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10 Must-Shop New and Used Cars for First-Time Buyers

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author photo by Josh Sadlier September 2014

If you're looking at new or used cars for the first time, congrats! You're about to make what's typically the second-largest purchase a person makes in their lifetime, but now you have to find the right car for both your lifestyle and your bank account, and that's where things can get overwhelming. There are more appealing cars and crossovers on the market than ever before, each one vying for your ownership with claims of unique features, class-leading performance and so forth.

We wanted to make your job a little easier, so we put our heads together and came up with 10 reasonably priced cars for 2014 that are good options for first-time buyers. Some of them are brand-new to the market, while others are available as certified pre-owned (CPO) used cars, meaning that you get a reconditioned, lightly used vehicle with a solid built-in warranty. Either way, we think you'll be satisfied with any of these rides. Let's take a closer look at each one.

2015 Volkswagen Golf

Price: from $17,995

New for the 2015 model year, the seventh-generation (Mk7) Volkswagen Golf remains a compact hatchback, but there's more room than ever inside. Thanks to a wheelbase that has been lengthened by 2.3 inches, the back seat has plenty of headroom and legroom, even for taller passengers. The Golf is still small on the outside though, so it's extremely easy to park. It also has a peppy new 1.8-liter base engine with a turbo that gets up to 37 miles per gallon on the highway, while the torque-rich TDI diesel engine returns up to 45 mpg hwy.

Find a Volkswagen Golf for sale

2015 Mazda3

Price: from $16,945

Entering its second year of production, the compact 2015 Mazda3 offers an unparalleled combination of efficiency, value and fun. Thanks to SKYACTIV fuel-saving technology, its base 2.0-liter engine returns up to 41 mpg hwy, while the stronger 2.5-liter engine is right behind it at 40 mpg. In terms of pricing, the Mazda starts well under $20,000, yet it comes nicely equipped right out of the box. Also, if you like a car that's sporty to drive, the 3 is No. 1 in its class, with precise steering and impressive body control in the bends. Available as either a sedan or a hatchback, the 2015 Mazda3 is arguably the best all-around car in Mazda's lineup.

Find a Mazda3 for sale

CPO Chevrolet Sonic

Real-world example: 2013 Sonic Hatchback LTZ | 38,209 miles | $15,290

We've liked the spunky Sonic subcompact ever since it came out for the 2012 model year, lauding its satisfying turbocharged performance, excellent mpg output and tiny, park-anywhere size. The hatchback (there's also a sedan) is especially appealing for its versatility, but it hasn't really changed that much over time, which gives you an opportunity to buy a used vehicle and still get the features of the latest model. We would steer you away from the 2012 models, since it wasn't until 2013 that the Sonic came standard with Bluetooth. Also, try to grab the optional 1.4-liter turbo engine, which is stronger and boasts better fuel economy.

Find a Chevrolet Sonic for sale

CPO Ford Fiesta

Real-world example: 2011 Fiesta SES Hatchback | 21,110 miles | $12,372

Like the rival Sonic, the Fiesta is available as either a sedan or hatchback, but if anything, it's more engaging from behind the wheel. Thanks to its European-tuned chassis, the Fiesta feels more sophisticated than a typical small car, and its 43 mpg hwy rating with the SFE package is truly impressive. The Fiesta is another model that hasn't been significantly updated in a few years, so it's a prime CPO target. We're partial to the sleek hatchback, which has a premium look that belies its humble price.

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CPO Hyundai Veloster

Real-world example: 2013 Veloster Turbo | 4,968 miles | $19,000

The uniquely styled, 3-door Veloster hatchback started with a bang, as Hyundai introduced the funky base model first in 2012 before unleashing the Veloster Turbo a year later. Since every Veloster has been well-equipped from inception, we'd caution you against spending top dollar on a new one. If you don't particularly care about acceleration, save some money with a CPO 138-horsepower base Veloster and revel in its extensive standard features, including iPod/Bluetooth connectivity and a touchscreen interface. If speed is more your thing, go for the Veloster Turbo, which really scoots with its 201-hp version of the regular 4-cylinder.

Find a Hyundai Veloster for sale

2014 Toyota RAV4

Price: from $23,550

Toyota's top-selling compact crossover dropped its third-row seat and optional V6 for its latest redesign in 2013, but there's a good reason for that: Most buyers didn't want them. Instead, the streamlined current model provides a confident 4-cylinder engine that's capable of over 30 mpg hwy, as well as a huge cargo hold that puts most competitors to shame. The RAV4 rocks an all-new dashboard too, and it's leaps and bounds ahead of the blocky, dated previous design. Throw in legendary Toyota reliability and resale value, and you have a new crossover that's definitely worth the investment.

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2015 Honda Accord

Price: from $22,105

The Accord is larger than the other cars we've been discussing, but it doesn't feel that way from behind the wheel. Instead, it shrinks around you like the driver's car that it is. If you like to hustle around corners on occasion, the Accord is always happy to do so, but its true calling card is versatility, from its enormous back seat to its various powertrain options -- 4-cylinder, V6 and Hybrid -- that offer something for everyone. Plus, the latest Accord looks better than its predecessor, with upscale styling that's a breed apart from typical midsize sedans.

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2014 MINI Cooper

Price: from $20,450

Major changes have come to MINI's iconic hatchback after years of holding steady. Although it looks roughly the same at a glance, the new-for-2014 Cooper Hardtop has a longer nose than before, and underneath it has a pair of engineering surprises. The new base engine is an unusual turbocharged 3-cylinder that yields a remarkable 34 mpg in combined city and highway driving. It's pretty quick, too. The high-performance Cooper S, meanwhile, borrows its 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo from the BMW 320i sedan, sacrificing just 2 mpg relative to the base motor and cranking out a healthy 189 hp. The clincher is the interior, which has more usable space than ever before, along with upgraded materials and technology features. If you want to treat yourself to a car with style, performance and class, the latest Cooper is mighty appealing.

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CPO Ford Escape

Real-world example: 2012 Escape XLT 4x2 | 48,805 miles | $16,922

A perennial RAV4 foe, Ford's compact crossover is a hot seller in its own right, whether you're talking about the current-generation Escape or its boxier predecessor. We're here to vouch for both versions. Naturally, the latest Escape -- fully redesigned for 2013 -- can claim numerous improvements, such as laudable fuel economy, futuristic MyFord Touch infotainment and rewarding carlike handling from its Focus-based chassis. The previous-generation Escape also remains a solid used-car option thanks to its spacious interior and uncomplicated, dependable nature. For basic transportation at a great price, try the latter, but if you're ready to pay more for the latest and greatest, the current Escape is tough to top.

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2015 Kia Forte

Price: from $15,890

Kia's been chasing the Honda Civic for a number of years with the compact Forte, and after its complete 2014 redesign, the novice is now very close to outperforming the master. Fuel economy? You bet. The Forte gets up to 39 mpg hwy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Value? That's always a Kia hallmark, but the Forte goes above and beyond with standard iPod/Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio and available UVO voice-activated infotainment. Versatility? Try the 4-door Forte5 hatchback, which vies with the abovementioned Mazda3 for best-in-class status, or the sleek 2-door Koup, which is a direct answer to the popular Civic coupe. There's even a spunky 1.6-liter turbo engine borrowed from the Veloster Turbo if you want to have a little extra fun.

Find a Kia Forte for sale

AutoTrader Says

As a first-time car buyer, you certainly have options. Don't be afraid to test-drive all 10 of our picks and some others, too. The more you drive, the better-equipped you'll be to make the right decision on your first set of wheels.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
10 Must-Shop New and Used Cars for First-Time Buyers - Autotrader