Test-driving the cheapest cars we could find.
I miss the Yugo. It was no automotive masterpiece, but you have to give it this much: It was a new car for under $4,000. People spend that kind of money on TV sets these days.
Adjusted for inflation, the infamous '86 Yugo hatchback—named the "GV," for "Great Value"—would still cost less than $7,500 today. And it would indeed be a great value! You simply can't find a new car for that price anymore. Just a single car in the 2007 model year lists for less than $10,000 (the Chevy Aveo, the Yugo of the new millennium), and even it comes in at an eye-popping $9,995.
It turns out most bottom-of-the-line cars these days will run you more like $12,000 to $17,000. This is disappointingly luxe for a car cheapskate like me. (I drive a '96 Saturn with 103,000 miles on it.) But here's the good news: There are some nifty little cars to be found in that price range. The whole economy category has been jump-started by today's crushing gasoline costs (which are spurring demand for smaller, cheaper cars), and Japan's big players have rushed to design brand-new models (the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris, and the Nissan Versa).
So, if you're light of wallet but can't live without that new-car smell, do not despair. I recently tried out six new supercheap rides (all 2006 and 2007 models) and found a few to like and at least one to love. (I didn't get a chance to try the No. 1 cheapie, the Aveo. But I can tell you this: When I inquired about the Aveo at a rental counter, the woman there said, "You do not want to drive that car." Good enough for me.) Below, my findings, from worst to first.
Saturn Ion (2007 starting price: $12,820; 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway) At first glance, this car holds great promise. For one, it doesn't look cheap: Squint and you might mistake it for a Jetta. It's got decent trunk room (the bane of many a small sedan). And it feels solid: Closing a door rewards you with an authoritative "cachunk." This suggests good carriage work. Or at least that they put a whole lot of effort into making the doors sound heavy.
The problems with the Ion begin when you try to drive anywhere. Acceleration from a standing start is a rather lurchy affair. When you hit the gas, the car first tightens its loins for a few long moments, and then, when it finally leaps forward, surges much faster and farther than you'd intended. Also, the steering is troubling. On the highway, I found myself aiming the car 30 degrees left just to stay straight in my lane.
Also unfortunate is the Ion's center-mount instrument panel. I hate these. They take your eyes away from the road. When the panel is mounted directly over the steering wheel, it's easy to lower your eyes down for a quick glance at your speedometer. The center-mount panel forces you to look down and over to the right. It takes longer to home in and find it, meaning you spend more time not looking at the braking 18-wheeler ahead of you.
On the plus side, the Ion—despite being small—never felt underpowered. I got up to 85 mph on an empty highway without noticing any engine strain. Of course, I had to fight that much harder to keep the car going straight.
At about $12,500 for a four-door sedan, the Ion is the third-cheapest car on the market right now (after the afore-dissed Aveo and the Kia Rio). It's not a terrible buy at that price, but it's a snore of a car. You'll find yourself longing for a ride with a bit more pizazz.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
Photograph of Saturn Ion courtesy Saturn Corp. Photograph of Kia Rio courtesy Kia Motors America Inc. Photograph of Nissan Versa courtesy Nissan North America, Inc. Photograph of Scion xA courtesy Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. Photograph of Toyota Yaris S Sedan courtesy Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. Photograph of Honda Fit courtesy American Honda Motor Co. Inc.