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Best small cars under $50,000

Roadshow's editors offer their picks for the best compact and subcompact cars under $50,000.

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Roadshow staff
2019 Mercedes-Benz A220
1 of 25 Mercedes-Benz

Our favorite compact cars under $50,000

Sure SUVs dominate the automotive landscape these days, but there are still smaller offerings that provide good looks, great value and maybe just a little bit of fun.

What are Roadshow's editors' picks for the best compact and subcompact cars on sale today? Keep on clicking to find out.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt
2 of 25 Emme Hall/Roadshow

Chris Paukert's pick: Ford Mustang Bullitt

I'll admit most people don't think of the 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt when they think of small cars. However, based on the vehicle size classification tables cooked up by our friends at the EPA, it qualifies. I further admit that there are cheaper ways of getting a high-performance Mustang than this Bullitt, but few are more covetable.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt
3 of 25 Ford

Chris Paukert's pick: Ford Mustang Bullitt

Based on the Ford Mustang GT with Ford's Level 1 Performance Pack, the Bullitt draws its stripped-down look from the 1968 Steve McQueen film that became synonymous with Highland Green Mustangs and high-speed San Francisco car chases. Even if I could do without some of the Bullitt name checks on the body, I still like the way this model's toned-down visuals telegraph subtle menace. Fortunately, that aggression is backed by meaningful changes to the Bullitt's powertrain.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt
4 of 25 Ford

Chris Paukert's pick: Ford Mustang Bullitt

With 480 horsepower (+20 from the standard GT) courtesy of bigger throttle bodies, a GT350-sourced intake and a reflashed ECU, the Bullitt goes like hell and offers a thunderous soundtrack thanks to its dual-mode exhaust. (Don't worry, neighbors, there's a Quiet mode, too). 0-60 mph hits in around 4 seconds dead, and the Bullitt's terminal velocity tops out at 163 mph.
The well-equipped 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt starts at $46,595 before $1,095 delivery. I'd recommend splurging on the optional Magnetic Ride Control Suspension and Recaro seats, but that'd put you over our $50K threshold.

2018 Volkswagen Golf R
5 of 25 Volkswagen

Tim Stevens' pick: Volkswagen Golf R

This isn't the only Golf you'll be seeing in this collection, but with the Focus RS sadly drifting off into greener pastures last year, high-end hot hatch options are a bit limited. Yeah, the GTI is the better buy, but if I had a $50K ceiling, I'd splurge and go with the Golf R.

2018 Volkswagen Golf R
6 of 25 Volkswagen

Tim Stevens' pick: Volkswagen Golf R

Why? Well, all-wheel drive for one thing. Living in the north I want a car that I can truly enjoy year-round, and just spinning the fronts would leave me driving a little more conservatively than I might want when the snow comes down. And with 288 horses on tap, driving conservatively won't be top of my priorities.

2018 Volkswagen Golf R
7 of 25 Volkswagen

Tim Stevens' pick: Volkswagen Golf R

For $42,625, you can get yourself a Golf R with the optional 19-inch black wheels. That includes the $895 destination, leaving me with over $7,000 for a set of winter wheels and tires, plus a roof rack and all the interior protection I'll need to haul myself, my stuff and my dogs through all the seasons.

2019-tesla-model-3-performance-mike-cutler
8 of 25

Kyle Hyatt's pick: Tesla Model 3

Tesla's Model 3 might be the best all-around piece of transportation I've yet experienced. It's quick, quiet, comfortable, handsome and easy to live with. It's not perfect for everyone, but for an Angeleno like myself, it's ideal.

2018 Tesla Model 3 Performance
9 of 25 Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Kyle Hyatt's pick: Tesla Model 3

The Model 3 is super practical, but it's also really fun to drive thanks to a competent chassis that makes a fast canyon road a total blast even in the Model 3's most basic spec, which starts at under $40,000 before any tax incentives you may be eligible for.

2019-tesla-model-3-performance-interior-nick-miotke
10 of 25

Kyle Hyatt's pick: Tesla Model 3

Even though I definitely take all of Elon's tweets and Tesla's hype with a massive grain of salt, the simple fact that Tesla regularly updates the Model 3 with new functionality (some of it more useful than others) adds a new dimension to the ownership experience.

2019-mercedes-a220-promo
11 of 25 Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Antuan Goodwin's pick: Mercedes-Benz A220

It's the least expensive way to get behind the wheel of a 2019 Mercedes, but Benz's newest entry-point, the 2019 A-Class sedan, is just as compelling a pick as any of its larger, more luxurious siblings. The A220 balances engaged, yet comfortable handling with a healthy 188 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, courtesy of its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. Premium features and handsome exterior styling are the icing on the cake.

2019 Mercedes-Benz A220
12 of 25 Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Antuan Goodwin's pick: Mercedes-Benz A220

I'll be honest, one of my favorite features on the 2019 A-Class -- the insanely bright and customizable interior ambient lighting -- is also the most gimmicky. Thankfully, the rest of the sedan's cabin tech is also top notch with the latest generation Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment in the dashboard. I'm always happy to see standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but augmented reality navigation and "Hey Mercedes" natural voice command keep me coming back to the built-in software.

