Great Vehicles for Around $20,000

Some of these cars come to a little over $20,000 (like this Forester), but are well worth the extra money.

The following article, written by Consumer Guide Publisher Tom Appel, first appeared in the “2014 Chicago Auto Show Official Show Guide.” Thanks to the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, producers of the Auto Show, for allowing us to share the text again here.

Last year in this same space I reported that the average transaction price of a new car had risen to over $30,000 (it’s about $31,000, now). At the time I looked at a number of vehicles that could be had for around that sum of money.

The $30,000 Question: What is an “Average” Car?

As the median price of a new car has risen, so has the low-end of the market. Long gone is the $10,000 new car, the last of which was the 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 Base, which listed for $9,990, not including the $695 destination fee.

When examining prices at the more affordable end of the new-car spectrum, it’s important to realize that most new cars come with two significant features, one of which is usually included in the base price, the other usually not.

It is the rare new car or truck that is delivered to customers these days without air conditioning and an automatic transmission. The “take rate” on both features exceeds 95 percent, and is actually much higher when you exclude high-performance and specialty vehicles.

Air conditioning is now standard on virtually every new vehicle available in the U.S., but the advertised price on most subcompact and compact cars is for a model with a manual transmission. Going with the automatic transmission typically adds at least $1000 to the bottom line. Additionally, many advertised new-car prices do not include the destination fee, which typically runs around $800 on a small car.

Here let’s look at some of the better options for shoppers looking to keep total costs down, but still enjoy the convenience of driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission. Note: The estimated monthly payment figures shown below assume a 10-percent sales tax rate, a 20-percent down payment, and a 5-year loan at 5 percent. Your tax and interest will likely differ somewhat from these figures. Dealer and manufacturer incentives as well as any additional equipment you may purchase will further impact your final cost.

The $14,000 Question: Used-Car Options for Around $250 a Month


Great Vehicles for Around $20,000


2013 Kia Rio LX

2013 Kia Rio LX

Class: Subcompact car

Base price: $13,600

Automatic transmission: $1100

Destination: $800

Total:  $15,500

Estimated payment: $260

Kia’s smallest car is not only affordable, it is surprisingly refined. Rio rides like a much larger vehicle, and boasts a quiet, nicely finished cabin. The standard and only engine does a better than adequate job keeping up with traffic. Note that 2014 Rio pricing was not available at the time of publication. More on the Kia Rio.


2014 Chevrolet Sonic LS Hatchback

2014 Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback LS Automatic

 Class: Subcompact car

Base price: $16,020

Automatic transmission: Standard

Destination: $825

Total: $16,845

Estimated payment: $280

A Consumer Guide Best Buy in the subcompact class, Sonic impresses most for its excellent use of space and sporty demeanor. Even with the base engine, Sonic is fun to drive, with more than enough power to deal with merging and passing chores. Note that an available turbocharged engine improves both performance and fuel economy, but means stepping up a trim and paying $700 for the option. More on the Chevrolet Sonic.


2014 Fiat 500 Pop

2014 Fiat 500 Pop

Class: Sporty performance car

Base price: $16,195

Automatic transmission: $1250

Destination: $800

Total: $18,245

Estimated payment: $300

The Fiat 500 is proof that a fun, affordable car can be practical as well. Two large adults will find plenty of space inside the 500, with ample cargo space to be had behind them. On the road the diminutive Fiat handles like a sporty coupe should, yet rides with the comfort and isolation of a much larger vehicle. Drivers who lay off the gas pedal should see fuel economy in the low 30-mpg range. More on the Fiat 500.



2014 Hyundai Elantra Sedan. A Sport model is show here.

2014 Hyundai Elantra SE Sedan

Class: Compact car

Base price: $17,200

Automatic transmission: $1000

Destination: $810

Total: $19,010

Estimated payments: $315

Like many small cars, Elantra’s least-costly point of entry is a sedan. In base SE trim, Elantra feels like a more-expensive ride. A nicely appointed cabin and low sound levels contribute to the upscale feel. Elantra isn’t exactly quick, but there’s sufficient power for passing and merging. Adults will find plenty of front-seat space, though the rear seating area is best left to pre-teens. More on the Hyundai Elantra.


2014 Prius c One

2013 Toyota Prius c One

Class: Subcompact car

Base price: $19,080

Automatic transmission: Standard

Destination: $810

Total: $19,890

Estimated payment: $330

Prius c is not the least expensive small car on the market, but it is among the most efficient. In fact, the Prius c uses less fuel than any non-plug-in vehicle available in the U.S. In Consumer Guide testing, one test Prius c returned 58 mpg in an even mix of city and highway driving. On the down side, power is only adequate, while rear-seat accommodations are best suited to pre-teen youngsters. Note: 2014 pricing was not available at the time of publication. More on the Toyota Prius c.


2014 Mazda 6 Sport

2014 Mazda 6 Sport Automatic

Class: Midsize car

Base price: $22,695

Automatic transmission: Standard

Destination: $795

Total: $23,490

Estimated payment: $390

Consumer Guide named the 2014 Mazda 6 a Best Buy for a number of reasons, primary among them being its sporty demeanor; roomy, well-finished cabin; and its class-leading fuel economy. Mazda’s Skyactiv powertrain technology is more than just marketing fodder. In Consumer Guide testing, the Mazda 6 with automatic transmission is good for more than 30 mpg, outstanding mileage for a non-hybrid vehicle of this size. More on the Mazda 6.


2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i

2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i

Class: Compact Crossover

Base price: $21,995

Automatic transmission: $1000

Destination: $825

Total: $23,820

Estimated payment: $395

We’re comfortably over the $20,000 barrier now, but for good reason; this base Forester is one of the most affordable all-wheel-drive crossovers available. Forester combines a roomy cabin, decent fuel economy, sporty handling, and Subaru’s standard, and exceptional, all-wheel-drive system. Note that Forester’s automatic is actually a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This won’t matter much to most shoppers, but some drivers may notice a difference in feel. More on the Subaru Forester.

Should I Buy a New or Used Car?