Even with the economy sputtering and the cost of almost everything climbing, there are bargains to be had—and a lot of them are in new-car showrooms. Some of the most interesting models are under $20,000—a few below $15,000. That means you can buy a new car for the same price as—or less than— a used one. What a nice surprise.
The 2010 Kia Soul comes in at less than $14,000. Even if you stuff it with every available bell and whistle (including a moon roof), the price still falls under $19,000. Already popular in Korea, Kia is holding down costs by making just four trim levels available. One up from the bargain base model is the Soul +, which includes a keyless entry remote and 16-inch alloy wheels. The Soul !—a car with its own exclamation point—comes with a power moonroof, fog lights and 18-inch alloy wheels for $17,645. According to Kia, the top-of-the-line Soul Sport is designed “for those with active lifestyles,” although you can still drive the other models to the Shore.
The Soul offers the boxy style of the new Nissan Cube and the Scion xB. And Kia has its eyes on the same youthful market—although, at this price, it’s sure to become a second family car or a first car for retirees on a strict budget. (Much to Toyota’s surprise, that’s just what happened with the Scion and even the retro-looking Chevrolet HHR.)
The basic engine is a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder version mated to a five-speed manual transmission, which kicks out around 120 horses—not exactly a Ferrari. The Soul +, Soul ! and Sport can each be upgraded to a 2-liter, 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine in your choice of manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy for both is estimated at 30 miles per gallon or more.
Because of its tall, square shape, the Soul sits five adults comfortably. The interior features an uncluttered dashboard with three dials that handle just about everything. There’s even a USB jack in the center console for your iPod.
The Honda Fit is a small car you won’t be embarrassed to hand over to a valet. It’s stylish, drives with crisp handling, and absorbs the occasional pothole or bumpy manhole cover without rattling your brains. It’s a four-door hatchback with large glass windows that offer a feeling of spaciousness. A neat cargo feature is the flexible rear seat-back. The seats fold down conventionally for a long, flat cargo bay stretching from trunk lid to rear seat, and the rear seat cushions flip up so you can haul things like a lawnmower upright.
And since it’s a Honda, you can count on reliable service and fuel efficiency that’s about the best in the business for non-hybrids—33 overall miles per gallon for combined city/highway driving with the five-speed manual, and 30 with the automatic. The 1.5-liter, 118-horsepower four-cylinder engine has enough oomph for rabbit-like starts.
You get it all for a base price of $14,550—add a couple thou for the Sport model. The Fit’s main competitor is the Yaris, which has been Toyota’s best-selling small car in Europe and costs a few thousand more than the Fit, which was rated best in class by Consumer Reports.
The Nissan Versa is a fun ride and has the fit, finish and creature comforts of a more expensive model. At a base price of $9,990, it’s available as a sedan or hatchback, both with 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engines (except for the 107-horsepower base model).
The SL model—with a sunroof, a wireless cell phone link, and remote keyless entry and engine start—is a bargain at just under $17,000. The sprightly five-seater delivers 27 city/33 highway miles per gallon
(decent but not exceptional).
It’s amazing that Chevrolet can produce both a sedan as fabulous as the Malibu (with an MSRP just over $20,000) and a slightly smaller version that’s just so-so. The Malibu has a hunky 169-horsepower, four-cylinder engine that feels more like a six, plus a 252-horsepower V6 that feels like an eight.
The Cobalt, meanwhile, has an anemic 155-horsepower four cylinder. The Malibu’s smaller engine is solid and responsive. It’s a car to enjoy driving, while the Cobalt is merely something to get you from here to there.
And what is Chevy thinking, recommending premium gas for a car with a base price of $15,010? No wonder the company’s driving the Cobalt to the graveyard after 2009, to be replaced by the Cruze. Spend the extra bucks and get the Malibu.
The Ford Focus is one of the company’s bright spots, popular enough to warrant a coupe for the 2009 model year. Hot selling and fuel efficient, it’s also significantly less expensive to repair than 19 other small cars, including the Toyota Prius. But that shouldn’t be your only reason for buying a Focus.
With a base price of $14,495, this is a sturdy little car, with crisp handling, comfortable seating, and lots of glass to help prevent small-car-itis. The MSRP starts at $15,690, offering thorax side airbags and side air curtains for extra protection in frontal or side crashes, plus excellent fuel economy of up to 35 miles per gallon with a standard 140-horsepower, 2-liter four cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; the four-speed automatic is an option.
And even at this low price, you can get Ford’s industry-leading SYNC technology—it’s not just for geeks. This sensible system was developed with Microsoft to let you control any of your personal electronic devices (MP3 player, BlackBerry, whatever) using voice commands, the vehicle’s steering wheel or the radio controls. Truly hands-free.
New buyers bought nearly 1.7 million certified pre-owned vehicles last year, according to Automotive News, so selling off-lease vehicles is important for both manufacturers and dealers. Buying an off-lease vehicle lets you trade up to a nearly new luxury model for much the same price as a factory-new budget car without the creature comforts, power, appearance, or safety and technical innovations like side curtain airbags, electronic stability control and xenon headlights.
CPO vehicles are generally limited to models no older than six years and no more than 75,000 miles. Although they come with new-car warranties and perks like 24/7 roadside service, programs vary widely. So it’s important to compare just as you would when buying a factory-new vehicle.
Buyers get the most protection with a manufacturer-certified vehicle, which comes with a factory-backed warranty similar to new-car coverage and allows you to take your vehicle for service at any of that brand’s dealerships in North America.
With a dealer-certified vehicle, you get whatever warranty the dealer offers—which may not include reimbursement if a vehicle breaks down away from home—and the car must be serviced at that dealership. Ford, Lincoln, Chevrolet, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota all let you transfer a manufacturer-backed CPO-extended warranty to a subsequent buyer, but not a dealer-certified vehicle.
Take this tip: Get a CARFAX report on the specific vehicle you’re considering, so you know its service and repair history. Visit carfax.com.