Best new cars for under $20,000

·13-min read

The Chevrolet Spark will not return for the 2023 model year. It is currently the cheapest new car in America with a base asking price of just $14,495 (including a reasonable $995 destination charge). The Hyundai Accent, too, is jettisoned from the marketplace for 2023, making the Venue mini-ute Hyundai’s least expensive new vehicle.

Those absences mean the Kia Rio, Mitsubishi Mirage and Nissan Versa will be left as the only new vehicles for sale in America that will start under the $20,000 threshold (at least we think so … Kia and Nissan haven’t officially confirmed the Rio and Versa are back for 2023, but haven’t signaled otherwise, either).

Last year, such solid offerings as the Kia Forte ($20,585 including destination in 2023) Kia Soul (now $21,085), Nissan Sentra (now $21,045) Subaru Impreza (now $20,815) and Volkswagen Jetta (now $21,460) all squeaked under the $20K bar, but have crept over the limit for 2023.

So, what will be the cheapest new car in America carrying a 2023 model year?

Best (and only) cars for under $20,000:

Mitsubishi Mirage

Why it stands out: Very cheap, very efficient
Could be better: Terribly slow, unpleasant to drive

2021 Mitsubishi Mirage
2021 Mitsubishi Mirage
2021 Mitsubishi Mirage
2021 Mitsubishi Mirage

With an asking price of $17,290, the 2023 Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback is the cheapest new car we know for sure is returning for 2023. Keen cheap-car observers will note that this price is quite a bit higher than the $15,690 of the 2022 Mirage hatchback, which is because the previously standard 5-speed manual has been supplanted by a now-standard continuously variable automatic.

The Mitsubishi Mirage G4 sedan is slightly more expensive than its hatchback sibling with a starting price of $18,290, similarly now equipped solely with an automatic transmission.

Fuel economy from the Mirage is quite good, earning up to 39 miles per gallon combined depending on trim. Unfortunately, the Mirage is painfully slow, as it only makes 76 horsepower. It doesn't make up for it with handling, which is sloppy and disconnected. We would not recommend this.

As we mentioned earlier, we don’t have standard asking prices for the 2023 Kia Rio or Nissan Versa, but we expect them to carry similar price tags as the 2022 editions. That would put the Kia around $17,545 in sedan form or $18,485 in 5-door wagon form. The Nissan Versa S still has a 5-speed manual in 2022, and assuming that sticks around in 2023, the Versa should cost somewhere around the 2022’s $16,675 base price and officially be the cheapest new vehicle available in the United States.

 

Nissan Versa

Why it stands out: Very cheap, decent styling, efficient with the CVT, refined driving experience
Could be better: Sedan-only, disappointing fuel economy with the manual

Read our most recent Nissan Versa review

2021 Nissan Versa
2021 Nissan Versa
2021 Nissan Versa
2021 Nissan Versa

The Nissan Versa is an extremely strong budget offering. First off, it's one of the cheapest cars you can buy, third cheapest in the country. It makes 122 horsepower, which in a car this size keeps it perky enough in traffic, and it's available with either a five-speed manual or CVT. The manual is a bit inefficient with a combined fuel economy of 30 mpg, but the CVT is good with 35 mpg. The Versa is impressively quiet and comfortable without diminishing handling capability, too much. The exterior and interior styling are sharp and feel a bit more polished than other subcompacts. Every trim level comes in under $20,000, so you have room to add options. It's only available as a sedan, though, and the nearest hatchback offering from Nissan, the Kicks, starts above $20,000.

 

Kia Rio

Why it stands out: Affordable, choice of body styles, good handling, very efficient
Could be better: A bit slow, a bit stiff

2021 Rio 5-Door
2021 Rio 5-Door
2021 Rio 5-Door
2021 Rio 5-Door

The Kia Rio is basically the Kia version of the Hyundai Accent that is no longer available for 2023. It comes standard with a CVT. And, yes, that means there's no manual transmission available. However, you can get the Rio in hatchback form, which does net you a little extra space along with the hatchback versatility. It's not a fast car with its 121-horsepower engine, but it has nimble handling courtesy of it's rather stiff, but controlled suspension. The optional S trim for the sedan is also available for under $20,000, in case you want a few more features. It's also efficient with 36 mpg combined for both body styles.

 

This probably goes without saying, but you should know that such inexpensive vehicles are not going to be equipped with the latest safety or infotainment technology, they will be cramped (to varying degrees) inside, will probably be pretty loud inside and certainly won’t ride or drive like bigger, more luxurious and pricier models. That’s the price you pay, quite literally, for the lowest new car payments.

