At Car and Driver, we like to hop on automakers’ configurators and wildly spec some of our dream cars with no concern about how much money they’ll (theoretically) cost us. That’s why, most of the time, the cars we’re building end up costing more than $100,000—cars like the Porsche 911 Turbo S, McLaren GT, and Aston Martin DBX. However, we like to spice things up a bit, so we decided to bring all our expertise and configurator experience to bear in choosing a spec for a car at a much more popular price level.
Here are the rules: with a $20,000 limit, choose any car and make it desirable for that amount of money. Simple, right? Here’s what C/D editors would park in their driveways for 20 large:
Sharon Silke Carty’s $17,570 Hyundai Venue
So here’s the thing. I kinda really like little SUVs. I know they’re not all that sexy and can be underpowered and not really good at a lot of things, but I have kids and a dog and a stiff back sometimes. So sitting high up in a little SUV makes me happy. Sometimes. With that said, I picked the Hyundai Venue, which has a base sticker price of $17,350, which admittedly has poor acceleration and can bounce around on the highway, but it’s pretty affordable and is pretty roomy for its size.
There aren’t many options (check the configurator) that come with the base Venue, which comes with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine in all trim levels. I could opt for an automatic transmission instead of the six-speed manual. Will I? Of course not. I’ll toss in some carpeted floor mats for $155 and a rear-seat cupholder for $65 (although I’m sure I could find cheaper aftermarket options for both) and close out at $17,570 before taxes and delivery. — Sharon Silke Carty
Joey Capparella’s $17,800 2020 Toyota Yaris LE Sedan
The Toyota Yaris, which is actually a Mazda 2, is a very fun car to drive. Yes, you heard me right. This 106-hp, lightweight economy car with a six-speed manual transmission is lively and entertaining from behind the wheel. It proves that driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow. Plus, it comes in well under $20,000 even in its well-equipped LE trim level, which comes with features such as proximity-key entry, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and 16-inch wheels. Check out the configurator for yourself. I added the $195 center armrest as a splurge and still came in under $18,000. — Joey Capparella
Connor Hoffman’s $18,610 2020 Kia Soul LX
The best part about the Kia Soul is how many color choices there are. See them on the configurator.) But, wait, Kia teases you with the color choices. The colors you’d really want are only available on the higher, more expensive trims levels. So, I’m going with the LX trim in Sparkling Silver with a black woven cloth interior. Here, I can’t get any of the higher-end options, and I’m stuck with a 147-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but guess what? I get a six-speed manual transmission. #SavetheManuals.
Now I can reveal why I went with such a boring color: you can only get a 2020 Kia Soul with a manual transmission in silver, white, or black. I’m also not going to tick any options, so my Soul comes in at $18,610 minus the hamsters. — Connor Hoffman
Tony Quiroga’s $19,815 Volkswagen Jetta S
I considered cheating the budget by a few $100 and selecting a Nissan Frontier. A pickup, even one as dated as the Frontier, would likely last longer, have better resale value, and be more useful than the little cars below $20K. But I’ll honor the parameters because there’s an almost 10Best winner I could buy. With $20,000 to spend, I’d get a Volkswagen Jetta S. (Here’s its configurator.) Unlike the other vehicles below the price threshold, the Jetta comes from the class above. It’s more solid, refined, and you get more car—94 cubic feet of interior space. Try to find a 105.8-inch wheelbase for less; just try.
Sure, you don’t get a lot of equipment for your $19,815, but you also don’t get a lot of the annoying crap that I find myself turning off—lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, collision warning. What you do get is a manual gearbox coupled to a 147-hp 1.4-liter turbo engine and a 7.6-second run to 60. It’s not just quick either. The 1.4 returns 30 city and 40 on the highway, and in our steady 75-mph highway test the Jetta returned a real 45 mpg. You also get metallic paint for free (Pyrite Silver Metallic), power windows, a multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, six-way seats, LED headlights and taillights, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto So the Jetta might not have the handling and speed of the 10Best-winning Jetta GLI, but it is largely the same car. No other sub-$20K choice can claim to be even remotely related to a 10Best winner. — Tony Quiroga
Drew Dorian’s $20,355 Hyundai Accent Limited
Just because you’re shopping on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t break the rules and treat yourself to a few luxuries—that’s exactly what I decided to do here. Consider the 2020 Hyundai Accent. Yes, it’s smaller than some of the other vehicles here, but its low base price (check the configurator) means there’s plenty of room to add options before maxing out your $20,000 ceiling. Splurging might also be a wise decision, as desirable features can help improve the car’s value down the road. The top-spec Accent Limited busts the budget—although only just—at $20,355, but it comes with fog lamps, 17-inch aluminum wheels, heated exterior mirrors, a power sunroof, heated front seats, automatic climate control, keyless entry with push-button start, and a 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Accent Limited comes with a 120-hp four-cylinder engine and a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which may bother some drivers; a six-speed manual is available on the base SE model, which carries an even more affordable price tag. — Drew Dorian