How to have fun in the age of austerity? Some automakers just make it too easy, with trendy designs, beaucoup features and bargain-basement prices. Here are five of the best inexpensive rides, all under $25,000.
Kia Forte Koup
Mpg: 25 city/34 highway
Sure, the highly anticipated Chevy Cruze is expected to knock the windsocks off the competition when it hits showrooms this fall. But the darling of subcompacts is still the Kia Forte Koup. Short, smart and sassy, this pint-sized two-door was sketched by a former Audi designer. But Kia did more than just sprinkle pixie dust on the outside: the acceleration, steering and braking are spot-on. And the sport-tuned SX model has manual shifting that’s as good as the pricier Golf GTI. The cabin is simple but, well, a bit bland. And a telescoping steering wheel isn’t available on low-end LX and EX versions. Still, Bluetooth is standard, the trunk is roomy and there are gobs of options.
Mpg: 26 city36 highway
Serious but silly. From the retro, almost nerdy design to the Frisbee-sized speedometer, the MINI Cooper is playful yet practical. At 146 inches long, this ragtop fits anywhere. Fuel economy is stellar. And there’s decent cargo space with the rear seats down. Safety gear is tops, with oversized airbags, traction/stability control and pop-up rollover bars. Another plus: primo braking. Few sub-priced cars handle as well, especially when skirting potholes. And hill-start assist prevents the MINI from rolling backward at stoplights. While all versions come with perky engines, the John Cooper Works edition—at $10,000 more—feels and sounds like a $90,000 Porsche.
Mpg: 24 city/35 highway
How many homeruns can Hyundai hit? They scored with the Sante Fe, Tucson and Veracruz crossovers — the latter a true Lexus-beater. And the Genesis full-size sedan and coupe could be playing for Mercedes. Now comes the Sonata midsize sedan, with a physique so sexy it screams Derek Jeter. Best-in-class fuel economy, high crash scores and lengthy warranties are a bonus. So is the low price, especially considering all the standard options: satellite radio, iPod/Bluetooth interface, heated sideview mirrors and steering-wheel audio controls. Two downsides: low headroom and a small opening for the trunk, though there’s more room here than in many full-sized sedans.
Mpg: 22 city/32 highway
Bloated inventory. A bulging payroll. Too many brands. For years, GM was “The Biggest Loser.” But not anymore. The General dumped Pontiac, sold off Hummer and Saab, and added muscle to its product line, including the restyled Chevy Equinox. Choice of two strapping engines (a class-leading four-cylinder or peppy V6), both with top-notch fuel mileage. Handling is so-so yet comfortable. And there are plenty of features: sliding/reclining backseats, tinted rear windows, Bluetooth, touchscreen nav system, backup camera, and power tailgate. Inside, there’s a sleek dual-cowl dash, snazzy stereo/climate controls and handsome two-tone colors.
Mpg: 21 city/29 highway
The quirky Volvo C30 is in a class by itself: triangular profile, skyscraper taillights and bulldog-like snout. It all works, in a Lyle Lovett sort of way. Built on the popular S40 sedan chassis, the C30 hatchback has a sure ride and lots of visibility with the large rear window. There’s no rear-seat legroom, so this isn’t a family hauler. But there’s plenty of power, thanks to the 227-hp turbo that scoots from 0 to 60 in just 6.4 seconds.