16 Cars for $16,000---Or Less

April 22, 2009

If you’re looking for a new set of wheels despite the recession, you’re in for a surprise. New cars can be far more expensive than you recall from your last trip to the showroom. According to figures from Comerica Bank, which compiles an annual study on affordability, the average new car sold in America cost $28,715 last year–hardly affordable for lots of shoppers who need reliable, safe, and inexpensive new cars.

Which cars sit at the bottom of the pricing ladder? It may be surprising that there are dozens of cars below the $16,000 price mark. Some well-styled cars, with plenty of room and strong five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), too.

TheCarConnection.com has researched 16 great choices for cars less than $16,000. Of these 2009 models, some are far less expensive—one notably checking in at a hair under $10,000:

2010 Mazda3

What is it? The latest edition of Mazda’s compact sedan and five-door hatchback.
Price range: $15,040 and up

The 2010 Mazda3 is only the latest in a string of enthusiast-appealing compacts. With a choice of either frugal or sporting four-cylinder engines, unusually good handling for a small car, and a base price just under the $16,000 mark, the newest Mazda sits nearly atop TheCarConnection.com’s small-car rankings. It earns an overall score of 8.4, with highlights in styling and features.

Likes:
* Expressive exterior style
* Quality of interior
* Excellent performance
* Smooth, quiet engines
* Luxury features in an economy car

Dislikes:
* Some options only available with larger engine
* Unimpressive fuel economy with larger engine
* Tiny nav screen with driver-only controls

2009 Chevrolet Aveo

2009 Chevrolet Aveo

2009 Chevrolet Aveo

What is it? The smallest Chevrolet you can buy—that is, until the GM brand introduces its 2011 Chevrolet Spark subcompact.
Price range: $11,000 and up

The Chevrolet Aveo follows the pattern of many small cars in the sub-$16,000 class. It’s offered as a five-door hatchback or as a four-door sedan. Made in South Korea, the Aveo is something of an oddity—it trades the sometimes cartoonish small-car styling for conventional looks, down to the faux-wood interior of some models. It’s comfortable and has decent safety gear, but TheCarConnection.com’s editors were let down by the lack of features found in other small cars, and in the humdrum performance of its small four-cylinder engine. TCC’s team rates the 2009 Aveo at 5.8, with a low of 4 for performance and 8 for comfort and quality.

Likes:

  • Reasonably roomy
  • Good materials and fit/finish
  • Styling is innocuously good-looking

Dislikes

  • Lacks features like Bluetooth
  • Four-cylinder and four-speed automatic are slow performers

2009 Honda Fit

2009 Honda Fit

2009 Honda Fit

What is it? A five-passenger compact with great room and a flexible interior
Price range: $14,750- $18,960

The 2009 Honda Fit is a perennial winner in the subcompact class. With compact dimensions and a small four-cylinder engine, the Fit seems pretty mundane on paper. On the road, its great visibility, handling and spacious cabin lift it above the usual standards of the class. TheCarConnection.com rates the Fit at 8.2, with highs of 9 in safety and features.

Likes:
* Excellent steering and maneuverability
* Upmarket interior
* Astonishing cargo and back-seat space
* Secure, substantial feel on the road
* Good crash safety relative to rivals

Dislikes:
* Unimpressive highway fuel economy
* Tall, stubby design is still far from sexy

2008 Hyundai Accent GLS

2008 Hyundai Accent GLS

2009 Hyundai Accent

What is it? The South Korean automaker’s entry-level car, offered as a four-door or three-door hatchback
Price range: $9,970-$16,000

The Hyundai Accent is nearing the end of its life in its current form, but it’s still a decent performer that goes out of its way to present a handsome cabin and good passenger room to its owners. The biggest drawbacks to either the sedan or the hatchback come from under the hood; the engine isn’t that powerful, and it’s rather noisy, too. TheCarConnection.com’s experts give the Accent an overall rating of 6.4 out of 10, with high scores of 7 in comfort and features. But the bargain base price of $9,970—making it the cheapest car for sale in the U.S.—is a huge draw on its own.

Likes:
* Stylish interior
* Roomy back seat
* Good fuel economy

Dislikes:
* "Power" is a relative term
* Engine noise
* Shifter quality

2009 Hyundai Elantra

2009 Hyundai Elantra

2009 Hyundai Elantra

What is it? A compact car in five-door wagon or four-door sedan form
Price range: $13,970 - $17,670

The Hyundai Elantra is a surprising performer among compact cars. With strong competition from the likes of the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra, the bargain Elantra is one of the more highly ranked compacts on the market—even Consumer Reports puts it at the top of their list for its roomy interior, sharp powertrain and reliability record. TheCarConnection.com’s experts give the Accent an overall rating of 7.6 out of 10, with high scores of 8 in comfort and features.

