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Spring Into Action – 


Tooling around town in a 2023 Nissan Kicks recently, we were reminded that although the median transaction price of a new vehicle is a fingernail shy of $50,000, one can still find pleasant transportation for less than half that amount.

This is, however, counter to the trend. According to Kelly Blue Book, over the past six years the share of vehicles selling for more than $60,000 has increased by 163% while those selling for less than $25,000 has fallen 78%.

This is no accident. Manufacturers have abandoned building cars in favor of pickups and SUVs, which often have gross profit margins greater than $25,000 apiece. Poring over market data, it soon becomes evident that fewer than one-in-four American households ever purchase a new vehicle. Most people buy used and one might reasonably wonder what will be available in a few years for those living on tight budgets.

The good news is that a half-dozen companies, stout global competitors, continue to develop affordable cars. The bad news for the U.S. auto industry is that those companies are based in S. Korea, Japan, and Europe. 

Volkswagen, for example, this week premiered a $26,500 electric vehicle, the ID.2all, the EV for the masses that Elon Musk first hinted at in 2006 but has yet to deliver. It should go on sale in Europe in 2025. VW has American factories and if it chooses to build the model here, it would be eligible for federal income tax credits up to $7,500.

In the meantime, attractive, reliable, safe, and fuel-efficient options are available. Below are some of our top choices. The base price is listed, but options can push the final MSRP up anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000. EPA estimated fuel economy is shown as City/Highway/Combined.

Kicks? Meh

The Nissan Kicks – starting at $20,440 – certainly is one, but we rate it closer to the middle of the pack than the top.

A subcompact crossover, the Kicks has the look of an SUV and a few of the benefits. The interior is roomy but all-wheel drive is not available. It is well suited to around-town chores, but cheap materials and thin seats make it ill-suited to road trips. 

A 122-hp, 1.6-L inline-4 mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) feels slow and sounds growly. Handling is OK, but not as agile as one expects from a small car. Because of its short 103-inch wheelbase the ride is choppy. These are perhaps reasons why Consumer Reports readers rank the Kicks among the least satisfying vehicles to own.

On the other hand, the Kicks benefits from Nissan’s prowess in electronics and driver-assist technology. Blind-spot warning (BSW), automatic emergency braking (AEB) and rear cross-traffic warning (RCTW) are standard. The infotainment system links sharply with Android and Apple phones

The fuel economy is also impressive at 31/36/33.

Top 5-ish

5. Nissan Sentra

  • Base price: $19,950
  • EPA estimates: 29/39/33

The Sentra is a value leader, offering plenty of cabin space, a real trunk, and generous features. Handling is competent and the ride is compliant. Move up to the SV or SR package and for less than $25,000 one gets adaptive cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, quilted leather upholstery, a leather shift knob, a power-adjustable driver’s seat and a sunroof.

4. Volkswagen Jetta

  • Base price: $20,655
  • EPA estimates: 29/42/34

The first time I took Blonde Beauty for a long drive in a Jetta, we returned as an engaged couple. The Jetta has good road manners, a nice ride, and its 1.4-L turbo mated to an eight-speed transmission is driver-friendly. The cabin is quiet and made of premium-feeling materials. The list of driver-assist features is long.

3. Hyundai Elantra Hybrid

  • Base price $24,550
  • EPA estimates: 53/56/54

The hybrid version of this car pays for itself in less than a year. It is also quieter, smoother, and more durable. Hyundai excels at electronics and driver-assist gear. The interior is roomy.

2. Mazda3

  • Base price: $23,615
  • EPA estimates: 28/37/31

Zoom-zoom was Mazda’s brand message, representing “the love of motion experienced as a child.” Eighteen years after the company introduced the slogan, it still builds cars that turn that thought into reality. Handling is taut and driving is gratifying. In recent years Mazda is transitioning into a near-luxury brand, which is reflected in materials and craftsmanship. When Mazda gets around to electrifying this car, it will be the best buy on the market.

1B. Honda Civic

  • Base Price $25,050
  • EPA estimates: 33/42/36

OK, we said less than $25,000. We had to fudge on the Civic because Honda, like so many others, has eliminated its bargain LX trim, which is another industry trend. Still, if it’s value, fuel economy and durability you seek…hey, it’s a Honda. There’s much to like about the Civic, though it does allow in a little more road noise, which is an issue on Texas’ chip-sealed highways.

Though the Accord hybrid is recognized as one of the best around, Honda is yet to offer a Civic hybrid That is set to change in the 2024 model year. Multiple research results show hybrids last longer than straight internal-combustion power plants.

1A. Toyota Corolla Hybrid

  • Base Price $23,895
  • EPA estimates: 53/46/50

The EPA estimates that in five years the Corolla hybrid will save owners more than $3,750 in fuel costs compared to the average vehicle. That’s no reason to buy it. Smooth and quiet operation, great handling, the best safety gear in the business, and legendary reliability, however, are reasons to buy it – and why it’s our number one choice.

For 2023, Toyota dropped the price of the Corolla hybrid by $1,250 and made all-wheel drive standard. Toyota has long been the leader in driver-assist technology, which reduces the number of accidents and casualties by a third or more.

The Corolla also comes in SUV form, the Corolla Cross, albeit without the hybrid drivetrain.

According to Cox Automotive, in 2022 the average transaction price of a new vehicle climbed 4.9% to $49,507. The average for Toyotas fell 1.4%, to $38,875. It would seem the company has a secret growth plan – to keep its customers…even those of modest means.

In four decades of journalism, Bill Owney has picked up awards for his coverage of everything from murders to the NFL to state and local government. He added the automotive world to his portfolio in the mid '90s.

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