Last updated on March 11th, 2017 at 01:29 pm
Your parents or grandparents might have been shocked to see you searching online for a list of the best new cars under $20,000, since they probably would only have paid $10,000 or $5,000 for a top-of-the-line model in their day.
Times change, of course, but the goal always remains the same: finding a new car that’s well-designed and well-built, reliable and dependable, capable of delivering outstanding gas mileage – and hopefully, fun to drive as well.
This is a good time to be shopping for new cars under $20K. Dealerships have an enormous selection available, and even models you wouldn’t think could come in at that price point can be “stripped down” to give you a real bargain. It’s true that many autos in the $10K-$20K range are likely to be subcompacts or compacts, but you can also find sedans, coupes and even some that are quite sporty, even if they’re not true sports cars.
Here’s our rundown of the 20 best new cars under $20,000 that you can buy right now.
Kia Forte EX
You can buy the base Forte for less than $15,000, but the EX model sneaks in just under $20K and is the one to look at. It’s a compact – although you wouldn’t know it from the interior which provides lots of front-seat space and headroom, plus a full 23 cubic feet of cargo storage. The EX features a 173 horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder with a manual transmission, meaning strong performance and 33 miles per gallon on the highway, and it includes extras like a rear-view camera, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity with a 4.3-inch touchscreen display and other features you wouldn’t expect on a $20,000 new car.
Yes, you really can get a Prius for less than $20K. The Prius c is a subcompact hatchback that’s naturally rather small, but it’s still comfortable and has most of the interior features you’ll find on $25,000+ Prius models. It looks like a Prius but even drives better than many of its cousins, since the Prius c is actually built on a Toyota Yaris platform. That gives it more precise handling and stability. The 60 hp electric motor and 73 hp 1.5 liter four-cylinder aren’t going to win you any races, or even get you onto the highway quickly. But a Prius is automatically the best on any list of fuel-efficient cars under $20,000; you’ll be getting 53 mpg in the city, and isn’t that why you buy a Prius in the first place?
Fiat 500 Turbo
We wouldn’t call any of the small and squat Fiat 500s “sports cars,” but you’re not going to find any real sports car under $20,000 unless you buy a used one. What you do get from the Fiat 500 Turbo, however, is lots of pep and sporty performance for just under 20 grand. There’s only a 1.4 liter MultiAir in-line four under the hood, but the turbocharger boosts overall horsepower by another 34 percent and pushes 150 pound-feet of torque; in a small and lightweight vehicle with a sport-tuned suspension, that’s going to get you where want to go pretty quickly. The interior is small but it’s well-equipped, the build is impressive, and the Fiat 500 Turbo is rated at 34 mpg.
Dodge Dart SE
Once upon a time, the Dart was a budget model that some might have called a “POS.” Today it’s Italian-engineered (with Alfa Romeo roots), American-built, and a sporty and good-looking sedan. The Dart SE is available in either 1.4 liter turbo or naturally-aspirated 2.0 versions, each at 160 hp; with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic it comes in right around $19,000. For gas mileage and better performance choose the turbo model that gets 41 mpg highway and 31 mpg combined, although the 2.4 liter option that’ll take you just over the $20K price point will give the Dart a noticeable boost in oomph.
Ford Focus SE
Another American car with a European feel is the Focus, which was designed overseas with echoes of an Aston Martin design. It looks good, but don’t expect this to be an exotic ride; it’s one of the world’s most popular “everyday” vehicles because of its solid, practical attributes. For just under $20,000 you’ll get a 2.0 liter, 160 horsepower engine with five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, in your choice of sedan or hatchback. The pickup isn’t spectacular, particularly in the larger sedan, but handling is well above average, there are lots of interior “extras,” and you’ll get well over 33 mpg combined.
A German sports car under $20,000? Not really, but pretty darned close. The Mazda 3 has been a standard on “best new car” lists over the years because of its combination of stylish looks and tight handling. To stay under budget you’ll have to go with the “i” model with 2.0 liter four-cylinder than can push 155 horses, since the beefier 2.5 liter “s” model will run a few grand more. Even so, you’ll still get lots of interior and storage space, a rear-view camera and heated seats, a car that looks like it cost $10K more – and a comfortable, very sporty ride.
Honda Civic LX
Even the base Civic is almost too expensive for an “under $20,000” list, but you can still grab this all-time reliability machine right at our maximum price point. We don’t have to tell you the Civic is reliable, comfortable, and may outlive you, but the 2016 has been redesigned to look and drive sportier, with more features (like automatic climate control and speed-sensitive stereo volume control) and improved fuel economy (42 mpg highway). You’ll have to “settle” for the 2.0 liter four with a six-speed manual to get in at $20K, but with a Civic, you always know it will be worth it.
This car isn’t for everyone, because it’s somewhat funky-looking – and it’s a station wagon. For those who want a roomy ride with decent handling for less than $20,000, though, it fits the bill. The $16,000 1.6 liter base model has very little pep so you’ll want to opt for the Soul+, which adds another $4K to the price but also adds a 2.0 liter with 164 hp that makes this Kia enjoyable to drive. Included extras like hands-free Bluetooth operation and satellite radio turn the Soul+ into an odd-looking but well-equipped and spacious ride – at least, for those who don’t think it’s ugly.
Nissan Versa SL
If your main criterion is price and you want to choose from a full line of the best new cars under $20,000, your Nissan dealer is waiting for you. The entire line of Nissan Versas is priced under the magic 20K mark with the base model costing less than $13,000 and our choice, the Versa SL, at around $19,000. The SL features a 1.6 liter engine that only pushes 109 hp, so it’s not going to rip up the road. But there’s as much room as you’ll find in almost any competitor, there’s a full boat of included options, you’ll get fuel economy in the mid 30s – and all of the Versas are cheaper than comparable models.