Likes:
* Very roomy interior, with adult-worthy back-seat space
* Huge trunk
* Responsive acceleration, even with automatic
* Respectable fuel economy ratings

Dislikes:
* Conservative exterior styling plays it too safe
* Doesn’t feel as sporty as other small cars
* Engine noise can be prominent when accelerating

2009 Kia Spectra Spectra5

2009 Kia Spectra Spectra5

2009 Kia Spectra

What is it? A four- or five-door compact loosely related to the Hyundai Elantra
Price range: $13,200 - $17,345

Hyundai and Kia may be related, but even vehicles that both companies develop from similar components end up feeling quite different. The Kia Spectra, for example, shared some running gear with the Hyundai Elantra—but it’s rated much lower by TheCarConnection.com’s editors. It earns a 6.4 out of 10, and scores lower than the Elantra for its less impressive interior and higher levels of engine noise and vibration. The Spectra will be replaced in 2010 by the new Kia Forte.

Likes:
* Impressive interior space
* Smooth, settled ride
* Responsive steering and handling in SX models

Dislikes:
* Dull interior design and subpar materials
* Disappointing fuel economy
* Engine noise when revving or accelerating hard
* Anti-lock brakes aren’t offered on much of the lineup

2010 Kia Soul

2010 Kia Soul

2010 Kia Soul

What is it? A compact urban wagon with seating for five
Price range: $13,300-$16,950 base

The 2010 Kia Soul is a brand-new wagon in the cute urban wheels niche that includes the Scion xB and the new Nissan Cube. The Soul trumps them both, and for city families with a need for flexibility, its compact body and flip-folding rear seats will make errands and carpools easy. The Soul’s most stirring feature is its angular, youthful body—but standard Sirius satellite radio and available Bluetooth are uncommon in this class, too. Six airbags and stability control are standard, and Kia expects the Soul to score top crash-test ratings. TheCarConnection.com’s team of auto experts rank the Soul at 8.2 out of 10.

Likes:
* Adorable, angular shape
* Fun and spacious interior
* Standard safety equipment
* Well-equipped, even in base trim

Dislikes:
*  Manual shifter has long travel
* Drivetrain thrum at highway speed
* Not quick

2009 Mitsubishi Lancer

2009 Mitsubishi Lancer

2009 Mitsu Lancer

What is it? The mainstay four-door compact from the company that brings you the Evolution turbo sedan
Price range: $14,340 - $26,490

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution thrills rally drivers and sportscar aficionados alike—but at its roots, it’s a Mitsu Lancer with some heavy drivetrain work. The base car has glimmers of fun from its high-wattage cousin—the handling is good, and the manual gearbox is among the best in the class. The engine’s a little loud, though, and the interior is Dullsville. TheCarConnection.com’s editors gave the base Lancer a score of 7.8. In 2010 a new Ralliart Sportback edition will be available, adding a hatchback profile to the lineup.

Likes:
* Styling (especially GTS) that could be mistaken for an Evo
* Sharp, responsive handling
* Sweet-shifting manual transmission

Dislikes:
* Engine noise, and not the sporty kind
* Lots of road noise on coarse surfaces
* Dull interior plastics

2009 Nissan Cube

2009 Nissan Cube

2009 Nissan Cube

What is it? Nissan’s entry in the boxcar segment, riding alongside the Scion xB and the Kia Soul
Price range: $13,990 - $19,370

Is the 2009 Nissan Cube a new kind of utility vehicle, a city-friendly microvan, or an especially tall compact wagon? It’s tough to say; at once, the quirky new Nissan Cube sort of fits into several existing categories but then ends up being the odd one out—in a positive sense. Its warped, organic style is a nice counterpoint to the likes of the Scion xB and the Kia Soul. Ultimately, though, it’s not as flexible as the Soul nor as sporting. TheCarConnection.com rates the Cube at 7.8 out of 10.

Likes:
* Offbeat styling
* Perky and economical powertrain
* Overall refinement
* Space for four tall adults
* Bargain base price

Dislikes:
* Rear seats don’t tumble forward
* Light, disconnected steering feel
* Susceptible to crosswinds
* Unimpressive highway fuel economy

2009 Nissan Versa S

2009 Nissan Versa S

2009 Nissan Versa

What is it? A sedan or wagon that shares some pieces with Nissan’s Sentra
Price range: $9,990 - $16,330

The 2009 Nissan Versa isn’t particularly sporty, fashionable, or innovative, but it offers an astonishing amount of space, comfort, and features for the money. With an ultra-low-priced base version, it’s also one of the cheapest cars you can buy in America right now. The Versa is rated at 7 out of 10 by TheCarConnection.com. 8 for features and comfort, 6 for styling and performance

Likes:
* Very spacious, quiet interior
* Supple ride for a small car
* Simple but attractive instrument panel
* Good crash-test results
* Available Bluetooth interface

Dislikes:
* Lacks the agile feel of other small cars its size
* Fuel economy is only passable
* Engine gets very noisy when accelerating

2009 Pontiac G3

2009 Pontiac G3

2009 Pontiac G3

What is it? A Pontiac-badged version of the Chevrolet Aveo
Price range: $14,335 - $14,335

GM has promised to get out of the badge-engineering business—yet for 2009, the Pontiac division will sell a lightly reworked version of the 2009 Chevrolet Aveo under the G3 nameplate. With no mechanical differences, it’s strictly for those who’d rather have an arrowhead on the front end instead of a bowtie. TheCarConnection.com rates the Pontiac G3 with a score of 6, with a low of 4 for performance and 8 for comfort and quality.

