If you're shopping for a new car, it's likely to be smaller than the vehicle it will replace. SUVs are still popular, no doubt--but high gas prices and new entries like the Focus, Elantra, and Cruze alike are changing the makeup of America's new-car fleet.
Size isn't the only factor changing hearts and minds. So is price. The average sale price of a new car may have held steady for the past few years, but the economic malaise of the past four years has shifted many buyers down into the economy class. That means the $20,000 price point is as relevant as ever--maybe more so.
Good thing, then, that the choices among $20,000 small cars have never been better. Whether it's a compact or a subcompact they have in mind, budget-minded consumers have never found safer, sportier, or more feature-rich new cars on the showroom floor.
The best of these? The following compact and subcompact cars score best in TheCarConnection's overall vehicle ratings, and sport a base price of less than $20,000.Subcompacts
2012 Honda Fit – 8.0
Peppy and fun to drive, with a space-efficient seating arrangement thanks to the second-row fold-flat Magic Seat, and massive 20.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, the 2012 Honda Fit is well-configured, affordable transportation that also comes with a pretty generous list of features. The base Fit includes air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, keyless entry, a USB input, and an MP3-compatible CD sound system. The small, tall hatchback is priced from $16,125 with five-speed automatic and $17,060 for the Fit Sport with five-speed manual. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 28 mpg city/35 mpg highway (base Fit automatic) and 27/33 mpg for Fit Sport (manual and automatic).
2012 Chevrolet Sonic, New York City launch event, October 2011Enlarge Photo
2012 Chevrolet Sonic – 8.0
A completely new global small car, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is also an extremely safe car, garnering Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Our review finds the Sonic “supremely roomy, comfortable, refined, tight, and quiet for a small car.” Along with 10 standard airbags, there are other surprise standard features on all models, including alloy wheels, remote keyless entry and air conditioning. For around $15,000, you can get a pretty well-equipped Sonic that delivers 35 mpg highway fuel economy with the base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Step up to the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the highway fuel economy increases to 40 mpg.
2012 Ford FiestaEnlarge Photo
2012 Ford Fiesta – 7.6
Available in sedan and hatchback models, the 2012 Ford Fiesta offers buyers great styling, responsive and nicely weighted steering, and a nimble, maneuverable feel. Hatchback models provide added versatility. The base Fiesta S sedan starts at just $13,995 and includes a split-folding back seat, rear heater ducts, air conditioning, power locks, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, a decent sound system with auxiliary input, and even a driver’s knee airbag. The Fiesta SE hatchback begins a $16,465. Fuel economy is rated at 28/38 mpg across the board.
2012 Kia Rio EX 5-DoorEnlarge Photo
2012 Kia Rio – 7.6
With its Euro-inspired looks, nicely-finished interior and smooth drivetrain, the 2012 Kia Rio is “an exceptional value,” say TCC editors, “considering the amount of standard equipment offered in the base LX versions.” The Rio five-door hatchback is also the first non-hybrid, non-luxury vehicle to offer idle stop and go technology that helps reduce fuel consumption by shutting off the engine when the vehicle is not in motion, and automatically restarts it when the driver releases the brake pedal--though the feature has been delayed until the 2013 model year. All base 2012 Rio sedans and hatchbacks carry a less-than-$15,000 price tag, including $750 destination charge. Bluetooth, cruise control and tilt/telescopic steering wheel are standard on all but LX models. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 30/40 mpg across the lineup.
2012 Hyundai AccentEnlarge Photo
2012 Hyundai Accent – 7.4
The appeal of the 2012 Hyundai Accent is quite simple: a vast interior, great styling in the five-door hatchback, stellar 30/40-mpg fuel economy, and affordable price. The base $15,355 five-door Accent GS has standard air conditioning, a 172-watt stereo, CD player, XM Satellite Radio, USB port, and a rear defroster. Cruise control is standard when GS is ordered with automatic transmission. The Accent SE hatchback adds standard Bluetooth, cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls, a sliding armrest and 16-inch wheels. This is the most expensive Accent you can buy, topping out at $17,555.