The seven cheapest new cars on sale in the United States all come in under $15,000. Although the phrase "you get what you pay for" seems to be a universal constant, there are a few options listed here that will help you get the most for your money. All prices quoted include destination charges.
To keep outlay as low as possible, knowing how to drive a stick shift is an advantage, since automatic transmissions are usually options instead of standard equipment. A manual transmission will affect resale value, however, so a decision has to be made whether to take that financial hit up front or down the road.
2014 Nissan Versa 1.6 S ($12,800; 27 miles per gallon in the city/36 mpg highway/30 mpg combined)
This is officially the cheapest new car on sale in the United States, a title it's held for a couple of years. Unexpectedly roomy for a subcompact sedan -- and although no one benchmarks a Versa for driving dynamics, it doesn't feel like a penance to drive. Air conditioning is standard, along with a CD player. A 1.6-liter engine making a tepid 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque is linked to a 5-speed manual transmission driving the front wheels... and that's pretty much it.
If you require an automatic transmission (a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT, is available), or Bluetooth, iPod integration, alloy wheels, a rearview camera, navigation or even one of those little mirrors in the front passenger's sun visor, then you'll have to look to one of the higher (and therefore more expensive) trim levels. The thing is, that lifts the budget into an area where you could buy something more peppy and fun, such as the 2014 Ford Fiesta S.
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is the hatchback version, bringing 5-door practicality to that relatively large interior space. It costs $2,000 more, though.
2014 Chevrolet Spark LS ($12,995; 31 mpg city/39 mpg hwy/34 mpg combined)
Giving the name Spark to something with only 84 hp and 83 lb-ft of torque from a 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine seems a tad optimistic. But where this subcompact 4-door (or five, including the hatchback) wins friends is with pleasing designs inside and out.
As well as air conditioning, the Spark LS comes with power windows, alloy wheels, hill-hold assist and an impressive complement of 10 airbags. It's another 5-speed manual transmission; CVT is an option. Now's as good a time as any to mention continuously variable transmissions -- without getting too technical, they're basically one gear. They can be slow to respond and noisy. But that does make them cheaper than auto transmissions containing several ratios.
Back to the Spark: It's a car with decent interior space that stretches out as far as its headroom. Folding down the rear seats means removing the headrests, which is inconvenient, but that's a minor gripe for what is generally a good buy.
2014 Mitsubishi Mirage DE ($13,790; 34 mpg city/42 mpg hwy/37 mpg combined)
This is an all-new model for 2014, in the United States at least. It seems the main reason why this 5-door subcompact hatch is so cheap is because the company didn't spend any money making it decent to drive. Or including much sound insulation.
It's also one of the lightest cars on sale in North America: 1,973 pounds. The engine is certainly lighter by a cylinder. Yep, this one has three, straining out a wheezy 74 hp and 74 lb-ft of torque from 1.2 liters of displacement.
Scrimping on cylinders and weight does have a great effect on fuel economy, though, returning the most impressive figures of this group. With the optional CVT, those numbers improve to 37 miles per gallon in the city, 44 mpg on the highway and 40 mpg combined. Yet somehow Mitsubishi still manages to include power windows, mirrors and locks, a 4-speaker stereo system and even an airbag for the driver's knees. That said, it's hard to get excited about.
2014 smart fortwo pure ($14,020; 34 mpg city/38 mpg hwy/36 mpg combined)
A successor is expected soon, because this sub-subcompact 2-seater is getting on in years. Space for the couple of passengers is fairly generous, and the trunk area can take just enough luggage for a pair's weekend away.
This was a good idea for European cities where streets are narrow and parking spaces are few. Things don't quite work that way in the U.S. Instead, the American smart driver will have to contend with crosswinds gusting off the prairie and a shunt-with-every-shift mechanized semi-manual transmission, neither of which makes the car an attractive proposition. The short wheelbase also makes speed humps irksome.
Most cars have crumple zones, areas of the body that absorb energy in a collision. The diminutive smart doesn't have room for such things, but it still performs well in crash tests thanks to a safety cell that surrounds its occupants. And eight airbags in a 2-seater is good.
Tipping the scales at a feathery 1,808 pounds means the tiny 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder engine doesn't feel inadequate when it buzzes out just 70 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque. Air conditioning comes as standard for 2014, joining power locks.
2014 Kia Rio LX ($14,700; 28 mpg city/36 mpg hwy/31 mpg combined)
As prices rise, the cars become more desirable. The Rio subcompact sedan doesn't compromise with weak engines or limited seating. It actually packs something of a punch: 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque from a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder unit. This goes to the front wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission.
The Rio looks vaguely sophisticated and comes with air conditioning, heated power door mirrors, a CD player and an iPod socket. Power windows, however, are part of an option package. Landing a hatchback version only means parting with another $100.
Downsides include a noisy cabin, a disappointing driving experience and Kia's seats don't always provide the desired amount of support. So if you're on a test drive, pay attention to your posterior.
2014 Ford Fiesta S ($14,925; 27 mpg city/38 mpg hwy/31 mpg combined)
At last, something for the enthusiast. This subcompact sedan feels confident through the curves as well as comfortable on the stretches. A 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine delivers 120 hp and 112 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels through a 5-speed manual transmission.
The cabin is an agreeable place to be, with decent materials and build quality. Standard equipment includes power locks, air conditioning, hill-start assistance, an airbag for the driver's knees and clever side mirrors that include a convex section to eliminate blind spots. The Fiesta is also rare in its class by offering tilt-telescopic steering wheel adjustment and a 6-speaker audio system.
2014 Chevrolet Sonic LS ($14,995; 26 mpg city/35 mpg hwy/30 mpg combined)
Just squeaking onto a list of cheapest new cars by costing five bucks short of $15k, the Sonic comes with blind-spot-mitigating mirrors, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, hill-start assistance, Bluetooth, air conditioning and keyless entry. Both front occupants get knee airbags as part of the 10 found within the Sonic's relatively commodious cabin.
Less-than-stellar fuel figures have a silver lining: an energetic 138 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque from a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine. Like the Fiesta, the standard transmission is a 5-speed manual. Though the Fiesta is the driver's choice, the Sonic still feels composed.
For those wanting to buy domestic, the Sonic is the only one of the bunch to be made in the States.