Buying a new car on a budget can be a challenge, and you should prepare for some compromises. The trick is getting the right balance of value and quality for your money, without accepting one or more significant sacrifices that you may later regret. The good news: Our recent tests show there are several great cars available for under $18,000.
When looking at a car priced in the teens, it is natural to focus on the marketed base prices. After all, you're looking for a bargain and seeing "starting at $13K" can be enticing. Do understand that these cars tend to be very barebones at their starting price, being outfitted with manual transmissions and few frills. Often this rock-bottom price is simply a come-on to lure you to the showroom; you'd be very lucky to find even one of these price-leading models in dealers' inventories.
For our tests, we focus on purchasing popularly equipped models, giving a fair representation of what most customers are likely to buy. The first prices featured below represent the sticker-price for the test cars, although it is likely that you could negotiate that figure down by hundreds, if not more. We have also included the manufacturer suggested retail prices to provide a basic price range. (Detailed pricing is available on the model pages.)
Each car here has met our threshold for a Consumer Reports' Recommendation, meaning they performed well overall in our tests, have average-or-better predicated reliability, and perform adequately if included in government or insurance-industry crash tests.
So, if you're looking for a frugal new car, give these a close look:
Chevrolet Sonic 1.8 LT - $17,455 as tested Base MSRP price range: $14,185 - $21,470 The Sonic uses a standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Uplevel trims offer a modestly quicker and more fuel-efficient 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a somewhat balky six-speed manual. Handling is fairly nimble and the ride is relatively composed for this class, with excellent braking performance. The sedan has a huge trunk and a better view out, but the hatchback version has better cargo versatility. Both versions offer a relatively quiet cabin, but the rear seats are cramped. Options such as heated seats, a sunroof, and remote start are usually not found in this class. First year reliability has been average. (Read our Chevrolet Sonic road test.)
Honda Fit - $16,915 as tested Base MSRP price range: $15,425 - $19,790 The subcompact Fit four-door hatchback offers easy cabin access and very good visibility. It has an amazing amount of interior room and various seat-folding arrangements. While the not overly powerful, it feels responsive, with a smooth and willing engine, and agile handling. Fuel economy is an excellent 33 mpg overall for the manual and 30 mpg for the automatic. Although the ride is a bit choppy, it is supple enough. But elevated road noise contributes to the din. (Read our Honda Fit road test.)
Hyundai Accent GLS - $16,320 as tested Base MSRP price range: $14,545 - $17,095 Hyundai's entry-level model is available as a sedan or hatchback. It is a basic-yet-sensible subcompact. The sedan, with the very smooth and responsive automatic, attained 31 mpg overall; we also got 32 mpg for the stick-shift hatchback in our tests. Though the front cabin is roomy enough, the rear is a bit cramped, which is on par for this class. Handling is fairly responsive, but the ride is rather jittery. Noise levels are elevated but not offensive. Standard safety gear includes six air bags and active front head restraints. The controls are straightforward. First year reliability has been average. (Read our Hyundai Accent road test.)
Kia Rio EX sedan - $17,545 as tested Base MSRP price range: $13,600 - $17,900 The Rio comes as a sedan or hatchback and is a corporate cousin of the Hyundai Accent. It's powered by a 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. It uses direct-injection technology and has a six-speed automatic, an unusual feature for the subcompact class. Fuel economy of 29 mpg overall with the hatchback in automatic isn't stellar for the class. The sedan version returned 30 mpg. The Rio feels solid when compared with some other subcompacts. The stiff ride and noisy cabin are normal among small cars. Higher trim models offer amenities such as heated seats and a rear-view camera, but they get pricey for this class. First-year reliability has been above average. (Read our Kia Rio road test.)
Mazda2 Touring - $17,845 as tested Base MSRP price range: $14,720 - $17,050 The Mazda2 is a subcompact hatchback that is powered by a 100-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The standard manual transmission shifts slickly, but the optional four-speed automatic saps some zip. Handling is quite nimble and the ride is tolerable, but the cabin lets in too much road and engine noise. Rear-seat room is relatively good. It is related to the Ford Fiesta. In exchange for a lower price over its mechanical relative, the Mazda2 gives up some refinement and comfort. Reliability has been above average. (Read our Mazda2 road test.)
Scion xD - $16,900 as tested Base MSRP price range: $15,745 - $16,545 At its core, the boxy xD is reliable, utilitarian, and inexpensive transportation. It rides with short, jumpy motions, and it feels jittery on the highway. Its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine delivers adequate performance but is miserly with fuel. We averaged 29 mpg overall with the automatic and 34 with the manual. The cabin is noisy, and the driving position is awkward. The front seats are comfortable enough. The rear has plenty of room for a subcompact car, and cabin access is easy thanks to its tall stance. (Read the Scion xD road test.)