The Best Cars Under $15,000: Mileage and Room
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Okay, we let a few cars in that were a tad more than $15,000 but the reality is that with some good bargaining you can get all of these cars under MSRP. On the other hand the new Toyota Corolla is due out next year and is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and cannot be ignored. Indeed, even the existing version would have done very well in our battle at the bottom of the suggest retail price ladder.
We tried to make this a test of the newer vehicles and so the Ford Focus, PT Cruiser, Chevrolet Cobalt, the Scions, and others of that ilk were left out. All of these are good vehicles, well priced, and offering a great many family amenities, but we wanted to limit ourselves to the newest kinders on the block.
Thus we tested both the Nissan Versa hatchback and sedan with manual transmission and automatic respectively. Add to that the Dodge Caliber, the Suzuki SX4, Chevrolet Aveo, the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra, Kia Spectra, and the Hyundai Accent. The Pontiac G5 was not available for the testing. The Jeep Compass would have made our test, but the only vehicle available was priced at $21,000 even though this rough and ready SUV base price is just under $15,000. The Mitsubishi Lancer was also unavailable.
Where to start? Well, the Nissan Sentra was sensational with the CVT, but the price as tested pushed it close to $19,000. Is it a great car with excellent brakes, above average handling, superior gas mileage, and plenty of storage room? But you just can’t compare it to the huddled hatchbacks that make up the bulk of the under $15,000 crowd. So out it went.
Next up was the controversial Suzuki SX4 starting at $15,000 with all wheel drive. It was a great ride, but the all wheel drive unit sapped its power and fuel mileage. However, we decided to leave it in anyway because it shows how much technology you can get for the price of four-year-old Toyota Camry XLE. Besides, that Suzuki warranty is very family friendly extending to 100,000 miles.
We liked the handling of the Volkswagen Rabbit, but if you option it with anything it is over the price range. Besides, the fuel mileage and performance just weren’t up to the others even though the quality and handling were excellent. We think that Rabbit is a good car, but the pricing of our test model put it at $19,000 well loaded. As such we dropped it from the test where it would have finished mid-pack based since our emphasis was on operating economy, cargo space, and value. If we wanted to run a road race we would take the Rabbit. As for fit and finish, the Rabbit would place well there, too.
For versatility and price the Nissan Versa is an easy winner. It gets well over 30 mpg, costs under $14,000 and never feels small. On the downside it does not handle well and the seats catch every bit of hair and hold on to it tenaciously. The seat covers look like velour and grab like a drunken sailor. By the way, the seats are very comfortable. We must warn you not to judge this car by its looks. This is easily the car of the year for the frugal but its looks don’t have curb appeal.
Tied for best value was the Hyundai Elantra. Although you must be careful of what options you order, you can buy this spacious, good handling, and quite attractive Hyundai under $15,000 and still get the great warranty. We wouldn’t mind owning either of these cars, but if you want to drive the Elantra is the better gomobile.
Next was the well-heralded Honda Civic. It is fun to drive, has a fold down rear seat and gives excellent fuel mileage. It ranks up there with the Mazda 3 for handling, but its manual transmission isn’t as good as the Mazda’s. It is more expensive than the Versa and you never forget you are in a small car while driving one with its low seating position and reduced side visibility. It is much improved over earlier models.
Dodge’s Caliber has a vast and trendy interior, but the large blind spots and in your face interior was a bit much. Fun is fun, but an interior with bright red and white upholstering accented with very shiny painted metal require a more youthful slant. That being said, you aren’t going to get more car for less money. It is the best Dodge product at this time outside of their minivans and can be ordered with an array of options that can escalate the price well above $20,000.
Honda Fit is a smaller, more economical, less distinctive version of the Caliber. However, it is much more fun with a fine combination of handling, economy, room, and spirit. It does feel small and rough roads aren’t’ its forte. It costs considerable less than the Civic, but is less of a car. If Honda would just put their hybrid unit in the Fit it would be the best such vehicle made. As it is this is a terrific vehicle, but too closely priced to the base Civic.
The Mazda 3 is next in line for appreciation. Along with the Volkswagen Rabbit it is the best handler of the group and quite enjoyable to romp with. However, its fuel mileage isn’t up to snuff and you don’t get as much with the base model as others moves. We feel it is going to appeal to young male’s the most, which isn’t to say the 3 isn’t a family friendly car. However, its forte is it rompability. This Mazda loves to play tag with the apex of corners as much as sip fuel. Be warned that the torque steer can get your attention in a hurry. Easily a better vehicle than the much more pricey Audi 3. The best choice on our list if you really like to drive.