But what if you want something a little bit nicer? Well, the average price for used vehicles in America has been rising right along with new cars, but there are still a number of good gently used options worth considering. Here are a few of our favorites (including some that recently were available new under our $20,000 price cap):


2016-2019 Chevrolet Volt

Our top pick is the second-generation Chevy Volt. It's a plug-in hybrid, which means the first 50-plus miles will be on electricity (assuming it was plugged in the night before). Put simply, it's the most efficient way to travel for less than $20,000. It's also pretty nice to drive, with good handling, a comfortable ride, quiet operation and most of the modern technology you'd expect in a fairly new car.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Any Toyota Corolla is likely to be a solidly reliable vehicle. We like the slightly smaller hatchback, which we think looks better than its sedan sibling. We also like the 6-speed manual transmission, but honestly the CVT in this application is pretty good.

2019 Ford Fusion

Ford pulled out of the sedan segment entirely, but it sold the mid-size Fusion up until the 2020 model year. They weren't in strong demand when new, and the resulting low transaction prices mean they are reasonably priced on the used market, too. A Fusion is going to be much larger and likely more comfortable than any of the brand-new small economy cars that it would compare with on a pricing level.

2019 Honda Fit

Honda dropped the spunky little Fit hatchback in America after the 2020 model year. We miss its useful and roomy interior, which was cleverly designed to offer a lot more utility than you'd think based on the Fit's small exterior dimensions. Its 1.5-liter four-cylinder spun out 130 horsepower, which isn't a lot, but it's better and more refined than anything you'll experience at its price off the new-car lot. The Fit is also pretty fun to drive for those who, you know, like to drive, especially with its optional 6-speed manual transmission.

2019 VW Jetta 1.4T

 

2019 Kia Sportage

 

2020 Kia Soul

 

2020 Hyundai Venue

 

2020 Subaru Impreza

 

2020 Hyundai Sonata

 

No matter the body style, cars, trucks and SUVs just keep getting more and more expensive. But if you're on a tight budget and want some new metal, there are still a handful of cars for under $20,000 that can be bought new, and that's with destination fees included. In fact, some of them are pretty good, and there are a few shapes and sizes from which to pick.

We've highlighted three of our favorites, but we'll actually highlight each car on the market for less than that $20,000 cap. The reason? Well, there are actually only nine cars in that price bracket. And while the others might not be our favorites (or quickly go beyond $20,000 once you add even a single option), they each have their own unique characteristics that might make them the right choices for some niche buyers.

 

2021 Kia Forte
2021 Kia Forte
2021 Kia Forte
2021 Kia Forte

Kia Forte

Why it stands out: Excellent value, CVT available for the price, very efficient, standard safety features, spacious
Could be better: Slow, a bit stiff

Read our most recent Kia Forte review

One of the best of the best budget entries here is the Kia Forte simply because it's such an impressive value. It's a compact sedan, which means it's significantly more spacious than the usual subcompact cars available in this price bracket. And you get that space for a low $18,885. It comes standard with a six-speed manual, but you can get a CVT for an extra $900, and it still fits the budget at $19,785. You'll have to stick to the base FE trim to stay under $20,000, but the FE trim happens to be the most efficient. It gets a great 35 mpg combined, and the manual does well, too, with 33 mpg. It also comes standard with features such as lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking and driver attention warning. It handles well, though it has a slightly firm ride. Also, although the engine is efficient, its 147 horsepower makes the Forte quite slow.

 

Nissan Versa

 

 

 

2021 Hyundai Venue
2021 Hyundai Venue
2021 Hyundai Venue
2021 Hyundai Venue

Hyundai Venue

Why it stands out: Loads of style, crossover shape and driving position, pleasant to drive
Could be better: No AWD available, small interior and cargo space

Read our most recent Hyundai Venue review

The Hyundai Venue, starting at $19,935, is the only car under our price cap that can be considered a crossover. It's a tall, boxy little machine that's chock full of style, probably more than anything else in the class. Nice details are everywhere including the unique headlights, the basket-weave grille and the angular details in the taillights. The interior is a bit less bold, but is nicely assembled, and the driving position is very crossover-like: up high with excellent visibility. Despite only having 121 horsepower and mated exclusively to a CVT, the Venue feels spunky, if not truly fast. Fuel economy is decent if not extraordinary at 31 mpg combined. The downside to the Venue is that it's very small, with cramped rear seats and somewhat small cargo space, though the latter is helped by the flexibility of the high roof and folding seats. Also, despite being a tiny crossover, the Venue can only be had with front-wheel drive. Only the base SE trim squeezes in under $20,000, with the mid-range SEL reaching nearly $21,000.

