When you start talking about the best cheap compact cars, cheap is one of those “relative” words. For example, to someone with $100,000 to spend on a car, $50,000 is probably cheap (which, uh, certainly isn't us). When we say cheap, we mean as far under $20,000 as you can get and still have something that can be reasonably considered a car. Which brings us to the definition of compact vs. subcompact. The best way to tackle this is to look at the Chevrolet lineup. Cruze is a compact, Sonic is a subcompact, which of course costs less—but it’s also smaller than a compact. We did make an exception to the subcompact vs. compact distinction in the form of Nissan’s Versa. We did so because in addition to being the lowest priced sedan out there, its back seat offers more legroom than many of the compacts on this list of the best cheap compact cars.
The crisply styled Chevrolet Cruze is the best compact car Chevrolet has ever offered. Its handsome exterior styling is complemented by an equally pleasant interior treatment. The trunk is spacious, the engines are fuel efficient, and the Cruze is even entertaining to drive. Compared to its competitors, the Cruze is often better equipped, making it more of a value for the money among the best cheap compact cars. Three engines are offered for the front-drive powertrain; the diesel is 2.0-liter turbocharged four with 151 horsepower and 264 ft-lbs of torque. The gasoline engines are a 138-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four with 148 ft-lbs of torque, and a 138-horsepower 1.8-liter four good 125 ft-lbs. Pricing starts at $16,170.
Easily one of the best looking cars in its class, the Dodge Dart’s Italian roots endow it with considerable style. The Dart also offers an engaging driving experience, a long roaster of standard features, and very spacious interior. If you’re into customizing, a nice set of tires and wheels will set the lines of the Dart off very nicely. The Dodge also scores well in crash testing. Power comes from a choice of three engines for the front-drive powertrain. The 2.0-liter four makes 160 horsepower and 148 ft-lbs of torque. The turbo 1.4 also makes 160 horsepower, but 184 ft-lbs of torque. The 2.4-liter four makes 184 horsepower and 171 ft-lbs. Pricing starts at $16,495.
If you’re looking for the one capable of offering the most driving pleasure among the best cheap compact cars, the Ford Focus is offered in both sedan and hatchback configurations. In addition to being a lot of fun to drive, the feisty Ford Focus has a knack for looking more expensive than it actually is. What’s more, the level of tech you get for the money makes the Focus an even more compelling choice. Two engines are offered for the front-drive powertrain; the 2.0-liter four makes 160 horsepower and 146 ft-lbs of torque. The turbocharged 1.0-liter three (yes, 3) makes 123 horsepower and 148 ft-lbs of torque. Pricing starts at $17,170.
When it comes to the Honda Civic, we’re very reluctant to use the word “cheap” to describe this entrant on our list of the best cheap compact cars. In the case of the Civic, a better word is inexpensive. This is because nothing about the Honda Civic feels cheap. In fact, the Civic goes with a degree of smoothness and sophistication usually found in cars costing significantly more. For the lowest priced Civic model, power comes from a 1.8-liter four with 143 horsepower and 129 ft-lbs of torque. All Honda Civics use front-wheel drive. Offered in both sedan and coupe configurations, pricing starts at $18,290.
Hyundai’s Elantra brings a look of total sophistication to this list of the best cheap compact cars. Further, the Hyundai offers a pleasant driving experience, a strong array of standard features, and strong fuel economy. Another plus in the Elantra’s ledger is the outstanding warranty protection Hyundai affords its cars. With the Hyundai Elantra, your desire for a sleek looking ride with a lot of style can peacefully co-exist with your practical concerns. A 1.8-liter four with 145 horsepower and 130 ft-lbs of torque powers the most affordable version of the Elantra. All Elantras use front-wheel drive. Pricing starts at $17,250.
