2008 Nissan Versa || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $13,575
We're going to start off by suggesting you select the Versa five-door over the sedan, as it costs just $100 more and gets you oodles more space. Then, however, you'll wonder why you bought a two-thirds-scale Nissan Quest, that roadgoing sea mammal.
If the Versa's shape is ugly, it is also functional. No need to remove your top hat before sliding into the front or rear seats, and copious legroom awaits six-footers in the rear, even with six-footers in the front. Fold down the rear seats, and this subcompact will swallow large home-appliance-sized boxes. The interior is sophisticated for the price and comes standard with six airbags; the resulting crashworthiness makes it an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety top pick.
Thanks to Nissan's somewhat bizarre "Americans don't want hybrids, they want CVTs" wager, in addition to the four-speed automatic, there is an optional continuously variable transmission that nets one more mpg than the six-cog manual. Both are bolted to a 1.8-liter engine that makes enough midrange power to make driving the Versa stress-free. This last part sort of sums up the car's spirit: It'll take you where you ask it to, without sufficient talent to make the trip memorable.
2008 Hyundai Elantra || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $14,425
Have you driven an Elantra lately? If you've rented a car in the past year, chances are you have. Whereas most compact-rental-car choices are punishment for some misdeed in a former life, the Elantra gives you little ammunition for complaint. It's a decent-looking machine, too, sullied only by silly hips and shoulders apparently borrowed from Toyota's bad-idea Camry Solara coupe.
High door sills hide a functional, high-quality, and comfortable interior for both front and rear passengers. Much of the comfiness comes from ample room; the Elantra boasts the most interior volume in the class, so much so that the EPA classifies it as a mid-size car. The reminder that you're driving something inexpensive is a face full of thrashiness from its 2.0-liter engine when you give the throttle a solid goosing.
The Elantra carries on in the Hyundai tradition of offering more for less, with six airbags, four-wheel disc brakes, and ABS standard. The in-showrooms-shortly 2009 Elantra Touring, a five-door hatchback, will feature standard electronic stability control and active front headrests. More so than the sedan, it's a looker and will feature handling commensurate with its sporty looks, thanks to a revised suspension.
2008 Suzuki Reno || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $14,499
That GM sells the Reno, with slightly different bodywork, in China as the Buick Excelle should mean the Reno is at least comfortable; our fingers were crossed for a quilted velour interior. Alas, the Reno is a standard machine, more Daewoo -- who engineers and builds it -- than Suzuki in spirit.
The Reno came in last place of seven cars in our "Cheap Skates" comparison test. On the plus side was a quick sprint to 60 mph, best top-gear acceleration, huge suspension travel, and a "pillowy ride." Detracting comments included "flavorless," "gooey shifter," and "lifeless steering." The Reno turned in the worst braking performance and transmitted the most engine noise and vibration into the passenger compartment. In short, it felt cheap.
The five-door hatchback design is by Italdesign-Giugiaro and is not off-putting.
Despite being the same length as the more expensive Toyota Yaris sedan, the Reno features more interior space for driver and passengers and is slightly quicker, thanks to its Holden-sourced 2.0-liter engine; we observed eight fewer mpg in the Suzuki than the Yaris, however.
The Suzuki we really want is the Swift, sold just about everywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, we have to wait until 2010 when the U.S. gets a five-door version of the next-gen Swift. The current Swift has progressed far beyond the lithe little boxes Americans knew in the early '90s, or the dung pile sold here as the Geo Metro. The Swift is a mean-looking little brawler, available with AWD and a hoot to drive.
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $14,615
Diverse lineage means mixed expectations for Mitsubishi's Lancer, which shares its platform and engines with the much-maligned Dodge Caliber but is also the basis for the cult favorite Lancer Evolution X. Fortunately for Mitsubishi, the Evo ties are more apparent. Although styling is hugely subjective -- we're fans of the Lancer and pretty much horrified by the Caliber -- the upscale design and quality feel of the Lancer's interior trimmings are inarguably better than its cousin's.
Likewise, the Lancer driving experience is similar to that of the faster, more powerful, and more-than-twice-as-expensive Evolution. Steering is pleasantly hefty and direct, if not quite as precise and immediate as the Evo's. Over broken pavement, the ride can feel too firm, but throw the Lancer hard into a mountain switchback or a wide-open cloverleaf, and you understand why. This car has a decidedly sporty bent, so much so that it may frighten away more mainstream consumers in favor of the enthusiast crowd. When a car this affordable has paddle shifters as thoughtfully wrought as those on CVT-equipped Lancers, there's no doubt about the target customer's priorities.
Although the Lancer fits four comfortably and has a generous trunk, those who need a little more utility from their econocar should check out the Honda Fit, which starts just five bucks higher than the Lancer and has landed twice on our 10Best list.