Best Cheap Cars – The Top 10 New Cars Under $17,000

Last Updated: Apr 5, 2010

The best cheap cars don’t feel like low-budget buggies. Every one of our top 10 new cars under $17,000 is equipped with key safety and convenience features, including automatic transmission, and is powered by a gas-saving four-cylinder engine.

We’re guided by manufacturer’s suggested retail prices for 2008 models and options (the Toyota Corolla is the exception; it’s on sale as an early 2009 model). Included is the factory-mandated destination or shipping charge, but not tax, title, or license fees. Negotiating at the dealership and taking advantage of factory cash-back offers and other incentives could lower your purchase price.

FORD FOCUS S
Two-door coupe, $15,065. Four-door sedan, $15,425. Add $815 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/35 highway with manual transmission, 24/33 with automatic.
  • Recommended extra: antilock brakes and traction control ($385).
  • Surprise feature: Ouch. This is the only car on our list without power windows, locks, and mirrors. For that, you’ll have to move up to the Focus SE model, and that nudges the sticker price to just over $17,000 with automatic transmission and ABS. If you do spring for an SE, you’ll also be able to order Sync, Ford’s Microsoft-developed wireless link to music, communications, and information -- tempting at $395.
  • You need to know: The Ford Focus is heavily revamped for model-year 2008, but carries over an aged chassis. Still, decent room and comfort for four and high-volume production increases availability -- and therefore your bargaining power.

HONDA FIT SPORT
Four-door hatchback, $15,905. Add $800 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 28 mpg city/34 highway with manual transmission, 27/34 with automatic.
  • Recommended extra: No factory options are available, but going for the Sport version, the top model in this two-model lineup, adds niceties such as cruise control, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel and alloy wheels to already-standard features such as curtain side airbags, antilock brakes. And you’re still under $17,000, even with automatic transmission.
  • Surprise feature: Fit’s really a mini crossover, with vanlike accommodations for people and cargo.
  • You need to know: The Honda Fit won’t win any prizes for quiet comfort, but it’ll get you smiling on a curvy road. An array of seat-folding configurations makes this small-outside/big-inside hatchback one of the most-versatile vehicles on wheels.

HYUNDAI ACCENT GLS
Four-door sedan, $13,795. Add $1,000 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 27 mpg city/32 highway with manual transmission, 24/33 with automatic.
  • Recommended extra: Popular Equipment Package that includes antilock four-wheel disc brakes, power mirrors, windows and locks, and remote keyless entry ($950).
  • Surprise feature: power sunroof ($900).
  • You need to know: The Hyundai Accent GLS is small but solidly built and packed with standard features for which many subcompact-class rivals charge extra, including head-protecting curtain side airbags. A generous 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty also stands out.

HYUNDAI ELANTRA GLS
Four-door sedan, $14,245. Add $1,000 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/33 highway with manual transmission, 25/33 with automatic.
  • Recommended extra: Popular Equipment Package that includes air conditioning, cruise control, fog lamps, CD audio with digital media jack, and illuminated visor mirrors ($1,750).
  • Surprise feature: Add a power sunroof to the Popular Equipment Package and still come in just under $17,000.
  • You need to know: The Hyundai Elantra GLS is a class up in size and performance from the Hyundai Accent, but with the same warranty coverage and sense of solid value that’s made this South Korean automaker a force in the marketplace.

MAZDA 3 i Sport
Four-door sedan, $14,530. Add $900 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/32 highway with manual transmission, 23/31 with automatic.
  • Recommended extra: ABS and Airbag Package, which includes antilock brakes and head-protecting curtain side airbags and mandates air conditioning (total cost $1,275).
  • Surprise feature: The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach and includes audio controls.
  • You need to know: Mazda is preparing a redesigned 3 for 2009, but the 2008 Mazda 3 I Sport is still a tasty buy with good looks, solid cabin materials, and sporty moves that stand out on any sub-$17,000 list.

