The best new cars and trucks under $20,000

Want some great wheels on the cheap? Here are our picks for the best new vehicles in 2019 with starting prices below $20,000.

CNET Cars staff
7 min read
2018 Honda Fit
Enlarge Image
2018 Honda Fit

The Honda Fit is one of the most well-rounded cars you can buy for under $20,000.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

These days, the average new car transaction price is roughly $35,000. But for many folks, that's still way too much money. Thankfully, a number of automakers still offer some great cars on the cheap, and you don't have to sacrifice things like comfort and convenience features just to save a bit of coin.

That in mind, here are our favorite cars with starting prices below $20,000. Yes, many of these cars can climb well above that mark when loaded with options, but some can be had with a great loadout of features while still staying below $20K.

See the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X on the top of the desert

See all photos

Nissan Frontier

There are still a fair few cars on the US market that fall beneath the $20,000 starting price, as you're about to see. But, if you're looking for something with a wee bit more practicality, that is to say you're looking for a truck and aren't too particular about the particulars, the Nissan Frontier is for you.

The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual combination deliver a 3,800-pound tow rating. No, that number is not particularly high, but it is a lot higher than anything else on this list. Meanwhile, a 900-pound payload rating means loading a couple dirt bikes or a slender ATV up in the bed will be no problem at all.

For a starting price of $19,090, plus $1,045 destination, you can get yourself a Nissan Frontier King Cab S. This is one of the few vehicles on the road in the US today that's upholding the spirit of the '90s simply because it really hasn't changed much in the past few decades. You get your choice of four colors (red, white, black or, if you're feeling fancy, silver) and... that's about it. But this truck's greatest asset? It's that very simplicity that means you can use it hard, put it away wet every day and never feel the slightest bit of remorse.

-- Tim Stevens

The Honda Fit is the subcompact hatchback to beat

See all photos

Honda Fit

The Honda Fit is the Swiss Army knife of cars. It's one of the best all-around packages you can buy today, and hey, a brand-new one starts well under $20,000.

Inside, the Fit is absolutely huge, with Honda's Magic Seats folding flat and flipping forward to allow for some serious cargo-carrying capability. In fact, the Fit offers more room for passengers and their belongings than some larger compact SUVs .

The Fit isn't quite as sharp as it used to be from behind the wheel, but make no mistake, it's still one of the best-driving cars in the subcompact class. With Honda's great steering feel and tossable chassis tuning -- not to mention excellent efficiency -- the Fit is a top pick for budget-minded folks who don't want a budget-feeling car.

-- Steven Ewing

The 2019 Subaru Impreza is stable and efficient

See all photos

Subaru Impreza

While not as exciting as a WRX or an STI, the base Subaru Impreza offers strong value for anyone looking for a vehicle under $20,000. And it comes in two different body styles. The sedan begins at $19,480, while the five-door hatchback starts at $19,980. Both prices include $885 for destination.

Like the majority of vehicles, standard all-wheel drive is a huge selling point, offering better foul-weather capabilities. A 2.0-liter boxer engine makes 152 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque, and while that isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, the Impreza is still entertaining enough to wring out, especially with the, slick five-speed manual gearbox.

Launched in 2017, the current-generation Impreza has a 70% stiffer chassis than its predecessor that, along with a revised steering and suspension, offers surprisingly sporty dynamics. So for those who opt for the five-door hatchback, they'll not only have a fun-to-drive car, but also one that offers lots of flexibility with more than 55 cubic feet of cargo space when the rear seats are folded down.

-- Jon Wong

Nissan Kicks: Appreciating the unconventional

See all photos

Nissan Kicks

Full disclosure: When I first saw the Nissan Kicks and looked at its specs, I was underwhelmed. Its styling was humdrum, and its 1.6-liter four offered an exceedingly modest 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque, suggesting sluggish performance. I didn't even like its name.

Then I drove one, and all was forgiven.

The Nissan Kicks is shockingly good considering its modest price tag -- just $18,640 for starters (plus $1,045 destination). Thanks to its low weight, it's peppy and surprisingly fun to drive. It's also roomier for people and things than just about anything in its class. Every Kicks comes with a good array of standard features, including a 7-inch touchscreen, Siri Eyes Free, automatic emergency braking and even quilted seats.

Plus, the Kicks has optional class-above tech features like a 360-degree camera system and a shockingly high-quality Bose audio system with speakers in the headrests. Checking those boxes takes you up over $20,000, but the Kicks still feels like a very good value in top SR trim -- good enough to ignore its ridiculously pluralized name.

-- Chris Paukert

2020 Volkswagen Jetta: Better, not just bigger

See all photos

Volkswagen Jetta

The Jetta is brand-new for 2019, after a few years of neglect by . Now built on Volkswagen's modern MQB platform, the Jetta offers a smooth ride, excellent efficiency and just a dollop of tech for $19,640, including $895 for destination.