A nasty spat occurred with the Suzuki SX4 based around the unfairness of comparing an all wheel drive vehicle with front wheel drive economy cars. Anyway, the result was a high finish for the nicely prepared and versatile SX4. Its busy engine and aforementioned just adequate fuel mileage relegated it to this placement. If Suzuki would make this an all wheel drive model and cut the cost it would be a much stouter competitor. As it stands, it is the low cost all wheel drive champion. The Yaris is the weakest of all Toyota products. It is fuel-efficient and does look cute, but outside of that the competition has it covered. We didn’t like the way it handled, the blind spots to the side, the low driving position, or the way it corners. A new Corolla is well worth the extra and gets nearly the same gas mileage and is a terrific handler. With the Corolla being redone this year look for some terrific deals. In fact, the Corolla is one of the best cars you can buy regardless of price. And, if you want to sit lower, the soon to be redone Scions are all superior gas misers with a large fun factor.
The Kia Spectra, Hyundai Accent, and Chevrolet Aveo just aren’t as much car as the others. We also believe that the resale may not be as strong. Thus these are price cars that deliver good fuel mileage and adequate interior room, but they don’t make you feel special or offer anything other than a compact ride and feel. If you are a good shopper you can get the vastly better Chevrolet Cobalt that is eager to please, gives nearly as good fuel mileage and with some good bargaining can be only slightly more than the smaller Chevrolet Aveo. We find the Cobalt very worthwhile. As for the Spectra, the same could be said, as the larger and more powerful Kia Optima is a superior car with some exceptional lease deals being offered. Like the Cobalt it offers the same excellent fuel economy as it smaller sister, the Spectra is more spacious and family oriented for just a few dollars more a week. And there is no doubt that the excellent Hyundai Elantra is worth the additional cost over the Accent.
Mom’s view: I like a small car that doesn’t feel like a small car. So, it’s the Versa all the way. It just does what you ask, holds plenty of everything, and if you opt for the CVT you get exceptional drivability that can easily surpass 32 mpg. I wouldn’t get the manual transmission simply because it was so difficult to shift in a hurry and the high clutch take up made it difficult to modulate wearing shoes with just one inch heels. The interior fabric is a bit grabby and difficult to clean and the stereo volume control is a bear to operate with fingernails that haven’t been bitten down. Overall a great bargain of the car. Forget the sedan and get the hatchback even with its gawky looks. The head and legroom is remarkable and the 122 horsepower 1.8 liter engine is much more potent than one would think. Get the optional CVT and relax with the welcoming seats, good visibility and plenty of standard features. Unfortunately, the low price tag means common sense items such as anti lock brakes are options.
I liked the Suzuki, too. It was cute and comfortable. But, its 2.0 liter four cylinder engine provides just 143 horsepower to move the 2800 pounder around. Although it is eager to please and can be frisky with the five speed manual you have to work that transmission hard to get to 60 miles an hour in under ten seconds. The interior isn’t badly done and there were a number of useful storage areas, but I found it rather bland. Mind you this is a very nice car and one that would have been my first choice if it was a tad less costly and didn’t have the all wheel drive unit to hamper performance. As it now stands this is an underrated vehicle that has plenty of visual appeal and a lot of useable storage area. Quite good and certainly a strong consideration if you drive where inclement weather is a concern, the SX4 carries a warranty that is as good as it gets.
Of the others, the Honda Fit didn’t fit me, the Mazda was just too boy racer, the Dodge was too stiff legged, and the Aveo didn’t have enough perkiness. The Yaris was a disappointment from every aspect except visual appeal. Too low and too slow. Give me that Corolla. The Hyundai Elantra was extremely nice and returned excellent fuel mileage and a good ride. However, it was too difficult for me to get in and out of due to its low height and I felt cramped in the rear seats.
Dad’s view: I liked the Civic, but the Honda Fit grabbed my attention. It was so easy to maneuver and the fold flat rear hatch area was simple and honest in its operation. Both vehicles offer the good fuel mileage with 32-mpg easy to obtain with a manual transmission. If I had long distances to commute my backside would tire of the bumpy ride due to the short wheelbase of the Fit and I would buy the more relaxed fit of the Civic. Either way these are good value.
Call it a manly compact, but the Caliber is a whole lot of vehicle for the money. Keep to the standard 148 horsepower 1.8 liter four cylinder engine and the CVT and you are going to get 25 mpg. If you want to throw out the $15,000 or so mandate, order more powerful engines and get yourself a wild and wicked wagon. The versatility of the Caliber is everything as the handling isn’t really up to its husky stance. If you like the look of the interior with its body colored plastic and loud color pallet, this is a very worthy buy. However, the Fit and the Versa felt more connected to the road. A good family car with a high seating position and lots of funky features such as fold down rear speakers the Caliber is fun, but not frisky.
