No matter the body style, cars, trucks and SUVs just keep getting more and more expensive. But if you're on a tight budget and want some new metal, there are still a handful of cars for under $20,000 that can be bought new, and that's with destination fees included. In fact, some of them are pretty good, and there are a few shapes and sizes from which to pick.
We've highlighted three of our favorites, but we'll actually highlight each car on the market for less than that $20,000 cap. The reason? Well, there are actually only nine cars in that price bracket. And while the others might not be our favorites (or quickly go beyond $20,000 once you add even a single option), they each have their own unique characteristics that might make them the right choices for some niche buyers.
Best cars for under $20,000
Why it stands out: Excellent value, CVT available for the price, very efficient, standard safety features, spacious
Could be better: Slow, a bit stiff
One of the best of the best budget entries here is the Kia Forte simply because it's such an impressive value. It's a compact sedan, which means it's significantly more spacious than the usual subcompact cars available in this price bracket. And you get that space for a low $18,885. It comes standard with a six-speed manual, but you can get a CVT for an extra $900, and it still fits the budget at $19,785. You'll have to stick to the base FE trim to stay under $20,000, but the FE trim happens to be the most efficient. It gets a great 35 mpg combined, and the manual does well, too, with 33 mpg. It also comes standard with features such as lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking and driver attention warning. It handles well, though it has a slightly firm ride. Also, although the engine is efficient, its 147 horsepower makes the Forte quite slow.
Why it stands out: Very cheap, decent styling, efficient with the CVT, refined driving experience
Could be better: Sedan-only, disappointing fuel economy with the manual
The Nissan Versa is an extremely strong budget offering. First off, it's one of the cheapest cars you can buy, third cheapest in the country with a base price of $15,995. It makes 122 horsepower, which in a car this size keeps it perky enough in traffic, and it's available with either a five-speed manual or CVT. The manual is a bit inefficient with a combined fuel economy of 30 mpg, but the CVT is good with 35 mpg. The Versa is impressively quiet and comfortable without diminishing handling capability, too much. The exterior and interior styling are sharp and feel a bit more polished than other subcompacts. Every trim level comes in under $20,000, so you have room to add options. It's only available as a sedan, though, and the nearest hatchback offering from Nissan, the Kicks, starts above $20,000.
Why it stands out: Loads of style, crossover shape and driving position, pleasant to drive
Could be better: No AWD available, small interior and cargo space
The Hyundai Venue, starting at $19,935, is the only car under our price cap that can be considered a crossover. It's a tall, boxy little machine that's chock full of style, probably more than anything else in the class. Nice details are everywhere including the unique headlights, the basket-weave grille and the angular details in the taillights. The interior is a bit less bold, but is nicely assembled, and the driving position is very crossover-like: up high with excellent visibility. Despite only having 121 horsepower and mated exclusively to a CVT, the Venue feels spunky, if not truly fast. Fuel economy is decent if not extraordinary at 31 mpg combined. The downside to the Venue is that it's very small, with cramped rear seats and somewhat small cargo space, though the latter is helped by the flexibility of the high roof and folding seats. Also, despite being a tiny crossover, the Venue can only be had with front-wheel drive. Only the base SE trim squeezes in under $20,000, with the mid-range SEL reaching nearly $21,000.
The rest of the cars for under $20,000
Why it stands out: Incredibly affordable, efficient, cheap enough you can add options
Could be better: Extremely slow, very cramped
The Chevy Spark, with a base price of $14,595, is the cheapest car you can buy in the United States. And because it's so cheap, even the top-spec 2LT with an automatic transmission can be had for under the $20,000 price cap, and that means you can probably option it just the way you like. There's a trim called Activ that gives it some rugged-looking plastic cladding if you want a bit of a crossover look, and fuel economy is quite good regardless of transmission. The manual model gets 32 mpg combined, and the automatic gets 33 mpg. The base model really is bare, though, it doesn't even get power windows or a telescoping steering wheel. It's also extremely small inside, so the rear seats are barely usable, and cargo space is tight. And with just 98 horsepower on tap from the naturally aspirated 1.4-liter engine, it's far from quick.
