What's the Greatest Cheap Car of All Time?

·2 min read
Overhead, front-quarter view of a 1991, Japanese-market Honda EF Civic hatchback in teal.
Overhead, front-quarter view of a 1991, Japanese-market Honda EF Civic hatchback in teal.

Cheap cars. These days they’re not easy to find, though that all really depends on what your definition of “cheap” is. 2011 marked the final year you could get a new car in the United States for a four-digit sticker: the base Nissan Versa. 12 years later, there are exactly three nameplates that begin under $20,000. The average price of a new car is just north of $48,000, so I suppose the thought of driving off the lot in a $24,845 Civic LX — the least expensive Honda makes anymore — should satisfy penny-pinchers. It’s madness.

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We’re not going to dwell too much on the depressing present, though. Rather, we’re going to turn back the clock and nominate the best cheap cars of all time. The ones that stepped up the playing field, offering a slice of semi-respectable motoring for a bargain.

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I’ll go ahead and give it to the fourth-generation “EF” Civic, sold in North America for all but four model years, from 1988 to 1991. Back then, you could get one for under $7,000, and it wouldn’t have been entirely miserable. Every EF came with fully independent suspension, and power steering was equipped on all but the cheapest three-pedal variants.

The hatch looked sharp — an adjective you’d never hear bestowed upon a modern Mitsubishi Mirage or Kia Rio — yet still maintained Honda’s reputation for reliability. As an old Orlando Sentinel story that vaguely reads like a paid promotion explains, even in 1995, owners of the then-obsolete econobox seemed to know what they had. Don’t ask what well-preserved examples are going for today.

Let’s hear it for the EF. And while we’re showering it with praise, why not chime in via the comments with another nomination for the best cheap car of all time? We’ll round up a bunch of responses and share them in an Answer of the Day later this week, as we do.

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