We’re just at the tipping point of what could be the worst recession in American history. In the last six months we’ve seen the collapse of industry in the U.S. with millions unemployed, housing and car payments missed in record numbers, and more Americans than ever facing financial crisis. By far the poorest Americans have been hit the hardest, and the slowly collapsing middle-class has continued to shrink.
Those who still do have jobs are occasionally in need of good reliable transportation at a reasonable price, but automakers are continually kicking that style of car out of their lineups. Compacts? Dying. Sedans? Flatlining. Hatchbacks? Doubt it. Average transaction prices are rising steadily because only people with a lot of money can afford most cars these days.
During the last recession, Nissan was the last holdout with a car under the $10,000 mark as it sold a de-contented Versa for $9,990 in 2008. In today’s market, you’re lucky to find anything under the $20,000 mark. Not a single Honda, Mazda, Fiat, Mini, or Dodge can be had for less than that mark. Hell, the least expensive Dodge right now is a $28,000 V6 Challenger.
If you want something cheap with a warranty, the automakers are pretty much kicking you over to the certified pre-owned lot and wishing you good luck. They no longer want your business.
As Erik pointed out earlier today, the average vehicle transaction price has exploded to nearly $39,000 in recent months. Similarly, the percentage of overall new car sales under $20,000 has imploded in recent years, down to just 1.3 percent. Are automakers killing their cheap cars because nobody is buying them, or is nobody buying them for other reasons? To find out, let’s take a look at the last seventeen cars remaining on U.S. dealer lots with a bargain price.
There have been a lot of cars killed from this market in recent years. Honda Fit, Chevy Cruze, Chevy Sonic, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Mazda 2, Fiat 500, Smart ForTwo, and plenty more. And cars that previously fell under the 20K mark have gotten more expensive with inflation and increased content. You simply can’t get a de-contented car anymore. We ask too much of cars these days, and nobody would consider spending good money on a car without cruise control, air conditioning, power windows, and 29-way power seats. Ugh, philistines. We didn’t appreciate them when we had them.
Technically you can get the Impreza sedan and five-door for under twenty grand, as the five-door starts at $19,195. However, the CVT is a $1300 option, so if you don’t want to, or can’t, drive a manual, the five door is over the limit.
Volkswagen has a long history of keeping its Jetta an inexpensive sedan here in the U.S. market. This model famously lost its independent rear suspension for a twist beam in order to keep the price point competitive, though perhaps not to positive results. Again this price is for a manual, but if you want the auto, it’s still sub-20 as that option is only $800. If you want an auto AND the driver assistance package, which adds emergency braking and blind spot monitoring (among others), you’re over the 20K line.
The last bastion of inexpensive motoring in the U.S. market, the Mirage gets a lot of shit for being so cheap. But it’s a solid machine that should get you back and forth to work without issues. This is the car for America’s suburban working poor. There was a time not long ago that even this little machine was available for under ten grand, but those days are gone. Even this thing can be maxed out on options to breach the $20,000 high water mark, though. You’d be a fool to buy one for that.
Hyundai’s quirky three-door hatch can be had for less than two Salmon P. Chases. While many manufacturers have left this pricepoint alone altogether, Hyundai is definitely willing to take money from you filthy poors, as it has four offerings under the $20,000 mark. That’s more than any other manufacturer. An automatic transmission pushes the Veloster to $19,900, so it still qualifies. Interesting choice.
If you’re looking for a funky style and a good mid-range interior, get the Elantra. This car is aimed squarely at people who were perfectly comfortable in the last gen Civic, but don’t want to pay the price premium for the new Civic (which isn’t on this list). Of everything on this list, I think this might be my pick of the litter. You can even option it with illuminated door sills and all-weather floor mats and stay under our arbitrary $20,000 budget.
The Accent is very good bare-bones transport. If you want a cheap car but don’t want to punish yourself quite enough to get a Mitsu Mirage, this is really your only choice. I tested this one when it came out, and I really actually liked it. It’s nice and lightweight, perfectly tossable, even though the steering feel is almost nil. It’s fun in the way that my old Ford Aspire was fun. Drive it faster than it really should be driven (so like 65).
Even the highest trim Accent Limited can be had for less than 20 grand.
Being a sensible choice is the Forte’s forte. This small-ish sedan is a direct competitor to the Corolla and Sentra later on this list, but costs even less. It comes with standard Apple Car Play and a bunch of other stuff that a base model wouldn’t have thought of even ten years ago. It’s a shame that cars have gotten so expensive, but even the cheap ones have gotten better.
