Whether you're a first-time car buyer on a shoestring budget or simply want an affordable, super-fuel-efficient subcompact for your next ride of choice, today's small cars have improved by leaps and bounds over the chintzy, unreliable 'penalty boxes' of yesteryear. Subcompact car pricing has crept up lately, but there are still a few great choices you'll find under $15,000 to start.
Here are the 5 cheapest small cars you'll find on sale for the 2013 model year, and all of them come very close to, or exceed, 40 highway mpg.
Nissan's Versa is far and away the best-selling subcompact car in the United States, thanks in no small part to its carrying the lowest base price on the market. For 2013, the hatchback model has been dropped, leaving behind this blocky yet appealing sedan model. Though previous-gen Versa cars did not even feature a stereo, anti-lock brakes or A/C in their base models, the new car comes with all the basic necessities you'd expect. The extra-cost CVT transmission provides the best fuel efficiency, though the slightly underpowered Versa may be more fun with a row-your-own 5-speed manual, which comes standard.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 31 city/40 highway mpg.
The Spark is all-new for 2013, and is the smallest car Chevrolet has ever offered. This 'micro-compact' is shorter and narrower than even the MINI Cooper Hardtop, and while it seats 4 instead of 5 passengers, interior room is not too bad for a car of these dimensions. You'll find just 84 horsepower on tap, but this is a very light vehicle, so acceleration will rival other small budget cars. The Spark has sold well with younger first-time buyers, thanks to its refreshing design and large number of color choices and customization options. With 10 standard airbags and welcome features like hill-start assist, the Spark has a decent track record for safety. And what could be easier to park than this tiny, fuel-efficient, money-saving powerhouse.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 32 city/38 highway mpg.
Fresh off a 2012 redesign and adding a few new standard features this year, the Kia Rio is a top choice for small cars, making great strides since the bargain-basement, low-quality Rio of the previous generation. Available in sedan and hatchback body styles, the Rio offers lots of power for this class while still maintaining great efficiency. Available 6-speed manual and 6-speed automatic transmissions help with fuel economy and provide more usable gear ratios, allowing the Rio to dash through city traffic with ease. If you're cross-shopping the Rio and similar Hyundai Accent, know that the Rio is cheaper at each trim level, but is missing a few of the Hyundai's premium features.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 29 city/38 highway mpg.
Want a small, efficient car at a rock-bottom price that's not a snooze behind the wheel? The Ford Fiesta is our top pick for subcompact drivers who love to, well, drive. Sharing engineering with the Mazda2, a great little car in its own right, the Fiesta separates itself from that offering through its sharp styling and much more modern interior technology options. You'll find available SYNC and SYNC with MyFord Touch systems with tons of smartphone-enhancing in-car apps, plus true small-car luxury features at the higher trim levels. Fuel efficiency nuts may want to wait until 2014, when the Fiesta will debut with an all-new 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder EcoBoost turbo engine that will bring even greater efficiency while matching the current 1.6-liter's power output.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 29 city/40 highway mpg (SFE).
After a 2012 redesign that updated styling and improved interior materials quality, the Yaris is once again a strong choice in the subcompact field for the right type of buyer. Powertrain tech is a bit underwhelming, with just 106 horsepower and a dated 4-speed automatic transmission choice, but as basic transportation, you can't beat Toyota when it comes to reliability and low costs of ownership. Just don't expect the driving thrills of the Fiesta or Chevrolet Sonic. As for styling, the Yaris is a hit where competitors tend to look boring and cookie-cutter-like, especially in the class-exclusive 3-door hatchback body style. Interior features are competitive, but don't lead the pack, either.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 30 city/37 highway mpg.