Automobiles

How to buy an affordable car

From bare bones to econoboxes to vehicles that offer terrific value for money, we show how much car you can get without spending too much.

Top affordable car picks

Overall: Honda Civic

The Civic is a reliable stalwart of affordable cars and now you can choose from the sedan, coupe or hatchback. All offer excellent fuel economy combined with good looks and a fairly peppy motor, making the Civic a good choice for anyone on a budget.

Utility: Honda Fit

With efficient use of interior space and the ingenious Magic Seat feature, the Honda Fit lives up to its name.

Technology: Toyota Corolla

With a starting price of $18,500 and standard features like adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and mitigation, the Corolla takes the prize for technology.

Fun to drive: Mazda3

Mazda didn't skimp on driving pleasure with this little sedan. A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a zippy 2-liter engine produces great bang for your buck.

Affordability defined

Spending 20 percent of your yearly salary on a car is a good rule of thumb, but with the average median household income being $55,775 (according to the US Census Bureau), that leaves the most buyers with only $11,155 or less to spend on a car. You can't even buy a Nissan Versa for that kind of scratch, and that's the least expensive car on the market today.

Acknowledging that you will need to spend more on a new car, let's take a look at cars that fall below $20,000. Interestingly enough, this segment includes everything from subcompact cars to SUVs.

Bigger is not necessarily better

fiat-500.jpg

The Fiat 500 has remained unchanged for many years but the price has been reduced for 2017.

Fiat USA

You'll find less expensive cars to be on the smaller side, with a few surprises. The smallest, the Smart Fortwo, starts at $15,400, and while it can fit into half a parking spot and even park perpendicular to the curb, it only fits two people. The Fiat 500 had its price slashed by nearly $2,000 for 2017 and now starts at $14,995, while the Chevrolet Spark starts at $13,000. Both measure a smidge under 12 feet in length, and seat only four. Others in this segment fit five passengers, albeit some more comfortably than others.

Tiny dimensions make these mini-cars a breeze to drive and park in the city, but you'll definitely be limited to the amount of cargo you'll be able to carry.

It's important to consider how small you are willing to go when looking for an economy car. If you routinely carry passengers in the rear seats, you may want to look at something a bit larger, like the Mazda3 or Ford Focus, both of which are at the pricier end of this spectrum. If your hobby or job entails moving odd-shaped items from one location to the other, the Honda Fit should be on your list.

The largest car under $20,000 is the Jeep Patriot, at nearly 14.5 feet long with maximum cargo space of 53.5 cubic feet. This is much bigger than the rest in the segment and you should ask yourself if you really need the extra space. While you might be tempted to buy the biggest car you can afford, if you don't use that space, it can become a hindrance.

Less money less power

While you may suffer space, you may also suffer power. Many economy cars get to the economy part by using tiny, wimpy engines. True, you don't need as much power to motivate a smaller car, but don't expect to win any drag races in any of these vehicles.

Many of these cars can be optioned up to bigger engines, of course, but with extra power comes extra dollars. You'll find most of these cars with horsepower and torque ratings in the mid-to-low hundreds. Many manufacturers will often use a turbocharged engine to get more bang out of their smaller engines.

And be prepared for three-pedal driving in these economy cars. Most are available with an automatic, but you'll have to pay more. The six-speed automatic in the Ford Fiesta adds $1,095 to your total and you have to shell out $2,140 more to add a continuously variable transmission in the Nissan Versa.

When test-driving these cars, decide how much performance you need. Are you the type that wants a bit of fun behind the wheel? You most likely won't be upset about driving a manual, but you may want to look at a smaller, turbocharged engine for more midrange torque. Will you be doing a lot of highway driving? Take the car out on the road and see how long it takes to get up to speed. Can you merge easily? What is your daily commute like? It may be worth it to opt for the automatic if you drive in stop and go traffic every day.

17frdfie200005.jpg

Small, cheap and loaded with tech. That's the 2017 Ford Fiesta.

Ford

You can even find some affordable all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicles. The Subaru Impreza features Subaru's impressive Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system and can be had for $18,395. The Jeep Renegade and Jeep Patriot can be optioned up with four-wheel drive for $2,000 more. Think about weather conditions and what you plan to do with the vehicle before shelling out the extra cash, keeping in mind that all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive do not mean all-wheel stop. Some front-wheel drive cars can do just as well in certain weather situations with a decent set of winter tires.

Fuel economy FTW

One thing that can be said for most of these affordable cars is that they get excellent fuel economy. The Chevrolet Cruze gets up to 40 mpg on the highway and is offered with a diesel engine for a whopping 52 mpg, though that diesel engine puts the Cruze at a starting price of $24,670. The base Nissan Versa S, the least expensive car offered at $11,990, gets 35 mpg on the highway, while the next trim level up, the S Plus, nets 39 mpg on the highway due to its continuously variable transmission.