Another sharp looking entry among the best cheap compacts is the sleek Kia Forte. Redesigned for the 2014 model year, it’s one of the freshest looking offerings in the category. As you’ve rightly come to expect from Kia, you’ll find the Forte represents a tremendous value when you start to peruse its standard features list. For openers, Bluetooth, full power accessories, and an iPod interface are standard equipment. A 1.8-liter four with 145 horsepower and 130 ft-lbs of torque powers the least costly version of the Forte. Other engine choices include a 173-horsepower 2.0-liter with 154 ft-lbs of torque, and a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter four with 195 ft-lbs of torque. Pricing starts at $15,890.
The debate about what the Kia Soul really is rages more vigorously than almost any other. Is it a hatchback? Yes, as a matter of fact it is. Is it a station wagon? Well, sort of. Is it a compact crossover SUV? Well, kinda. All we know for sure is the funky little Kia Soul delivers huge for the money Kia’s people ask for the car. For the record, the Kia Website lists it under Crossovers and Minivans—so go figure. Power for the front-drive whatever it is, comes from a choice of two engines. The least expensive is the 1.6-liter four with 130 horsepower and 118 ft-lbs of torque. The upgrade is a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter with 152 ft-lbs of torque. Pricing starts at $15,190.
Another of the best cheap compact cars ranking highly on our list of fun to drive models is the Mazda Mazda3. The Mazda brand banks heavily on driving enjoyment, and with the Mazda3 this is readily apparent. The Mazda’s styling might give you cause to stop and ponder the confluence of its curved surfaces, but when you get it out on a similarly curvaceous road, you’ll find the Mazda a faithful companion. Power for the most affordable version of the front-wheel drive Mazda3 comes from a 2.0-liter four good for 155 horsepower and 150 ft-lbs of torque. Offered in both sedan and hatchback formats, pricing starts at $16,495.
Ladies and gentlemen, please allow us to introduce you to the lowest priced new car offered in America. If you’re serious about finding the best cheap compact cars, you’d be remiss if you overlooked Nissan’s Versa. Granted, it’s legally considered a subcompact, but as we mentioned in the introduction, the Versa has more room in the back seat and a more spacious trunk than a number of the compact models on this list. Further, for the price, the Versa has some nice features—including standard Bluetooth. Power for the front-drive Nissan comes from a 109 horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 107 ft-lbs of torque. Pricing starts at $11,990.
Venerable, renowned, juggernaut; these are just a few of the adjectives you’ll find enhancing the phrase “Toyota Corolla”. The best selling car in the world, Toyota’s Corolla decimates its competition with a precise blending of reliability, comfort, spaciousness, features, safety, and value. The sharp-eyed among you will note we said nothing about driving excitement, or styling. You see, Corolla is rolling proof that these factors matter very little to the vast majority of the driving public. Power comes from a 132-horsepower 1.8-liter four with 128 ft-lbs of torque. All Corollas use front-drive. Pricing starts at $16,950.
Another car we’re reluctant to use the word “cheap” when discussing, the Volkswagen Golf is highly refined, comfortable, and offers strong performance compared to its competitors among the best cheap compact cars. Further, the fit, finish, and materials used in the Golf’s interior would be acceptable in cars costing twice as much. And then of course there’s the whole heritage thing. While the Golf wasn’t the first hatchback, it certainly brought the format into the mainstream. The front-drive powertrain uses a 1.8-liter turbocharged four with 170 horsepower and 200 ft-lbs of torque. There is also a diesel offering—but it’s considerably more expensive. Volkswagen Golf pricing starts at $17,995.
Here, we give you the lowest priced German sedan on offer in the US; Volkswagen’s Jetta. Crisp styling, a handsome interior treatment, and just enough German attitude to make it more engaging to drive than the majority of the cars on this list of the best cheap compacts. The Jetta is also comfortable and spacious. Power for the most affordable models comes from a 2.0-liter four with 115 horsepower and 125 ft-lbs of torque. The upgrade is a turbocharged 1.8-liter four with 170 horsepower and 180 ft-lbs of torque. There’s also a (considerably more expensive) turbocharged diesel option with 150 horsepower and 236 ft-lbs of torque. All Jettas use front-wheel drive. Pricing starts at $17,325.