New car prices have been rapidly escalating, reflecting new safety regulations, the inclusion of many popular features, plus rising materials cost. According to the folks at Kelly Blue Book, the average new vehicle transaction price last year was over $35,700, a number heavily affected by the proliferation of pickup and crossover sales.
With the average age of our driving fleet hovering around 11 years old, used car sales are more than double new car sales annually. Many drivers are forced to purchase used vehicles to meet their driving needs — and their budget. The data states that the average used vehicle transaction was for $19,400 in 2018.
At that price point, consumers should know that they have many options for safe, reliable new vehicle transportation that often includes some of the latest electronic safety gear as well as some amenities that make ownership more enjoyable. Of course many of these vehicles are compact class cars that get very good fuel economy, plus they come with a warranty.
So onward: 20 vehicles for under $20,000. There will be some surprises.
The least expensive car sold in America comes from Nissan. Starting at $12,360, the compact Versa sedan offers a modest 109 hp, but weighs only 2,400 pounds, so this is adequate power. There is room for four real adults and the trunk swallows 15 cubic feet of gear — the same as several midsize sedans. Like most of the entry-level cars listed here, the Versa comes with a manual gearbox with an automatic model listing for $14,500.
Hyundai and Kia became large players in this market due to their inexpensive small cars. Today, these models are mature, well-finished products that compete with any automakers’ small cars while retaining a price advantage. In this pack are the Kia Rio subcompact ($15,390), the Kia Forte ($17,900) the Hyundai Accent ($14,995) and the Hyundai Elantra ($17,100). Horsepower ranges from 130 to 147 hp in this group, while EPA ratings reach as high as 41 mpg. Again, an automatic transmission adds roughly $1,000 while power windows, locks, mirrors and air conditioning are standard. Both the Forte and the Elantra wear new styling and an air of sophistication previously absent.
The next group includes some more familiar names. The Chevy Cruze ($17,995) is on sale for several more months, plus the hatchback version at $19,620 is a great option; Honda’s Civic sedan remains a small-car favorite at $19,450; Mazda’s 3 begins at $18,095 and carries a certain driving polish that enthusiast drivers have embraced; plus the Nissan Sentra ($17,790) offers room for five, good fuel economy, composed driving dynamics and daily reliability.
Volkswagen’s redesigned Jetta starts at $18,745 with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine for a very different driving experience in a small car — that is almost a midsize sedan, while Toyota’s Corolla remains the top-selling small car in this market for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is still quite affordable — starting at $18,700. Moving up to LE trim — and more features — requires just $435.
If the Corolla seems too big, Toyota has two other smaller offerings; the Yaris/Yaris iA are small city cars that slip into tight spaces easily, however they lack the polish and presence of the larger compact sedans in this group.
The sleeper in this grouping is Subaru’s Impreza. The Impreza is the only AWD small car available at this price point, starting at $18,595 with a stick shift. The flexible hatchback body is only $500 more. Like the Corolla, the Impreza also offers an impressive array of comprehensive electronic safety systems — for additional cost.
Buyers need not fret about just having an assortment of sedans to pick from, as several automakers also produce some creative five-door designs that meet our monetary threshold.
Ford’s new EcoSport just gets in under the wire, starting at $19,995 in front-drive trim with the 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine. This tiny crossover has a swing-out rear door providing access to a generous cargo hold.
Honda’s subcompact Fit is notably smaller, but no less versatile, as it wins with a very functional interior design that affords lots of cargo space. At $16,190, it is also thousands less than the Civic. Similar in size, but more modern inside and out, is Hyundai’s new Kona. The Kona ($19,990) is quite impressive; comfortable, quick, plus very capable on the road — and also available as an EV ($35,700) — this small crossover will be a template for the future.
Kia gives its clever Soul new styling for 2019, but retains all of the charms that have propelled this compact class wagon to cult status. The Soul ($16,490) comes with three engine options, three different transmissions, plus a new EV model covering five trim levels. Somewhere there is a Soul that expands sales.
Similarly unique is Nissan’s new Kicks, another five-door small wagon. Starting at $18,450, the Kicks brings some fresh ideas to both its looks and functionality while using a small 125-hp four-cylinder. First-year sales have exceeded projections.
Sports car fans have fewer and fewer options each year as prices are rising for our favorite performance cars. Hyundai is trying to confront that dilemma with the Veloster, a three-door coupe that offers three engines ranging from 147 hp to turbocharged 275 hp. Pricing begins at an entry-level friendly $18,500, so young buyers can embrace some identity that doesn’t look like everyone else’s car.
Last, but not least, there is one small pickup truck still on sale in America that starts under $20,000. The Nissan Frontier King Cab 2WD ($18,990) with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, a five-speed stick and a 3,500 tow rating can make any driver a weekend-friendly mover. Nissan and Toyota built their foundation in America with inexpensive small pickups. The segment has all but been abandoned as pickups get longer, wider and heavier, and this Frontier may be getting long in the tooth — over 10 years old — but it works well. And that’s what new car buyers should expect — even at these prices.