Likes:

  • Decent comfort and quality
  • Slightly better styling than the Aveo
  • Acceptable safety equipment and scores

Dislikes

  • Lack of advanced features
  • Four-cylinder performance is sluggish

2009 Scion xD

2009 Scion xD

2009 Scion xD

What is it? The smaller of the Scion wagons, it’s also the more frugal
Price range: $14,650 - $15,450

The 2009 Scion xD is one of the most substantial and feature-laden vehicles for the money, and the opportunity for customization helps mask any econo-car cues. Scion dealers will sell you all sorts of performance and cosmetic add-ons, which can send the pricetag well above $16,000—but the base car slots comfortably below that price point. TheCarConnection.com rates the Scion xD at 7, with a high of 8 for features and a low of 6 for comfort and quality.

Likes:
* Great value for the money
* Good crash safety
* Safety features

Dislikes:
* Skimpy front seats
* Rear stadium seating impedes headroom
* Premium sound system doesn't include premium speakers

2009 Smart fortwo

2009 Smart fortwo

2009 smart fortwo

What is it? A Euro-bred two-seat city car that’s a parking attendant’s dream
Price range: $11,990 - $20,990

The 2008 Smart Fortwo is a very competent, fun-to-drive city car, not just a novelty, but with so many caveats, most people would be best served by a hybrid or larger small car. It has very little cargo room, has extreme susceptibility to crosswinds on the freeway, and can get very costly despite its low base price. TheCarConnection.com rates the smart fortwo at 6, with a high of 8 for safety and a low of 4 for comfort and quality.

Likes:
* Very quick, responsive steering
* Parking nirvana
* More seating space than a Ferrari
* Standard electronic stability control

Dislikes:
* On the highway, it’s a penalty box
* Busy, bumpy ride
* Disappointing fuel economy
* Lacks passing power at cruising speeds

2009 Suzuki SX4 Man

2009 Suzuki SX4 Man

2009 Suzuki SX4

What is it? The smallest crossover on the market—and a nimble, enjoyable wagon, too
Price range: $13,299 - $19,639

If you need an inexpensive wagon with all-weather traction and a unique badge on the hood, look no further. The 2008 Suzuki SX4 Sport brings all-wheel drive to the subcompact class, along with great visibility and an engaging driving experience. TheCarConnection.com rates the Suzuki SX4 at 7.4, with a high of 8 for safety and a low of 7 for features.

Likes:
* Perky handling
* Smooth four-cylinder engine
* Great visibility
* High-quality interior

Dislikes:
* Tight rear-seat room
* Economy-car acceleration
* Hardly beautiful

2009 Toyota Yaris

2009 Toyota Yaris

2009 Toyota Yaris

What is it? The smallest Toyota you can buy
Price range: $11,595 - $15,880

The 2009 Toyota Yaris is a recession darling, with cheap running costs, a low price, and a reputation for dependability. It comes in hatchback or sedan form, and has a frugal four-cylinder under the hood—but it’s unengaging to drive and lacks important safety gear as standard equipment. TheCarConnection.com rates the Toyota Yaris at 5.6, with a high of 7 for styling and a low of 5 for safety.

Likes:
* Very cheap price
* Great reputation for reliability and resale value
* Excellent fuel economy
* Good ride (sedan)

Dislikes:
* Instrument panel design seems gimmicky
* Doesn't handle very well
* Front seats are small
* Safety features are optional

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt

What is it? A compact Chevrolet offered as sedan or coupe
Price range: $14,990 - $23,525

If you’re looking for a small car that drives like a larger car, the Cobalt fits the bill. Exotic turbo versions may be fun to drive, but the base Cobalts feel drab and less spacious than they actually are. The price is right for the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt, yet most of its competitors offer a better overall value. TheCarConnection.com rates the Chevrolet Cobalt at 6.8, with a high of 7 for styling and a low of 6 for comfort and quality.

Likes:
* Smooth ride
* Road noise is quite absent
* Impressive fuel economy
* Spacious trunk

Dislikes:
* Engine noise
* Steering feels vague
* Drab interior
* Uncomfortable seats
* No thorax side airbags offered

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