The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine with just 147 hp might not scream performance, but the 184 lb-ft of torque make it feel quicker than it is. Whether you choose the six-speed manual or optional eight-speed automatic transmission, the Jetta returns 30 miles per gallon city and 40 mpg highway. 

Volkswagen's App-Connect infotainment system is standard on a 6.5-inch touchscreen. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink are all along for the ride, as well. At $450, the Driver Assistance package puts you over our limit by $90, but I'm not going to quibble when it adds forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and heated side mirrors.

-- Emme Hall

The madness that is the Fiat 500 Abarth

See all photos

Fiat 500 Abarth

Regrettably, the Fiat 500 Abarth's MSRP is slightly more than the price cap of this list. To that I say, "Eh, close enough," exactly what my mother's obstetrician uttered after dropping me on the hospital floor during delivery. Sidestep an iPhone upgrade this year and you should save well more than the $745 this car eclipses our 20-grand limit by.

But why bend the rules to include this little Italian hatchback? Well, the answer is simple. No other vehicle on this list is anywhere near as expressive or fun to drive. The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine residing under its truncated hood delivers up to 160 hp when paired with the standard five-speed manual gearbox. If you prefer not dancing the three-pedal shuffle, a six-speed automatic is also available.

With spunky dynamics and an exhaust system that burbles and pops like some one-off custom from a Fast & Furious movie, the Abarth has more personality than all the other vehicles on this list combined, even if its long-term reliability remains suspect. If you want a little drama in your life, you'd better act sooner than later. The 500 has been discontinued in North America; remaining 2019 models will be sold off through next year.

-- Craig Cole

2020 Kia Soul: A box with no rough edges

See all photos

Kia Soul

Kia's funky little boxlike SUV isn't just affordable, it's rolling in charm.

For less than $20,000, you can slide into a base Soul with a manual transmission, a feature that's is a growing rarity even in this low-cost segment. Best of all, if you'd rather not row your own, adding a CVT to the mix will still keep the cost under $20,000, albeit barely.

Not only is the Soul fun and fresh, it has a solid amount of cargo space, and its tall sides means there's plenty of headroom for taller drivers and passengers. Throw in some decent driving dynamics, and it's a hard act to pass up.

-- Andrew Krok

2020 Toyota Yaris Sedan ditches its Scion roots

See all photos

Toyota Yaris Sedan

A cheap car isn't necessarily a bad car, as especially evidenced by the subcompact Toyota Yaris sedan (previously called the Yaris iA). Essentially the not-for-the-US Mazda2 with a divisive front-end design and Toyota badges, the Yaris sedan looks, drives and feels higher-quality than its $16,555 base price suggests. The layout and design of the interior is really nice, and while there are some hard plastics and cheap materials, overall the ' interior impresses and feels a step above many competitors.

Every trim level is packed full of features, with even the base L getting power windows and locks, keyless entry, a 7-inch touchscreen and a host of passive and active safety features. The top-end XLE model, which is still under our $20K cap at $19,655, comes with things usually reserved for higher-end cars like LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, automatic climate control and leatherette seats.

It's not just about feature content, though -- the Yaris is great to drive. While the 106-hp, four-cylinder engine isn't exactly a powerhouse, it's peppy enough, and the engine is thankfully mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and not a CVT like many of the Yaris' competitors. There's even an available manual on the L and LE trims. Mazda's inherent handling goodness is also present, and the Yaris's ride is nicely composed. The best part? For 2020, Toyota is bringing the hatchback to the US, too.

-- Daniel Golson

2019 Kia Forte is ready for prime time

See all photos

Kia Forte

Kia has built its brand on offering you a lot for a little and the latest Forte is a good example of this. Where many other competitors in this price bracket look and feel like penalty boxes, the base Forte offers a huge variety of standard features.

Performance and driving pleasure aren't necessarily at the top of someone's list when they're shopping at this price level, but with a six-speed manual transmission as standard and a 147-hp, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine under the hood, you'll likely be able to have a lot more fun than you'd imagine.

-- Kyle Hyatt

2020 Hyundai Veloster is all grown up, but still a bit weird

See all photos

Hyundai Veloster

The Hyundai Veloster is funky, it offers hatchback utility and it's even cheaper if you don't need an automatic transmission. Most importantly, there's a lot of value here. For $18,600, ($1,000 more for an automatic transmission) the Veloster is loaded with good stuff.

Active safety features, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, 44.5 cubic feet of space with the seats folded, 17-inch wheels and LED lights are all present. The Veloster doesn't necessarily look or feel like a car that costs under $20,000 in its base trim.

-- Sean Szymkowski