 

The rest of the cars for under $20,000

2021 Chevy Spark
2021 Chevy Spark
2021 Chevy Spark
2021 Chevy Spark

Chevrolet Spark

Why it stands out: Incredibly affordable, efficient, cheap enough you can add options
Could be better: Extremely slow, very cramped

The Chevy Spark, with a base price of $14,595, is the cheapest car you can buy in the United States. And because it's so cheap, even the top-spec 2LT with an automatic transmission can be had for under the $20,000 price cap, and that means you can probably option it just the way you like. There's a trim called Activ that gives it some rugged-looking plastic cladding if you want a bit of a crossover look, and fuel economy is quite good regardless of transmission. The manual model gets 32 mpg combined, and the automatic gets 33 mpg. The base model really is bare, though, it doesn't even get power windows or a telescoping steering wheel. It's also extremely small inside, so the rear seats are barely usable, and cargo space is tight. And with just 98 horsepower on tap from the naturally aspirated 1.4-liter engine, it's far from quick.

 

2021 Hyundai Accent
2021 Hyundai Accent
2021 Hyundai Accent
2021 Hyundai Accent

Hyundai Accent

Why it stands out: Very affordable, efficient, cheap enough you can add options, pleasant to drive
Could be better: Boring looking

The Hyundai Accent starts at $16,400, and it's closely related to the aforementioned Venue featuring the same engine and platform. But it's obviously a sedan, and it's quite a bit more affordable. In fact, both the base and mid-level trims are available under our price cap, and the top level only breaks the limit by a little over $500. Also, unlike the Venue, you can still get a manual transmission in the Accent, which makes it even more engaging to drive. Fuel economy is also better than the Venue, with the manual model getting 33 mpg combined, and the CVT model getting 36. The cabin is a bit roomier, too, though the trunk isn't as versatile as the Venue's hatch. The main tradeoff is that the Accent, while inoffensive, is a bit bland looking inside and out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2021 Subaru Impreza
2021 Subaru Impreza
2021 Subaru Impreza
2021 Subaru Impreza

Subaru Impreza

Why it stands out: Spacious, standard all-wheel-drive, good driving dynamics
Could be better: Manual-only for the price, slow, mediocre fuel economy

The Subaru Impreza was nearly in our top choices despite being a bit pricey for the group at $19,755 to start. That's because it offers a fair bit for the money, and we're not just talking about its equipment. Being a compact sedan, rather than a subcompact, makes it one of the roomier vehicles on this list. It also features a bright and airy cabin. And of course, being a Subaru that's not a BRZ, it comes standard with all-wheel drive. That's unique among the cars on this list. It's also one of those rare automobiles that's available with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, if you're trying to stay under $20,000, you'll have to have a manual transmission, since the optional CVT bumps the price to just over $21,000. Since so few people want a manual these days and few dealers carry them, this does limit the Impreza's appeal for under $20,000. The hatchback version also slips just barely above the $20,000 line, so you might be able to stretch to that if needed. The manual Impreza isn't especially fuel efficient with a combined mpg of 26 mpg (the CVT manages 32 mpg), and the 152 horsepower feels pretty pokey.

 

2021 VW Jetta
2021 VW Jetta
2021 VW Jetta
2021 VW Jetta

Volkswagen Jetta

Why it stands out: Torquey and refined engine, great fuel economy, very spacious, comfortable
Could be better: Manual-only for the price, sacrifices driving fun for soft suspension

Like the Subaru Impreza, the VW Jetta is a compact sedan that offers impressive amounts of space for this price point. It starts at $19,990. In fact, the Jetta is one of the most spacious models in the compact sedan segment, regardless of price. Also, although it only makes 142 horsepower, the Jetta's turbocharged four-cylinder makes 184 pound-feet of torque, making it about the quickest-feeling car in the price range. It's a refined engine, too, and with the standard manual transmission, it gets an excellent 34 mpg in combined driving. It's not a particularly great handling car, but it is quiet and soft. The downside to the Jetta, like the Impreza, is that the automatic transmission option kicks the price up beyond $20,000 to just under $21,000. And like other models on this list, only the base trim meets our pricing criteria.

Let the savings continue: Cheapest Cars to Insure 

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