Fun on the cheap.
by Eric Peters
Your tax refund might not quite cover it, but that doesn't mean a neat new car will send you to the poorhouse, either.
You have plenty of options if you’re looking for a new car for less than twenty grand. Check out these ten players. All of them are priced at $20,000 or less, and not one is a cheesy cheapie. All are well-equipped, fun to drive, and easy on the eyes, too:
It's easy to dig the Ford Focus, a compact in theory but nearly a midsize in interior room. Ford ushered it in last year as the replacement for the entry-level Escort, and the Focus quickly got a rep for being the first American compact to match the build quality and affordable price of popular imports like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Put plain, the Focus can stand on its own four tires as a hip ride, whether it’s bought in three-door hatchback, four-door sedan or five-door wagon form. The Focus costs anywhere from $12,325 for the sport-oriented ZX3 hatchback to $16,425 for the station wagon SE model, a bargain for the hip in training.
Hyundai has come incredibly far in a short period of time. Today, it’s building first-class machinery like the $14,499-$15,299 Tiburon two-door hatchback coupe, a car that’s every bit as good as the best Japanese small cars with which it competes. Maybe better, in fact, since it comes with an industry-leading 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty (five years/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper). The Tiburon’s standard 140-hp 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual deliver snappy acceleration (8.5 seconds to 60 mph); in no way does it look, accelerate or feel like most economy cars. And with air conditioning, cruise control AM/FM stereo, remote hatch release, power windows, electric rear defrost and other features, it’s not equipped like a normal compact either.
A sporty compact available in both sedan and coupe forms, the economy-minded Mirage is in the same league with other borderline econo-compacts as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. But drive the $11,757 base Mirage or, especially, the slightly ritzier LS and DS models with the kicky 1.8-liter engine, and you’ll find it much snappier, much more alive than those cars. Mitsubishi rates the 1.8-liter engine at just 113 hp, but it feels stronger, more like the 150-hp Dodge Neon Sport (which DaimlerChrysler has unfortunately retired, by the way). An additional $2230 above the base price will get you the 1.8-liter engine teamed with a pretty decent five-speed manual transaxle, power windows, locks, intermittent wipers and nice trim inside and out.
Ford Mustang V-6
One of the best all-around sporty cars ever made, the Ford Mustang V-6 coupe is a great package made even more attractive for 2001 by the introduction of a "premium" version. At $18,790, that includes as standard equipment just about everything you could ask for, short of the GT's 4.6 liter V-8. In addition to the torquey 190-hp 3.8 liter V-6 and five-speed manual gearbox, the "premium" 2+2 'Stang has four-wheel-disc brakes, air conditioning, 16x7.5-inch alloy rims with sport tires, a six-CD changer, traction control, six-way power driver's seat and electric rear defrost. You can go shiftless for another $815 (the cost of the optional four-speed automatic transmission), or wrap the interior in leather (another $500) and still keep it around $20,000 out the door.
VW New Beetle
The buzz has died down a bit since the New Beetle first came out, and so have the prices (at least, the add-on dealer margin). From the base $16,775 GL to the sport-oriented $19,875 Turbo GLS to the hyper-efficient yet amazingly fun-to-drive $18,775 diesel TDI, the New Beetle has the engine options to please everyone from the parsimonius penny-pincher to the power-hungry profligate. While the base GL is adequate, the 1.8-liter, turbocharged GLS is definitely worth the small price differential. And don't forget the diesel TDI, which runs and drives amazingly well. Like the original, the New Beetle has a timeless quality that ought to carry well as the years go by.
Nissan Sentra SE
In a market bursting at the seams with literally hundreds of different models to keep track of, it's easy to forget the $11,649-$14,899 Sentra. It’s hard to say why, given the slam-dunk $14,899 SE sport model that's as hot to trot as Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas. Equipped with a surprisingly gamey 2.0-liter four that pulls much more energetically than its 145-hp rating would suggest, the Sentra SE is any sane person's hands-down pick in the "bang for the buck" category for small sedans under $15,000. Its credible 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds is enough to keep things interesting, and the Sentra SE has the added merit of 31-mpg highway fuel economy capability - a figure no V-6 sport sedan can hope to match.
Say what you will about its hick upbringing, but the Jeep Wrangler has remained true to its philosophy of elemental simplicity - right down to the spartan metal interior and fabric-covered soft-top. The 2001 Wrangler is a true freedom machine and it’s priced accordingly: just $14,890 for the 4x4 model equipped with the 2.5 liter, 120-hp four-cylinder engine. The little four-banger won’t win any power or refinement awards, but it’s a stout, reliable and decently torquey engine that will get you where you need to go. And quite frankly, the optional 4.0-liter six encourages higher-speed driving for which the short-wheelbase Wrangler is not well suited. Order the optional air conditioner ($895) and maybe the hard top for winter/cold weather driving ($920, and this includes a pair of metal doors), and you've got all you need.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
This retro-styled, compact-sized van is white-hot cool, especially when resplendent in purple paint and chromed 16-inch rims. For $15,935 (base price; $19,995 for the loaded Limited model) the Cruiser can do 90 percent of what a conventional minivan can do without the obnoxious fuel bills. It sports a 150-hp version of the DaimlerChrysler 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine; either a five-speed stick or optional ($825) four-speed automatic can be specified. Even topped out in Limited form with leather trim, moonroof and 16-inch rims, the PT's sticker price barely scrapes $20,000. Wait a few months until the frenzy subsides, and you'll be able to get a loaded PT for around $18,500 - and you’ll still be the envy of everyone else who hasn't got the keys to one.
The $17,150-$19,410 Malibu is one of today’s best values, if not one of the most popular family cars. More value-packed than a six-pack of Cup O' Noodles, the Malibu comes in two forms, the standard $17,150 version and the $19,410 LS. Both models are loaded with standard 3.1-liter V-6 engines, automatic transmissions, air conditioning, electric rear defrost, stereo and anti-lock brakes; the LS upgrades to snazzier alloy wheels, wood trim and a better audio system. With sharp negotiating and an awareness of rebates and incentives, a new Malibu is obtainable for around $16,500, the LS for about $18,000.
Okay, so it's $20 bucks over our $20,000 limit, but a little wrangling should enable you to slide home in the high teens with the keys to a new Buick Century in your pocket. This car has value comparable to the Malibu as a family car - but with even more room, a better ride, and such features as traction control, dual-zone air conditioning and a tire pressure monitoring system included in the base price. There's also a standard 175-hp 3.1-liter V-6, four-speed automatic overdrive transmission, power windows and locks - and a six speaker AM/FM stereo (which can be upgraded for a couple of bucks more to the premium Delco/Bose unit with CD player). There are other options but you don't need 'em.
© 2001 The Car Connection