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TCC's Top Rated Vehicles Under $20k

May 6, 2011

Interested in getting the best vehicle for well below today's new-vehicle average of about $28k?

If so, you'll need to do some smart shopping; and that early stage of car shopping can be exciting yet a little overwhelming if you simply Google reviews for a model. As you pore over specs, features, and conflicting reviews from critics, it's sometimes hard to sort out the true issues and gripes from the hot air.

The Car Connection's full reviews are a great starting point.

If you've at all browsed our reviews (New Cars) section, you know that among our editors, we spend time with nearly every new vehicle—using them as we would our own vehicle, often for a week or more at a time, cumulatively—and rate them in five categories: Styling, Performance, Quality (Comfort), Safety, and Features. And for 2011 we introduced a Green score that that largely coordinates with fuel efficiency.

But those ratings aren't the full extent of it. We also look to other leading review sources and point you toward what they have to say. And for shoppers looking at comparing or contrasting several different models, with each vehicle we provide you a quick, concise list of Likes and Dislikes, as well as a composite Overall Rating for each new model in which all the categories are equally weighted.

In compiling our list of best-rated vehicles under $20,000, we considered only 2011 vehicles (and some 2012 already on sale) that could post a bottom-line sticker price in that range, including destination.

The Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy, and MINI Cooper—all among our highest-rated vehicles—narrowly missed the price cutoff, and they're all worth consideration if you're not on such a tight budget.

Keep in mind that, as you're looking for a new vehicle, you might put more weight on one or two of our categories—or you might study up on the specs, images, and related news that's available alongside the reviews to set your own criteria.

Start by taking a look at our Best Rated Vehicles Under $20k, then get out and do some shopping.

2011 Kia Optima

2011 Kia Optima

Kia Optima 

Price: $19,690 (LX)
Overall Rating: 8.7
Key Takeaway: Kia simply gets it; basic doesn't have to be boring, and the 2011 Kia Optima shows that mid-size sedan shoppers don't have to settle to design boredom or a lack of features.
Strongest Attributes: Safety, Features, Green


The 2011 Kia Optima is very closely related to the 2011 Hyundai Sonata—and they both earn an excellent 8.7 Overall Rating—but the Optima is the one to make this list because of its somewhat lower base price. With top crash-test ratings from both agencies, it's one of the safest mid-size sedans on the market; it's also one of the best-equipped, with Bluetooth standard even on the base model; and the base Optima's EPA ratings of 24 mpg city, 35 highway are at the head of the class while performance is lively from the 198-hp engine. With a quicker Turbo version of the Optima already out and a high-mileage Hybrid soon to arrive, shoppers willing to spend a little more have some exciting options.

2012 Ford Focus

2012 Ford Focus

Ford Focus (2012)

Price: $16,995 (S sedan)
Overall Rating: 8.5
Key Takeaway: With the 2012 Focus, Ford shows that small cars don't have to feel so banal, with charismatic compacts that are more satisfying to drive, more luxurious, and better-equipped.
Strongest Attributes: Features, Styling

Ford paid a lot of design attention to its new 2012 Ford Focus sedan and hatchback models, and it shows; both new models are beautiful, not only with near-perfect proportioning but the kind of details, inside and out, that we're used to seeing on more expensive cars. The new Focus's driving personality is charming for a basic, affordable car; while performance from its new direct-injected (and very economical) engine isn't anything special, the new Focus even in its most affordable trims handles as well as our longtime small-car handling favorite, the Mazda3, while feeling more refined and keeping occupants more comfortable. Features are a strong point, too; on higher, more expensive trims, Ford's MyFord Touch touch-screen interface is available, as well as an automatic parking system.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

Chevrolet Cruze

Price: $17,275 (LS sedan)
Overall Rating: 8.2
Key Takeaway: The 2011 Chevy Cruze certainly isn't a car that will set your heart racing, but it manages to combine a refined ride quality and tactile interior with the no-nonsense, space-efficient packaging--all with good value for the money.
Strongest Attributes: Safety, Quality (Comfort)

While the Ford Focus aims for a little excitement, GM's 2011 Chevy Cruze takes aim at the heart of the small-car market—especially practically-minded young families and those who simply want a comfortable, economical small sedan on a tight budget. It's certainly not daring or distinctive from the outside, but to those practical considerations the Cruze is a home run, with nearly the interior comfort of a mid-size sedan, an excellent ride, and top-notch safety. There's also a high-mpg Cruze Eco model, and much of the model line has a smooth, efficient new turbocharged 1.4-liter engine.

2011 Hyundai Elantra

2011 Hyundai Elantra

Hyundai Elantra

Price: $15,695 (GLS)
Overall Rating: 8.2
Key Takeaway: 40 mpg; a sleek, sophisticated look; and even more value for the money confirm that this little sedan has officially left the Corolla in the dust.
Strongest Attributes: Features, Styling

The 2011 Hyundai Elantra has, as we've said, left the Corolla in the dust, and with a base price that's lower than most other vehicles in its class, it simply offers the most bang for the buck for smart-money commuters as well as small families who simply want a small sedan that hits all the marks. Performance is perhaps the Elantra's single sore point; while it handles better than the previous version, and its new six-speed transmissions aid both fuel economy and acceleration, it's not at all a choice for enthusiasts. But for those on a budget, it offers a very impressive list of features for the money—including a newly available navigation system and even heated rear seats—and an interior that doesn't feel chintzy.

2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport

2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport

Suzuki Kizashi

Price: $19,744 (S)
Overall Rating: 8.2
Key Takeaway: The 2011 Kizashi is the best Suzuki car to date—a sophisticated and well-designed small sedan that's a lot more fun to drive than most other compact sedans.
Strongest Attributes: Performance, Features

The 2011 Suzuki Kizashi is a true market sleeper: Under nearly any other badge, the Suzuki Kizashi would be a sales success. While Suzuki dealerships are few and far between, once you make it out to one you'll find that the Kizashi is a gem, with attractive styling, a truly well-appointed interior, and steering and handling that's about the best it gets in a sporty compact front-driver. At a half-step smaller than mid-size sedans, the Kizashi is a nice size for urban commuters, with a sophisticated feel overall that's far better than other economy-priced sedans. And with standard items like automatic climate control, you get a lot for your money. 

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