player, XM Satellite Radio, USB port, and a rear defroster. Cruise control is standard when GS is ordered with automatic transmission. The Accent SE hatchback adds standard Bluetooth, cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls, a sliding armrest and 16-inch wheels. This is the most expensive Accent you can buy, topping out at $17,555.
2012 Ford Focus – 8.8
Completely redesigned for 2012, the 2012 Ford Focus can include safety and technology features such as Active Park Assist, rearview camera, ambient lighting and Ford SYNC. Other safety and convenience features in the Focus include AdvanceTrac stability control, front and side airbags, keyless entry, cruise control, power outlets and heated front seats – all with a starting MSRP of $17,995 (including $495 destination charge). We named it our Best Car To Buy 2012--and our review says it all: “With the 2012 Focus, Ford shows us that small cars don’t have to feel so banal, with charismatic compacts that are more satisfying to drive, more luxurious, and better equipped.”
2012 Chevrolet Cruze – 8.2
An all-new design last year, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan offers consumers a value-packed and feature-rich, safe vehicle that comes in at under $20,000 in all trims except LT with 2LT. Even the high-mileage (28 mpg city/42 mpg highway) Cruze Eco slides in under the $20K mark. Our review lauds the feature set of the Cruze, equal to that of a larger mid-size sedan (and just as roomy as many), as well as IIHS Top Safety Pick and overall five-star NHTSA safety ratings, due in part to the 10 standard airbags, OnStar with automatic crash response, and collapsible pedal system to help reduce risk of leg and ankle injuries in the event of a crash.
2012 Hyundai Elantra – 8.2
Here’s what TCC editors have to say about the 2012 Hyundai Elantra: “The 2012 Hyundai Elantra has officially left the Civic and Corolla in the dust, thanks to a 40-mpg gas mileage rating, a sleek look, and tremendous value for the money.” There’s more, of course, in this review, but the bottom line is that the Elantra is one of the best compact sedans available today. Even the base GLS has power windows, locks, and mirrors, keyless entry and (on automatic models) air conditioning, cruise control and telescopic steering. Another IIHS Top Safety Pick, the Elantra with navigation system also comes with a rearview camera. The 2012 Hyundai Elantra GLS (in all versions) slides in under $20,000. Only the Elantra Limited exceeds the $20K mark, beginning at $20,595, excluding destination charge.
2012 Kia Soul – 8.2
The 2012 Kia Soul is one tall hatchback wagon that offers more than just fuel efficiency. Other standout features include a back-up camera, dual 12-volt outlets, rear wiper-washer and cruise control. The Soul provides a versatile, spacious interior, thanks to its tall roofline, and fold-down rear seats that provide 53 cubic feet of cargo capacity. An extensive list of standard safety features (and an optional rearview camera), IIHS Top Safety Pick status, and the Soul is a “right-priced” wagon for about $20,000 for anyone “who needs a little more wagon in their lives, but could do without the size or weight of a bigger crossover or minivan.”
2012 Mazda Mazda3 – 8.2
Long known for its fun-to-drive characteristics, the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 sports a new four-cylinder engine paired with either a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. To get this 155-horsepower engine delivering up to 40 mpg highway fuel economy, however, you’ll need to choose the Mazda3i Touring or Grand Touring sedan with automatic. Other pluses with the Mazda3 lineup include generous, supportive seats, a reasonably accommodating rear seat, a low-flat loading floor (with rear seats folded), an available blind-spot monitoring system and IIHS Top Safety Pick status. Get a surprisingly well-equipped Mazda3 for around $16K.
2012 Suzuki Kizashi – 8.2
Consumers looking for a sophisticated, surprisingly well-equipped compact sporty sedan should definitely consider the 2012 Suzuki Kizashi. Although the brand may not have developed the cachet of other competing compact sedans, our review says it is “one of the best compact sedans on the market.” Nicely supportive bucket seats, richly-grained plastics and soft-touch padded surfaces make riding in the Kizashi pleasant. A strong list of standard features for the money includes keyless entry and dual-zone climate control. A navigation system, including rearview camera, real-time traffic and iPod controls, is a lot-cost option. The base Suzuki Kizashi with manual transmission starts at $18,999, excluding destination charge.
2012 Subaru Impreza – 7.8
The all-new 2012 Subaru Impreza compact sedan and hatchback models have, in the words of TCC editors, “higher gas mileage, more space inside, a nicer interior, and all-wheel drive standard,” making the Impreza “a newly compelling compact alternative.” Fuel economy with four-door manual is 34 mpg highway, while the four-door automatic delivers an estimated 36 mpg in the highway cycle. Pricing starts at $17,495 (sedan with manual gearbox) and $18,495 (sedan with automatic transmission), both excluding destination charge. Improved driver visibility, the addition of a seventh airbag, and new-for-2012 brake override control contribute to the Impreza’s continuing high safety marks, including an IIHS Top Safety Pick designation.
(c) 2012, High Gear Media.