$10,000 Buys a Brand-Spanking New Car, With Few Frills

May 19, 2009

Remember the Yugo? When it was introduced in 1986 and priced at only $3,990, it was the epitome of the no-frills car.

But it sure wasn't alone in the 1980s, when to keep cars moving at that other turbulent time for the auto market, a number of automakers sold stripped-down, bargain versions of some of their least expensive cars. For instance, Ford sold a very basic Pony version of its Escort that waived many standard features and got taller gearing, and Chevrolet once upon a time had the Chevette Scooter that took cost-cutting to an oppressive extreme, most notably substituting smooth cardboard door panels (that would, as my memory serves, warp or tear quickly).

In today’s money that $3,990 figure for the Yugo works out to be somewhere between $7,000 and $8,000, if you go by rates of inflation. But probably due to the much tougher modern safety requirements, there’s no equivalent to the Yugo in today’s market. Even the Smart fortwo, which feels every bit a diminutive, basic novelty, has respectable safety equipment and starts at about $12,000.

You probably aren’t aware that $10,000 can still buy a new car, but it does. And no, we’re not talking about fire-sale Chryslers, or 2008s that have been sitting on the lot for a year (I’ll get to that in a future column); there are two models for 2009 that have prices starting in the magic four-digit zone. The base Hyundai Accent GS three-door hatchback starts at just $9,970, while the 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base sedan (pictured above) starts at just $9,990. The Korean-built Chevrolet Aveo, a bargain over the past several years, is no longer as much of a cheapskates’ delight. It now starts just below $12,000, not counting destination, and its base price has gone up more than a grand from ’08 to ‘09.

Earlier this spring I requested some drive time with the new 1.6 Base version of the Versa, but what arrived in my driveway was a Versa 1.8 S hatchback with a bottom-line price of more than $15,000. The 1.8-liter has 122 horsepower, versus 107 hp for the 1.6-liter, but it’s the lowest-priced hatchback in the Versa lineup—no power windows or locks, no standard ABS, and no other common conveniences like cruise control—but it’s priced a whopping 40 percent higher than the cheapest sedan.

2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base

2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base

I got some great follow-up impressions of the 1.8-liter Versa—it’s one of the roomiest, best-riding small cars, and one of the quietest inside, plus I appreciate the hatchback’s style much more than the sedan’s—but the frugal shopper in me couldn’t help but wondering about the 1.6-liter special. Full disclosure here: I once (in college) owned a Ford Festiva and loved it for what it was—very cheap, reliable transportation.

So I went to the dealership.

Even at a Nissan retail store, finding a base model can be challenging. Of course, since the dealership makes very, very little money on a base model, there’s no incentive to put it out in front. My recommendation if you really want to check one of these out: go to the automaker’s Web site, then search the new-vehicle inventory at your local dealership. I searched and knew before I left that they had two Base models. The dealership had just a couple of Versas in the main portion of the lot, both fully loaded. As it turns out, the Base models weren’t in the normal lot, nor around the side of the dealership where most of the other Versas were; they were at the very back of the lot, even behind the service department—basically back by the weeds.

2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base

2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base

2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base

For all the trouble, the 1.6 Base sedan is actually a very agreeable car. Air conditioning and a sound system aren’t available—at all—and there are lots of black-plastic spacers and tabs in the instrument panel that remind you of where features you’ve forgone would be. You crank the windows, and you have to individually lock and unlock each door—a feature that we found both frustrating and novel in our week with the Versa hatchback. The upholstery is a downgraded material (sort of like a durable felt), the back seat doesn’t even fold forward or include a pass-through, and the trunk looks unfinished. On the outside, you get mirrors trimmed in dull black plastic and door handles of the same, and 14-inch tires with Pep Boys-caliber wheel covers. But it’s a new car, with six airbags, out the door for $10,710 including destination. With one of many incentives at the dealership, you can probably be out the door for $10k…or less.

And unlike some of these base models I’ve driven in the past, I didn’t notice any real difference in noise or refinement compared to our 1.8 S. The 107-horsepower, 1.6-liter comes with a five-speed manual, rather than a six-speed, but we liked the nice, neat linkage and smooth clutch takeup better than we remember the six-speed to be, and the smaller 14-inch wheels, although they don’t look as nice, seemed to offer a better ride at no detriment to handling. I didn't even expect a tach, but you get one. For a bit more than the 1.6 Base, there’s a 1.6 model that’s offered with a four-speed automatic, but we’d recommend the stick with the lesser engine, as the 1.8-liter doesn’t even deal that well with the auto’s wide ratios and can become boomy at higher speeds.

Of course, while many shoppers would much rather have a better-equipped car that’s a few years old for the same price, people have their reasons for looking at these models. Some people want the new-car warranty (now met with some certified used programs), but others simply want a car that no one else has had their grubby hands on. The salesperson volunteered that these base cars attract an odd bunch and are often bought (sometimes with cash) by people who can afford much more but for some reason or another want to keep it basic.

And when it leaves money leftover for other things, such as a bigger vacation budget or a sports car, no-frills has newfound allure.


Once a week Bengt Halvorson will be posting a column under this Frugal Shopper tag. Watching every penny of your motoring budget? Want to know when, where, and how to save the most when shopping, maintaining, and upgrading? You’ve found the right place—check back at TheCarConnection.com.

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