My first car was built the year I was born and my second car was eight years older than that. Both of them were trucks and both of which I have enjoyed tremendously – but as proud of them as I was, they were both beaters. My third truck was a ’04 Silverado. The transition from a choppy 460 big block Ford to a smooth-running 5.3L Vortec motor was night and day. I had power windows and doors, an HVAC system that could chill the nuts out of a squirrel's mouth and reliability that of which I had never known. It was absolutely glorious. No more late-night mechanic sessions trying to keep my jalopies roadworthy; all I had to do was keep the tank full.
I have generally found that you can classify cars into two categories: new or in new condition. Anything less, for the purpose of this conversation, is irrelevant. This article is aimed at placing the best category one cars before you because more than ever, thanks to modern economics and long-term financing, it’s easier than ever to slip behind the wheel of a brand new, shiny whip. Before you pull the trigger on your next car purchase, take a gander at these little beauties. All of them can be had for around $20,000, all of them can be found in like-new condition and some of them may be way nicer than you’d have thought you could own. NOTE: I’ve chosen 10 new and 10 used cars for the simple reason that, if you’re willing to sacrifice the prestige of saying you’re the first owner, you can get into a much nicer car only a year or two older that still looks brand new.
20 New: Honda Civic
Looking for a solid go-getter to get you reliably to and from that internship and shuttle you back and forth to those final classes before graduation? Truth be told, you really can’t go wrong with a brand spanking new Honda Civic – and countless reviews from a multitude of reputable sources can’t all be wrong. The new Civic is a solid 4.5-star car whether Car and Driver, Edmunds, US News, Top Gear or Motortrend are doing the reviewing. Everybody seems to love the Civic. 40mpg highway with 158hp in a 2.0L will leave you with plenty of warm fuzzies for the foreign sedan as well.
19 New: Kia Soul
This boxy little XB imitator is a ragingly popular style since the featureless lunchbox was introduced by Toyota in 2004. We didn’t really have anything like it prior to that and people seemed to eat them up so much so that it has lead Kia to follow suit with their Soul in 2009.
It’s nothing impressive and ugly to some, but you’re getting a brand new gasoline sipper with a warranty second to none.
If you can stomach driving a mini-minivan and need a little utility in your life but nothing too serious, the Soul just may speak to your soul.
18 New: Honda Fit
Don’t worry if you’re noticing a trend from halfway sporty to nothing you’d ever want to be seen in. If the above two didn’t do anything for you, you may flat line on the Fit as it’s the smallest and weakest of the three so far – but you’re getting upwards of 35mpg in a five-star NHTSA safety rated car. Not really any frills or thrills here, but what do you expect for $20K? The little Fit is acclaimed for spaciousness despite its size and peripheral features, not to mention shamefully slow acceleration (obviously). You can seat five but expect to feel the additional weight with the 130hp automatic.
17 New: Hyundai Kona
Car and Driver editor’s choice in spite of their four-star rating, the Kona’s general likeability amongst most other reputable, big-box reviewers remains sky-high. US News reports the Kona #1 in subcompact SUVs, #5 dual-row SUVs and #7 in crossover SUVs.
Never mind the ugly, Cherokee-style slanty-eyed headlights; it handles swiftly with an all-wheel drivetrain and a turbocharged 175hp four-cylinder.
The six-speed automatic keeps engine revs right where they need to be and as far as contemporary styling goes it’s right on par with just about everything else.
16 New: Toyota Yaris iA
I’m adding this one to the list almost by default as it’s just another top-rated new car available under $20,000; not a bad starter car for those needing something new and Toyota is a proven brand of reliability. Admittedly the Yaris is just about too green for me to stand behind, not for the fact that it’s economic but the reason that it’s economic. You’re not getting 32/40mpg out of a car with a big engine and exceptional body styling; rather six-speed transmissions route torque from the 1.5L, 105hp inlines making the term performance as foreign as an exchange student. As unfulfilling as all of this may be, it’s thousands under the $20K mark brand-spanking new.
