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.
Kia Rio (2006 starting price: $11,350; 29 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) The second-cheapest car in America at a little more than $11,000. The Rio looks kind of silly, like a bumper car, with rubberized stripes running the length of its sides. And its trunk is unacceptably tiny. Also, it reveals some serious limitations on the highway: As I edged toward 60 mph, the engine grew noticeably cranky. (Even more so with the air conditioner on. The moment you blast the A/C, the car loses all oomph.)
The Rio easily bests the Ion, though, when it comes to tooling around the city. It handles and accelerates more smoothly at modest speeds. I'd also like to commend the Rio for including a driver's-side armrest. You'd be surprised how many cars omit this key feature, leaving your right elbow dangling awkwardly in the air as you steer.
Nissan Versa (2007 starting price: $12,550; 30 mpg city, 34 mpg highway) Of the six cars I tested, the Versa model I tried had by far the swankiest interior. From its leather steering wheel to the sleek lines of its dashboard console, the design here was much higher-end than you'll find on your typical low-end car. The Versa also offers a keyless ignition system—a feature that feels rather out of place on an economy compact. (Despite the initial allure, I fail to see all the fuss with the keyless lifestyle. Is it really such a burden to take your keys out of your pocket?)
Lovely though its inside accouterments may be—and you'll pay $700 extra for the options package with that leather steering wheel and accompanying swank—the Versa's exterior does absolutely nothing for me. It has an unfortunate flaring and bulging of its lower hindparts. (Slate's Mickey Kaus termed this a "droopy-assed design" back when it appeared on the Nissan Altima, and for some unfathomable reason Nissan remains enamored of the look.)
Drivingwise, I didn't love the way the Versa handled around town. For a subcompact, it was surprisingly oafish and clunky. I always felt like I was dragging that big butt around behind me.
But the biggest flaw on the Versa I tried was with its stick shift. The transitions were herky-jerky, and engaging the clutch was less smooth than it should have been. Worse, there's a real issue with the location of the gears. Reverse is in an odd spot—the upper left corner, as with some Volkswagens I've driven. This would be OK, except that Nissan placed a sixth gear just where you'd expect reverse to be (the lower right corner). Several times I shifted into what I thought would be reverse only to find that when I released the clutch the car jolted forward and quickly stalled. No doubt one could adjust to this in time. (Or one could just buy an automatic.) But it's an annoyance and even a bit of a safety hazard.
Scion xA (2006 starting price: $13,270; 31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) The Scion was pleasingly responsive and handled well. Acceleration and pickup were exceptional. (No problem passing trucks on the highway—something the Rio, for example, had real issues with.) Around town, the Scion glided through close-knit traffic, fit into claustrophobic parking spots, and showed off a turning radius that amazed me. Getting into the awkward garage entrance beneath my apartment building generally requires a three-point turn, but the Scion's tight arc had me cruising straight in without hesitation.
Once in the garage, the Scion even turned some heads. (Well, one head.) A guy walking to his car stopped, looked the xA up and down, and asked what it was. With its sporty hubcaps and distinctive hatchback windows, the car is definitely eye-catching. Inside, it feels plush and cozy. The rear seats fold down to create wonderful trunk space. (I fit some large IKEA boxes in there when I ran errands.)
My biggest problem with the xA: its image. Scion explicitly courts the aftermarket freaks who adorn their cars with gaudy modifications. Intricate paint jobs, flashy spoilers, weird accessories. It's become known as a car for those who express themselves through cars. And that's not me. (Particularly unsettling: The xA I drove came equipped, from the factory, with fluorescent interior lights. These illuminate the area around the floor mats and make you feel like you're at a techno rave. Which would be fine if the car came standard with several hits of ecstasy—but I'm not seeing that option anywhere in the literature.)
Toyota Yaris S Sedan (2007 starting price: $13,245; 34 mpg city, 40 mpg highway) The Yaris just edges out its corporate cousin the Scion, which, by the way, it shares an engine with. The Yaris S Sedan's exterior looks like an uncomfortably scrunched-up Corolla. I don't like the snub-nosed, bubble styling of the car's front end (it's rounded but then abruptly abbreviated). Nor am I a fan of the rear spoiler (an option included on the Yaris I drove), which seems misplaced on a teensy car with a 1.5-liter engine.
The interior of the Yaris has a few major flaws: 1) No cup holder between the front seats, where you want it to be. 2) A center-mount instrument panel (as with the Ion and the Scion). 3) The car's inside space feels sort of cheap and blah. Miles from the sumptuousness of the Versa.
Countering all this are the superb ride and handling of the Yaris. It has all the hallmarks of a Toyota—solid-feeling, well-engineered, and smoothly efficient. Acceleration and shifting were effortless. The car never felt strained by anything I threw at it. I just had the sense this thing would go and go for years without the slightest hitch. And that, much more than aesthetics or a comfy interior, is what I'm looking for from a budget car.
Honda Fit (2007 starting price: $13,850; 33 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) I love this car. If my '96 Saturn went belly-up tomorrow, I'm quite sure I would buy this car.
It starts with the driving experience. On the manual-transmission Fit I tested, changing gears was a total joy, with quick, smooth transitions. (I believe the applicable term here is "short throws.") Handling was fantastic, with extremely responsive steering and acceleration. The car gripped the road, had great pickup, and was more fun from behind the wheel than any of its competitors. I drove the "Sport" model of the Fit (it starts at $15,170), and it truly did feel like a scaled-down sports car.
It also excels on the comfort front. The back seats fold down flat to create a huge, open cargo space (tall and deep) in the rear of the car. Configured like this, the Fit effectively serves as a sawed-off station wagon.
As usual, in my experience with Hondas, the interior was smartly designed, with cup holders and storage compartments exactly where you want them. No center-mount instrument panel here: The Fit's panel is behind the steering wheel where it should be, and its illuminated dials are attractive and easy to read. The model I drove also featured an auxiliary jack for MP3 players and a pretty decent sound system.
Of the six cheapie compacts I borrowed, the Fit was the only car I was genuinely sorry to return. I wish I could borrow it again tomorrow, and every day after that. It's a clear champ.
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.