The "adjustment" in our economy we've heard the president mutter about after something having to do with minimum-wage sector growth (oops, wait, scratch that last part) will have plenty of Americans adjusting their way from houses into rental properties, from organic frisée to iceberg lettuce, and from mid-priced sedans into whatever box with four wheels and a warranty the dealer will bless unto them. The cheapest new cars money can buy in the U.S. are no longer only for people failing their drivers' tests for lack of experience or lack of eyesight.
The good news is that the vehicles at the bottom of the new-car barrel are better, safer, and more reliable than ever. There are even a couple of remarkably good cars on this list, so good we'd drive them even if the balance in our checking accounts didn't mime a change jar. (All prices based on CARandDRIVER April 2008 figures and include destination charges.) Chevy gets the party started with the $10,895 Aveo; Mazda serves up the champagne with the Mazda 3 for $14,530. Of note is that six of the 10 cars are made in South Korea, with proceeds hopefully going to build a wider DMZ between them and the computer/golf/opera wiz to the north.
Take heart, average New York financial district worker who makes $387,000 a year but may be one of thousands of striped shirts losing his or her job this year. When you go into foreclosure on your duplex and your E550 is seized, if you pawn your Patek Philippe watch and Limoges dinner service, you'll have just enough to buy a Hyundai and a tank of gas to slink back to Mom and Dad's house in Chittenango. And the drive won't even be all that bad.
2008 Chevy Aveo || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $10,895
When the Heartbeat of America strikes its first beat in Bupyong, South Korea, the result will be un-American, which, unfortunately, has all too often been a plus when it comes to cars. The cheapest car sold in the United States was styled in Italy by Giugiaro's Italdesign and as such has a shape that looks, dare we enrage the aesthetes, sort of almost sporty.
And that's where the sportiness ends. You had better equip the Aveo with the manual transmission if you'd like to make it up an on-ramp before the planet's poles finish melting. However, the Aveo's manual transmission inspired this description: "By enthusiast standards, perhaps the worst feel of any on the market." Other laurels sung included "endless stopping distances" and "industrial steering effort."
Once you're up to speed, however, and traveling straight ahead, the Aveo is commendably quiet and boasts comfortable seating for four adults, which can't be said of many more expensive cars, even some with four doors. The Aveo is also available in standard sedan form, but if you want a trunk, it'll set you back almost another two grand.
The Aveo's 14-inch wheels are an improvement over the tricycle tires that came on the last generation. As equipped with a manual, it should return something like 27 mpg in combined driving, although the automatic example we tested returned a truly unimpressive 24 mpg.
2008 Hyundai Accent || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $11,425
Remember the Hyundai Excel? Would you prefer not to? We don't blame you. This descendant, however, benefits from the same quality turnaround at Hyundai that has traditional quality mavens such as Honda and Toyota sweating a steady trickle of profit margin. That quality is also backed by "America's Best Warranty" including a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
The Accent three-door is nice despite its low price, successfully emulating the quality of cars a couple classes up the price ladder. There is, however, some trade-off: The Accent's cushy ride is not accomplished through sophisticated suspension geometry or advanced damper valving; it's simply sprung a bit softly. (The uplevel Accent SE gets sportier suspension tuning.)
The 1.6-liter engine features continuously variable valve timing and produces 110 horsepower. These ponies are offered without complaint and encourage surprisingly spirited driving. The Accent coupe is a little globular cannonball that doesn't mind being tossed around. Few three-door hatchbacks are available in this market, and the ever-popular Mini Cooper costs some $7000 more. You're certainly not going to extract more grins from any other new car that costs $11,425.
As an interesting aside, the Accent is also produced in Pakistan and Iran for regional consumption. Perhaps the relationship with rogue nuclear states will spur the production of a fission/electric hybrid powered by spent uranium pellets (those that aren't suitable for plutonium production, anyway).