15 New: Chevy Sonic
Despite the ultra-small platform which the Sonic is built around, it sports a blisteringly high stack of reviews from many prominent car rating agencies. High 8s out of ten almost across the board save for a few extra critical cynics and non-believers out there. I’d probably solicit the same low review, but I’m not speaking from a position of someone who would get anything out of a small car like this in the first place. If you find yourself in a position to benefit from the #3 rated sub-compact car based on a compilation of over 90 rating platforms, this $17,000 wonder may be your ticket.
14 New: Mazda3
If "taking the every day out of driving" appeals to you in any capacity, step up into the newly-redesigned Mazda3 that almost rivals the more prestigious 6 model. Styling that blows the socks off a Yaris is standard and the wheelbase seems to fit the car nicely – you’re not crammed into a tuna can with a lawnmower engine anymore.
The new Mazda3 comes in three trim packages – the base trim being arguably superior to the Yaris, Fit and Kona combined.
In a six-car speed test it was faster than a Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra thanks to a 155hp 2.0L. In the five cars tested, only the turbocharged Cruz was able to put it down.
13 New: Kia Rio
Depending on your particular taste, only a few of these cars, if any, may be acceptable to you, this isn’t a style contest. However, it’s a quality contest. Each of the featured cars here received exceptional ratings from an overwhelmingly large majority of indexed consumers which makes it a safe bet to follow the leader here. The front-wheel Rio’s 130hp driveline pulls 32 combined miles per gallon into a quiet-running platform with a decent infotainment center and interior room to get comfy while you’re jamming. Don’t expect to look like the man doing it, but you’ll have lunch money left over after filling up your tank.
12 New: Kia Forte
The once ultra-low level looking styling of the Kia brand has drastically improved for the better part of the decade now. Somewhere along the line, they found themselves stuck in a ‘90s-styling rut – the older Kias look hideously bad.
The new Kia has come a long way since then and they’ve put a fire under their design and added a little aggression.
So while the Kia Forte is not much of a looker, it’s also not embarrassing to drive around in either. Two whole liters of multiport fuel injection blow all 147hp through a six-speed with a rather firm ride that let you almost pretend you’re in a really small racecar.
11 New: Subaru Impreza
When you’re buying a Subaru, you’re buying more than a car, you’re buying a brand. Nobody buys a Kia because it’s cool. They buy a Kia because they can’t finance more than $21K and can’t afford gas in an eight cylinder. Subaru however, is a performance oriented, all-wheel manufacturer that has decades of research and development into their drivelines and flat fours. Not much performance can be had out of the basic base models but handling on the Impreza isn’t half bad for what it is. The 152hp 2.0L engine is under-tuned enough to where it should survive a decent service life while the 32 combined mpg isn’t horrible for a full-time all-wheel drive system in action.
10 Used: 2016 Honda Accord
If you’ve wanted to step up the value of your buck, settling for a two-year-old model will allow you to slide right into the pilot’s seat of a Honda Accord. Not exactly the big leagues, but a respectable coupe nonetheless and over 180hp puts you in the fast lane when you need to go without straining your calf muscles jamming the accelerator into the floor. Safe-sensing technology is built into even the base trim packages and an available six-speed manual give the questionable exterior styling some redemption. Although not likely in our prescribed price range, upgrading to the six-cylinder 3.5L bumps you up nearly 100hp.
9 Used: 2017 Toyota Camry
If driving around a little sardine can just cause it's brand new doesn’t suit your fancy, you’re not alone. Fear not, you can still easily look like you’re in something new and retain a little bit of respectability with the sedan of import sedans – the ever-faithful Toyota Camry.
Stepping up more than just a few notches from the bare-bones new models of the equivalent price, you’ll have legendary Toyota reliability with available four or six-cylinder engines.
This is a handy feature in a time where most competitors are ditching the six-cylinder engines in favor of highly-economic, small-displacement fours.
8 Used: 2016 Subaru Legacy
Subaru’s sedan, the Legacy, is going to treat you to roomy seats, all-wheel drive standard and outstanding fuel economy statistics for the driveline type. Depending on options and driving conditions, you can range from 20-36mph and horsepower ranges from a measly 175 to 256, staying about on par with equivalent sedans from other manufacturers. It’s available with some of the most competent safety features and collision detection/avoidance systems on the market for the category car and equipped models not only warn you of lane departure, they’ll stop the car before a collision if you don’t do it yourself when Eyesight equipped.