2019 Mercedes-Benz A220
13 of 25 Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Antuan Goodwin's pick: Mercedes-Benz A220

The 2019 A220 starts at $33,500 before destination charges, but I'd recommend you immediately step up to the 4Matic all-wheel drive model for $2,000 more. Premium and Multimedia packages get you the best possible MBUX experience, while Driver and Parking Assistance upgrades add S-Class safety tech to this compact sedan. Don't go too crazy checking option boxes and you'll roll away with one of the most premium cars in this C-segment for about $43,000.

2019 VW Golf GTI
14 of 25 Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Steven Ewing's pick: Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is one of the most well-rounded sporty cars you can buy today. As fun as it is functional, the GTI is the kind of hot hatchback you can wring out on the weekend but happily drive on the daily. For my money, I can't think of a new car under $30,000 I'd rather buy.

2019 VW Golf GTI
15 of 25 Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Steven Ewing's pick: Volkswagen Golf GTI

The GTI got a few improvements for 2019. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine now makes 228 horsepower -- 8 more than before -- though torque remains unchanged at 258 pound-feet. A six-speed manual is still the standard transmission, but new for 2019 is a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic, which replaces the six-speed DCT from last year's GTI.

2019 VW Golf GTI
16 of 25 Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Steven Ewing's pick: Volkswagen Golf GTI

Inside it's all plaid all the time. I applaud Volkswagen for continuing to offer the GTI with its iconic "Clark" plaid seats. These comfortable, cloth chairs are super-supportive, and the front thrones are heated, too. More expensive GTI models come with leather seats, which are fine. But come on: Don't be that guy who buys a GTI without plaid seats.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club
17 of 25 Jason Connor/Roadshow

Emme Hall's pick: Mazda Miata MX-5

Sure, the headline doesn't say "sports cars" but I'm going to pick the iconic little roadster anyways. Starting at under $27,000 a Miata is one of the least expensive ways to get your rear-wheel drive kicks, with a convertible top to boot.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club
18 of 25 Manuel Carrillo III/Roadshow

Emme Hall's pick: Mazda Miata MX-5

The Miata got a few upgrades for 2019. The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine sends 181 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels, that's 26 more horsepower and 3 more pound-feet of torque than last year's car. A six-speed automatic transmission is available, but unless you are physically incapable of operating a clutch pedal, you should get the six-speed manual.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club
19 of 25 Manuel Carrillo III/Roadshow

Emme Hall's pick: Mazda Miata MX-5

The MX-5's handling is as engaging and responsive as ever. The weight balance is superb and the car's predicable and nimble handling mean you can drive it close to the limit without too much trouble. Though Mazda did away with hydraulic power steering long ago, the setup in 2019 provides ample feedback and is well-weighted for twisty rides.

honda-civic-type-r-promo
20 of 25 Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Andrew Krok's pick: Honda Civic Type R

Yes, the Civic Type R is first and foremost a performance car. However, that doesn't mean it can't function as a daily driver. Starting at $35,700 the Type R can handle your commute and errands, thanks in no small part to some excellent chassis tech and its hatchback utility.

2017 Honda Civic Type R
21 of 25 Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Andrew Krok's pick: Honda Civic Type R

The Civic Type R gets a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, good for 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Three-mode adaptive dampers are surprisingly comfortable even in the hottest +R mode, but if that bad boy is slapped into Comfort, it deals with craptastic roads with ease, soaking up undulations and bumps without transferring everything to the humans inside.

2017 Honda Civic Type R
22 of 25 Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Andrew Krok's pick: Honda Civic Type R

The Civic's interior is well sorted, too. The digital gauge cluster is bright and configurable. The center console has storage space for days, and the hatchback's trunk can swallow several houses' worth of groceries. But do note, while the standard Civic Hatchback seats three across in the rear, the Type R deletes the center position for a fixed pair of plastic cup holders.

2018 BMW M240i coupe
23 of 25 BMW

Jon Wong's pick: BMW M240i coupe

Unfortunately, the M2 Competition is above this list's $50,000 price cap, but the still potent and hugely entertaining M240i slides in just fine with a $45,800 (not including $995 destination charges). That gets you a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine pumping out 335 horsepower. Best of all, you can still get it with a six-speed manual transmission.

2018 BMW M240i coupe
24 of 25 BMW

Jon Wong's pick: BMW M240i coupe

To sharpen handling, the M240i comes standard with an adaptive damper suspension and upgraded M Sport brakes allowing you to drive a little bit deeper into corners. The whole package rides on some slick-looking 18-inch double-spoke wheels.

2018 BMW M240i coupe
25 of 25 BMW

Jon Wong's pick: BMW M240i coupe

For those looking for better all-weather performance the M240i can also be equipped with the BMW's xDrive all-wheel drive system. It bumps the starting price tag up by $2,000 to $47,800, but may be worth it to help the performance coupe get through the winter months better.

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