Buying an economy car used to mean dealing with tiny, uncomfortable cabins that quickly showed their age, few interior tech or entertainment features, crank windows, manual locks and underpowered engines. In short, an economy car meant a cheap car.
Times have changed, though. While there are still some cheap-feeling, inexpensive economy cars, more and more affordable models are going upscale. You’re just as likely to find standard features like Bluetooth and iPod interfaces on today’s economy cars as you are on luxury cars. Even cars from bargain brands have comfortable interiors and good performance. Economy cars just are much more than what they used to be.
Economy Car Performance
If there’s one area where economy cars still fall a little short, it’s performance. That’s not to say that all economy cars perform poorly, but if you’re a driving enthusiast, you might find the lack of power disappointing. Economy cars tend to have small four-cylinder engines making about 150 horsepower. While that won’t win you any races, one benefit is that most economy cars get great fuel economy. The Hyundai Accent, which starts at less than $13,000, gets up to 40 mpg on the highway with either a manual or automatic transmission.
Some car reviewers complain that economy cars can have rides that are a little harsh, but the trade-off is that many of these cars have zippy handling and good corning ability. Since they are less expensive than other cars, economy cars tend to have less sound-deadening material. That helps save weight, which contributes to that great fuel economy, but it also means that you’re likely to hear a lot of road noise.
Economy Car Interiors
The interiors of many economy cars are small and basic, but it’s also possible to get a loaded car for very little money. The Kia Forte costs about $15,000 and comes with standard Bluetooth and a USB port, as well as roomy seating for five. A well-equipped Forte with navigation, a rearview camera, push-button start and a sunroof will cost about $21,000. The Chevrolet Cruze is available for about $17,000, but offers interior space that’s closer to a midsize car than a compact car. Reviewers also say that the interior is well-built, with a six-speaker stereo and auxiliary input jack. You can also opt for navigation and Bluetooth.
The automotive press also likes the Hyundai Elantra. Like the Cruze, it is large enough to be classified as a midsize car. The Elantra is also less expensive than the Cruze, starting at less than $16,000. The Elantra comes standard with satellite radio, power windows and a USB port. The Ford Fiesta and Kia Rio start at less than $14,000. Even though they’re subcompacts, they have decent passenger space and you get a standard stereo with an auxiliary input jack. On the Fiesta, you can opt for Ford’s SYNC system, which lets you control the stereo, navigation system and your phone with voice commands. The Rio has a comparable UVO system. Unlike SYNC, UVO has a touch screen for the rearview camera and other entertainment features. But like SYNC, UVO lets you make phone calls and access music through voice commands.
Economy Car Safety
Most economy cars are no longer unsafe little tin cans, and many receive good crash test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), two organizations that assess vehicle safety. But because they tend to be small, economy cars do have a size disadvantage in crashes with larger vehicles.
Many economy cars have impressive standard safety features and strong test scores that make them comparable with more expensive small cars. The Chevrolet Sonic has 10 airbags, which includes two knee airbags: one for each front-seat occupant. Knee airbags keep the driver or front passenger from sliding down into the footwell in a crash. That helps the other airbags and the seatbelt protect you better. It’s also a feature you usually see on luxury cars, and only a few cars in the class have them. Others with a knee airbag include the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta.
The Chevrolet Cruze also gets a five-star overall crash test rating from NHTSA and is an IIHS Top Safety Pick for its performance in their crash tests. These are the highest ratings that any vehicle can get from either organization. The Subaru Impreza, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Sonic are also IIHS Top Safety Picks.
Other economy cars aren’t as well-equipped because the government doesn’t require automakers to make features like anti-lock brakes (ABS) standard on all vehicles. You may have to pay extra for some safety features, but ABS, for example, can be worth the money. One feature that you can expect on all small cars is electronic stability control (ESC), because it is required by the federal government on all 2012 and newer vehicles. ESC is a system that automatically detects and prevents skids, helping you keep control of the car and avoid an accident.
If you’re in the market for an economy car, it’s a great time to shop for one because they’re better than ever. With more standard safety features than ever before, impressive safety ratings from the IIHS and NHTSA, good performance and upscale interior features, you won’t feel like you’re driving a cheap car.