2015 Mazda Mazda3 five-door ・ Photo by Mazda
These days, there are all sorts of cheap cars that look good; but there was a time when you were doomed to a hapless life inside a lump of frump if this was all you could afford. Thank goodness things have changed. Of course this does beg the question just what exactly constitutes a cheap car. Basically, if it’s new and can be had for less than $18,000, it’s pretty much a cheap car in 2015 – price wise at least. Of course, cheap is a relative term. Cheap in this case specifically means price, it does not necessarily mean shoddy, substandard, or inferior. Yes, it does mean you’ll do without many of the latest high-tech comfort and safety features in many of these models. But at least you’ll be driving one of the cheap cars that look good. And that’s important too, right?
With a new front-end design adding a touch of freshness to the overall look of the car, the beautifully-drawn Chevrolet Cruze has nice crisp lines, sleek proportions, and a handsome interior treatment as well. When the Cruze bowed for the 2011 model year, it ushered in a new era of good-looking small cars at Chevrolet. And, nearly every Chevy since has followed suit. Standard features include full power accessories, Bluetooth handsfree telephony, air conditioning, and 4G LTE WiFi hotspot capability. Power for the base model comes from a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 138 horsepower and 125 ft-lbs of torque. The front drive powertrain is fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission. Pricing starts at $16,170.
The Dodge boys are kicking it with an Eye-tal-yun accent these days – thanks to its affiliation with the Fiat group. This is great news for the Dodge Dart, because when it comes to style, the Italians are hard to beat. Like the Alfa Romeo Giulia upon which it is based, the Dodge Dart has crisp lines augmenting its solidly planted stance. Power for the base model comes from a 2.0-liter inline four with 160 horsepower and 148 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard for the front-driver; a six-speed automatic is optional. Standard features on the base model include power windows, and a folding rear seat. The optional convenience package pushes the price just past $18k, but adds power mirrors and door locks, keyless entry, cruise control, air conditioning, and Bluetooth. Pricing starts at $16,495.
Nicely trimmed with outstanding build quality and a broad array of available features, Ford’s fashionable and fun Fiesta proves you can economize without feeling ostracized. Available in both hatchback and four-door sedan body styles, versatility can also be numbered among the Fiesta’s attributes. Engine choices include a 120-horsepower 1.6-liter four, and a 123-horsepower 1.0-liter turbocharged three-cylinder. The font drive powertrain gets a five-speed manual as standard, and offers a six-speed automatic as an option. Available features include Bluetooth and Ford’s Sync voice activation system, along with power windows and mirrors. Options you can get and still be well under $18k include keyless entry, power windows, a touchscreen interface, and satellite radio. Pricing starts at $13,965.
The fluidly curvaceous Hyundai Accent is offered both as a hatchback and a sedan. If you’re still harboring doubts about Hyundai, it’s time to let them go. In addition to the fetching good looks, today’s Hyundai models are reliable, well constructed, and they still offer a whole lot of value for the dollar. A mild update for the 2015 model year brought Accent a redesigned grille, new headlights, and a new taillight treatment. Standard features include keyless entry, air conditioning, and full power accessories. Power comes from a 1.6-liter direct fuel injected four-cylinder engine with 137 horsepower and 123 ft-lbs of torque. The front drive powertrain is offered with either a six-speed manual, or a six-speed automatic transmission. Pricing starts at $14,745.
Photo by Hyundai
While pushing pretty close to our $18k cap, the Hyundai Elantra is definitely a head turner. The graceful lines of this car would be right at home on a model with double the price tag. One more thing, all Hyundai models offer a 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. If that doesn’t absolve any latent issues you might have about reliability, we don’t know what else to tell you. Standard features include heated mirrors, full power accessories, air conditioning and cruise control. Power for the base model comes from a 145-horsepower 1.8-liter four with 130 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed manual is the standard offering for the front-drive powertrain, a six-speed automatic is optional. Pricing starts at $17,250.
Style is strong with this one; in fact it’s so good looking, they should call the top model the Rio Grande – but we digress. The Rio is a really good-looking car; it’s also exceptionally affordable. What’s more, Kia has packed all sorts of features into the little ride. Standard kit includes heated power adjustable exterior mirrors, air conditioning, and satellite radio. However, since the base price is so low, you can add cool stuff like full power accessories, Bluetooth, automatic headlights, keyless entry, a rearview camera, and a touchscreen and still be well under $18k. Power comes from a 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four with 123 ft-lbs of torque. The front drive powertrain gets a six-speed manual as standard on the base model; a six-speed automatic is optional, but standard on all other trims. Pricing starts at $13,990.
OK, we’ll admit the scrappy little Mazda3 isn’t classically pretty like all the other cars here, but it is cute nonetheless. Further it’s big fun to drive, provides outstanding agility, great steering, and its engine loves to wind. Another thing about the Mazda3, its safety scores are really impressive too. To stay close to our price cap, you’ll forego the hatchback and the optional automatic transmission. But you’ll still get full power accessories, keyless entry, push button start, air conditioning, a folding rear seat, and a trip computer. The base model’s front-drive powertrain uses a 2.0-liter four with 155 horsepower and 150 ft-lbs of torque. Pricing starts at $16,495.
Barely squeezing in under our $18K price cap, the Mitsubishi Lancer is a remarkably substantial looking car with a huge plus in its favor; the high performance Lancer Evolution looks just like it (for the most part). To keep things close to cheap, you’ll be looking at the Lancer ES with a five-speed manual transmission. Standard features include heated mirrors, full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, and keyless entry. Power for the front-drive Mitsubishi comes from a 2.0-liter four with 148 horsepower and 145 ft-lbs of torque. For 2015, Lancer ES pricing starts at $17,395.
Pushing our price cap to its limit gets you into VW’s Golf. Fully redesigned for the 2015 model year, it’s easily the most refined model in its category. The hatchback brings all sorts of versatility to the mix, the interior is nicely conceived and laid out, plus the materials employed are straight quality. You won’t feel like you cheaped out in Volkswagen’s Golf. Power for the base model comes from a 1.8-liter turbocharged four with 170 horsepower and 200 ft-lbs of torque. A five-speed manual completes the powertrain. An automatic is optional, but pushes the price out of range. To stay under the cap, you’re also looking at the two-door body. Standard features include heated mirrors, air conditioning, hill-hold assist, Bluetooth, a touchscreen interface, and satellite radio. Pricing starts at $17,995.
Photo by Christian Wardlaw
Yes, there are two German cars on our list of cheap cars that look good. Volkswagen’s Jetta is the other one. If you’re really determined to drive a Jetta and keep the base price under $17k you can go with the $16,215 Jetta Base model, which is a special order only item. Be apprised, if you do this, you’ll live without air conditioning, power windows, and a number of other niceties. The best value is the Jetta S, which brings full power accessories, heated side mirrors, keyless entry, A/C, Bluetooth, and a folding rear seat. Power comes from a 2.0-liter four with 115 horsepower and 125 ft-lbs of torque. A five-speed manual transmission completes the front drive powertrain. An automatic is optional, but bumps the price past our ceiling. However, the 2.0-liter is happier with the manual transmission anyway. Volkswagen Jetta S pricing starts at $17,325.