Affordable doesn't have to mean cheap.
In the name of consumer advocacy, we'll open this feature with a piece of advice: Unless you absolutely have to, don't buy a car right now. The supply and demand figures are not in the consumer's favor, so prices are high and even if you're willing to pay retail or higher for a new car, you're likely not going to get exactly what you want without waiting a long time. If you're looking to get around that by buying used, we wish you luck as the knock-on result is that the used car market is on a high still. It'll likely be at least a few years before the supply chains are running smoothly again, so we suggest acting accordingly.
Unfortunately, you likely need a car for college or work if you live in the US outside of a major metropolis. If you shop around, you might still be able to get a reasonable price on one of these new cars that still offer value for money. If that's the case and you don't have your first car or have a hand me down that's about to become scrap, read on.
The Nissan Versa is one of the most affordable cars on the market, but it's no longer a car that people with bad credit or a lack of credit history settle for. While the 1.6-liter engine making 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque doesn't excite anyone, 30 miles to the gallon is worth noting with the gas prices right now. For the cheapest MSRP of $15,180 before delivery, you'll get a manual transmission, decent safety features, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Unfortunately, you'll have to go up to the SV and SR trims in the $18,000 price range to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a CVT as standard. The Versa is a subcompact sedan, and it's light and surprisingly nimble for its price point as well as being surprisingly comfortable. If you can stretch to and find an SV trim without a markup, we see nothing wrong with the Versa at all.
If you have a budget of over $20,000 and want a small SUV that's more in line with a hatchback, then the Hyundai Kona is worth a look. The base models come with a 2.0-liter engine making 147 hp and are reasonably peppy. However, we like the Kona as an entry car because of the wealth of technology available as standard - including wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Lane Keeping Assist. Moving up the range, things only get better, and if you want something more sporty, there are the N-Line and Limited variants to consider with their 195 hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engines. It's also worth bearing in mind that 2022 is a model upgrade year for the Kona, and it's an underrated vehicle, so it could be worth looking for a 2021 model from a dealership.
If you're looking for a car that will take a long time to grow out of, then the Honda Civic should be high on the list of cars to check out. Even in its base trim, it's fun to drive, has great fuel economy, and comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on top of the Honda Sensing safety suite. The Civic is fantastic value for money without dealership markups until you push into the top-of-the-range model. The mid-range EX is the best value for money with its engine upgrade and additional creature comforts. That is unless you're a driving enthusiast. If that's the case, the Civic Si and its upgraded suspension and manual transmission are excellent for $27,300.
When reality bites, you can't deny the benefits of driving a Toyota Prius. Now, though, you don't have to worry about the stigma attached to driving a Prius. Instead, you can pick up a Corolla with the same drivetrain and trade power for 53/52/52 miles-per-gallon city/highway/combined.
We chose the Corolla rather than similar cars with similar mpg to the Corolla because we found we didn't need to finesse the throttle pedal all the time to get 50 mpg through a week, and the Corolla is a well-featured little car. There's currently one trim level featuring automatic climate control, premium fabric upholstery, and an eight-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa integration, a slew of safety features, and a price tag of $23,750.
If you can get it at or near MSRP, the Corolla Hybrid is excellent value for money and promises to carry on being cheap to run.
If you're looking for something carrying a little extra style as well as being practical and fun to drive, the Mazda CX-30 fits the bill. Mazda sees the words "affordable" and "cheap" as having two very different meanings, so for your money, you're getting Mazda build quality, styling, and dynamics in a small package that isn't too small. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, but the big temptation will be to go for the more powerful 2.5-liter turbo making 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque over the non-aspirated engine producing 186 hp. That's where the CX-30 starts getting more expensive, but if you have the means, we recommend going for it if you have a heavy right foot.
The compact truck segment is back, and the Ford Maverick is perfectly aimed at urban dwellers and active lifestyles with an attractive price point. Dig a little deeper, and you find more value for money as the base model comes with a hybrid drivetrain that should hit 40 mpg easily. The base model is basic but includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. The mid-range XLT model comes in at $22,280, and that's the sweet spot for us. If you want a little more power, an upgrade to a 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine is $1,085. However, mpg drops dramatically to a combined 26 mpg or 25 mpg if you option all-wheel-drive as well.
If you're looking for something a little more affordable with all-wheel-drive and back-road fun isn't important to you, the 2022 Subaru Impreza is a great first car and starts at $18,795. However, if you're looking for some performance in your life as well as being able to deal with the most inclement weather the US has to offer, the new WRX is a compelling choice. The flat-four engine delivers 271 hp through Subaru's famed symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, and it's a hoot to drive while still packing practicality and utility. The new WRX's looks are decisive, but choose it with the manual transmission, and it's everything an enthusiast needs to have fun.