You probably want a lot for your money, especially when you're spending thousands of dollars on a new car. Here are models in five popular categories that deliver on that promise. They’re relatively affordable for their class, performed well in our testing, provide good fuel economy, are easy to live with, and generally hold up well, with above-average predicted reliability in our 2013 Annual Auto Survey.
It may not burn up the road the way the Ford Mustang GT does with its 420-hp V8 but it still delivers a very satisfying and enjoyable driving experience for $8,000 less. The 305-hp V6 feels refined and punchy, and returned an impressive 24 mpg overall in our tests. Agile handling, with crisp, responsive steering and a crisp-shifting manual transmission add to the fun factor.
The fairly upright cockpit enhances the view out and helps access, making the Mustang a reasonable car to drive every day. The rear seat is very tight, but it’s useful in a pinch. The interior is nicely finished and includes all of Ford’s latest infotainment and connectivity features. Reliability has been average. Expect a redesign later in 2014. (Read: "2015 Ford Mustang stampedes onto the world stage.")
It’s hard to go wrong with the Honda Accord. For less than $25,000, the four-cylinder version delivers stellar fuel economy and is one of the best all-around sedans you can buy.
Overall, this midsized sedan is roomy, nice to drive, and well equipped. Its four-cylinder engine uses direct fuel injection and a continuously variable transmission to achieve an impressive 30 mpg overall and 40 on the highway in our tests. That’s as good as the tiny Honda Fit subcompact, and it trails only the Mazda6 and four-cylinder Nissan Altima among midsized sedans.
The engine also provides snappy acceleration and is relatively smooth and quiet. Moreover, the continuously variable transmission should serve as a benchmark for other automakers. It doesn’t contribute to any inappropriate engine revving, and its “shifts” are so smooth and quick that it feels more like a conventional automatic. This Accord feels tied down on the highway and athletic on back roads, with decent steering feedback. It’s far more agile in corners than most family sedans.
The road noise common to older Accords has been quelled, and this version sounds peaceful even at highway speeds.
Drivers have lots of room, and rear-seat passengers should have no complaints, even on a long trip (though it’s a little tight for three.) Access is easy all around, and the trunk has plenty of space.
For about $31,000, you can get a V6 model that’s quicker and still delivers a good 26 mpg overall.
If you want even better fuel economy and are willing to spend more money, you can choose from two hybrid models. The Accord Plug-in model, which starts at about $40,000, uses a 6.7-kWh lithium-ion battery, which gives it a driving range of 10 to 15 miles using solely electricity before its four-cylinder gasoline engine needs to kick in. The hybrid system accelerates strongly and operates smoothly, with seamless transitions between electric and gas modes. But the battery takes a serious bite out of the trunk space. A conventional hybrid model shares the same basic hybrid system.
You don’t have to settle for a tiny, noisy subcompact when looking for a car that costs less than $20,000. The Hyundai Elantra costs only a little more money than most subcompacts, and it’s one of our highest-rated compact sedans. It’s also roomier and more refined than the competition, and it delivers competitive fuel economy. How can you go wrong?
Even when compared with other compacts, the Elantra stands out. It provides nimble handling, a fairly comfortable ride, a smooth, responsive powertrain, and a well-finished interior. It also offers plenty of features for the price, including more standard features than some competitors.
The cabin isn’t fancy, but it has a nice look and feel for the class, and the Elantra’s controls are refreshingly simple to use. The rear seat is comfortable and offers generous leg room for a compact, although head room is insufficient for six-footers.
The Elantra’s 148-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, coupled with a smooth-shifting automatic transmission, provides decent performance, but it can get noisy under acceleration. That combo returned a very good 29 mpg overall in our tests.
Limited models add such luxury features as leather seats and a sunroof, and still carry a sticker price that’s less than some bare-bones competitors.
If you need room for six people but don’t want to splurge on a minivan or SUV, the Mazda5 “microvan” may fit neatly on your short list. It’s an affordable, fun, and efficient alternative that costs considerably less than any other people mover with a third-row seat. It also provides sportier handling than many small cars.
Yes, the third row is tight, and the second row’s dual captain’s chairs force passengers five and six to squeeze into the back. But, the Mazda5’s minivan-like dual sliding doors help make access easy.
The 157-hp, four-cylinder engine is no powerhouse, but it provides enough juice to get going, merge, and climb hills even when carrying a full load. The payoff is 23 mpg overall, which is much better than any minivan we’ve tested, and on par with some family sedans.
While the cockpit is tighter than in larger minivans, it offers sufficient head and foot room for all but the tallest drivers. And second-row passengers will find plenty of leg room. All four rear seats fold flat to create a generous cargo hold.
The redesigned Subaru Forester is our top-rated small SUV, yet it doesn’t carry a premium price. Our nicely equipped 2.5i Premium version cost about $27,000 and includes handy features such as a power driver’s seat, giant sunroof, and backup camera. It also delivers best-in-class fuel economy of 26 mpg overall and 35 on the highway.
The Forester is a versatile SUV that’s particularly easy to live with. Its design puts function over form. Large square windows, upright pillars, and big doors make it space efficient and easy to access. It also has one of the best rear seats in its class and a great view out.
A new continuously variable transmission, paired with Subaru’s horizontally opposed 170-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, delivers quicker acceleration than the previous model.
For all its virtuous simplicity, however, the Forester’s redesign also made the ride a little too firm and jittery in an effort to improve handling. It is more fun to drive, but still not as agile as the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, or Ford Escape. Despite some upgrades, the interior remains pretty austere. More notable, the Forester’s in-car electronics and infotainment connectivity are behind the curve, especially in the areas of wireless Bluetooth phone pairing and audio streaming.
Overall, if you’re looking for a small SUV that’s very functional and fuel-efficient, the Forester is hard to beat.
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