Strictly on their merits, we’d choose a Civic over a Fit. Those who prefer a smaller car, however, would be very happy with a Fit. This model delivers more zip than you might predict, thanks to its 1.5 liter 130 hp engine and small size, which work together smoothly with a six-speed manual or gearless CVT automatic transmission. Its handling is well above-average, too. The LX model includes a hands-free mobile Bluetooth setup and some other goodies but stays below our budget limit, and there’s a lot more space inside than you also might predict.
The Lancer definitely catches the eye as one of the more attractive new cars under $20K that you can find, looking as elegant and stylish as a model that would cost much more. Its performance, though, is solidly in the middle of the $20,000 or less pack. The four-cylinder 2.0L engine kicks out 148hp but definitely lags at times, and the interior is generic with nothing that stands out (unless you shell out a little extra for a higher-priced model). Buy it for the looks rather than the ride.
While the biggest appeal of the Lancer is its appearance, the reason to purchase the Scion iM is the long list of features that are standard on this sub-$20K model including a six-speaker Pioneer sound system and a large 7” touchscreen. (Starting in 2017, it will be sold as the Corolla iM.) This is a four-door hatchback with a CVT automatic transmission but without a ton of get-up-and-go, using a 1.8 four-cylinder that only generates 137 horsepower. It’s quiet, it’s somewhat sporty-looking (Scion aims primarily for the youth market) – and the stereo is fabulous.
Lots and lots of room; that’s the reason to go for the Cruze. This four-door coupe (which also comes in a hatchback) looks and feels like a bigger car, and it’s not an optical illusion. There’s lots of head and legroom, ample storage space and a wide wheelbase to boot. The engine isn’t overly impressive (it’s a 1.4 liter turbo four-cylinder) but the acceleration is good thanks to a lightweight construction, and the ride is extremely smooth. You won’t call this a “fun” car to drive, but you’ll definitely find the experience and comfort quite similar to that of driving a larger model.
Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
Can you find a good SUV under $20,000? Actually you can, and the Outlander Sport is the one we’d choose. The new model has been redesigned with a distinctive, modern look that resembles a hatchback, and the sub-$20K version features front-wheel drive and a 2.0 liter four that kicks out 148 hp with a five-speed manual transmission. There’s a decent amount of room inside, but don’t mistake this for a full-sized, powerful or elegant SUV; the interior is somewhat cheap and the vehicle is somewhat small. But you’re paying a lot less than you would for a full-sized, powerful, elegant SUV, and this Mitsubishi is a very good value.
Just as with the Civic, you know what you’re getting with a Corolla; it’s not exciting, spacious or groundbreaking, but it’s dependable and efficient. The current LE Plus model is available at just under our maximum price point and has a 1.8 liter four that generates 132 horsepower for your trips to work or the store, along with a gearless CVT automatic transmission. It’s hard to think of a Corolla as “new” but they do make slight changes every year to this venerable car, so it qualifies as one of our 20 best new cars under $20,000.
Subaru has been upping the Impreza’s game in recent years, and the newest model is more powerful, larger, better looking – and safer, according to the automaker – than its predecessors. There’s now a direct-inject 2.0 liter Boxer four under the hood, the sedan is longer and wider than in the past, and the all-wheel drive is a very nice feature, particularly with a 37 mpg highway rating. The interior doesn’t have anything that will make you say “wow,” but even so, the Impreza is finally worth of a top-20 rating.
Ten years ago we would have had to describe the Elantra in detail, but it’s now approaching Civic and Corolla status; you know what you’re going to get for its under-$20K price. There’s an attractive, curvy style, a 1.8 liter, 145-horse engine, decent performance and ride, an interior that’s not fancy but has some very nice tech features – and the famed Hyundai reliability.
$15,000 is under $20,000, isn’t it? You don’t have to spend all of your budget to get a very good new car, since buying the Sonic will leave you about $5,000 left over for gas. Alternately, you can spend some of that money to upgrade from the 1.8 liter version to a 1.4 turbo that will give the Sonic a lot more zip and increase mileage up to 40 mpg. Throw in the included in-car Wi-Fi, cool exterior color choices, and the Sonic’s strong suspension and corner-hugging ability, and this is a small car that makes a big impact.
You normally think that you know what you’re getting with a Sentra sedan, but the newest models have upgraded to provide more interior room (particularly in the rear) and a slightly snazzier look that resembles the Altima. Once you get past that, though, you really do know what you’re getting: a small family car that drives well but doesn’t have the power or handling to set it apart from the pack, except for the new CVT automatic transmission that does let you accelerate better than with previous models. Simply put, it’s a Sentra, and Sentras are good cars in the under-$20K class.
We close with one more option in the $15,000 range which offers a lot for the money. The Kia Rio is a subcompact that makes the most of its 1.6 liter four, generating 138 horses and powering you up the highway on-ramp without an issue. There’s lots of leg and cargo space (you can choose a hatchback or a four-door model), and the leather seats (the front ones are heated) are a very nice addition. If you’ve turned up your nose at the name Kia in the past, it’s time for another look.
$20,000 Is a Lot Of Money
Shopping for a new car after driving your old one into the ground can be a shock, when you find that most of the price stickers start with the number “2.” It’s still quite possible to find a great new vehicle for $19,999 or less, however, and this rundown of the 20 best new cars under $20,000 should give you a great start.
If you still aren’t finding exactly what you’d hoped for in this price range, of course, there’s always another option: checking out the best used cars under $20,000. You’d be amazed at how much used car your budget will buy.