Forty years ago, what this country really needed was a good $2000 car. America was in turmoil. An endless foreign war made our president an outcast. Oil wasn’t so cheap anymore. Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun (later Nissan) swarmed our shores with cheap, eventually well-made little cars that Detroit was sure we’d never want. Now it’s 1968 all over again, and there’s a colossal market for sub-$20,000, gas-conserving cars.
In rough order of best mileage, what follows are the top combinations of affordability and fuel economy. All of these can be had for under $20,000 except the Civic Hybrid, which goes for about $3,000 over that. Unsurprisingly, this most costly of these cars – and the only hybrid – goes farthest on a gallon, 42 miles when averaged out between highway and city. Its top crash-test scores are another plus.
The innovative two-seater Smart’s astonishingly small size gives its owners the lead in what one might dub the “eco-sacrifice factor,” but its transmission is drawing gripes and the car’s average 37 mpg is blunted by its need for premium gas.
Optimal looks and cachet are to be found in the BMW-built Mini Cooper (36 mpg), though its inside is cramped and the base model is just a touch underpowered for true fun, at under 120 horsepower; Mini’s Clubman version gets four miles less per gallon but is almost 10 inches longer, and pairs of swing-out doors on its sides and back make it a more practical choice for anyone weighing over 180 pounds.
Hyundai’s Elantra (33 mpg) is quiet and safe, with a large trunk. It may be the best choice for a small family. The build quality of this Korean brand has edged close to Toyota’s in recent years.
The safest choice? Probably the Toyota Corolla (32 mpg), the top-selling passenger car in the history of the planet. The car is conservative, refined almost to dullness, yet gloriously reliable. I drove a new Corolla to San Jose and back over the weekend, and found it commendably solid, well-appointed, and thrifty.
Another Toyota, the little Yaris (also 32 mpg), is a bargain at under $12,000, exceedingly well-made, and visually arresting. You’ll seldom pass anything with it on the 405, but it’s really made for short urban trips. Though it’s a full foot and a half shorter than the Civic, the Honda Fit (31mpg) has virtually the same room inside due to its breadbox shape, and its rear seat can be folded almost out of sight to provide a startling amount of hauling space. With Honda there is always terrific build quality, and like the Yaris it rides well for its size.
Among the market leaders in this class is Corolla’s rival, the non-hybrid Honda Civic (30 mpg). It has over 10 percent more power than its Toyota counterpart and fine styling, but make sure you can live with its unusual instrument layout.
The Toyota-built Scion xD (30 mpg) is both handsome and smooth-handling, and its base model includes quality stereo, anti-lock brakes, and six airbags – features that are optional on many of its competitors.
The cheapest option – barely over $10,000 – is the Kia Rio (30 mpg), a purely basic ride that doesn’t have so much as cruise control. The stick-shift version is quicker, stingier with gas, and recommended. Kia drivetrains are factory-covered for 10 years or 100,000 miles.
As one of the pioneers of the Japanese small-car wizardry of the Nixon era, Nissan predictably has a solid duo of entries in the field. The safe and spacious Sentra (29 mpg) can be had with a six-speed manual transmission that stretches a gallon well, along with a tire-monitoring system which may help even more. (Proper tire pressure is the easiest, surest way to reduce a car’s fill-ups.)
Nissan’s more basic Versa (also 29 mpg, and recently redesigned) is smaller than the Sentra, but larger – especially inside – than many of its like-priced competitors such as Yaris and Fit. The six-speed is available on it as well, along with the automatic Xtronic CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, a gas-scrimping mechanical wonder that is well worth the extra grand or so. Versa’s backseat room is better than many far larger cars, so this might be the choice if you expect to carry full-size passengers frequently.
None of these, of course, are American brands. U.S. carmakers put most of their eggs in the truck and SUV baskets long ago, and now they’re furiously wooing foreign – even Chinese – manufacturers to make small cars they can slap their nameplates on for sale Stateside. If you’d like to buy American, two cars in this class average 30 mpg.
Ford’s underrated Focus was thoroughly and nicely restyled last fall. Its performance and amenities more than hold their own against offshore competition. For about $400 extra you can include the SYNC feature that Ford has developed with Microsoft; it allows the driver to use voice commands to control cell phones and portable music players.
The Chevrolet Cobalt has a skimpy interior and a backseat that any kindergarten graduate will have a tough time accessing, but it’s one of the faster cars in this crowded field.