7 Used: 2016 Chevy Impala
A Kelly Blue Book 9.2, the Chevy Impala with its newly redesigned image is hard to beat. Here’s to telling the world that you’re a respectable, gainfully employed citizen doing your part to drive the gears of economy.
No spoilers or air splitters here, but 186hp is standard for the 2.5L inline-four that you’re likely to see it equipped with.
A 305hp powerplant is available in a six-cylinder variant but that’s not the droid you’re looking for. The above-average body styling will keep your life looking fresh and, for a car of its size, you can expect the handling to pleasantly surprise you.
6 Used: 2016 Dodge Charger SXT
So, you're more of a large car guy, you say? You prefer muscle to mileage? If the econo-class cars just don’t tickle your fancy but you’re still on a budget, big-bodied, rear-wheel drives can be had. Take the Charger for example, a classic that stirs up feelings of emotion rather than disappointment when the accelerator is depressed and handles surprisingly well for the large vehicle that it is. With a variety of engine options, you aren’t necessarily condemned to poor mileage just for your large-car preference. From 3.6L V-6s to the 6.4L SRT model and 6.2L Hellcat powerplant, there’s a power package for anyone’s budget.
5 Used: 2016 Dodge Challenger
The heritage-bred Charger may have been the big daddy back in the day, but the once overshadowed Challenger has been reincarnated with a vengeance that the four-door Charger has ultimately been bred out of.
Didn’t think you could own a full-fledged sports car in modern trim for under $20K? Think again!
You’re not going to get the top of the line model, and it’s definitely not going to come with a powertrain anything like that of the Hellcat, but you can rest assured, as far as bang for your buck is concerned, you’ll be hard pressed to find more style at the price.
4 Used: 2016 Kia Optima
Alright, this isn’t a Challenger by any means, but it definitely isn’t a Soul either. Kia’s upper-level arsenal of automobiles (if you would even call it that) have respectable ratings nearly across the board save a few misses here and there, but that’s to be expected. US News gives it a perfect 10/10 safety rating which is a more than an acceptable reliability score. Thanks to the turbocharging, it gets away with 31-37mpg on the freeway depending on engine package and the weight of your right foot. This car is closely comparable to the acclaimed Mazda6 and is a very good mid-sized option to consider.
3 Used: 2017 Volkswagen Passat
Another formidable contender for great rides on the cheap comes under the Volkswagen brand in the form of the ever-present Passat. Sold globally in different forms, the Passat has been roaming the world since the ‘70s, and living up to the "everyman’s car" heritage that Volkswagen was founded on, can be had for an everyman’s price tag. The Passat will have absolutely no problem handling better than your average mid-size sedan and both engine options offer a generous amount of power whether you go with the 1.8L, turbocharged, four-cylinder with 170hp or the 3.6L V-6, which is rated at 280hp.
2 Used: 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid
With cost of ownership and safety ratings in the mid-9s on a 10 point scale according to US News, the hybrid Fusion takes econo-ownership and road safety to new heights you’re likely not to attain in most other comparable models.
The passenger cabin is spacious and upscale and it’s reportedly fun to drive – for a hybrid.
The NASCAR front-end styling will salvage some of the cool points you’re going to forfeit with the hybrid and an HOV sticker lets you take carpool by yourself. It’s an all-around great commuter when you need to go far on the cheap and don’t want a jalopy sitting in your driveway.
1 Used: 2014 Mazda6
Here’s a fun one. It's not as flashy as a Challenger, but the Challenger will only get you the base model and small motor – The Mazda6 Grand Touring comes decked out with features and styling like a luxury sports car that’ll bump your daily commute from a drag to the highlight of your day. Red-stitched, black leather trim accentuates the sleek dash and racy gauge cluster.
the visual and aesthetic experience from the driver’s point of view is very pleasing, to say the least – it emulates that of a much more upscale vehicle.
The outside is molded with the same attention to detail and looks just as sharp. The 2.5L’s naturally aspirated 184hp is enough to keep driving interesting and make sporty passes while still maintaining a combined 27mph consistently.
References: autoguide.com, caranddriver.com, motortrend.com, cars.com, usnews.com.