I don’t like to kick a company when its down, but the Chevrolet Aveo isn’t the best General Motors can do. The Cobalt is much better and not that much more money. The Aveo gets good fuel mileage with about 28 mpg with the automatic, but it always feels underpowered. The 1.6 liter four cylinder has but 107 horsepower and getting to 60 miles per hour is going to take you about 11 seconds. If you have a family onboard it takes much longer. Obviously, this is a commuter car and does that job well. It looks nice, has plenty of storage spaces, and getting in and out is easy. The brakes are not up to the competition and the car is a bit noisy on the road. If you just need basic transportation consider the Aveo, if you want a car that handles and is generally better in every way pay a bit more and get the very good Chevrolet Cobalt.
Let me make this as simple to understand as possible. The Yaris isn’t what Toyota is about. We were unimpressed. It was small inside, the 1.5-liter engine and its 106 horsepower weren’t enough, and the whole car felt cheap. The only plus was the exceptional fuel mileage of 35 mpg in mixed driving. Buy a Scion or wait for the all-new Corolla pricing before getting involved with this Camryish looking sedan.
Working woman’s view: The Mazda has snap even though it costs you at the fuel pump. Indeed the all wheel drive Suzuki nearly returned the same fuel mileage as the Mazda with 24 for the SX4 and the Mazda giving us 25 mpg. The Mazda has handling, looks, and personality and it won me over. Although a bit youthful for my tastes, the interior was well done and the engine always on call. The Mazda 3 is a lot of car for under $15,000 and the equal to the much more expensive Audi 3.
College going male’s view: The brakes on the Chevrolet Aveo were weak and the pedal feedback was soft and not reassuring. Perhaps that was because this was a very new model, but I just couldn’t help but feeling that it could have been improved. The feel of the interior controls and the way the seat backs fold down also weren’t as good as I wanted. There is no question that the Aveo is a price leader and there is also no question you get what you pay for. If you want an economical car that returns over 30 miles per gallon with the manual transmission and costs about $13,000 the Aveo is your best answer. But for me the Chevrolet Cobalt is much better. I think it is one of Chevrolet’s best vehicles. As for the Honda Fit, it just was too small for me. The Civic was terrific, but it with options it can cost more than the larger Honda Accord. My favorite was the Dodge Caliber. It had everything and was a huge bargain. There was plenty of room, great interior design, and enough engine to provide good fuel efficiency and not intrude on acceleration and performance. However, you need to get the standard transmission with the base engine. If you want an automatic get the six-cylinder engine. You’ll need it as the Caliber’s energy is drained dramatically with a family onboard.
Second would be the Mazda 3, but only because I felt the ride was too sporty for those who use their vehicles mainly for commuting on crowded roads. It was edgy and fun in the open spaces, but in town it was tiring to drive.
Family conference: This category of family friendly vehicles that is expanding second only to that of the sales of crossover SUVs. As such every car is worth considering and it is a good idea to seriously shop only you have driven each one on a rough road, in heavy traffic where visibility can be a problem, and at night. Sadly, some of these vehicles have less than terrific night lighting with low cost headlights and only a small dome light for the interior. None of these models even came close to our lighting standards set by the big Cadillac. Don’t just take these for a zip around the block. At highway speeds the engine noise can be a distraction and you need to do at least one fast lane change and emergency braking test where it is safe. Since these vehicles are new they have not gone through the government safety-testing program. Thus it is best to order as many safety features as you can afford on these vehicles. And, should you be wiling to accept a vehicle long in the tooth, the Toyota Corolla is just as good as the best of these. For a list of all vehicle websites go to http://www.reacheverychild.com/business/index.html
Here are some statistics to help you decide for yourself. We did not cite any cargo capacity figures due to the fact that they are highly misleading. A taller vehicle may have nearly double the capacity of a shorter one, but does how high you stack items count as much as leg room.
Base price (rounded up) Fuel tank horsepower mpg highway max. range
Mazda $14,000 14.5 148 35 400
Spectra $15,000 14 138 33 370
Versa $13,500 13.2 122 34 390
Aveo $11,800 11 103 37 300
Accent $10,500 11.9 110 35 350
Civic $15,000 13.9 140 38 400
SX4 $15,000 11 143 30 280
Fit $14,000 10.8 109 38 400
Yaris $11,500 11.1 106 40 440
Caliber $14,000 13.6 148 32 360