NISSAN VERSA S
Four door sedan, $13,335. Four-door hatchback, $13,435. Add $800 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 26 mpg city/31 highway with manual transmission, 24/32 with automatic.
  • Recommended extras: Antilock brakes, which mandates the Power Package that includes remote keyless entry, power windows and locks, rear door map pockets and a glovebox light (total cost $950)
  • Surprise feature: The hatchback comes with split folding rear seats and a rear-window wiper/washer.
  • You need to know: The Nissan Versa S hatchback has a modern-architecture shape and surprising room for people and cargo. It’s the smart pick for a solidly built, thoroughly modern compact car that’s confident on the road.

SCION xD
Four-door hatchback, $15,170. Add $800 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 27 mpg city/33 highway with manual transmission, 26/32 with automatic.
  • Recommended extras: Antiskid system with traction control ($650), iPod USB port that enables iPod control from the dashboard audio unit ($389).
  • Surprise features: Comes standard with goodies other low-cost subcompacts charge extra for – or don’t offer -- including air conditioning, tilt steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, power mirrors with turn-signal indicators, power windows and locks, and a split-folding rear seat that slides fore and aft to maximize passenger or cargo space.
  • You need to know: The Scion xD is a new-age hatchback brimming with useful standard features and boasting a geek-chic cabin of dark plastic panels and low-gloss surfaces. On the road, it’s one of those slow cars that’s kind of fun to drive fast.

SUZUKI SX4 SPORT (SEDAN) AND CROSSOVER (HATCHBACK)
Four-door sedan, $15,395. Four-door hatchback, $15,895. Add $1,100 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 22 mpg city/30 highway with manual transmission, 23/31 with automatic (Sport); 21/28 with either transmission (Crossover).
  • Recommended extras: Advance to the Convenience Package version of the Sport and gain automatic climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, and heated mirrors. Even with automatic transmission, it comes in at $16,995. Crossovers with the Convenience Package cross over our $17,000 if you also order automatic transmission.
  • Surprise features: The Crossover is the lowest-priced all-wheel-drive vehicle sold in America. The Sport has front-wheel drive and comes outfitted with a handling suspension and wide tires on big 17-inch alloy wheels.
  • You need to know: The Suzuki SX4 Sport sedan is chunky-ugly, but the Crossover hatchback is funky-cool. Both come with antilock four-wheel disc brakes and power windows, locks, and mirrors. Neither is available with a sunroof.

2009 TOYOTA COROLLA BASE
Four-door sedan, $15,910. Add $800 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 27 mpg city/35 highway with either manual or automatic transmission.
  • Recommended extras: Corolla’s base model comes with air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering wheel, height-adjustable driver’s seats, antilock brakes, and a split folding rear seatback, but to get power windows and locks, you’ll have to move up one notch on the model ladder, to the LE version, which comes with those amenities and automatic transmission for a list of $17,310.
  • Surprise features: Maybe it’s no surprise that Corolla’s resale value is among the highest of any compact car.
  • You need to know: The Toyota Corolla is all-new for 2009, but you’d hardly know that by looking at it, or by driving it. Conservative by design – that’s this one’s winning formula.

TOYOTA YARIS S
Two-door hatchback: $13,635. Four-door sedan, $14,335. Add $900 for automatic transmission.

  • Fuel economy: 29 mpg city/36 highway with manual transmission, 29/35 with automatic.
  • Recommended extras: The Power Package includes an array of safety and comfort features, including antilock brakes, cruise control, power windows, mirrors and locks. It costs between $660 and $1,035, depending on body style and transmission. Don’t buy a Yaris that’s not equipped with the $650 front side airbag and curtain side airbag package.
  • Surprise features: At just over 8-feet long, the Yaris hatchback is really an urban minicar and it’s a more-substantial automobile, and a smarter value, than the toylike Smart car.
  • You need to know: Unless you’re a denizen of the big city, skip the Toyota Yaris hatchback and go for the Yaris sedan. It’s roomy and surprisingly refined. Happily, every Yaris has a tall seating position so you won’t feel intimidated in traffic.

Others to consider
When equipped with features we deemed essential, such as air conditioning, antilock brakes, and curtain side airbags, and when ordered with automatic transmission, a few fine cars exceeded our $17,000 ceiling. Foremost among these are the Honda Civic, Volkswagen Rabbit, and Saturn Astra. Check them out.