Cheap cars used to be just that – cheap. Tiny, uncomfortable interiors that quickly showed their age, few tech or entertainment features, crank windows and underpowered engines were economy car hallmarks.
Luckily, times have changed. While there are still some inexpensive cars that feel cheap, more and more affordable models are going upscale. You’re just as likely to find standard features like Bluetooth and iPod interfaces on today’s economy cars as you are on luxury cars. And, even cars from bargain brands have comfortable interiors and good performance. Cheap cars just ain’t what they used to be.
Economy Car Performance
If there’s one area where economy cars still fall a little short, it’s in performance. That’s not to say that all economy cars perform poorly; it’s just that if you’re a driving enthusiast, you might find the lack of power disappointing. Economy cars tend to have small four-cylinder engines making about 150-horsepower. While that won’t win you any races, a benefit is that most economy cars get great fuel economy. The Ford Fiesta, which starts at just over $13,000, gets 40 mpg on the highway – that’s as good as some hybrid cars get.
Economy cars tend to be decent handlers. Some car reviewers complain that economy cars can have rides that are a little harsh, but for that trade off, you generally get handling that’s zippy and a little car that corners well. Since they are less expensive than other cars, economy cars tend to have less sound-deadening material. That helps save weight, contributing to that great fuel economy, but it also means that sometimes you’ll hear more road noise.
Economy Car Interiors
The interiors of many economy cars are still small and basic, but it’s also possible to get a loaded car for very little money. The Kia Forte starts at under $14,000 but comes with standard Bluetooth, USB port and iPod interface – not to mention roomy seating for five. The Chevrolet Cruze is available for just over $16,000 but offers interior space that’s closer to a midsize car than a compact. Reviewers also say that the interior is well-built, with a six-speaker stereo with auxiliary input jack. You can also opt for navigation and Bluetooth. The automotive press also likes the Hyundai Elantra. It gets 40 mpg on the highway and is actually classified by the EPA as a midsize car – despite its compact $14,830 starting price tag. The Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 start at less than $14,000. Even though they’re subcompacts, they have decent passenger space and you get standards like a stereo with auxiliary input jack. On the Fiesta, you can opt for Ford’s SYNC system, which lets you control the stereo, navigation system and your phone with voice commands.
Economy Car Safety
Of course, it doesn’t matter how comfortable an economy car is or how many features it has if it isn’t safe. Because they tend to be small, economy cars do have a size disadvantage in crashes with larger vehicles. But most economy cars are no longer unsafe little tin cans. Though not all economy cars have as many standard safety features or as strong crash test scores as more expensive models, many do. The Chevrolet Cruze has a class-leading 10 airbags. It also gets a five-star overall crash test rating from the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) “Top Safety Pick” for its performance in their crash tests. The Kia Forte is also a “Top Safety Pick” as is the Ford Fiesta. The Fiesta even has a driver’s knee airbag. You may not care much about protecting your knees, but knee airbags keep the driver from sliding down into the foot well in a crash. That lets the other airbags and the seatbelt protect you better. It’s a feature you usually see on luxury cars, but the affordable Ford Fiesta has it.
Other economy cars are more complex when it comes to safety. The Honda Civic is an IIHS “Top Safety Pick” but only when it’s equipped with optional Electronic Stability Control (ESC). ESC is a key system that automatically detects and prevents skids, helping you to keep control and avoid an accident. It’s standard on the Cruze, Forte and Fiesta but optional on many other economy cars. ESC will be mandated on all cars in 2012. Until then, many safety experts say it’s worth the money because it can help prevent a crash. Also, make sure any economy car you get has anti-lock brakes. You may have to pay extra for them, but getting them is likely to be cheaper than having a wreck – and owning an economy car is all about saving money.