The heaviest in this segment, the Jeep Patriot at 3,211 pounds, still does okay with 26 mpg highway, but it's bested by the slightly smaller Renegade at 31 mpg.

Tech

Expect to give up a lot in the technology department when you commit to an economy car, although the Toyota Corolla is the exception. Economy cars are not completely devoid of modern features, but if you're expecting things like blind-spot monitoring, navigation, or adaptive cruise control, be prepared to go to higher trim lines.

Instead look for things like Bluetooth, which allows for hands-free calling as well as streaming music from your phone, and a USB port, which will connect your phone to the stereo system and charge it as well. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are becoming more common, even in the affordable segment, which negates the need for a navigation system. 

Some models may have cruise control, but it will be the basic, set-to-one-speed-and-go type of system. Other less expensive vehicles will have small touchscreens hosting a basic infotainment system.

Best overall

Starting at $19,700, the Honda Civic hatch is our pick for the best overall affordable car. The Civic looks great, has plenty of power, gets excellent fuel economy, and has room for five. A high-revving 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is standard on the hatch and delivers 174 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque. Its standard six-speed manual transmission nets 30 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined. Efficiency numbers go up even further when equipped with the optional continuously variable transmission.

Also on tap are Bluetooth, USB connectivity and a 5-inch color LCD screen. The Honda Sensing suite of active safety features, including forward collision warning, lane keeping assist, collision and road departure mitigation, is available.

The Civic sedan and coupe are good as well, but the base models for both are down on power compared to the hatch, and you have to jump up to a mid-trim level on the coupe to get the same available driver's aids.

The Subaru Impreza also comes in as a top pick. Its 2-liter engine knocks out 152 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque while netting an EPA fuel rating of 28 mpg in the city, and 38 mpg on the highway. While not quite as refined as the Civic, it's starting price of $18,395 with a five-speed manual and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is nothing to scoff at.

Best for utility

2017hondafitinterior9.jpg

The flat-folding seats in the Honda Fit are great for hauling larger items.

Honda

While these cars are all driven by economy, the Honda Fit stands out for its practicality and ingenious use of space. Honda's Magic Seat is standard across all trim lines, allowing for 4-feet of vertical cargo space, and rear and front seats can be folded down to haul longer objects such as surfboards or kayaks. The 2018 Fit starts at $16,190, making it a great deal for musicians, theatre geeks, and anyone else who needs to haul lots of odd shaped gear on the regular.

If you just can't bring yourself to knock around in a small car, the Kia Soul offers 61.3 cubic feet of space. On a personal note: I once had to sleep in the back of a Soul due to a ridiculous travel schedule, and did so quite easily and comfortably. Look for the Soul to start at $16,100.

Best for technology

2017-chevrolet-cruze-018.jpg

The 2017 Chevrolet Cruze is loaded with tech, and a diesel engine option is on tap for Spring.

Chevrolet

The Toyota Corolla offers many standard features not found elsewhere in this segment, thanks to the inclusion of Toyota Safety Sense on all trim lines. Lane departure alert is standard and the system will even apply a little input to the steering wheel if it detects the car drifting outside the lane. Also on tap is adaptive cruise control, which can keep a set distance from a lead car at speeds above 25 miles per hour. Other safety goodies include a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and automatic high beams.

The Chevrolet Cruze comes in a close second with 4G LTE and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot both standard. The Chevrolet MyLink system is standard with a 7-inch screen and includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Teen Driver, a safety system that encourages safe driving practices. All that starting at $17,850.

Best for fun

Perhaps the most fun to drive is the Mazda3, just squeaking in at $19,095 for the hatch. At $17,845 the sedan is a bit less, but we like the versatility of the hatchback. Regardless of your pick of body style, the Mazda3 has 155 horsepower coming from a 2-liter SkyActiv engine and a six-speed manual transmission, an enjoyable combination if there ever was one. Additionally, disc brakes are standard all the way around, while many in this segment use drum brakes in the rear, sacrificing stopping power for economy.

jp017043rnea2e72ud6sj6p5c5s06hoeomoa.jpg

The 2017 Jeep Renegade is one cute ute.

Jeep

Taking the checkered flag after the Mazda3 is the Jeep Renegade, starting at $19,995 with a 4x4 system. While the Mazda3 is all about fun on the pavement, the Renegade is all about fun when the pavement ends. The standard 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine puts out 160 horsepower and 184 pound/feet of torque. There is an available 2.4-liter engine good for 180 and 175 pound/feet of torque, but you'll pay $1,280 more. Regardless, the Renegade is a kick in the dirt, scrambling up and over the hills with the help of the Selec-Terrain system, managing the ride in Snow, Sand, Mud and Auto modes.

There are plenty of economical cars out there, so be sure to take the time to test drive your favorites before you open your wallet. And remember, buy what you love... you'll have it for a long time.

Detroit Auto Show 2017: Everything that happened at the biggest car show of the year.

Favorite concept cars at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show: The auto industry's coolest moonshots.