Why it stands out: Very affordable, efficient, cheap enough you can add options, pleasant to drive
Could be better: Boring looking
The Hyundai Accent starts at $16,400, and it's closely related to the aforementioned Venue featuring the same engine and platform. But it's obviously a sedan, and it's quite a bit more affordable. In fact, both the base and mid-level trims are available under our price cap, and the top level only breaks the limit by a little over $500. Also, unlike the Venue, you can still get a manual transmission in the Accent, which makes it even more engaging to drive. Fuel economy is also better than the Venue, with the manual model getting 33 mpg combined, and the CVT model getting 36. The cabin is a bit roomier, too, though the trunk isn't as versatile as the Venue's hatch. The main tradeoff is that the Accent, while inoffensive, is a bit bland looking inside and out.
Why it stands out: Affordable, choice of body styles, good handling, very efficient
Could be better: A bit slow, a bit stiff
The Kia Rio is basically the Kia version of the Accent. So much of what we've said about the Hyundai applies, here. It's a bit more expensive, starting at $17,145, but part of that is because it comes standard with a CVT. And, yes, that means there's no manual transmission available. However, you can get the Rio in hatchback form, starting at $17,955. While not quite as stylish as the Venue, the Kia Rio hatch does net you a little extra space along with the hatchback versatility. It's not a fast car with the same 121-horsepower engine, but it has nimble handling courtesy of it's rather stiff, but controlled suspension. The optional S trim for the sedan is also available for under $20,000, in case you want a few more features. It's also efficient with 36 mpg combined for both body styles.
Why it stands out: Very cheap, very efficient
Could be better: Terribly slow, unpleasant to drive
Like the Kia Rio, the Mirage is available in both sedan and hatchback forms, but it's priced a bit cheaper. In fact, in hatchback form, it's the second-cheapest car on the market, starting at $15,290. The sedan costs a bit more with a base price of $16,435, which is only $35 more expensive than the Hyundai Accent. Fuel economy is quite good ranging from 35 mpg combined to 39 depending on transmission and body style selections. It comes standard with a five-speed manual, but is optionally available with a CVT. Unfortunately, the Mirage is painfully slow, as it only makes 76 horsepower. It doesn't make up for it with handling, which is sloppy and disconnected. We would not recommend this.
Why it stands out: Spacious, standard all-wheel-drive, good driving dynamics
Could be better: Manual-only for the price, slow, mediocre fuel economy
The Subaru Impreza was nearly in our top choices despite being a bit pricey for the group at $19,755 to start. That's because it offers a fair bit for the money, and we're not just talking about its equipment. Being a compact sedan, rather than a subcompact, makes it one of the roomier vehicles on this list. It also features a bright and airy cabin. And of course, being a Subaru that's not a BRZ, it comes standard with all-wheel drive. That's unique among the cars on this list. It's also one of those rare automobiles that's available with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, if you're trying to stay under $20,000, you'll have to have a manual transmission, since the optional CVT bumps the price to just over $21,000. Since so few people want a manual these days and few dealers carry them, this does limit the Impreza's appeal for under $20,000. The hatchback version also slips just barely above the $20,000 line, so you might be able to stretch to that if needed. The manual Impreza isn't especially fuel efficient with a combined mpg of 26 mpg (the CVT manages 32 mpg), and the 152 horsepower feels pretty pokey.
Why it stands out: Torquey and refined engine, great fuel economy, very spacious, comfortable
Could be better: Manual-only for the price, sacrifices driving fun for soft suspension
Like the Subaru Impreza, the VW Jetta is a compact sedan that offers impressive amounts of space for this price point. It starts at $19,990. In fact, the Jetta is one of the most spacious models in the compact sedan segment, regardless of price. Also, although it only makes 142 horsepower, the Jetta's turbocharged four-cylinder makes 184 pound-feet of torque, making it about the quickest-feeling car in the price range. It's a refined engine, too, and with the standard manual transmission, it gets an excellent 34 mpg in combined driving. It's not a particularly great handling car, but it is quiet and soft. The downside to the Jetta, like the Impreza, is that the automatic transmission option kicks the price up beyond $20,000 to just under $21,000. And like other models on this list, only the base trim meets our pricing criteria.
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