The average price of a new vehicle was $30,803 in 2012, according to automotive information company Edmunds.com. So what could you get for about half of that amount? The answer is: more than you might expect.
There are nine new cars — but no trucks — with prices starting at less than $15,000. They come with unexpected standard equipment, and some surprising omissions, which are listed. If you want one of the missing features, you'll have to look to the options list or a more expensive model. And all of them possess an impressive safety list. All models have stability control, anti-lock brakes, traction control, tire pressure monitors and a number of airbags.
So let's look at the list, but keep in mind that all prices represent base models without options, destination charge or taxes.
Base price: $11,990
EPA rating (city/highway): 27/36 mpg
What it has: Air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD audio system with audio input jack, spare tire, six airbags
What it doesn't: Bluetooth, power windows and locks, cruise control, tachometer
What it's like: There are two Nissan Versas: the previous generation hatchback starting at $14,670 and this all-new sedan for $2,680 less. The trade-off for price is a less refined driving experience and a cheaper feel to the interior. That said, the Versa sedan offers a decent ride and a surprisingly roomy cabin for real adults — even in the rear seat. The trunk is spacious as well, and fuel economy is wallet-friendly. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic is optional.
Base price: $12,185
EPA rating: 32/38 mpg
What it has: Air conditioning, power windows, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM audio system with audio input jack, 10 airbags
What it doesn't: Bluetooth, cruise control, power door locks, spare tire
What it's like: At a mere 144 inches long, this is the smallest car ever sold in the U.S. by Chevrolet. Unlike some other low-cost cars, a five-door hatchback is the Spark's sole body style. It delivers boatloads of style and cargo-carrying flexibility. Interior materials are honest, if inexpensive; there's no faux carbon fiber or metallic trim. The options list features some high-end features, like heated seats. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic is optional.
Base price: $12,490
EPA rating: 34/38 mpg
What it has: Eight airbags
What it doesn't: A back seat, radio, air conditioning, cruise control, power steering, spare tire
What it's like: Of all of the cars on the list, the Smart ForTwo is the only one that requires pricey premium fuel. Is this really smart? That question continues as you delve deeper. There are only two seats. The cargo compartment is rated at 12 cubic feet, but using it all blocks your rear view. The continuously variable automatic transmission has odd shift characteristics, while the ForTwo's short length makes for a truly punishing ride. And most every feature costs extra. Smart? No.
Base price: $13,200
EPA rating: 29/39 mpg
What it has: Intermittent wipers, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM audio system with audio input jack, spare tire, seven airbags
What it doesn't: Power windows and locks, cruise control
What it's like: The Fiesta's fuel economy is impressive. Opting for the optional four-speed automatic over the standard five-speed manual exacts no penalty in fuel consumption. Even better, this is one inexpensive car that's really fun to drive, more so than others on this list. The interior is impressively finished for the price. Like some other cars in the group, the rear seat is cramped. And this price is for the sedan, not the pricier five-door hatchback.
Base price: $13,600
EPA rating: 29/37 mpg
What it has: Six-speed transmission, intermittent wipers, Bluetooth, USB/audio input jacks, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel
What it doesn't: Power windows and door locks, spare tire, cruise control
What it's like: The Kia Rio doesn't skimp on style. Last year, it received a total makeover that transformed this car from drab to fab. A 138-horsepower four-cylinder returns decent mileage. Choose the optional six-speed automatic over the standard six-speed manual means giving up one mpg. There's a lot of standard gear on the base model; the options list merely gilds the lily. The price shown is for the four-door sedan. The five-door hatchback costs $200 more.
Base price: $14,185
EPA rating: 26/35 mpg
What it has: Air conditioning, Bluetooth, AM/FM audio system with audio input jack, power door locks, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, spare tire, 10 airbags
What it doesn't: USB port, power windows, cruise control
What it's like: The Sonic's style quotient depends on whether you opt for the humble four-door notchback — the model represented here — or the pricier, but funkier, five-door hatchback. Regardless of model, its interior is visually caffeinated. Base models get a 140-horsepower engine mated to a standard five-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic. As for handling, well, just tackle a corner with gusto. The Sonic will relish the chance more than any small Chevy in living memory.
Base price: $14,370
EPA rating: 30/37 mpg
What it has: Air conditioning, intermittent wipers, AM/FM/XM/HD radio with CD player and audio input jack, tilt steering wheel, power door locks, spare tire, nine airbags
What it doesn't: Power windows, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control
What it's like: The least-expensive Yaris is a three-door hatchback; the five-door costs an extra $1,025. Like the other subcompacts here, this hatchback has a remarkable amount of space. There's enough, in fact, to carry a chair home from a furniture store. Fuel economy is decent, but performance, ride and handling are unexceptional. And in an era when rivals are endowing their smallest cars with a dash of panache, the Yaris' drab interior reminds you of how little you spent.
Base price: $14,545
EPA rating: 28/37 mpg
What it has: Six-speed transmission, intermittent wipers, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/XM/CD audio system with USB/audio input jacks, power windows and door locks, power heated mirrors, power steering, spare tire, six airbags
What it doesn't: Cruise control, Bluetooth, steering wheel-mounted audio controls
What it's like: The 2013 Accent follows a strategy that Hyundai has employed with other recently redesigned models. First, rework it with more interior space than its competition. Next, give the dynamic look of fluid sculpture so the car looks as if it's in motion, even when it's not. Then, make sure the car is reasonably agile to drive. Finally, make sure the car returns good fuel economy. The base model is a four-door sedan; the five-door costs an extra $250.
Base price: $14,720
EPA rating: 29/35 mpg
What it has: Power windows and door locks, tilt steering column, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD audio system with USB/audio input jacks, intermittent wipers, spare tire
What it doesn't: Bluetooth, cruise control
What it's like: Consider the Mazda2 the Ford Fiesta's sportier sibling, albeit one that's less refined. It's no speed demon off the line, but it is reasonably responsive once you've accelerated. But Mazda has this car tuned right; it's fun to toss around. You are limited somewhat by the tires, which give up some grip in return for fuel economy. Interior space is expansive given the car's small dimensions, but overall ambience is a bit more spartan than the Fiesta's.