So you've worked hard, scrimped and saved, and it's time to finally reward yourself with your very first brand-new car. There's dozens of affordable choices on the market for first-time buyers, but not all are created equal. You'll want a ride that's very fuel efficient, as gas prices are only on the rise. Of course you need something reliable to avoid those several hundred (or several thousand) dollar repair bills.
We've limited our top 5 choices to cars that cost under $20,000 in order to keep things affordable for the greatest number of individuals. We've also only included cars achieving at least 25 city/30 highway mpg.
Among subcompact cars, the Ford Fiesta has the best handling and largest array of available tech features on the market to go along with pleasing styling and a rock-bottom price. Available in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback body styles, the cute Ford, with its smiling front-end design, starts at right around $14,000 and stays under $20k when fully loaded. The standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine brings 120 horsepower and an impressive 29 city/39 highway/33 combined mpg with either the 5-speed manual or 6-speed sequential auto/manual transmission choice.
Inside is Ford SYNC voice-recognition infotainment tech as standard equipment, which functions better than systems like Kia UVO and Chevy MyLink. At the higher trim levels, SYNC with MyFord Touch adds a touchscreen head unit that plays nice with your iPhone or Android device, opening up a world of in-car apps. Reliability has proved better than average since the 2011 model year when the new Fiesta went on sale, though some owners complain the MyFord Touch system can be glitchy and hard to use at times.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 29 city/39 highway/33 combined mpg.
Prior to the 2008 auto bailouts and subsequent big shakeup in the American car industry, it would have been unthinkable for American small car models from both Ford and Chevy to make any sort of 'Best Of' list. Chevrolet's Spark micro-car makes a great choice for first-time buyers, especially those who have to frequently parallel park and navigate traffic-filled big city streets. The Spark is positively tiny, shorter and narrower than even the MINI Cooper Hardtop. But the interior is long on space and safety features, with the hatchback body style adding extra utility. Power comes from Chevy's tiny 1.2-liter EcoTec four-cylinder, and while there's just 84 horsepower on tap, the Spark weighs in at under 2,400 lbs., helping maximize what available thrust is there.
Fuel efficiency is predictably strong, at 32 city/38 highway/34 mpg combined for the 5-speed manual and 28/37/32 mpg for the automatic. And thanks to the Spark's base price that's just a hair over $12,000, the cheapest on the market, you can choose from Chevy's long list of available options and accessories and still drive it off the lot for less than the price of a stripped-down standard compact car. At the higher trim levels, you'll find Bluetooth phone and streaming audio, MyLink with internet radio, foglamps, heated front seats, a 6-speaker premium audio system and more. The Spark even comes with 10 standard airbags and admirable crash-test performance, proving that 'small' needn't mean 'unsafe'.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 32 city/38 highway/34 combined mpg(Manual).
Though Subaru may not sell the volume of Toyota, Honda and Nissan, its Impreza compact outperformed its Japanese rivals to earn Consumer Reports' Top Pick rating among compact cars for the 2013 model year. Among its many virtues, the Impreza comes with Subaru's excellent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, a feature not even available on other compacts. Better still, you won't pay a price premium for AWD: at under $18,000, the Impreza is priced about like other compact cars. If you live or are attending school in a rainy or snowy climate, you can breathe easier knowing this is among the easiest to drive and most stable cars at any price.
Fuel efficiency is the best of all AWD cars on the market, at up to 27 city/36 highway/30 combined mpg. For 2013, Subaru has improved feature content on the base model, adding Bluetooth phone and audio, iPod capability, and steering wheel audio controls. The available hatchback body style manages to look sporty and youthful yet conservative, a far cry from the flashier Impreza models of a few years ago. For a solidly built, very efficient and fun-to-drive compact with the best AWD system among mainstream automakers, you need look no further.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 27 city/36 highway/30 combined mpg.
The funky, freshly styled Soul is about as close as you'll come to crossover utility while still keeping pricing well under $20,000. The Soul's tall-for-a-compact ride height will be familiar to drivers used to larger vehicles. Rear legroom, at 39 inches, outperforms most midsize family sedans, and you'll also find 23.7 cu.ft. of cargo space with the 60/40 split-folding rear seat in the raised position, or an outstanding 53.4 cu.ft. with it folded flat. While Kia recently significantly lowered fuel economy ratings after an EPA probe, the base 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder still returns decent efficiency at 25 city/30 highway mpg. Opt for the up-level 2.0-liter and you'll find 164 horsepower and 24 city/29 highway/26 combined mpg while still keeping pricing under $20k. As for pricing, the base model starts at under $15,000 or about $6,000 less than even the cheapest of true compact crossovers.
While you'll find a tradeoff in the form of slow acceleration with the base engine, the Soul's space and high-tech interior more than make up for it. Bluetooth phone and streaming audio is standard, along with basic necessities like A/C and a 4-speaker CD/MP3/Aux.In/Satellite Radio audio system. Kia's UVO infotainment system of the higher trim levels is still in its early stages, but offers voice control, in-car apps to use with your smartphone, and a plethora of audio sourcing options. The Soul is our pick above other boxy hatch/crossovers like the Scion xB and Nissan Cube.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 25 city/30 highway mpg.
While at $19,080 plus destination it just barely scoots under our $20,000 price cap, Toyota's fuel efficiency leader in the Prius c still makes a strong value choice for a first car. Here's why: 50 combined mpg, low maintenance costs thanks to outstanding reliability, and typical Toyota hybrid high resale value. Sell the fashionable and efficient Prius c after 5 to 7 years – when it's time to upgrade to something even nicer – and you'll still make out well, while other, less-expensive compact hatchbacks will be practically worthless. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, here using a 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder plus an electric motor and CVT transmission, brings 53 city/46 highway/50 combined mpg, around 66% greater than even a very efficient gas-powered compact.
Though the Prius c rides on a chassis sourced from the much less expensive Yaris, the folks at Toyota have raised the bar with interior feature content. The base 'One' model comes with automatic climate control, a 3.5-inch multi-function center console Display Audio System, full power accessories and switchgear, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio, and a decent 4-speaker sound system. The higher trim levels add luxury car niceties, but be aware that you won't get out the door for anywhere close to 20 large. If the 'c' has one foible – other than relatively slow pickup, which is to be expected – it's that interior build quality feels a bit cheap and chintzy.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 53 city/46 highway/50 combined mpg.