Everything that makes the Forte good, the Rio does in a smaller package for even less money. It’s still got standard CarPlay, it’s still got four-wheel disc brakes, it’s still got heated mirrors and power windows and a 100,000 mile warranty. Yeah, that’s not a bad deal.
I don’t have much to say about the Sentra. It’s fine, I guess. It’s a stylistic mess, but at least it’s different. It’s not quite as uninspiring as its larger and more expensive Altima brother, so I’ll give it that.
Every version of the Versa is under the twenty thousand barrier. By all accounts it’s a good car and is well worth the price. You could splurge a little here and get yourself the fully-loaded model. Visually it’s a little boring, but if that’s what you’re after that’s all fine and good. Now, where’s my inexpensive sport sedan Nissan Versa SE-R? Come on. Get it together!
The Corolla has been America’s go-to bargain transportation for decades. Toyota pretty much built its reputation on vanilla-but-reliable sedans for the everyperson. With the Yaris and all of Scion dead, the cheap Toyota died with them. If you opt for pretty much any add-on for the Corolla, it’ll cost you twenty grand. If you want the hatchback, it’ll be more. That said, this is still an exceptional daily driver for 99 percent of Americans. Worth the extra money? Maybe.
The Sonic, Impala, and Malibu are all dead, so if you want a car from the golden bowtie, your choice is the Spark, Camaro, or Corvette.
Chevrolet is still desperately hanging on to its inexpensive imported Daewoo Matiz rebadge which has been in production since 2016. Surely this thing has sold enough units worldwide to have paid back all of the investment developing it. Presumably as long as these continue to pass crash tests, GM will keep importing them. There’s nothing outright wrong with the Spark, and it’s officially the least-expensive car on the list, just barely beating out the Mirage.
The Mirage is regular cheap, but the Spark is GM cheap. Make of that what you will.
Many automakers have been replacing their compact hatchbacks with what is effectively the same compact hatchback on stilts, then raising the price. This is exactly what happened with the Ford Fiesta (Ecosport) and Mazda 2 (CX-3). While that’s the case with some of these models, they’re all still inexpensive enough for inclusion.
I haven’t had a chance to drive the Venue, but from what I’ve heard it’s pretty okay. The starting price is nice and competitive in this compact CUV market, and should sell well for the Korean brand. I’m not sure why Hyundai feels the need to compete directly with Kia in basically every segment, but here’s another inter-company rivalry. I like that it’s available with a stick (as is the Soul, but more on that in a second) but an auto is only a $1200 option.
The Soul is an interesting compact crossover, because it might actually have some, well, soul. It’s an interesting and stylish choice in a world of blobby two-box choices. However, if you want any must-have options or interesting colors, you’re going to end up paying a lot more. The base LX model doesn’t come with much.
The Kicks is a truly lightweight compact crossover that is somehow better than the Versa Note platform it is based on. Maybe it has just enough body roll and tire sidewall to be engaging-ish. It’s cheap and decent enough for a daily driver with some interesting base model inclusions. I’m not rushing out to buy one, but I won’t tweet too many snide remarks at you if you are.
This is perhaps the most egregious example of product on this list, and I am not here to listen to kind words about it. The Ecosport is the result of Ford killing off its $14,000 Fiesta, jacking it up a few inches, adding plastic cladding, and charging six grand more for it. I hate this odious thing. For 5 whole dollars under our 20K budget, you get a front wheel drive 1.0-liter turbocharged CUV that gets worse fuel mileage than the old 1.6-liter turbo Fiesta ST. And if you want just a bare minimum step up from the base model, the Ecosport SE will cost you more money than the Fiesta ST did, too!
I rate the Ecosport ew out of ew.
The Trailblazer is almost as bad as the Ecosport, but because it didn’t replace a truly inspiring automobile in Chevy’s lineup, I won’t give it quite as much crap. This thing costs less than the truly awful Chevy Trax, but is almost as big as the Equinox. It’s got some okay styling and brand recognition, so I won’t say anything too bad about this car. It’s slow, but so is everything on this list, that’s a given. It’s a stretch to call a $19,995 car “under $20,000” because the delivery charges will kick it over that mark, but MSRP is MSRP.
So there you have it. The 17 cars available in the U.S. market right now for under $20,000. If you knock that budget down to just $19,000, however, you’re going to get rid of six of them. It’s a tough world out there, and car payments are incredibly expensive. Choose wisely.