2016 Honda Civic coupe on road ・ Photo by Honda
Buying a new car on a budget definitely requires compromise, but it’s not without its own rewards. There are still a lot of quality options, as long as you’re able to get your priorities straight.
When it comes to safety, we’ve already done that for you. To come up with our list of the safest cars that cost less than $20,000, we narrowed down the field to cars in that price bracket and then checked each car’s safety credentials as rated by the two foremost authorities on the subject: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Let’s take a closer look at the safest affordable cars on the market, from most to least expensive.
The Volkswagen Golf kicks off our list of the safest new cars under $20,000 with a price that just squeaks in under the cutoff. The Golf is a 4-door hatchback (the 2-door model was discontinued just this year) with a value-oriented list of powertrains and features. The Golf has long been regarded as one of the most fun-to-drive cars in the segment — a reputation that goes back decades. Yet, the Golf is inherently practical and it’s a good choice for a family with one or two kids, and includes a rearview camera as standard equipment. The 2017 Golf has a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, and a 5-Star Overall rating from the NHTSA, with five stars in the side crash test and four stars each for frontal and rollover crashes.
Photo by Volkswagen
The Honda Civic offers a lot of choices and a lot of practicality. All three body styles of this compact car are available in our price range — the $18,740 sedan, the $19,150 coupe, and the new-for-2017 hatchback at $19,700. That said, buyers on a strict budget will probably have to stick with the base trim. That’s fine; there’s still plenty to like about the Civic, even in its entry level form, which includes a rearview camera among its standard features. The Civic earns a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, with Good scores across the board, and it also earns five stars in all four NHTSA tests, for a 5-Star Overall rating.
Photo by Honda
The Subaru Impreza is another compact car on our list of the 10 safest cars under $20,000 with a price that doesn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle room, but is a pretty complete and compelling package even at the entry level. Subaru makes good, affordable cars for commuting and everyday driving, and standard all-wheel drive significantly increases the Impreza’s value. The Impreza also fares extremely well in crash testing. It earned perfect scores from the IIHS, netting the coveted Top Safety Pick+ rating, as well as the NHTSA, for the 5-Star Overall rating. A rearview camera comes standard in every 2017 Impreza, but most of Subaru’s available active safety features are only available with the Impreza’s higher trim levels.
Photo by Subaru
If you’re looking for a car that’s as fun to drive as it is practical, the affordable and safe Mazda3 should be one of your top contenders in the compact class. The sedan and the hatchback are both available under our $20,000 price cap, and they’re known for their peppy yet thrifty engines. However, like the competitors we’ve mentioned so far on our list, it’ll cost more than $20,000 to get any active safety features besides a rearview camera. The Mazda3 earns perfect crash test scores from the IIHS, and its available safety features help capture the Top Safety Pick+ rating. The car loses a point in the NHTSA’s rollover test but still gets a 5-Star Overall rating.
Photo by Mazda
The Hyundai Elantra occupies an odd position on our list of the 10 safest cars under $20,000. At about halfway down the list, the Elantra hits the point where the safest cars start to become more affordable, opening up the possibility of options packages and even higher trim levels. That’s a good thing, because the Elantra is one of the few cars here that doesn’t come standard with a rearview camera, but it can be added on within our budget. In terms of safety testing, the Elantra earns five stars in the NHTSA’s side crash test, with four stars in frontal crash and rollover, for four stars overall. Yet it earns perfect scores and the Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS.
Photo by Hyundai
The Ford Focus is a long-running favorite in the compact car class, even though it was last redesigned in 2012. In practical terms, that means a rearview camera comes standard, but some newer driver assistance features aren’t available, within our $20,000 budget or otherwise. Still, the Focus is well qualified for our list of the safest cars that cost less than $20,000, and its low price of entry means that buyers can tack on some options. The Focus doesn’t have the best crash test scores on this list, but they’re still good for a small car: 5-Star Overall from the NHTSA with one star deducted in rollover testing, and mostly Good scores, with one Acceptable in the small overlap test, from the IIHS.
Photo by Ford
There are a lot of reasons why the Kia Soul is one of the most popular compact cars among Autobytel’s writers and editors. It’s got an excellent personality — if a vehicle can be friendly, the Soul is it. It’s fun to drive yet also wickedly practical, with comfortable passenger seating that can also be used to hold a ton of cargo. The Soul doesn’t come with a rearview camera, which is unfortunate, but it’s an affordable option. The Soul earns perfect crash test scores from the IIHS (yet fails to get the Top Safety Pick nod, which might be due to its lack of standard advanced safety equipment) and a 5-Star Overall rating from the NHTSA, with one star, deducted in the rollover test.
Photo by Kia
The second vehicle from Honda to land a spot on our list of the safest affordable cars, the 2017 Fit is an excellent choice for a subcompact hatchback and one of the most affordable cars on the road. The Fit’s strong safety credentials are only a part of the overall package. The Fit comes standard with a rearview camera and emergency brake assist. Honda LaneWatch, the brand’s version of blind spot monitoring, is standard in all but the base trim — and the second trim level up is still less than $20,000. The NHTSA awarded the Fit 5-Star Overall and deducts a star in rollover testing; the IIHS did not test the Fit for small overlap, but awards Good scores in the other tests.
Photo by Honda
Toyota lands a spot on our list of the safest cars under $20,000 with a car that wasn’t even a Toyota until this year — the Yaris iA. The Yaris iA was previously sold as the iA under the now-shuttered Scion brand, which offered a bunch of decent cars that failed to gain traction. Despite its past, the Yaris iA shouldn’t go overlooked by budget-oriented buyers. In addition to a standard rearview camera, the Yaris iA also includes front collision warning with brake assist, which is a great bonus at this price point. The IIHS awards the Yaris iA with the Top Safety Pick rating and solid Good scores; the NHTSA deducts a star in the rollover test but still awards 5-Star Overall.
Photo by Toyota
We’ve arrived at the least expensive model to earn a spot on our list of the safest cars that cost under $20,000. It’s the 2017 Chevy Sonic, a subcompact offering that comes as a sedan and a hatchback. For the 2017 model year, Chevrolet made a rearview camera standard in the Sonic, and the car’s very low price means that you can buy the mid-range LT sedan model, add a package that includes forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and rear park assist, and still come in at less than 20 grand. The Sonic earns all Good scores from the IIHS, and gets a 5-Star Overall rating from the NHTSA with one star deducted in rollover testing.
Photo by Chevrolet